Closers

As you know, I have been telling the stories of the players on the Hall of Fame ballot and, as part of that, I have been ranking them. I have never explained exactly HOW I am ranking the ballot, because I never thought it mattered and, to be honest, I didn't put too much thought into that part. The rankings are just a device to tell the stories. At the beginning, I lined up the players more or less in the order that I thought they finished as ballplayers, and I began writing. I really didn't think too much about it.

Well, I'm not going to say it was a mistake to do it that way because I think the rankings have added a little fun and order to the project. But, OK, I did wince a little bit when there was some consternation about me ranking Magglio Ordóñez ahead of Mike Cameron. I neither know nor care if Ordonez was better than Cameron -- I just wanted to write a little bit about two very good players I believe fall below the Hall of Fame standard.

Then again, when I wrote about the wonder of taking my daughter to see Hamilton, I did not expect to start a comment brawl about the gender pay gap.

And now, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of putting Trevor Hoffman -- who the vast majority of people believe is a Hall of Famer -- way down here at No. 16 or No. 17 on the ballot. It seems like an insult, and the last thing I want to do is insult a terrific player and person like Hoffman. I have explained this before, and I wonder if people believe me: When it comes to the Hall of Fame, there are two parts of me, a bit like good cop/bad cop from The Lego Movie.

There is the Hall of Fame voter part, the part of me that carefully (very carefully) and soberly (I hope) breaks things down and votes for the Hall.

And there is the baseball fan part of me, the part that just loves to celebrate this incredible game.

The Hall of Fame voter part wrote dozens of columns about why Jack Morris' career fell short of the Hall of Fame. I still believe that; I think Morris' career is endlessly fascinating for me to write because it's like my fascination with magic* -- the career is filled with misdirection and illusion. Pay no attention to the ERA, boys and girls, because watch as I pull a Game 7 out of thin air!

*I don't know if I've mentioned this or not, but I'm writing a book about what Harry Houdini means in the world today.

So that's the Hall of Fame voter part of me. But the baseball fan part of me LOVES Jack Morris, loves the gritty way he pitched, is thoroughly charmed and amused by the old-school way he talks and thinks, thoroughly appreciates the role he played in baseball history. And so I say with complete honesty, I absolutely hope he gets elected on the veteran's committee ballot next year. I know that seems illogical, but it's absolutely how I feel. I couldn't vote for him. But I root for him.

In that same way: The Hall of Fame voter part of me is completely baffled by how strong the Hall of Fame support is for Trevor Hoffman. But the baseball fan part of me will celebrate when Hoffman is elected to the Hall.

The Hall of Fame voter part of me thinks that Billy Wagner, like Hoffman, was a terrific closer but did not have quite a Hall of Fame level career. But the baseball fan part of me feels a little bit angry that Wagner isn't getting MORE support when you consider how many people are voting for Hoffman.

It's all pretty confusing. So I am doing this in two parts. Coming up later, I will try to tell a few good stories about Hoffman and Wagner, celebrate them a little bit, just like I have for the other players on this ballot.

And, for now, I've written this much less interesting bit about why I will not vote for either of them ... and why I have them both this low on the ballot.

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Trevor Hoffman pitched 1,089 innings in his long career. To give you an idea -- Brandon Webb pitched more innings. Madison Bumgarner has pitched more innings. Doug Fister, Clay Carroll, LaTroy Hawkins, Moon Man Minton, Rick Porcello, Al Fitzmorris, Eric Plunk, Craig Swan and 933 other pitchers have thrown more innings than Trevor Hoffman.

So you have to ask yourself: What did Trevor Hoffman do in those 1,089 innings that make him a Hall of Famer? Did he strike out so many batters in those 1,089 innings that the mind is left reeling? No. He struck out 1,133, a little more than one per inning, a high total but not as high as Wagner (who struck out 1,196 in 903 innings) or even someone like Octavio Dotel or Armando Benitez or K-Rod.

Did he prevent runs at a historic rate? No. His 2.87 ERA is solid enough but it's not earth-shaking especially when you consider he pitched roughly half his innings in the pitcher's paradise of San Diego -- again, Wagner's 2.31 ERA is much more impressive. Anyway, ERA for relievers isn't a great statistic.

Did he set some sort of record for fewest hits allowed per inning? No. Was his Fielding Independent Pitching average so low that you bowed your head in admiration? No: His 3.08 FIP is good but not great.

So what did Hoffman do so well? Answer: He finished off games. More than 600 times in his career he got the final out in his team's victory. Five hundred of those times (well 498 to be exact), he started the last inning with a lead between one and three runs, and he held that lead. This was his role, and he did it extremely well -- about as well as anyone.

Most Saves: 1. Mariano Rivera, 652 2. Trevor Hoffman, 601 3. Lee Smith, 478 4. Francisco Rodriguez, 430 5. John Franco, 424 6. Billy Wagner, 422 7. Dennis Eckersley, 390 8. Joe Nathan, 377 9. Jonathan Papelbon, 368 10. Jeff Reardon, 367

So when asking if Hoffman or Wagner (or Mariano Rivera) belongs in the Hall of Fame, what we are really asking is this: How good does a closer have to be?

Sometimes, you will hear people compare a designated hitter like Edgar Martinez to a closer like Hoffman. Hey, look, they were both specialists! But I don't think that's a good comparison. A designated hitter contributes at least 75-80% of what you would expect of a first baseman or left fielder, probably more. Hitting is the most important part of what an everyday player does. What percentage of Ted Williams' overall value (or Harmon Killebrew ... Willie Stargell ... Willie McCovey ... Ralph Kiner ... Jim Rice ... Lou Brock ... on and on) came from their defense?

Even Baseball Reference WAR, which I think might exaggerate the value of defense, will rank offense as, by far, the biggest part of a player's value.

Mike Schmidt was a great defensive third baseman -- WAR says 85% of his value was on offense.

Roberto Clemente was a defensive legend -- WAR says 75% of his value was on offense.

Even a guy like Ozzie Smith, who is in the Hall of Fame almost entirely because of his defense -- WAR says 62% of his true value was on offense.

Meanwhile a guy like Dave Winfield -- who won seven Gold Gloves but does not rate well on defense by WAR calculations -- his offensive value was 114% of his overall value.

In other words, if you want to knock 10-15% off for a guy like Edgar Martinez or Big Papi, that's probably reasonable.

Then, there are closers. Trevor Hoffman averaged 61 innings per year -- that's about 30% of what a good starter will give you, even a little less. In his 12 best seasons, Hoffman averaged 2.2 WAR -- that's roughly 30% of what you would expect from a real Cy Young Award contender.

I think if you want to make a football comparison, a designated hitter is like a pass-rushing defensive end or linebacker that you might take out on obvious running downs. Think: Derrick Thomas. Think: Charles Haley. Or maybe a running back who you take out on third and long. Think Earl Campbell.

And a closer is like a kicker.

Anyway, that's how I see it: Your mileage may (and probably does) vary. I am absolutely willing to vote a closer (or a kicker) into the Hall of Fame but he has to be an overwhelming one, someone who blasts through the limitations of the position and so dominates that he leaves no doubt about his greatness. I do believe Rivera crosses this line because of his postseason dominance as much as anything.

And, for me, Hoffman and Wagner do not. Trevor Hoffman's case is his 601 saves. That's it.* That's his whole case in the same way that Gary Anderson's case is that he made 538 field goals. By Wins Above Average, Hoffman ranks 117th among pitchers not in the Hall of Fame behind, among others, Sid Fernandez, Burt Hooton, Kerry Wood, Preacher Roe, Mark Gubicza, Andy Messersmith, Larry French, Noodles Hahn, Billy Wagner and, yes, the much lamented Javier Vazquez, who was not even LISTED on this Hall of Fame ballot.

Now, I'm not saying Wins Above Average should be a defining statistic, I'm saying that when you talk about a pitcher who throws so few innings and ranks 117th among non-Hall of Famers in WAA, well, the burden of proof is pretty high.

Perhaps, in the end, the best way to explain this is to use the Bret Saberhagen test. Bret Saberhagen was a great pitcher. Not a good pitcher. A great one. He won two Cy Young Awards and absolutely deserved them both. He had three other superb seasons and three or four other good seasons. Saberhagen's best eight seasons were probably better than Tom Glavine's best eight seasons, John Smoltz's best eight seasons, and so on. In just those eight seasons, he compiled 32.1 wins above average -- more than twice as many wins as Hoffman compiled in his entire career.

Bret Saberhagen got seven votes in his one year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Seven. He got fewer votes than Paul O'Neill or Albert Belle. The voters were clear: Great pitcher, but his career just was not long enough.

Saberhagen pitched two and a half times more innings than Trevor Hoffman.

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*Someone on Twitter brings up a fair point -- Hoffman's save percentage should be mentioned. He converted 89% of his saves, a very high percentage, almost as high as Rivera. Billy Wagner converted 86% of his saves as a comparison. Hoffman really was superior at closing out games.

But I should say -- I'm not sure how much stock I put in that statistic. Here's why: Hoffman saved 286 games in San Diego, where runs are absurdly hard to come by. He converted 91% os his saves in San Diego. That's where he pushed the number up. A good closer should be able to convert about 100% of his two or three run leads into victory in those hitters' dungeons of San Diego.

As for the rest, he converted 87% of his saves everywhere else. That's still great (and you have to give every pitcher a slight edge at home anyway) but again it's not all that much better than your typically good closer.

If Hoffman had converted 95% of his saves, for example, way above even the best closers ever, well, that would really be something and I would say something like that would make him a clear Hall of Famer in my mind. But that's just not the case. He converted saves at about the same rate as Mariano Rivera, which is good, but it's also about the same rate as Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon and Jose Valverde and Craig Kimbrel.