The BBWAA Project: Relief Pitchers
OK, we've almost made it to the end of the BBWAA Project. We've gone all around the field ...
Previously on The BBWAA Project:
Now, it's just relief pitchers and starting pitchers. We'll start with the relievers because that's a pretty short list.
Five relievers have been elected by the BBWAA, just one was elected on first ballot (Dennis Eckersley). Here's the fascinating part -- all five relievers in the Hall were elected by the BBWAA. This is one position where the standard of the baseball writers has -- so far anyway -- been MUCH lower than the standard of the veterans committee. There are a couple of fairly obvious reasons for that, which we will get into in a minute, but the point is that some of the lowest value pitchers in the Hall of Fame (by Wins Above Replacement) were elected by the writers because they chose to honor relief pitchers.
Median career: 39.4 WAR (High: Dennis Eckersley, 58.4; Low: Bruce Sutter, 23.1).
25th percentile career: 24.0.
Median peak: 24.6 WAR (High: Eckersley 35.7; Low: Rollie Fingers, 18.3).
25th percentile career: 23.7.
Here are the BBWAA relievers as ranked with all pitchers by fans on Baseball Reference's EloRater.
No. 39: Hoyt Wilhelm (between Sandy Koufax and Bret Saberhagen)
No. 120: Dennis Eckersley (between Mel Harder and Sam Leever)
No. 166: Goose Gossage (between Charlie Hough and Bill Dineen)
No. 191: Rollie Fingers (between Burt Hooten and Jerry Reuss)
No. 215: Bruce Sutter (between Murry Dickson and Bullet Joe Bush)
The closer, of course, is a relatively modern baseball job. This really is the biggest reason why the veterans committee has never elected a full-time reliever -- there weren't many in the early years of baseball. There were some great pitchers -- like Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell -- who would occasionally come in to close out a game. And, yes, there were a handful of relief specialists too, such as the beautifully named Firpo Marberry who led the league in games and games finished four times in five years from 1924 to 1928. Marberry really was something of a modern reliever in that he attempted to intimidate batters with this scowl … and he was nothing like a modern reliever in that he would also start games and general pitch between 150 and 200 innings a year.
Fireman Johnny Murphy served as something resembling a closer in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- he made the All-Star Team three straight years despite ERAs of 4.17, 4.24 and 4.40 because, even though the save statistic had not yet been invented, people sensed he was saving games. Ace Adams was a pure closer for the Giants during World War II.
Joe Page -- who was also called "Fireman" or (improbably) "the Gay Reliever" -- won a bit of fame and MVP consideration for closing out games for the dominant Yankees in the late 1940s. Page, in many ways, was the first reliever to get real attention -- he finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1947, with six more first place votes than Ted Williams (who, you might note, won the Triple Crown that year), and he finished third in the MVP voting in 1949.
But, I would argue, it was JIm Konstanty in 1950 who really pushed the idea of relief pitchers being as valuable -- maybe even MORE valuable -- than excellent starting pitchers. In 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies pretty much came out of nowhere to win the National League pennant. The Phillies had been the joke of the league for as far back as the memory stretched, but showed some signs of improvement in 1949 -- their first winning record in 17 years. Then 1950, crazily, the Whiz Kids Phillies won the pennant, and it was kind of hard for people to figure. How did that happen? Yes, they had the young Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons pitching well and Del Ennis hit .300 with some home runs and the young Richie Ashburn was good. Still, it didn't add up.
Except for … Jim Konstanty. He didn't start a single game but he appeared in 74 of them … more appearances, up to that time, than any pitcher in the 20th Century. He was the first pitcher in the 20th century to finish 60 games. He "won" 16 games, he had 22 saves before anyone was counting, he seemed to be on the mound at the end whenever the Phillies won a game. He did not just win the MVP award, he ran away with it -- 18 first place votes, no one else with more than two. Musial hit .346, Roberts won 20, Stanky scored 115 runs, none of it mattered. The reliever was the star.
Konstanty and Page's success spawned some of the pioneering relief pitchers like Ray Narleski, Clem Labine and Ellis Kinder, who was called "Old Folks" because he was a 31-year-old rookie and was famous because a seagull once dropped a smelt on his head. In time, Ryne Duren would foreshadow the coming of Rob Dibble, Roy Face would become a relief pitcher star and Hoyt Wilhelm would pitch so well in relief for so long that the BBWAA took notice. Mike Marshall and John Hiller pitched a million games and bridged the years to Gossage and Fingers and Sutter, who are really the first modern day closers.
The BBWAA did not have to consider the best Hall of Famers. Relievers -- even the best of them -- do not pitch nearly as many innings as starters. As you can see by the EloRater, fans generally rank most of the greatest relief pitchers with merely good starting pitchers. The BBWAA could have treated relievers the way the football Hall of Fame voters treat punters and kickers … despite some screams, the Pro Football Hall of Fame still has not inducted a single punter (Where have you gone Ray Guy?), and just one full-time kicker (Jan Stenerud).
But they didn't treat relievers like punters. After only a little bit of wrangling -- eight years on the ballot -- they voted in Hoyt Wilhelm. It took only two years for Rollie Fingers. Dennis Eckersley rushed in first ballot -- 83% of the vote -- and I've always said that's one of the odder votes in BBWAA history. I don't mean that as a knock on Eck -- he was unquestionably a great closer. But here's an amazing stat -- absolutely amazing, I think. Eckersley's peak value -- that is to say his seven highest WAR seasons added together -- is 35.7. That's the highest peak of any reliever in the Hall of Fame.
Are you ready for this stat? Seriously? Are you ready?
Do you know how many of those seven seasons that make up his peak were years when he was a relief pitcher?
Yep. Zero. None of them. All seven seasons were when he was a starting pitcher. Now, you could make a strong argument that WAR doesn't do a great job valuing pitchers, and it does an even worse job valuing relief pitchers. But, still, come on, Dennis Eckersley wasn't a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, nobody really thinks so, and yet 42.6 of his 58.4 WAR came as a starting pitcher. His seven-season "peak" as a reliever -- 15.7 WAR. Dwight Gooden's in 1984 and 1985 alone had a 17.1 WAR.
Believe me, I'm not arguing that Dennis Eckersley isn't a Hall of Famer … I'm just saying that the BBWAA, which has brutally high standards in so many ways at some many positions decided to embrace the closer. The veterans didn't -- they haven't voted in Stu Miller or Lindy McDaniel or John Hiller or Kent Tekulve or Dan Quisenberry or any other.
The BBWAA, meanwhile, couldn't get a 75% consensus on Jim Bunning, but they elected Bruce Sutter. It took them five years longer to elect Bert Blyleven than Goose Gossage. It's an odd inconsistency, but maybe not: It was an excellent sportswriter and BBWAA staple -- Jerome Holtzman -- who invented the save, and the baseball writers have long been magnanimous when it comes to closers in the MVP balloting (giving the award to Konstanty, Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Eckersle). There is something about the men who close out the games that inspires voters of the BBWAA.
This year's candidate:
Career: 27.6 WAR (minus 11.8 against median)
Peak: 19.7 (minus 4.9)
Ranking: No. 160 (between Dwight Gooden and Bob Caruthers)
Smith took something of a step back this year in the voting. His Hall of Fame argument is essentially that he held the saves record for quite a few years before Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman came along, he was dazzlingly consistent, and he lasted … which is something few relief pitchers have done. When you look at career WAR, he ranks better than Sutter and Fingers, though his peak is 25% lower than either of theirs.
Is Lee Smith a Hall of Famer? Well, the BBWAA has real trouble with being consistent when voting in relief pitchers. Dan Quisenberry and Bruce Sutter, as I've written here insufferably, are utterly inseparable as pitchers -- for every argument you give me for one (Sutter had more saves) I can top with another (Quisenberry gave up fewer runs in a league with a DH). But Quiz got no Hall of Fame support, Sutter is in. There are numerous such examples.
Still, I'd say even by the BBWAA's shaky and somewhat muddled standards, Smith's peak might fall a touch short. He was superb in some years, but mostly he was just very, very good for a long time.