The Hall of Fame tends to bring about a lot of arguing. Arguments over players like Jim Rice (“the fear”) and Bert Blyleven (strikeouts are awesome!) went on for some time, as did the squabbling over Jack Morris and the importance of pitcher wins. Then we harangued each other about steroid users and the character clause. Now, over the next few years, the big Hall of Fame argy-bargy will be about relief pitching.
The debuts of Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner on the Hall of Fame ballot this year are about to expose the fact that the baseball community still has no idea what to make of relievers. They are a relatively new phenomenon, by baseball standards (40 or 50 years old), and their role and usage have changed a lot even within that short lifespan. As a result, modern-style relief pitchers didn’t appear regularly on the Hall of Fame ballot until the 2000s.
As we stand today, only five pitchers have been elected to the Hall primarily for their efforts out of the bullpen. (Compare this to 62 starting pitchers and 61 outfielders.) To this point, voters have been able to get away with treating reliever candidates on a case-by-case basis (though it has produced erratic results). But with two of the relief corps’s strongest candidates yet embarking on their Hall of Fame campaigns in 2016, we need a reliable way to compare Wagner to Hoffman, those two to ballot holdover Lee Smith, and those three to the five standing honorees. Above all, it’s time we established a fair Hall of Fame standard against which to measure relievers’ careers.
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: Relief pitchers belong in the Hall of Fame. Reliever is a distinct and established position in today’s game, albeit a less valuable one, and the Hall doesn’t adequately capture the full story of baseball without including them. Keeping Hoffman or Wagner out of the Hall because you don’t like the position they played is about as fair as barring entry to Edgar Martinez for being a designated hitter. Some positions inevitably will be worth more than others, which is why voters should enshrine the best players at each position, rather than comparing relievers to starters, left fielders to catchers, or apples to oranges.
Leaving that debate for another day, the search is on for the best statistics to use to evaluate relievers. We can’t use traditional stats like wins or saves—artificial constructs that assign pitchers credit or blame for patterns of use that are out of their control. But we also can’t use more accepted advanced metrics like WAR. Because of how little they play, relievers, no matter how good they are, never have the chance to sniff the high win-contribution totals amassed by elite starters and position players.
At most positions, if a player has more than 60–70 career WAR, he’s in Hall of Fame territory, but not relievers. Is their magic number closer to 40? Thirty? Twenty? (This is an important question to answer for one of the more popular sabermetric Hall of Fame barometers, Jay Jaffe’s/Sports Illustrated’s JAWS, which relies on comparing candidates to their enshrined brethren at the same position.) The small sample size of relievers in the Hall makes the ideal positional reference point uncertain.
For the record, the average fWAR of the five bullpen inductees is 33.4. But we can’t in good conscience use that number as a benchmark; it’s skewed too high by the exceptional circumstances of the five. One, Dennis Eckersley, earned 41.4 of his career 61.8 fWAR as a starting pitcher before he was converted to relief. The others all played part or most of their careers as multi-inning closers,\.
|Pitcher||IP in Relief||Relief Appearances||Average Relief IP/G|
In essence, guys like Gossage, Fingers, and Wilhelm got into the Hall of Fame throwing 150 to 200 percent more career innings than modern closers do. Of the four, Sutter was the closest to a modern reliever — he never started a game, for instance, unlike the other three — yet he still pitched an average of 1.58 innings per appearance. That’s a chance to pick up 1.58 times more WAR than modern relievers do thanks solely to managerial discretion.
Clearly, one-inning closers are still uncharted territory for the Hall of Fame. That’s bad news for Hoffman (1.05 IP/G) and Wagner (1.06 IP/G), who are likely to be unfairly compared to their more heavily used predecessors, despite the fact that on an inning-by-inning basis, they were actually far superior. There’s an easy way to quantify this, of course: Look at WAR per inning pitched. To make the numbers easier to conceptualize, let’s scale it to WAR per 200 innings.
|Pitcher||Career fWAR||fWAR as Reliever||IP in Relief||Relief fWAR/200|
That’s an average of 3.6 fWAR per 200 innings among current Hall of Fame relievers. Now let’s see how the three relief pitchers on the 2016 ballot stack up.
|Pitcher||Career fWAR||fWAR as Reliever||IP in Relief||Relief fWAR/200|
Those are significantly better numbers than four of the five current Hall of Famers. On this scale, only Eckersley was a better closer than Hoffman and Smith, and Wagner tops them all.
Still not convinced? There are other advanced metrics that do proper justice to relievers. Win probability, for instance, is an even more precise way to get at dominance, drilling down to the level of individual plays elicited by these bullpen aces. Two analogous stats on this front are context-neutral wins (a.k.a. WPA/LI) for a player’s effect on win expectancy and REW (RE24 converted to a wins scale) for its effect on run expectancy. Win-probability stats only go back to 1974, so data for Fingers (debuted in 1968) and Gossage (debuted in 1972) are incomplete, and Wilhelm (retired in 1972) is missing entirely, but here are the data we do have.
|Pitcher||WPA/LI in Relief||REW in Relief|
The four current Hall of Famers average 13.36 WPA/LI and 14.84 REW. As for the hopefuls? Well, it’s decisive. Again, the modern closers far surpass all but one of their decorated peers—this time Gossage, who bests everyone in REW but still trails Wagner and effectively ties Hoffman in WPA/LI.
The verdict is clear on the preponderance of evidence: Pound-for-pound, Hoffman, Wagner, and even the much-maligned Lee Smith were far more dominant than four of the five current Hall of Famers. This isn’t to say Wilhelm et al. aren’t worthy—they do deserve some extra credit for their durability and the value some of them brought as starters. But as pure relievers, the current ballot’s trio were more fearsome. They should be immortalized in the Hall, low-end WARs and all.
And leading the pack overall: Not 600-save club member and AC/DC fan Trevor Hoffman, but scorching southpaw Billy “The Kid” Wagner. Throw out saves (though Wagner still has 422, good for fifth all time), and it’s hard to make a case for Hoffman over the less heralded lefty. Wagner’s 2.31 ERA and 2.73 FIP far outstrip Hoffman’s (2.87 and 3.08). He is second all time among relievers in both RE24 and WPA/LI (Hoffman is fourth in both). Among pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched, Wagner’s 1.00 WHIP is the second-lowest in baseball history. His strikeout rate of 33.2 percent stands alone as the highest.
Wagner, simply put, is the best reliever ever to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot. Of course, this won’t be true in three years’ time, when Mariano Rivera makes what will surely be a brief appearance on the ballot, as he is the best reliever in history by virtually every measure (his 652 saves, 6.4 fWAR per 200 innings, 34.38 WPA/LI, and 34.75 REW are all the best marks ever amassed out of a bullpen).
Rivera will be elected easily when he’s eligible in 2019, and rightfully so, but hopefully his specter won’t keep others out in the meantime. Wagner may not be Rivera, but using that as a reason to keep him out of the Hall makes about as much sense as saying Tim Raines is unworthy because he’s not Rickey Henderson.
If you can only find room on your ballot for one reliever, make it Wagner. But measuring by more precise yardsticks, all three closers on the 2016 ballot clear the bar that voters have set for relief pitchers: an average of 3.6 WAR/200, 13.36 WPA/LI, and 14.84 REW, to go along with enough total value (a floor that has been set around 20 fWAR based on modern bullpen usage) to guarantee some longevity along with that dominance. You can quibble with where those thresholds should be set, but by precedent alone, Wagner, Hoffman, and Smith would all be credits to their position’s standing in the Hall of Fame.