This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 2-Jan. 8, 1982

On January 7, 1982 Francisco Rodriguez—K-Rod to his fans—was born. This is just one of the historically important closer births this week.

As of this writing—which means news probably will break between my due and publishing dates—the status of Trevor Hoffman for the 2011 season is unknown. Hoffman has declared an interest in pitching, but coming off a 5.89 ERA season, reports are that “offers are scarce.”

Should Hoffman be at the end of his career, at least the save-earning portion of it, he will finish with 601 saves. Given that Mariano Rivera, in second place, would need to record 43 saves next season to top Hoffman (a total he topped just once in the last five years), it seems Hoffman will hold the record for at least another year.

While Hoffman or Rivera will almost inevitably hold the title for the near future—besides the retiring Billy Wagner, no other pitcher active in 2010 is within 300 saves of Hoffman’s total—it remains to be seen if any pitcher can build a total higher than the numbers those two have accumulated.

If any pitcher will do it, it seems Francisco Rodriguez has the best chance. Prior to this season, when he stopped saving games and started beating up relatives, Rodriguez’s lowest season total was 35 saves since he became a full-time closer at age 23. Rodriguez already has 268 saves, through age 28, almost half again as many as Rivera (84) and Hoffman (98) had combined at that age. Rodriguez’s total already puts him 26th all-time.

Even if Rodriguez suffers another down season and records “just” 32 saves, that would move him into a tie for 21st all-time, with many years left in his career to make a run at the top spot.

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It will take 360 more celebrations like this for K-Rod to be the all-time saves leader. (Icon/SMI)

Of course, one of the dangers of making such predictions was born on this day just six years earlier, that being Eric Gagne. After making the transition to closer at age 26, Gagne recorded three straight seasons of 45 or more saves. Through 2004, only seven players had more saves through the same age. It was one of the great three-year stretches in history, including his 2003 season when Gagne won the Cy Young award. That season he allowed just 11 runs and posted an incredible 15 strikeouts per nine innings while giving up just two home runs.

It seemed that Gagne, entering his age 29 season just as K-Rod will be in 2011, was primed to supplant names like Hoffman and Rivera as baseball’s greatest closer. If Gagne could stay healthy and effective, he was primed to turn the battle for the most saves all-time into a three-man battle. Instead, 2004 was essentially Gagne’s last useful season.

From age 29 through 32, he would record just 35 saves with a mediocre 4.28 ERA. Injuries began to take their toll, Gagne missed most of 2005 after having Tommy John surgery and his effectiveness became hit or miss. Gagne attempted a comeback both in the independent leagues and briefly with the Dodgers but found success at neither stop and announced his retirement shortly thereafter.

Should Rodriguez manage to avoid Gagne’s fate, whether in lost effectiveness, injuries or both, he might someday have a chance at the all-time saves record. For sake of argument, we’ll call the number 625. That would be roughly two more good seasons from Rivera—who perhaps not coincidentally just signed a two-year contract—or a bounce-back season from Hoffman.

If Rodriguez can average 30 saves for the next 12 years—a difficult but by no means insurmountable total—he would match that total. If he does so, it would be an interesting question to see if K-Rod will make the Hall of Fame.

It seems unlikely that the voting will change the statement that the Hall has been distinctly mixed on closers. Excluding Dennis Eckersley, whose Janus-like career was spent half as starter and half as reliever, few closers have earned inclusion into the Hall.

Lee Smith, for many years the all-times saves leader, has never topped fifty percent. John Franco, the lefty saves leader, fell just short of reaching the five percent minimum to stay on the ballot and will now have to hope a future Veterans’ Committee will take up his HoF cause. John Wetteland, a World Series MVP, and Rick Aguilea, a key part of two World Series winners, received a combined seven votes in their only year on the ballot.

Yet there is hope for K-Rod in another closer born this week who did earn Hall of Fame admission, Bruce Sutter. Born on Jan. 8, 1953, in some ways Sutter seems an odd choice for Hall election. Though he did win the 1979 Cy Young Award—an honor perhaps better deserved by Phil Niekro or J.R. Richard that season—Sutter’s most comparable pitchers are Doug Jones, Tom Henke and Jeff Montgomery. Those men earned two, six and two votes, respectively, meaning none lasted more than year on the ballot.

Sutter, meanwhile, started with nearly a quarter of the vote and it grew, more or less consistently, until his election in his thirteenth year. (For Sutter, the announcement was a late birthday present, his election coming just two days after his fifty-third birthday. Hard to top that as a gift.)

So why did Sutter earn his election? In addition to his Cy Young award and strong—albeit short—career, Sutter was credited with being the first pitcher to use the split-fingered fastball effectively. That might not be the case—Mike Scott also received a lot of praise for his splitter—but it definitely did not hurt Sutter’s chances.

If I had to make a guess (and I don’t—this is a history column, after all) I would bet against Francisco Rodriguez someday owning the top spot for saves.There have been too many names like Gagne, Chad Cordero and others who accumulated huge save totals in short periods—albeit shorter than K-Rod—but lacked the staying power. When 2021 rolls around, we’ll see how smart I look.

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