Bill James is in the middle of a four-part series on his website (sorry, subscription only) that deals with the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot. Admittedly, the article is a bit late, but it’s laid out and written in the classic James style. Which, to me, makes it a must-read.
In the section about Lee Smith (whose mob nickname would have been “Shuffles,” according to Bill—a classic Jamesian touch), he has this to say about relievers in the Hall:
…modern baseball fans and contemporary baseball media over-rate and over-value the contributions of the bullpen, and this is now being reflected in a rush to induct Closers into the Hall of Fame. Since 1992 the BBWAA has elected two catchers to the Hall of Fame, two first basemen, two second basemen, two left fielders, two center fielders, one DH—and four Closers. And, if Lee Smith is the standard of a Hall of Fame closer, then there are several more who will need to be inducted in the next ten years.
Closers don’t pitch that many innings. Yes, they do pitch important innings, but in order to project the value of a closer up to the level of the value of a position player, you have to give him a leverage index of 3.5 or 4—in other words, you have to assume that a typical batter/pitcher outcome when a closer is on the mound is 250% to 300% more important than a typical batter/pitcher matchup in another situation. The problem is, it’s just not true; the innings that are pitched by a closer are not that important.
When people are asked to emphasize something or de-emphasize something, based on their intuitive judgment, they’re going to mis-position it; I think that’s just a fact. I think that we are emphasizing bullpens to an extent that exaggerates their real importance, and I think that we are rushing to put Closers into the Hall of Fame based on that exaggerated sense of their importance. It is my opinion that we need to slow down and think a little bit more carefully about what we are doing.
One reason that Closers are as dominant as they are, of course, is that they only pitch one inning at a time. Many closers, like Lee Smith, were failed starting pitchers. Freed from the responsibility of pitching multiple innings, they are able to come in and throw gas for one inning, and this enables them to be very effective pitchers.
That’s great—but is that a good reason to put that pitcher in the Hall of Fame? I’m not sure that it is. If Gary Bell (1960s starting pitcher, won-lost record of 121-117). . .if Gary Bell had been able to come into the game and throw high heat for one inning at a time, I would predict that he would have been an extremely effective pitcher—but would that have been a good reason to put Gary Bell in the Hall of Fame?
This isn’t exactly news; baseball analysts have been saying that relievers are overrated for a while now. But I’m hoping that when Bill says it, more people (in particular, people who are BBWAA members) will listen.