Hall of Fame Voters Really Made Love to the Pooch with This Closer Situation

One of the hallmarks of the annual Hall of Fame debates is the comparison to players already enshrined. It can be a very good exercise in determining the merits of a particular player, especially because after so many years, there are now a lot of players in the Hall of Fame. There are plenty of players at every single position. There are pitchers. There are power hitters, average hitters. There are great fielders. One area where the present Hall of Fame lacks in providing a good comparison is the Closer situation.

As Wendy Thurm’s post indicated in evaluating Lee Smith’s candidacy*, it is difficult to judge because the only full-time relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Hoyt Wilhem is not an apt comparison, having retired in 1972 with 500 more innings pitched than even Rollie Fingers. Wendy reached the conclusion that Smith was better than Sutter, not as good as Fingers and Gossage, and put Smith just on the other side of the Hall of Fame. It feels like the right call, but if Sutter is in the Hall what exactly is the standard for relief pitchers?

Taking a look at only Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage is not very instructive, so I expanded the parameters for comparison to include Smith, a likely first ballot player in Mariano Rivera as well as Trevor Hoffman, whose candidacy is not really clear at this point.

The era that the current members of the Hall played in was different than the current players with Smith serving as sort of a bridge between the two. I wanted to compare their innings totals so I took a look at each player’s twelve best years (omitting Gossage’s year as a starter) and created a cumulative IP graph.

As you can see, Fingers stands out, followed by Gossage, a small gap, then Sutter and Smith, followed by another gap, and then Rivera and Hoffman. Although Smith definitely compiled a lot of saves, it is not really fair to put him in the modern-day closer group.

Next, I looked at the players’ WAR cumulatively in their twelve best years. I order the WARs in descending order so that the peak would be first. This is what I found:

As you can see, it was Sutter’s peak that appealed to voters as he jumped out to an early lead and then crashed. Gossage tailed off, but remained high with Smith not too far behind. Rivera’s graph shows why he will make the Hall while Hoffman lags well behind.

I decided to take a look at a few other players who have already been dismissed from the ballot or will arrive on the ballot shortly. Leaving in Smith and Hoffman, and adding Billy Wagner, Dan Quisenberry, and Doug Jones, their cumulative WAR graphs look like this.

As you can see, Smith comes out as the clear leader, with Jones, Wagner and Hoffman bunched together and Quisenberry trailing behind. You can have a Hall of Fame that includes Trevor Hoffman, but that Hall of Fame needs to include better players like Lee Smith, and equivalents like Doug Jones and Billy Wagner. It seems too inclusive, yet that is the Hall the writers appear to have created.

Much of this debate would have been avoided if the Hall of Fame had never let Bruce Sutter in based on two exceptional years and a small handful of pretty good years. If Sutter does not get in, Gossage probably does not get the momentum he needs, and if Gossage doesn’t get in, Smith wouldn’t. I am not entirely sure why Fingers made it, but only Fingers and Rivera would make it in along with hybrid players like Eckersley and John Smoltz. I am by no means a small-hall guy, but specialists pitching in at most half of their teams’ games for an inning should be truly exceptional to make the Hall of Fame.

*A few interesting facts about Smith. In the first seven ballots Lee Smith has appeared on beginning in 2003, every single player who finished higher than Smith on the ballot is in the Hall of Fame. If Jeff Bagwell and Jack Morris make the Hall, it will be true for Smith’s first ten ballots. Smith finished higher than Morris on his first seven ballots. Smith held on the All-time save lead for 13 years, longer than Fingers (12), Reardon (1), and Hoffman (5). One more: Smith was on the wrong end of the platoon advantage for 53.88% of his matchups. Rivera (51.27%), Sutter (49.46%), Hoffman (48.19%), Gossage (45.98%), Fingers (43.8%) all lag behind.

We hoped you liked reading Hall of Fame Voters Really Made Love to the Pooch with This Closer Situation by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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JayT
Guest
JayT

I’m in a tough position with Smith, because I don’t think he necessarily deserves to be in, but he is also more deserving then people that are already in, or will most likely make it in. personally, I’d put him in, but that’s mainly because he was always a favorite of mine, which is usually enough to push someone over the edge for me.

Kyle
Member

Great article. Amazing title.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

The reliever who belongs in the Hall of Fame, beyond any doubt, is Hoyt Wilhelm, and he was duly elected in 1985. He was an excellent starter for 3 seasons in the middle of his career, but he pitched as many or nearly as many innings in the years when he was a reliever. His 2254 IP dwarfs the relievers discussed in this article. His 3.06 FIP (2.54 ERA) must be as good or better than those guys, though I haven’t checked. He was also a good hitter for a reliever (.121 wOBA in 493 PA’s). Roy Face, a great… Read more »

will h
Guest
will h

Poz did a great bit on the hall, in which it was found that the miserly bbwa led the vet committee to overcompensate with crap … especially the catcher position, which is remarkable since it is so under-represented. I hope that they do not think they have to overcompensate with crap since someone unworthy is in and because the position does not have much representation. That said, Wagner was awesome!

Rick
Guest
Rick

Just look at that Rivera cumulative WAR graph – maybe it’s just because I have a small screen on my netbook, but it looks almost perfectly linear. I’d call him inhuman, but there would probably be more variation between seasons if he actually WAS a machine than there is.

Mike
Guest
Mike

Fingers got in because he was the all time saves leader, and the only man with 300+ saves at the time. Add in many postseason appearances, and he was voted in, but more as a factor of luck, given he pitched when saves first became “important” and was used accordingly. Had he come up 10-15 years later, he would not have made the Hall, and fell into the second tier of all time closers.

Anon
Guest
Anon

Sutter got into the HoF with help from voters giving him credit for inventing (or at least popularizing) the split finger fastball.

He did not get in on statistics alone, so using him as the baseline is a faulty assumption.

test
Guest
test

It seems like it should be much, much easier to maintain top performance if you know that you are only ever warming up once, and then pitching one inning at the most. Giving modern closers credit for a more effective usage pattern that they have nothing to do with seems out of line, which is why I would be fine with a “just Rivera” reliever selection from here on out. The managers/GMs are the ones who should get the credit, such as it is. I don’t think an analogous situation is even possible for hitters – there doesn’t appear to… Read more »

bstar
Member
bstar

I think Billy Wagner belongs in the Hall of Fame. When you look at pure nastiness, Mariano is his only peer. Had he pitched ~100 more innings, he would have qualified for the ERA+ and K/9 title. His ERA+ was 187(2nd all-time) and his 11.90 K/9 would easily be the best mark in baseball history. It would just be a shame to me to keep someone out of the Hall when they were clearly this historically great. Had he played two or more years, he might have 500+ saves and his WAR total would only be surpassed by Rivera and… Read more »

Bill
Guest
Bill

The perfect linearity of Rivera’s line in the first chart is proof that he’s a robot. I don’t think it’s fair to judge human’s and robots by the same standards.

OzzieGuillen
Member
OzzieGuillen

Lou Whitaker’s career WAR (74) more than doubles all of these closers’ WAR…except Rivera (39). Even adjusting for some of WAR’s deficiencies, it upsets me at how famous a closer can become despite not impacting his team’s performance that much.

bstar
Member
bstar

Well, you’re only looking at an FIP-based fWAR. You know that Rivera has significantly outperformed his FIP for his entire career, right? That 39 number is a complete joke.

bWAR has Whitaker at 69.7 WAR, Rivera at 56.3.

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

If we’re comparing relief pitchers over an entire career, I think I prefer WPA to WAR. This is because relievers (especially “ace” relievers or closers) tend to rack up small numbers of innings, but they are highly leveraged innings that tend to have disproportional influence on the outcome of a game. Being highly effective for 1-2 highly leveraged innings is the hallmark of modern reliever effectiveness. WAR doesn’t care at all about leverage, it just cares about quality (performance, specifically FIP) and quantity (innings). If you look at career WPA, Hoffman (32.98) and Gossage (31.40) soundly defeat Lee Smith (23.97).… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

OzzieGuillen (above) is upset about closers getting famous when they don’t affect a team’s performance that much. But again, this statement relies on WAR, which discounts the leverage of the situation. WAR considers team performance in the “Pythagorean Win” sense—that is, a function of total runs scored and total runs allowed. And of course, since a reliever only pitches a small amount of innings, his influence over a team’s total runs allowed over the course of a long season is going to be small. As well, the difference in WAR between the best and worst relievers in baseball will not… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

Just to make another important point, statistics don’t need to be the absolute only criterion one uses when considering a player for the HOF. There will always be a long list of players that are on the very fuzzy borderline (statistically) for enshrinement. But what about the less quantifiable aspects of a player’s career that ultimately leave a lasting positive influence on the game and its fans? Breaking the color barrier (Jackie Robinson), being an iconic player defining baseball in a city for 20 years (Willie Stargell), giving inspiring and dominant postseason performances (here’s a more recent example, in Curt… Read more »

craigjedwards
Guest
craigjedwards

Peter, You make several very good points, especially in relation to the highly leveraged nature of relievers. I also agree that looking at the lowest level of hall of famer for comparison is generally not a good idea, although with hoffman, smith, and jones, we are dealing with non-hofers. A couple of points though. 1. WAR, I believe, does take into account, leverage index for relievers. Those relievers do get credit for pitching in more important situations. 2. WPA is a good tool, but it doesn’t tell you how the outs are made or how the runs are given up.… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

1. I don’t believe WAR takes leverage index into account for relievers. If you can show me a link from fangraphs where it says WAR is calculated that way, please share it. I would be surprised if it did, since one of the theoretical bases of WAR is that performance across situations in terms of leverage is random and therefore not indicative of true value. 2. WAR takes into account ks, bbs, and homers, but it doesn’t take *everything* meaningful into account. It makes assumptions that pitchers aren’t able to to systematically induce weak contact (leading to lower BABIP) and… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

Since it seems at least one person is listening, I’m going to use this opportunity to make another case for WPA, in the context of how one votes for MVP. A good way to define MVP, in my opinion, is: What player has contributed most to the success of his team? As in the case of rating HOFers, we want to *describe* what happened in a given season, rather than infer the player’s underlying skill. We give credit for what a player did, just like we award the World Series trophy to the team in the series that gets the… Read more »

craigjedwards
Guest
craigjedwards

See this one http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/war-and-relievers/ I believe that is still accurate. All implementations of the framework are going to be better at some things than others. I’m not going to argue that rivera is underrated according to his WAR. He is an outlier. The rest of the relievers cited don’t have those same issues. Some stats may even out over the course of a career, but if a pitcher pitches half of all his innings in a pitcher’s park, that will not even out. If there is evidence that pitchers have control over the type of contact they induce and that… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

I went to the link. That honestly surprises me that they would even give “half credit” for leverage, as it seems (to me) to go generally against the whole spirit of WAR. Surely you don’t really mean there is no evidence that pitchers have control over the type of contact they induce? GB/FB rates certainly have some stability, even over the course of a career. For example, Hoffman was consistently a flyball pitcher on balls in play. A pitcher’s park won’t even out over the course of a career (a big park would certainly have played to Hoffman’s strengths). Nor… Read more »

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2

Was doing some stat perusal and, while we’re on the topic of modern big name relief pitchers, there is one such closer from the 1990s/2000s who actually is 2nd *all-time* in lowest career BABIP against (with at least 300 IP). Any guesses? Troy Percival (astonishingly) held opponents to a .230 BABIP over 700+ innings of relief. Considering his great (fortune?/skill?) on balls in play, and that he additionally struck out guys at a pretty good clip, and that he didn’t give up an insane amount of walks/homers (though a fair amount of each), one would think he’d have managed an… Read more »

The Nicker
Member
Member

This is a great article, bummed I didn’t see it until now. Basically, after Rivera, there’s no real sure things for modern era relievers and the HoF (Eckersley and Smoltz are hybrids). I really like shutdowns and meltdowns, especially shutdown/meltdown ratio, but that seems to favor more current relievers and I’m not sure why. Perhaps the longer outings made relievers like Gossage and Fingers less effective? Looking at the stats, Bruce Sutter is basically Francisco Rodriguez. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s no way K-Rod gets in the Hall. I say forget the past mistakes and keep… Read more »

Joe Brady
Guest

WAR has to be the single worst stat in the world to use for closers, bar none. It is totally useless. For example, Valverde was a perfect 49-49 last year, with a 2.24 ERA. But he had a negligible 1.0 WAR. Benoit, who had a good season, but not great, had a 1.3 WAR. Coke, who started and relieved, was maybe average, at best, with a 4.49, and he had a 2.0 WAR. So in Coke’s case, you are basically rewarding him for throwing an extra 36.1 innings, in far lower leverage situations, and allowing an extra 36 ERs in… Read more »

Joe Brady
Guest

Craig, I’ll give you a +1 on Mo, Goose and Smith being the top-3 according to WAR. From that perspective, it works as a relational tool for closers only. But sometimes it’s good to let democracy work for you. Is there even one person in the entire world of 7B people that think Coke was better or more valuable than Valverde last year? Here is the weakness of WAR for RPs, particularly closers. An average player who consistently gets 650 PAs is a more valuable (WAR) player than a slightly better player who only gets 500 PAs. That’s because the… Read more »

craigjedwards
Guest
craigjedwards

Joe,

I agree with your premise regarding wakefield and rivera. Rivera has definitely been the better pitcher, but at the same time all those innings have value.

Valverde did pitch the whole year, but consider if he hadn’t. All the relievers move up an inning, a AAA pitcher then gets 60 innings in the fifth and sixth of blowout games. The lost impact isn’t that great. Giving a replacement player 180 starter innings is going to hurt a team a lot more than losing a closer.

bstar
Guest
bstar

Joe,

You’ve uncovered something that people who take pitcher WAR too seriously fail to acknowledge: its’ a counting stat and basically an IP contest. The difference in WAR/inning between elite closers(and often elite starters) is phenomenally small. So, yes, whoever accumulates the most innings is going to finish on top. Also, when using fWAR, which doesn’t properly measure the ability of pitchers who can induce weak contact, you have to be a certain type of pitcher to finish on top. (See Greinke, Zack this year)

John
Guest

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