Asking whether Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer isn’t really the right question. Instead, we should be asking: Are closers Hall of Famers? If the answer is yes, then there’s little doubt that Hoffman deserves a spot in Cooperstown.
But voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America have wrestled in the past with how to handle closers. Look no further than Lee Smith, who was a fantastic closer in his day, the all-time saves leader at one point, but has been hovering on the ballot for 15 years now with little hope of getting in his final season.
Hoffman’s case is a little different. He had a great first year on the ballot, perhaps fueled by playing in an era of baseball that valued closers more than previous generations. That said, his career and his Hall of Fame résumé is not without holes. Let’s dig into Hoffman’s Hall of Fame case:
In his first year on the ballot, Hoffman did really well. He earned 67.3 percent of the ballot, which put him among three players who finished between 65 and 75 percent. The other two, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, are expected to get in this year. Hoffman is a little more on the fence, but he’s got a legitimate chance at enshrinement this year.
According to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame ballot tracker, Hoffman has gained 13 votes this year at the time of this writing. But he’s also just under 75 percent on the early returns, and the non-public ballots usually seem to bring the percentages down a bit. So at this point, Hoffman is very much a candidate that could go either way.
WHAT THE SUPPORTERS SAY
If we’re comparing Hoffman to other closers in baseball, his case is quite easy to make. Let’s hit the bullet points:
• Hoffman’s 601 career saves are second on the all-time list. Only Mariano Rivera has more.
• Hoffman was so great of a closer that the National League’s relief pitcher of the year award is named in his name, so he’s already eternal in one capacity.
• Twice in his career Hoffman led the National League in saves and he had 40 or more saves in nine of his 18 seasons. He also finished a Cy Young runner-up twice, which isn’t exactly common for a closer.
Those are the big ones, but Hoffman also was a seven-time All-Star, with a career 2.87 ERA. Those made him one of the best relief pitchers of the ‘90s and early ’00s. Sixteen of his seasons were with the San Diego Padres, where he proved to be a consistent force, year after year, at a job where consistency isn’t exactly easy.
WHAT THE SKEPTICS SAY
The anti-Hoffman argument boils down to this: How much do relief pitchers really contribute? Their role is one-dimensional. This is the same problem some Hall of Fame voters have with the designated hitter.
Hoffman’s 61 career wins and 1,089 career innings certainly don’t measure up to great pitchers — but for someone who never started a game in his career, they’re obviously not going to. Where Hoffman’s case starts to get shaky is when you look beyond saves.
For the number-crunching crowd, this means that Hoffman’s cumulative stats don’t measure up. His career Wins Above Replacement? 28.4. Tim Wakefield and Derrek Lee — both on this year’s ballot for the first time — beat that and no way they’re Hall of Famers. Nobody’s voting on just WAR alone. That’s just to show you the difference in value between elite relievers and everybody else.
Even against other great relievers, Hoffman isn’t as head-and-shoulders above everyone as the saves would tell you. Lee Smith has him beat in WAR. Billy Wagner (who got just 10.5 percent of the vote last year) has him beat in WHIP, ERA+ and strikeouts.
So again, the bigger question: how do you judge closers? Well, you could look at who’s in Cooperstown for help. Five pitchers who were primarily relievers are in: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm. None of those have as many saves as Hoffman, but, with the exception of Fingers, they all have more wins. Eckersley, who also was a starter for a while, has 197 wins.
Hoffman doesn’t rate as high in things like strikeouts (1,133 for Hoffman compared to 1,610 for Wilhelm and 1,502 for Gossage) but he also gave up far fewer earned runs than most of them (347 for Hoffman, compared to 632 for Wilhelm, 605 for Gossage and 1,278 for Eckersley).
What to take away from all that? Well, it’s pretty hard to compare relievers from different eras, because the job changed drastically. Hoffman was a specialist and was deployed as such, which means that his stat-gathering opportunities weren’t the same as other Hall of Fame relievers.
He thrived in the saves era and if you don’t see that much value on the save as a stat, then it makes sense that you’re skeptical of Hoffman’s case.
The Big League Stew writers don’t have Hall of Fame votes, but if we did, here’s where we stand on Trevor Hoffman:
No — I have no idea how to properly value relievers from the modern era. Advanced stat worshippers point to the low amount of innings closers throw these days, and are quick to point out that the best relievers are often failed starters. Despite that, those same people have no issues voting for Mariano Rivera even though he has the same issues. Managers started using relievers much differently during Hoffman’s era, and part of me feels bad using that against him. It’s not his fault the job changed and that limited his innings. By many counts, he was the second-best reliever of his era, just behind Rivera. Was Rivera just that much better? Or are we being way too harsh on closers? I say no for now, and even if I was a yes, I think there are 10 better candidates on the ballot this year. I am open to changing my stance here, though.
Yes — Sure, you can poke holes in Hoffman’s Hall of Fame case, but this is how I come down on it: He was put in a role and asked to do a job for his team. For the role he was in, for the era in which he played, he was elite in that role. His job was simple: to save games. He did that extraordinarily well. Maybe he didn’t strike out as many batters as another guy, but he got the saves. If your argument against Hoffman is about isolating his statistics for certain purposes, arguing the merit of those stats or projecting how he would fare as a starter or any of that, I’m dubious. He was fantastic at his job. That job might not allow him to measure up against players who outnumber him in jobs, but that shouldn’t take away from what Hoffman did on the field.
No — I have such a tough time figuring out whether relievers really deserve to make it into the Hall. Their value is important, there’s no questioning that. But pitching in such short bursts allows good relievers to be dominant over long periods of time. Should they be considered because they often pitch in high-stress situations? I have no idea. My instinct is to say no, even though Hoffman was a superior pitcher. It might not be “no” forever, though.
No — I always struggle with gauging a reliever’s value and production, so I tend to say no to when it comes to the Hall of Fame. The one exception would be Mariano Rivera because his talents transcended position and his team won … a lot. Trevor Hoffman was a great pitcher and a great personality, but I can’t make an overwhelming argument that he deserves to a Hall of Famer.
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