Mandatory Credit: fortressfusion.blogspot.com
Over the years, America’s Pastime has changed a great deal. The debate over pitching versus offense, power versus contact and even the statistics used to evaluate players have all evolved to once-unthinkable forms. Among those changes is the way relief pitchers are used by managers.
In the weeks leading up to this month’s Hall of Fame announcement, two names – Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner – were mentioned by writers, fans and players alike as potential entrants into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. As we know by now, neither gained entrance this year, but they have plenty of chances over the next decade to do so.
But the real question now is this: do either of them deserve a spot among the best to ever play the game?
Only five players who served primarily as a reliever have ever earned a plaque in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage.
With that in mind, it would be mind-blowing to see both Hoffman and Wagner get the nod moving forward. But let’s break down each man’s respective career in an attempt to understand their chances at baseball immortality.
For the former San Diego Padres change-up master, he has one glaring number that backs his case for the Hall: 601 career saves. That figure ranks second-highest in baseball history, trailing only the infallible Mariano Rivera
, who racked up a staggering 652 saves during his time in New York.
Nine times in his 18 seasons, Hoffman broke the 40-save barrier, reaching a career-high 53 back in 1998, at the peak of the Steroid Era. He finished second in National League Cy Young
balloting, and fourth in NL MVP voting, earning an All-Star selection in the process.
Hoffman accomplished that feat seven different times, mostly for a San Diego team that never seemed quite able to get over the hump and reach the postseason, which perhaps explains why he never received the accolades and praise of others like Rivera.
It’s an unfair world that, despite his talent, he never got this attention. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that restrictions limiting Hall of Fame voters to 10 names on a single ballot may very well have cost Hoffman entrance in his first shot at Cooperstown, or, at the very least, hurt his chances.
While his save totals and single-season performances are no doubt memorable, Hoffman lacks several things on his HOF resume, significant postseason experience being the biggest. More than half of his postseason outings came when San Diego reached the World Series in 1998 – other than that, he saw playoff baseball just three times in nearly two decades in the game.
Mandatory Credit: addisonrecorder.com
When you look at Hoffman and Wagner using JAWS, they rank right next to one another at 20th (24.0) and 21st (24.0) on the all-time reliever list. By contrast, Eckersley (50.5), Wilhelm (37.1) and Gossage (37.0) all come in across the top five, while Sutter ranks 17th (24.6) and Fingers is 26th (22.7).
With those numbers, we can calculate that the average for the five Hall of Famers is 34.4 – a far cry from the numbers posted by Wagner and Hoffman. That being said, Wagner, who blew fastballs past hitters for 16 years, is hoping that he, along with teammate Jeff Bagwell
, can join Craig Biggio
in upstate New York.
Right off the bat, Wagner pales in comparison to Hoffman in one regard: total saves. Granted, there are countless other ways to measure relief pitcher success in today’s world, but when you’re almost 180 saves shy of your competition, the fact that you rank fifth all-time on that list doesn’t seem to carry as much weight.
If you’re willing to exert the minimal brain power necessary to do just that, and look past the number of saves a reliever racked up in his career, you’ll see that Wagner tops Hoffman in WHIP (0.998 to 1.058), strikeouts-per-nine (11.9 to 9.4) and fielding independent pitching (FIP) 2.73 to 3.08.
The flame-throwing lefty also suffers from bouncing around the league, something that prevented him from becoming the face of a city like Rivera and Hoffman did. Sure, Hoffman played on a lot of sub-par Padres teams, but it’s undeniable that he’s left his mark on San Diego baseball forever. Wagner, meanwhile, spent the early portion of his career with the Astros, but then pitched with the Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves toward the end of his playing days.
Looking at these numbers, it’s fairly understandable why writers choose one over the other, in no particular order. It depends largely on how one looks at the game and evaluates the success of relief pitchers.
But there’s not a chance that Wagner enters the Hall before Hoffman (you could have surmised this much off this year’s ballot totals) – regardless of what a closer look at their numbers revealed. If Wagner ever manages to reach Cooperstown, it’ll be a long ways down the road – and long after Hoffman’s plaque is hanging on the wall.