Closing the Door in the Hall: Are Hoffman and Wagner HOF-worthy?

Mandatory Credit:

Mandatory Credit:

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:

Mandatory Credit:

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.

4 thoughts on “Closing the Door in the Hall: Are Hoffman and Wagner HOF-worthy?

  1. It can be so difficult to evaluate relief specialists! First the constantly changing role makes to difficult to compare pitchers such as Trevor Hoffman with Goose Gossage. What about stats? Obviously won lost percentage is meaningless. A pitcher can enter a game win a 5 run lead, blow it, and then when his team rallies to win he gets credit. Absurd. That is what motivated Jerome Holtzman to introduce the save statistic in 1969. However in modern baseball saves are more related to save opportunities than to the ability of a pitcher. If any team brings in their best reliever with a three run lead to start the ninth inning it is highly unlikely that they will not win and that the pitcher will not receive a save. Now up until now only two pitchers have 600 career saves and there is no doubt that one(Rivera) is a Hall of Famer. To reach this milestone a pitcher has to be consistently effective enough to convince at least one manager in the major leagues that he is the best relief pitcher on the team on the team for at least 15 seasons. That is very impressive but I do not think that that alone makes a player a Hall of Famer. ERA has some of the flaws of won loss percentage, it absolves a pitcher of any responsibility for allowing any runners to score who were already on base when the pitcher entered. What about percentage of save opportunities converted? Well that can depend more on how the manager uses his closer than the pitcher’s ability. A pitcher whose manager strictly reserves him to start the ninth when he has a 1-3 run lead has a huge advantage over a pitcher whose manager is willing to bring him in with the tying run in scoring position in the eighth. One modern stat that you seem to need a computer to calculate or just have confidence in what Base Reference publishes is WAR(Wins Above Replacement). Using this statistic, Mariano Rivera is the only reliever to even come close to being worthy of the Hall of Fame since managers began waiting until the ninth inning to use their best reliever. I assume that this stat considers the fist inning just as important as the ninth inning of a one run game. I guess that the best way to evaluate relief pitchers is to compare batter’s success (AVG, OBP,SLG) against them compared to other relievers of their era.


  2. “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.” —Let us not be mislead here. Half of JAR is WAR, which for equally effective pitchers appears to be proportional to innings pitched. Eckersley was a starter for half of his career and for the majority of his innings pitched. He pitched more than triple the innings of either Wagner or Hoffman. Wilhelm and Gossage pitched back when top relievers routinely entered games in the seventh or eighth inning and thus accumulated far more innings than any modern relief pitcher. Wilhelm hold the all-time record for relief innings pitched, 2254, a record that will never come close to being broken unless managers radically change the way they manage their bullpen (Who knows, anything is possible). Wilhelm pitched more innings that Wagner and Hoffman combined. Gossage pitched more than double the innings in his career than Wagner. That covers 60% of the Hall O Famers, leaving just Sutter and Fingers. Fingers had a lower career JAR than Wagner and Hoffman in spite of pitching over 50% more innings than either, So I guess Sutter, with a JAR of 24.6, is te only of these five Hall of Famers who can reasonably be compared to Hoffman and Sutter. They come very close to Sutter in this stat.


  3. Not only did are Mariano Rivera and Trever Hoffman the only players with over 600 saves, no one else even has 500! So, are Rivera’s 652 saves likely to be surpassed? This may surprise you, but I saw that unless the role of closers changes in the next 30 years or so the answer is yes. You see, very few pitchers begin their career in the minor leagues dreaming of someday being a great closer. The usually only end up in the bullpen after struggling in the starter’s role and once in the bullpen the gradually work there way up to the closer’s role. Rivera, for example, did not save more than 5 games in a season until he was 27. Had he averaged 40 saves a year from ages 21 to 26 and then had his career afterward continued the course that it took, he would have retired with a staggering 882 career saves! I see it as inevitable that someday a pitcher will be put into the closer’s role early in his career and then remain effective in this role until he is over 40. When that happens he will blow away Rivera’s career record.


  4. So now lets get to the point at hand. Do Hoffman or Wagner or both belong in the Hall of Fame? Wagner allowed only 601 hits in 903 innings. Batters were nearly twice as likely to strike out against him as to get a base hit! Definitely not the type of pitcher batters enjoyed facing. Case closed. Batters hit only .211 against Hoffman with a .267 OBP and .342 SLG. That is impressive but does not compare favorably with contemporaries Rivera (.211) / (.262) / (,293) or Wagner (.187) / (.262) / (.296). He is actually more borderline as it would not be fair to elect him without electing at least three relievers whose careers largely coincided.


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