Trevor Hoffman's Hall of Fame case brings up closer controversy

Trevor Hoffman had 601 career saves, second all-time, but is he worthy of the Hall of Fame? ESPN The Magazine

Trevor Hoffman, the longtime closer for the San Diego Padres, appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, and his case is a hot-button issue on how to evaluate relief pitchers, particularly modern closers who have spent their entire career accumulating high save totals while pitching limited innings. There are five relievers in the Hall of Fame:

  • Hoyt Wilhelm: The first great longtime reliever, Wilhelm finished with 228 saves and a 2.52 ERA. That save total pales in comparison with Hoffman's 601, but Wilhelm pitched in a different era. Wilhelm won 143 games compared with Hoffman's 61 and pitched 1,100 more innings, with a lower ERA.

  • Rollie Fingers: The mustachioed one went 114-118 with a 2.90 ERA and 341 saves. He topped 100 innings nine times as a reliever. Hoffman's career high was 90 innings, and he topped 80 just three times. Fingers pitched 700 more innings than Hoffman, essentially the equivalent of 10 additional 70-inning seasons that modern closers now throw. Fingers was also the key reliever on three World Series winners with the Oakland A's, including the 1973 World Series, in which he pitched 13⅔ innings.

  • Goose Gossage: He came on the scene a few years after Fingers and lasted forever but is from the same generation. He went 124-107 with a 3.01 ERA, 310 saves and 800 more innings than Hoffman. While Fingers was elected on the second ballot, it took Gossage nine years to get in.

  • Bruce Sutter: He had a dominant stretch, leading the league in saves five times in six years, but he had a short career, finishing with 300 career saves and 40 fewer innings than Hoffman. Sutter was one of the first relievers to be used primarily with a lead, but he still topped 100 innings five times. A bit of an odd selection by the BBWAA, given the length of his career, he might have received extra credit for popularizing the split-fingered fastball.

  • Dennis Eckersley: He spent the first part of his career as a good starter but made the Hall of Fame based on his 390 career saves and five-year stretch from 1988 to 1992 when he went 24-7 with a 1.91 ERA and 220 saves.

My point here: None of these guys are really comparable to Hoffman. The first four pitched when closers were used differently, so we can't really compare save totals, and Eckersley was a hybrid starter/reliever. In terms of career WAR, they rank like this:

Eckersley: 62.5

Wilhelm: 50.1

Gossage: 41.8

Hoffman: 28.0

Fingers: 25.0

Sutter: 24.5

For Hoffman supporters, this makes the case pretty simple: He's second to Mariano Rivera on the all-time saves list, pitched a long time, and even had more career value than Fingers or Sutter.

Then there's this take from Joe Sheehan, via his highly recommended newsletter subscription:

In thinking about Hoffman and the Hall of Fame, I keep coming back to Andy Benes. … He may have disappointed Padres fans by being a league-average starter rather than a superstar one, but he was an All-Star and he picked up award votes a handful of times. When he hit free agency, which he did twice, he was paid the going rate for top-tier starting pitchers. At no point during his career did anyone suggest that Benes should stop throwing 200 innings a year and start throwing 70.

If they had, would he be on a ballot today?

Benes is why I can't get behind the idea of Trevor Hoffman for the Hall of Fame. I don't know for sure that Benes could have done what Hoffman did, but I know that many pitchers have done so. I am certain that Hoffman could not do what Benes did, and I'm just as certain that what Benes did, be a good starting pitcher for a decade, was more valuable than what Hoffman did, which is to be a short reliever and then a one-inning reliever for 15 years.

I happen to agree with Sheehan. Most voters appear to disagree with us. Ryan Thibs keeps track of public Hall of Fame ballots. Through 91 voters, Hoffman is sitting at 63 percent. This indicates he won't get in this year, but that's a strong starting position, and he'll get next year or the year after. Meanwhile, Curt Schilling is at 57 percent, Mike Mussina at 53 percent and Edgar Martinez at 53 percent. Martinez, seemingly hurt by being a DH for most of his career, is being outpolled by an even more extreme specialist.

The rationale, I guess, is this: Closer is a position, and Hoffman was clearly one of the best. In looking at Win Probability Added, which gives more weight to usage patterns, Hoffman does rank second among relievers:

1. Mariano Rivera, 56.6

2. Hoffman, 34.1

3. Gossage, 32.5

4. Wilhelm, 31.1

5. Joe Nathan, 31.0

6. Jonathan Papelbon, 29.5

7. Billy Wagner, 29.0

Closers aren't being compared to players at other positions, but only to the small subset of other closers. That's the Hoffman Hall of Fame argument, not whether he was actually more valuable than Martinez or Mussina or Schilling, which he wasn't. No GM would ever have traded any of those three for Hoffman.

So Hoffman is getting a lot of Hall of Fame support while deserving starting pitchers such as Schilling and Mussina are struggling to get 50 percent of the vote after years on the ballot. And don't forget that Schilling was one of the best postseason pitchers ever. While the other five Hall of Fame closers all pitched for World Series champs, Hoffman gakked up his lunch in arguably the five biggest games of his career:

  • 1996 NLDS Game 3: With the score tied in the ninth, he gave up a two-run homer to Brian Jordan, and the Cards won the series.

  • 1998 NLCS Game 1: Hoffman blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth but got the win when the Padres scored in the 10th.

  • 1998 World Series Game 3: With the Padres up 3-2 in the eighth, he gave up a three-run homer to Scott Brosius. The Yankees won the game to take a 3-0 series lead.

  • 2007 regular season Game 161: In a game the Padres needed to win to clinch a playoff spot, Hoffman blew the lead in the ninth, and the Padres lost in 11.

  • 2007 tiebreaker game: The Padres scored twice in the top of the 13th against the Rockies, but Hoffman allowed three runs in the bottom half.

Hoffman was a great closer. But he wasn't a greater player than Edgar Martinez or Larry Walker or Alan Trammell or Schilling or Mussina. I don't have a Hall of Fame vote (yet), but Hoffman wouldn't make my ballot of 10.