Yesterday, the only man in the history of baseball with 600 saves (until Mariano Rivera surpasses him at some point in the next two seasons), Trevor Hoffman, announced he was retiring. The question now becomes one of his place in baseball history.
Only a handful of relief pitchers have been inducted into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. Goose Gossage (2008), Bruce Sutter (2006) and starter-turned-reliever Dennis Eckersley (2004) are the most recent, while Rollie Fingers skated in on his second ballot way back in 1992. Should Hoffman join them? Or is the recent shunning of Lee Smith indicative of the way voters will treat the (for now) all-time saves leader?
Before Hoffman, starting in 1993, all the way through 2005, Smith was on top. When his name first appeared on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, he received 42.3% of the vote. A very solid number for his first year, most expected him to make big gains and be ushered in within a few years. But that didn’t happen. His percentage has gone up and down, but has remained in the 35-45% range with the exception of 2010, when he was able to draw just over 47%. His percentage in the most recent tally? 45.3%. It looks more and more unlikely that Smith will be immortalized in Cooperstown by the BBWAA, and his fate may be left to the Veteran’s Committee.
Prior to Smith, the all-time leader in saves was Jeff Reardon, who overtook Fingers in 1993. He didn’t hold the title long, as Smith passed him in 1994. How did the BBWAA reward Reardon’s longevity and effectiveness? He was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2000, albeit only one vote shy of getting a second chance. Out of 499 ballots, “The Terminator” was named on 24 for 4.8%.
With Mariano Rivera just 42 saves away from the all-time lead, it’s doubtful Hoffman’s name will be at the top with he appears on the ballot. Will the writers remember his dominance? For that matter, was he dominating?
It will be a few years before these questions will be thoroughly examined and answered. We’re too close to his career right now to make that call. But it does give one something to think about. Whatever the case, he had a very good career for an 11th-round draft pick.
(BTW, is this a 1991 card or a 1992 card? It has ’91 stats on it, but also a ’91 copyright date. Donruss always threw me off with their 1982-1984 Diamond Kings the same way.)
How important are relief pitchers? It’s obviously a very important position in the game today, but how important are relievers in a historical context? Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage are Hall of Famers, but does anyone really put them on the same level as Bob Gibson or Warren Spahn? The same basic position–pitcher–but vastly different roles in the game.
I’ve been thinking a lot about relief pitchers lately, partly because of Aroldis Chapman’s role in the bullpen so far this year with the Reds, and partly because of Trevor Hoffman’s historic 600th save. Are relief pitchers too specialized, to the point that they don’t get the recognition they deserve? Or do they receive too much credit for too little work?
In the 1980s, the role of the closer was much different than today. He wasn’t just a one-inning specialist, but often a 2-3 inning game ender. Guys like Reardon, Smith, and Franco came in and shut the door in the seventh or eighth inning and wouldn’t allow the offense to re-open it.
Do these guys belong in the Hall of Fame? Back in the good ol’ days, I divided my cards into categories – commons, stars, rookies, and Hall of Famers (current and future). All three of those names were in my HOF box, but I’m not sure I would still put them all there today.
How do you rank these relievers (listed alphabetically below)? And do they belong in Cooperstown? And are there others that I have forgotten that should also be considered?
Rollie Fingers (elected in 1992, second year on the ballot)
John Franco (will appear on ballot for first time this year)
Goose Gossage (elected in 2008, 9th year on ballot)
Tom Henke (received 1.2% of the vote in 2001, his only year on the ballot)
Dan Quisenberry (received 3.8% of the vote in 1996, his only year on the ballot)
Jeff Reardon (received 4.8% of the vote in 2000, his only year on the ballot)
Dave Righetti (received 0.4% of the vote in 2001, his only year on the ballot)
Lee Smith (received 47.3% of the vote in 2010, his 8th year on ballot, his best percentage to date)
Bruce Sutter (elected in 2006, 13th year on ballot, after only 23.9% in his first year)
Oh, and by the way, I spell relief T-U-M-S.