Trevor Hoffman decided to call it a career yesterday, exiting the game as the all-time career saves leader with 601. Hoffman’s career was no doubt one of the best reliever careers of all time, as Hoffman appeared in over 1,000 games and compiled a career ERA of 2.87. But Lee Smith, the last career saves leader to hit the Hall of Fame ballots, is still waiting for a call to Cooperstown that likely will not come at this point. When it comes to evaluating career performance and particularly when it comes to the Hall, relievers are an odd bunch. Let’s examine Hoffman’s spot among relievers and among the best players in Major League history.
If we go simply by WAR, there would be no need to even put Hoffman’s name on the ballot. By our implementation, Hoffman accrued only 22.9 WAR. He grades better in Baseball-References implementation, but his 30.7 WAR are still well short of any Hall of Fame standards for position players or starting pitchers. Many consider Jack Morris‘s 39 WAR to be a dealbreaker, for example.
Of course, WAR isn’t an end-all, be-all statistic for player evaluation, and it certainly isn’t for Hall of Fame voters. The Hall currently contains four pitchers who were primarily relievers: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter. Dennis Eckersley also counts if you consider “primarily reliever” to mean “half of career appearances in relief,” but Eckersley made 361 career starts and much of his career value comes from those 2,400+ innings.
None of those four pitchers accrued more than 42 WAR according to Baseball-Reference. Sutter’s choice appears dubious on a statistical level – only 661 games, 25 WAR, and a 136 ERA+ which ranks 20th among relievers with at least 500 IP – but he may be enshrined partially for his pioneering of the splitter. Fingers also has a weak statistical profile – nearly identical WAR but in more games and with a relatively pedestrian 120 ERA+ – but again, Fingers was a pioneer, this time of the closer role. Gossage and Wilhelm both sport WARs in the 40s and far longer careers, but still not Hall of Fame caliber numbers from any other role. Again, their enshrinement seems to be inspired by their roles in baseball history – Wilhelm as one of the premiere knuckleballers and Gossage as one of the first successful relief pitchers.
Hoffman’s 30 WAR, 1,100 inning, 141 ERA+ career puts him in a similar statistical realm as Fingers and Sutter. Just as with Lee Smith, however, I can’t think of anything Hoffman did that shaped baseball’s history in a meaningful way outside of the sheer volume of his save total. He didn’t define a role like Fingers. His changeup was excellent, but it wasn’t a definitive pitch in the game’s history like Wilhelm’s knuckleball or Sutter’s splitter. He didn’t prove that some pitchers could have value in the bullpen despite flaming out as starters like Gossage.
While Hoffman’s career is statistically similar to Sutter and Fingers, it is also very similar to those of John Franco, Dan Quisenberry, and Kent Tekulve, who all pitched around 1,000 effective innings out of the bullpen. The key difference between Hoffman and that trio is the number 601. To me, it’s clear that there has to be something beyond a relief pitcher’s body of work for him to make the Hall of Fame, something that transcends the necessarily unimpressive number that the role begets. In that case, five years from now when Hoffman appears on the ballot, we’ll find out if the writers find the number 601 to be enough to earn Hoffman a bust in Cooperstown.