One of the hallmarks of the annual Hall of Fame debates is the comparison to players already enshrined. It can be a very good exercise in determining the merits of a particular player, especially because after so many years, there are now a lot of players in the Hall of Fame. There are plenty of players at every single position. There are pitchers. There are power hitters, average hitters. There are great fielders. One area where the present Hall of Fame lacks in providing a good comparison is the Closer situation.
As Wendy Thurm’s post indicated in evaluating Lee Smith’s candidacy*, it is difficult to judge because the only full-time relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Hoyt Wilhem is not an apt comparison, having retired in 1972 with 500 more innings pitched than even Rollie Fingers. Wendy reached the conclusion that Smith was better than Sutter, not as good as Fingers and Gossage, and put Smith just on the other side of the Hall of Fame. It feels like the right call, but if Sutter is in the Hall what exactly is the standard for relief pitchers?
Taking a look at only Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage is not very instructive, so I expanded the parameters for comparison to include Smith, a likely first ballot player in Mariano Rivera as well as Trevor Hoffman, whose candidacy is not really clear at this point.
The era that the current members of the Hall played in was different than the current players with Smith serving as sort of a bridge between the two. I wanted to compare their innings totals so I took a look at each player’s twelve best years (omitting Gossage’s year as a starter) and created a cumulative IP graph.
As you can see, Fingers stands out, followed by Gossage, a small gap, then Sutter and Smith, followed by another gap, and then Rivera and Hoffman. Although Smith definitely compiled a lot of saves, it is not really fair to put him in the modern-day closer group.
Next, I looked at the players’ WAR cumulatively in their twelve best years. I order the WARs in descending order so that the peak would be first. This is what I found:
As you can see, it was Sutter’s peak that appealed to voters as he jumped out to an early lead and then crashed. Gossage tailed off, but remained high with Smith not too far behind. Rivera’s graph shows why he will make the Hall while Hoffman lags well behind.
I decided to take a look at a few other players who have already been dismissed from the ballot or will arrive on the ballot shortly. Leaving in Smith and Hoffman, and adding Billy Wagner, Dan Quisenberry, and Doug Jones, their cumulative WAR graphs look like this.
As you can see, Smith comes out as the clear leader, with Jones, Wagner and Hoffman bunched together and Quisenberry trailing behind. You can have a Hall of Fame that includes Trevor Hoffman, but that Hall of Fame needs to include better players like Lee Smith, and equivalents like Doug Jones and Billy Wagner. It seems too inclusive, yet that is the Hall the writers appear to have created.
Much of this debate would have been avoided if the Hall of Fame had never let Bruce Sutter in based on two exceptional years and a small handful of pretty good years. If Sutter does not get in, Gossage probably does not get the momentum he needs, and if Gossage doesn’t get in, Smith wouldn’t. I am not entirely sure why Fingers made it, but only Fingers and Rivera would make it in along with hybrid players like Eckersley and John Smoltz. I am by no means a small-hall guy, but specialists pitching in at most half of their teams’ games for an inning should be truly exceptional to make the Hall of Fame.
*A few interesting facts about Smith. In the first seven ballots Lee Smith has appeared on beginning in 2003, every single player who finished higher than Smith on the ballot is in the Hall of Fame. If Jeff Bagwell and Jack Morris make the Hall, it will be true for Smith’s first ten ballots. Smith finished higher than Morris on his first seven ballots. Smith held on the All-time save lead for 13 years, longer than Fingers (12), Reardon (1), and Hoffman (5). One more: Smith was on the wrong end of the platoon advantage for 53.88% of his matchups. Rivera (51.27%), Sutter (49.46%), Hoffman (48.19%), Gossage (45.98%), Fingers (43.8%) all lag behind.