Regarding admission to the Hall of Fame, it's long been incredibly difficult for relief pitchers to make it. In Major League Baseball history, closers are still a relatively new thing. We started to see multi-inning closers in the '70s become more normal and in the decades since we've seen a movement toward one-inning shutdown specialists.
Relief pitchers are a huge part of today's baseball and it doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. It's a specialization in which few excel long term. And yet, only a very select few relievers are in the Hall. Dennis Eckersley is in largely due to his time as a closer, but he started 361 games. If we stick to those who were predominantly relievers, the list of Hall of Famers is just Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.
The line of thinking here is easy to follow. It's widely accepted that relievers are simply failed starters. If a player wasn't good enough to be a starter, how are we justifying him as a Hall of Famer?
On the flip-side, upper-tier closers have generally proven to be significant in building championship teams and those with major late-inning relief issues are in constant danger of melting down. With late-inning stability being so vital to team success, can we really justify setting this specialization aside so easily and without much thought?
If we are open to including closers as eligible Hall of Famers, Billy Wagner should be in.
As far as I can tell, Wagner's workload is what is keeping him out. Of the current Hall of Fame relievers, Sutter clocks in at last place in innings pitched at 1,042. Wagner pitched 903 innings in his career. On a rate basis, though, Wagner was better than everyone other than Rivera. Look at his line compared to three others who are in:
He's across-the-board dominating there. He's sixth in career saves, has more strikeouts than Hoffman and was the most dominant reliever, on a rate basis, in history aside from Rivera (who got 100 percent of the vote). Wagner has roughly 17 percent fewer innings pitched than Hoffman. Apparently that's the line here for many voters.
The tide might be turning on that front, however. Wagner only got 11.1 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot, but has since gone to 16.7 percent to 31.7 percent to 46.4 percent in the ensuing votes. There's real momentum here with Wagner having four remaining chances on the ballot (if he even needs them).
If Wagner can find his way in, perhaps people become more open-minded on closers like Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon, who both debut on the ballot this year.
Nathan is eighth in career saves and tops Wagner with 923 1/3 innings. He matches Hoffman with a 2.87 ERA and adjusted for ballpark and era, his 151 ERA+ trails Wagner but tops an assortment of current Hall of Fame relievers. His WHIP (1.12) and K/9 (9.5) aren't with Wagner but also look great compared to others in the Hall.
We're just right back to the workload argument, but if the goal posts are moved to include Wagner, it's possible to see Nathan being worthy of consideration as well.
I'm not so sure on Papelbon. His rate stats are excellent with a 2.44 ERA, 177 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. The 1.00 ERA in 27 career playoff innings and closing down the 2007 World Series don't hurt. But he also only worked 725 2/3 innings in his career. With that vast a shortfall between the workloads of Sutter and Hoffman to Papelbon, I just can't see it happening with enough voters.
It's certainly worth ongoing discussion, though, especially in light of how the landscape of pitching usage has changed in recent decades.
Looking ahead, does it feel like Kenley Jansen and/or Craig Kimbrel are Hall of Fame closers? Maybe Aroldis Chapman? At least worth a thought, right? Without diving into the numbers and just going with the old "feel" argument, they at least feel worthy of discussion, don't they? They do to me.
But Jansen has 705 career innings, Kimbrel 628 1/3 and Chapman 603 2/3. As noted, to this point Wagner's 903 have been a non-starter.
Not only do those figures illustrate that maybe at some point we need to lower the standard for the workload of Hall of Fame reliever, they also put a nice exclamation point on just how long Wagner was so dominant, even if he trails other Hall of Famers in innings.
We can talk about the others later, but Wagner needs to get in first. He might've been overshadowed a bit by Rivera and Hoffman during his career, but he was every bit a deserving Hall of Famer. If he does get in, we can start shaping what the modern Hall of Fame closer looks like.