Voting continues for the 2023 Baseball Hall of Fame class, and it looks like former elite closer Billy Wagner will inch forward while still falling short of the 75-percent threshold for induction. There are two newcomer closers on the ballot in Francisco Rodriguez ("K-Rod") and Huston Street. What I'd like to do here is examine where we should be more open-minded with relief pitchers, if some of the better starting pitchers are being unjustly left behind and how it applies to current players on the ballot.
Starting with the relievers, there are only a few in the Hall. Mariano Rivera united everyone and made it unanimously. Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter round out the specialists. Dennis Eckersley wouldn't be in if not for his exploits as an elite-level closer, but he racked up a lot of value as a starter. John Smoltz was a closer for a short span, but he's in as a starter. Basically, there are seven closers in Cooperstown, but we could include Eckersley to make it eight.
In all of baseball history, that's an incredibly low number, though there is a reason for it. Multiple reasons, in fact. The relief pitcher is a relatively modern innovation. Wilhelm debuted in 1952 and he was an outlier for years. The '70s and '80s are when we saw most of the Hall of Fame closers. The closers in that era often worked more than an inning and carried higher workloads than the closers of recent vintage, so they racked up much more impact each season.
Just as an example: Craig Kimbrel has 394 career saves, good for seventh in history. Rollie Fingers sits 15th at 341. But Fingers worked 1,701 1/3 innings compared to Kimbrel's current 688 1/3.
The innings shortfall seems to be part of what is preventing Wagner from getting in at this juncture. Though there's more. Circle back to where I said there are "multiple reasons" why relievers are so lightly represented in Cooperstown. One of those reasons is that most relievers are failed starters. Hoffman was. Hell, Rivera was a failed starter.
That's where some people have trouble squaring things up. Some new names on this ballot, such as John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Matt Cain were very successful starters. Should they get more Hall looks than K-Rod and Street? It's an interesting query.
Lackey racked up 2,840 1/3 innings in the regular season, not to mention his 144 postseason innings at a similarly productive level. He won 188 games and struck out 2,294. K-Rod worked 976 regular-season innings and 36 2/3 in the playoffs. He struck out 1,142. It shouldn't be surprising to see Lackey's 38.1 WAR dwarf the 24.2 posted by K-Rod.
There's a strong argument to be made that Lackey provided more value to his teams throughout his career than Rodriguez did, yet the smart money is on Lackey hardly getting any votes while Rodriguez probably hangs around on the ballot for a while. Why?
Well, Rodriguez ranks fourth all-time in saves while Lackey isn't ranked on the upper tier of any starting pitching stats.
I am of the belief that a closer is a specialization and the upper-level elite players deserve a look at the Hall of Fame, but in doing so, shouldn't we give more credit to the true workhorse starting pitchers, given the extra value they accrue during their careers?
I do wonder if we need to lower the bar a bit for closers moving forward with so much emphasis on good bullpens these days while limiting most upper-level closers to one-inning outings. Just to use a few examples, do Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen feel like Hall of Famers? I think there's an argument to be made there. But if you go much lower, it seems easy to say very few others qualify. In using the current standard, though, both Jansen and Kimbrel come up short. Maybe they should? Maybe it should continue to be incredibly difficult for "failed starters" to make the Hall of Fame.
As with so many Hall of Fame discussions, there's plenty of gray area here and it's difficult to find a true sweet spot. I'm all about open discussion. Let's try to keep this in mind while we quickly run through the pitchers on the current ballot.
I've discussed Wagner's case many times before (here is last year's breakdown). He was a contemporary of Rivera and Hoffman and actually tops Hoffman on most rate stats, though the shortfall comes in workload and counting stats.
Wagner pitched to a sparkling 2.31 ERA (187 ERA+) and 0.998 WHIP in his career with 422 saves (sixth all time) and 1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings. He sits sixth in Reliever JAWS, trailing Rivera, Eckersley, Wilhelm, Gossage and Hoffman while sitting comfortably above Smith, Fingers and Sutter.
As a bonus, remember how I said most relievers are failed starters? Wagner wasn't.
I'm never going to get to vote for Wagner. He only has two more years on the ballot after this cycle and I get to start voting for the first time immediately thereafter. I would proudly cast a ballot for him. I think the bar for closers should be much higher than other positions, but Wagner still clears that bar.
Though he was much more mid-rotation workhorse than ace, Pettitte was a pretty high-level compiler. It's an old-school case, too. He won 256 games, good for 42nd all-time. He topped 200 innings 10 times with two seasons in the 190s. He topped 3,000 career innings and struck out 2,448 (46th all-time). He was in the rotation for eight different pennant winners and five World Series champions. He was 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA in 276 2/3 playoff innings.
So why hasn't Pettitte gotten more than 13.7 percent of the vote to this point?
Well, again, he wasn't really an ace while pitching in the same time period as Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, Greg Maddux and other Hall of Famers. Surely that hurts Pettitte with some voters.
If we dig into the rate stats, his career 3.85 ERA is a 117 ERA+, and that doesn't wow. The 1.35 WHIP isn't great. He sits 81st in JAWS, around pitchers like Frank Tanana, Tommy Bond, Tim Hudson and Orel Hershiser. Good-to-great pitchers for sure, but not Hall of Famers.
He's also been connected to PEDs, as he was named in the Mitchell Report and has admitted to using HGH though it came with the "only to recover from injury" caveat, of course.
In looking at the total picture, it isn't surprising to see Pettitte in no-man's land on the ballot. There are a lot of positives and negatives to his case.
I'm starting to come around on Buehrle, and I think he's worth a deeper dive. We'll do that in the coming days! I guess this is my version of a cliffhanger.
A one-time All-Star, Lackey won an ERA title and once finished third in Cy Young voting. He was a part of three different World Series-winning rotations. In parts of 15 seasons, Lackey was 188-147 with a 3.92 ERA (110 ERA+), 1.30 WHIP and 2,294 strikeouts in 2,840 1/3 innings. He was 8-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 144 postseason innings.
It was a very good career.
He's 206th in JAWS among pitchers, ranking around Dan Haren. Josh Beckett and Johnny Cueto.
In parts of 12 years, Weaver was 150-98 with a 3.63 ERA (111 ERA+), 1.19 WHIP and 1,621 strikeouts in 2,067 1/3 innings. He was elite for a quick time period, finishing three straight seasons in the top five of Cy Young voting. It just didn't last long enough here. He's 211th in JAWS, sitting just behind Cueto and Charlie Hough with Burt Hooten and Rick Rhoden right after.
In parts of 13 seasons, Cain was 104-118 with a 3.68 ERA (108 ERA+), 1.23 WHIP and 1,694 strikeouts in 2,085 2/3 innings. The three-time All-Star finished sixth, eighth and 12th in Cy Young voting in his top three seasons, respectively. He was a key member of the Giants rotation for the 2010 and 2012 World Series championships.
Arroyo was actually a workhorse for a bit, as he hit 200 innings in eight out of nine seasons with the lone shortfall being a 199-inning season in 2011. He finished 148-137 with a 4.28 ERA (101 ERA+), 1.30 WHIP and 1,571 strikeouts in 2,435 2/3 innings. He was an All-Star one time, won a Gold Glove and was part of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox.
The 2012 Cy Young winner, Dickey was a one-time All-Star and also won a Gold Glove. The knuckleballer was 120-118 with a 4.04 ERA (103 ERA+), 1.30 WHIP and 1,477 strikeouts in 2,073 2/3 innings.
Kudos to Weaver, Cain, Arroyo and Dickey for noteworthy careers that landed them on the ballot. They'll only get a small handful of votes combined, if that.
As noted, K-Rod is fourth in career saves behind three Hall of Famers. Is the volume of saves definitely the best way to judge how effective a reliever is, though? It's probably worth a longer discussion elsewhere, but just getting three outs before giving up three runs isn't exactly the stuff of legends. Circumstances steer the ship often times when it comes to save leaders. To climb to fourth all-time, however, doesn't happen to a pedestrian player. Rodriguez finished in the top four of Cy Young voting three times. Very few relievers can say the same.
In terms of rate stats, he was great, too. He had a 2.86 ERA (148 ERA+) and 1.16 WHIP. He struck out 1,142 hitters in 976 innings. In Reliever JAWS, Rodriguez is 12th, just about even with Lee Smith, though he trails Joe Nathan, Tom Gordon, Jonathan Papelbon and Ellis Kinder.
As I noted in the Wagner section, there should be a much higher bar to clear for relievers and K-Rod doesn't get it done for me. While Wagner was a dominant, elite-level closer for about a decade and a half, Rodriguez could say the same for about 6-8 years with several other good seasons. I was always a "no" on Smith and the same goes for Rodriguez.
The Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star saved 324 games in his career, good for 20th all time. In 680 innings, he posted a 2.95 ERA (141 ERA+) and 1.07 WHIP with 665 strikeouts. He had a very good career and I'm glad he's gotten a spot on the ballot -- it's a true feather in a player's proverbial cap -- but this isn't Hall of Fame-caliber.