How do you put Trevor Hoffman in the Hall of Fame after passing on Lee Smith?
Driving Hoffman's candidacy is the fact that he registered 601 saves in his career
Trevor Hoffman's going to be a Hall of Famer, likely as soon as this year. Per Ryan Thibodaux's public ballot tracker, Hoffman right now is polling at 78 percent, which is of course clear of the 75 percent needed for election. Even if he loses ground on the ballots not publicly released, he's at worst in position to go in on the 2019 ballot.
Driving Hoffman's candidacy is of course the fact that he registered 601 saves in his career. For a time, he was the only closer to reach such a lofty tally until the peerless Mariano Rivera caught him and passed him. Still, Hoffman's case is a puzzling one once you drill down beyond the not-terribly-illuminating saves count.
, Hoffman will really be the first modern closer -- i.e., one who generally pitches no more than one inning and whose usage flows from the boundaries of the save rule -- to go in the Hall. The mythology of the closer, the idea that these guys are uniquely suited to pitch the ninth inning on the level of their inner workings, is as silly as it sounds. A lot of closers are failed starters, and we've seen time and again in recent years that any number of guys can step in and handle the final three outs. The idea is to be a good pitcher. The rest is myth-making. Stated another way, you don't reach the majors -- you're weeded out long before you reach the highest level of baseball in the world -- if you wilt under pressure. Saves totals, however, have somehow morphed into a stand-in indicator of that very basic reality.
So we have Hoffman, a good pitcher whose 601 saves gives him what appears to be the radiance of greatness. The thing, though, is we've already in some ways appraised Hoffman's case and found it wanting. The BBWAA did that when they decided Lee Smith wasn't worthy of the Hall of Fame.
In 15 years on the ballot, only once did Smith top 50 percent. That's significant support, but he never threatened election. Now consider the similarities of the two pitchers in question:
As you can see, Hoffman has the edge in ERA+, K%, saves and save percentage. Smith, meantime, leads in innings, WAR and JAWS, which is Jay Jaffe's system that compares a candidate to the existing Hall standards for his position/role by blending a player's career WAR with the WAR from his peak seasons. The limited precision of both notwithstanding, WAR and JAWS suggest that Smith had the better career. Hoffman's narrow edge in K% is largely a function of era, and you'll note that he had almost 100 more save opportunities than Smith did. It's also worth pointing out some other differences in how these two pitchers were used:
- Smith made 377 multi-inning relief appearances in his career. Hoffman made 152.
- Smith entered the game with runners on base 318 times in his career. Hoffman did so just 188 times.
- Stated another way, Smith in his career inherited 510 base-runners, whereas Hoffman inherited 346.
- Eleven times in his career, Smith most commonly entered the game before the ninth inning. Just three times was this the case for Hoffman.
There's not doubt that Hoffman's success at converting save opportunities is a strong part of his case, but he worked a much higher percentage of clean innings than Smith did. As well, he was asked to get more than three outs much less often than Smith was.
Speaking of saves, let's not forget that Smith was once the pace car for the statistic. In 1993, Smith seized the all-time lead in the category from Jeff Reardon and also became the first to get to 400 saves. (Let's not forget that 400 saves was once as unthinkable as 600). Smith held the all-time lead in the category for a whopping 13 years before Hoffman took over in 2006. He would hold the crown for five years until Rivera passed him in 2011. In the post World War II era, just Johnny Murphy and Hoyt Wilhelm held the all-time saves record longer than Smith did. Yes, Hoffman reached 600, but Smith lorded over the category to a more impressive degree in many respects. Even though saves are far easier to come by these days, Smith remains third on the all-time list.
Of course, that's incisive only if you let the flawed saves category drive your thinking in such matters. In reality, Hoffman and Smith were very similar pitchers treated very different by the Hall of Fame electorate. So if you're a Hoffman supporter who didn't support Smith, you're surely leaning on saves totals to get you to that point. How do you justify that?
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