We’d all like to think we could recognize greatness when we see it. When Albert Pujols unleashes his beautifully timed swing with an exquisite follow-through, you know you are witnessing greatness. When Roy Halladay is baffling hitters with pitches from all angles at all speeds going in all directions, you know you are witnessing greatness. But how do you know you are witnessing greatness when we are talking about relief pitchers who only toss an inning per outing?
This question will continue to be raised in the coming years, especially when it comes to Hall of Fame balloting as the voters try to place closers into historical context given that they have truly been a part of the landscape, at least in their current role, for barely 25 years. Is there a number of saves that guarantees election to the Hall of Fame like 300 wins for a pitcher and 3,000 hits for a batter? To this point in the voting process there is no agreed upon number for greatness. Lee Smith, who is third all-time with 478 saves, received only 45.3 percent of the vote in the latest go round (you need 75 percent to be inducted into the Hall). John Franco, who is 4th on the saves list with 424, was named only 27 ballots this year falling below five percent of the vote at 4.6 percent meaning he will no longer be eligible to be voted on during balloting. Apparently, 400 saves doesn’t guarantee you entry to the Hall.
But what about 500 saves? There are currently only two men in that club and one is Mariano Rivera with 559 saves. Will he make the Hall of Fame? Is that the dumbest question I have ever posed on BaseballGuys.com?
What about the other man with at least 500 saves, who is also the only man in history with 600 – Trevor Hoffman – who just announced his retirement from the game? Of course he will make the Hall of Fame, wont he? I say if he doesn’t get elected on the first ballot then the voters are detached from reality. Whatever you think of the save – and frankly it’s not a very good way to judge a pitchers effectiveness – the fact of the matter is that the game is run in order to get a team’s closer into the game in the 9th inning to seal a victory. Given that every team in the game follows this formula, how could you possibly not reward the men that were the best at what they do?
Hoffman led the league in saves, shockingly, only twice (53 in 1998 and 46 in 2006), in his storied career. Still, he is the all-time leader both in saves and games finished (856). Hoffman was also in the top-7 in saves 15 times in 16 seasons, only missing out in 2003 when injury limited him to nine innings. Moreover, Hoffman also had stretches of eight and six years in a row with 30-saves – the run of eight from 1995-2002 is tied with Rivera (2003-10) for the longest stretch in history. That means Hoffman racked up 14 seasons of 30 saves, the most in the history of the game (Rivera has 13 such seasons).
More than just a saves machine, Hoffman and his change-up posted an ERA of 2.87 for his career, 49.1 percent better than the league average of 4.28. Hoffman also registered a stupendous WHIP of 1.06, a K/9 mark of 9.36, and a K.BB ratio of 3.69. All of those numbers, every single one of them, speaks to Hoffman’s HOF credentials.
Obviously Hoffman did his job, arguably, as well as any man who ever played the game. However, he just doesn’t have the mystic of Mariano Rivera who not only pitches for the Yankees but somehow has gotten batters our for all of these years with just a single pitch. Not only that, Rivera has been the greatest postseason pitcher the game has ever seen; Rivera is 8-1 with 42 saves, a 0.71 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP over 139.2 innings whereas Hoffman made just 12 postseason appearances that included a blown save in his only World Series. Hoffman spent virtually his entire career on the West Coast meaning many people may have actually seen him pitch only a handful of times, and that certainly wont help his candidacy. He also toiled away on a second division club for the majority of his career, and his success was predicated on a devastating change-up that sure didn’t impress many who were watching the game from the grandstand. All Hoffman did, day after day, was get people out.
Will that be good enough for the Hall of Fame even if those who watched him pitch never used the word “greatness” to describe his work? Time will tell, but if I had a ballot I would put a check mark next to Trevor Hoffman’s name without hesitation – he was the best to ever fill the role of closer in the history of the National League.
By Ray Flowers