In the latest Hall of Fame balloting, only two players were actually elected: Ken Griffey and Mike Piazza. But to my surprise, three other candidates did exceptionally well: Jeff Bagwell cleared 70 percent, Tim Raines nearly did, and first-timer Trevor Hoffman topped 67 percent.
Now, this practically guarantees that all three will eventually be elected. Especially considering that Ivan Rodriguez is probably the only outstanding candidate who joins the ballot next year.*
* Yes, some will argue that Manny Ramirez is an outstanding candidate, but I'll be shocked if he gets any significant support. Others will argue for Vladimir Guerrero, and he will fare significantly better than Ramirez. But just looking at the numbers, I don't see much to separate him from Gary Sheffield, Larry Walker or poor Jimmy Edmonds. Guerrero's only separator are his AL MVP Award and three other top-four finishes. I'm not a big fan of justifying one BBWAA vote with other BBWAA votes. But it does happen. And Guerrero might grab a few ballot slots that would otherwise have gone to Bagwell or Raines or Hoffman.
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Does that mean that Bagwell and Raines and Hoffman all get elected next time? Bagwell and Raines, yes. Bagwell because he came so close this year, and Raines because it's his last shot.
Hoffman, though? Ivan Rodriguez might matter, but then again he probably will not. Historically, the BBWAAs almost never elected four candidates at once, but this should happen more often as more and more voters are willing (and eager!) to use all 10 slots on their ballots.
Still, what's less interesting than the question of whether or not Hoffman will be elected -- since it's clear that he will, and probably soon -- is whether he should be elected.
Now, by one standard he's overwhelmingly qualified: $aves. Not counting Dennis Eckersley, there are four relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame and Hoffman's got way more saves than any of them. He's also got 211 more than Eckersley. Hoffman's No. 2 on the all-time list with 601 saves, and he's got 123 more saves than the No. 3 man (Lee Smith).
Honestly, I think those last two saves Hoffman got -- it took him a month to get those last two saves, as his entire last season was basically a disaster -- actually made a huge difference, as 601 just looks more impressive than 599, even if there's obviously no substantive difference between those numbers. Ken Macha just kept pitching Hoffman, and that got him over the hump. And maybe into the Hall of Fame.
But again, does he "deserve" it?
Well, there's definitely an argument here about value. Hoffman finished his career with about 28 Wins Above Replacement, largely because he also finished with only 1,089 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Mike Mussina finished with 83 WAR and 3,562 2/3 innings.
Apples and oranges. Still, does it really make any sense for Hoffman to receive 296 votes for the Hall of Fame, and Mussina just 189?
As Bill James points out, "For Hoffman to be more valuable than Mussina, he has to be three to four times more valuable per inning pitched."
Does that seem likely to you? It doesn't seem likely to me. I do believe that WAR probably does undervalue closers, because of course they are generally pitching higher-leverage innings than starting pitchers.
Bill brings up this point, and also the point that we've not settled on great definitions of "replacement level" for relievers relative to starters. Then there's the notion that the Hall of Fame has never really been about value -- not in a particularly quantifiable way, anyway -- but rather about excellence. Bill:
I think the sabermetric community is guilty of a confusing what is permanent -- Hall of Fame selection -- with what is temporary (our current best estimates of player's value), but I also think the traditional sportswriting world is guilty of the same thing, in assuming that Trevor Hoffman's 600 Saves are a historic accomplishment, when in fact they may not be. I'm not sure I would vote for Trevor Hoffman over Lee Smith or Billy Wagner; in fact, I think I probably wouldn't. I probably would vote for Smith or Wagner first, despite the career Saves number.
But would the Hall of Fame be better, without any Closers? Would a baseball team be better without a Closer? I don't think so. I think you have to have Closers in the Hall of Fame, regardless of what Baseball Reference thinks their WAR is. I don't think you can make the Hall of Fame discussion into a wholly owned subsidiary of WAR.
I don't think you can, either. Or rather, I don't think you should. I don't know anyone who thinks you should. Or rather, I probably do but I haven't dragged that embarrassing fact out of them yet.
What I would say about closers is that whether the Hall of Fame would be better without closers is entirely an academic argument at this point, since there are closers in the Hall of Fame, and there will be more. But considering how many pitchers could probably be excellent closers if given the chance -- I would guess the current number runs into the dozens, at least -- I'm uneasy with the notion of electing pitchers who just happened to have been lucky enough to get anointed early enough in their careers (and in fairness, also stayed healthy enough to rack up hundreds of saves).
Given what we know about the value of closers now -- and acknowledging that we'll only learn more and more in the coming years -- I would say the bar for closers should be extraordinarily high, and predicated hardly at all upon their saves. I wouldn't vote Lee Smith or Billy Wagner or Trevor Hoffman, reserving my affection for just one: Mariano Rivera, who's got 18 seasons of true excellence ... plus another two full "seasons" in October of excellence-plus.
I don't think that's where the bar is. The bar should be lower than the greatest closer who ever lived. But it should be higher than Trevor Hoffman and his 601 $aves.