We’ve Got To Talk About Trevor Hoffman

It’s everybody’s favorite time of year – Hall of Fame voting season! Every year, we gnash our teeth and argue in circles over mostly stupid things. The most recent trend seems to center on excluding players who played during the “Steroid Era” (but not those who we perceive as being clean, because you can just tell…you know?), which completely avoids context and usually devolves into general shouting at clouds. And then there’s Curt Schilling, who deserves to be in, but is an all-around awful/racist/xenophobic human being…which was probably enough to keep him out (for now), but several writers have finally decided he was bad because he posted a picture a shirt implying journalists should be hanged. Which is awful, but that was the tipping point? Anyway, enough garbage – we’re here to talk about Trevor Hoffman’s candidacy.

First, let’s get this out of the way – Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer. 601 saves (2nd), .887 save %, 3rd all-time in relief pitcher fWAR, etc. etc.. Subjectively, I believe anybody who was once the all-time leader in a major category should be in the Hall of Fame. The voters seem to agree Trevor belongs, with 67.3% of them voting for him on his first ballot. Hoffman’s first-year total was the highest ever achieved by a pitcher who threw exclusively in relief. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Now, Hoffman’s enshrinement should not a slam dunk just because you are a Padres fan! I am a Padres fan. I love Trevor Hoffman. I watched 400 on tv, I made sure I was there for 500, and I made damn sure I was there for the record-breaking 479th save. I want to see him in the Hall of Fame ASAP because he’s a Padres legend. Also, because I like to see good and worthy people rewarded. Also, we need SOMETHING to celebrate in San Diego sports right now.

The biggest issue is that there are 34 players on the ballot and you are only allowed to pick 10 players. There are 15 (or so) players on the ballot who are worthy of serious consideration, most of whom do belong in the Hall of Fame. Whether you like it or not, position players and starting pitchers are almost always going to get the nod. Considering the 10 vote limit set by the BBWAA, this strategy makes more sense than most of us care to admit. If you ask me, those who refuse to change that rule are the parties at whom you should direct your ire.

Except for the writers who refuse to vote for relievers as a principle. These people have bad opinions. Most of them disregard closer and DH, holding on to their idealized version of how baseball should look while ignoring how the game has been played for over 40 years. These are positions of some importance, regarded as such during playing careers and shoved aside upon retirement. “He was ONLY a relief pitcher” or “He was ONLY a DH”. Neither of those arguments make sense, and it’s just idiotic when combined.

I’ve also seen fans who are concerned about Trevor being “overshadowed” by going in after Rivera, or with Rivera, or perhaps another East Coast candidate who could draw a massive crowd. As someone who made the trip out to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction ceremony, let me tell you how silly this is. Gwynn/Ripken drew the largest crowd in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m probably underestimating the Baltimore contingent by saying it looked to me to comprise about 80% of the crowd. Everybody’s there to have a good time, and the one thing you will find at the HOF is that everybody who made the trek LOVES and respects baseball. There aren’t many fans who make the flight/drive out to a New York backwater who are tepid about the game. They’re all there to pay homage to the greatest who ever played, and this is the lucky weekend where YOUR guy enters the club. It’s a celebration.

Crowd at Tony Gwynn's induction. We were very far away.

Crowd at Tony Gwynn’s induction. We were very far away.

It didn’t make the experience any less incredible, being so “outnumbered” – the other fans were great! The museum itself doesn’t play favorites – everything you see is divided equally amongst all of the inductees. Nobody’s being short-changed by the Hall of Fame. The only one shaping your Hall of Fame weekend experience is you.

They got their own display cases! I didn't take a picture of Ripken's because WEST COAST BIAS

They got their own display cases! I didn’t take a picture of Ripken’s because WEST COAST BIAS

I’m not here to tell anybody how to act. If you want to yell at every writer who leaves Hoffman off of their ballot – fine. That’s your business. If you want to be upset if Hoffman doesn’t make the HOF this year, have at it (I’ll be right there with you). I’m proposing that we, collectively, try to look at things a little more objectively and consider the reasoning before doing so. While we might want him in “today”, and he deserves to get in “today”, it’s okay if it ends up being “tomorrow”. We’ll live. “Tomorrow” WILL happen, and that’s still a pretty good place to be.

After all, the man Trevor Hoffman passed for the all-time saves record, Lee Smith, is in his final year of eligibility – and he’s not getting in. That’s a damn shame.


The Vocal Minority posts every Monday. LOL NO WE DON’T. I hope Trevor gets in this year and writing this was a huge waste of time. Subtweet me on Twitter.

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  • Pat

    There’s no such thing as relief pitcher WAR. Also saves are far from a major category. It’s nice Trevor is getting such strong support. Does he deserve it? No. Relievers simply do not contribute enough, in all but the rarest of cases, enough to warrant the HOF honor.

    • ballybunion

      The concept of the ninth inning door-slammer was pretty much cemented by Tony La Russa’s use of Dennis Eckersley while with the A’s in the 1980s and ’90s. The reasoning is simple and logical.

      If you have a ninth inning guy who can reliably slam the door 90% of the time, you’re forcing the manager of the other team to manage for an 8-inning game – get a lead or tie before the ninth – while you, if you’re a good manager, can manage for a nine inning game.

      Many people think they can manage, but I doubt they’re good enough to be Hall Of Fame managers like La Russa. His contention is that having a shut down closer gives a manager a huge tactical advantage. That’s the value of a top-notch closer.

      The HOF doesn’t value players who had a career year, or strung together a few good years, but players who got the job done at a high level over a long period of time. There have been VERY few closers who did it for an extended period, the two best by far were Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, both doing it consistently for a decade an a half. Nobody else is close.

      If you think HOF manager Tony La Russa is wrong about the tactical advantage of managing with an ace closer, fine. If you think anybody can close at a high level for a few years, fine. But if you don’t think closing at a high, 90% level over a fifteen year period is no big deal, well, I hope you continue to read and learn about the game.

  • Pat

    “His (Tony LaRussa) contention is that having a shut down closer gives a manager a huge tactical advantage. That’s the value of a top-notch closer.”

    That’s the way you’re defining the value of a closer. Another way would be to look at actual value measurements, such as salaries that teams are willing to pay closers, and value based stats such as WAR. Both of those show closers are far less valued/valuable than starting pitchers.

    “The HOF doesn’t value players who had a career year, or strung together a few good years, but players who got the job done at a high level over a long period of time.”

    I absolutely agree. Then it’s crucial to define what a “high level” is for a reliever, and it certainly is not a good method to define it by Saves. They are a garbage stat, far worse even than W-L for judging pitcher performance. Earning a Save may, or may not, mean a pitcher performed well, but there are far better methods for measuring pitcher performance, so we don’t even need to consider raw Save totals. A high level of performance by a relief pitcher should be measured in the same way it is for any other pitcher: run prevention, preventing base runners, and FIP components such as K, BB, and HR. If you look at relief pitchers in this way, the only way Hoffman stands out is in longevity. On a year to year basis when comparing him to other closers he does not. His ERA+, in other words run prevention, was typically middling, same with FIP, and value measurements. He had very few elite, or high level seasons. He was basically a compiler who was put into a role by his Manager, used very gingerly and judiciously almost exclusively as a one inning closer who came into the game with no one on base the vast majority of the time, and only had to pitch one inning, or fewer, the vast majority of the time. Consequentially he compiled a very high number of Saves, but his performance in meaningful measures for pitchers was not outstanding.

    “There have been VERY few closers who did it for an extended period, the two best by far were Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, both doing it consistently for a decade an a half. Nobody else is close.”

    Well, perhaps we should keep in mind that there have been very few closers, period, because the role has existed for such a short time. But more importantly your contention that nobody else is close is blatantly false. Clearly if one is making a case for Hoffman as HOF worthy, then Lee Smith, who was the Saves leader before Hoffman passed him, is HOF worthy. Billy Wagner, who came onto the ballot with Hoffman, has over 400 Saves, and was a better pitcher in terms of meaningful measures of pitcher performance. Better ERA+, 187 to 141; better WHIP, 0.998 to 1.058; better FIP 2.73 to 3.08; better WAA 16.5 to 13.7; and the same WAR 27.7 to 28.

    Francisco Rodriguez over 400 Saves comparable ERA+, FIP, WAA, and WAR. Joe Nathan 377 Saves comparable ERA+, FIP, WAA, and WAR. Jonathan Papelbon 368 Saves comparable ERA+, FIP, WAA, and WAR. John Franco 424 Saves comparable ERA+, FIP, WAA, and WAR. Tom Henke 311 Saves comparable ERA+, FIP, WAA, and WAR. Huston Street has 322 Saves, and is low on WAA and WAR, but still active with comparable ERA+ and FIP. Craig Kimbrel already has 256 Saves, much superior ERA+ and FIP, with plenty of time to add to his WAA and WAR.

    “But if you don’t think closing at a high, 90% level over a fifteen year period is no big deal, well, I hope you continue to read and learn about the game.”

    It’s a nice example of longevity, and so far in the very brief existence of the one inning closer somewhat unique. Although a “90% level” does not speak to quality of performance for a pitcher. Just during Trevor’s career there were 96 seasons with at least 20 Saves and a 90%, or better Save %, but if you look at the top 20 by ERA+ you’ll see Rivera four times, Nathan and Wagner twice, and Hoffman only once. FIP gives a slightly different picture with Gagne leading at three, and Hoffman, Rivera, Nathan, and Smoltz two apiece. If you go by WAA you have Rivera with five, then Wagner, Nathan, and Joakim Soria with two, but Hoffman only one.

    I know enough about the game to recognize that earning a Save, or a bunch of Saves, does not equate to pitching well. My personal belief about the game is that one inning relievers are in no way worthy of the HOF unless they are truly extraordinary in other, better measures of pitcher performance. Your beief may be different, but I won’t insult you about it, I’ll just simply point out the statistical record, and the actual value teams place on one inning closers supports my position.

    • GT500KR

      Pat’s comments say most of it for me.

      I love Trevor Hoffman. He’s a part of many memories that still give me chills, almost all of them good (Game 163 excluded). But he’s not a Hall of Famer to me.

      It’s not his fault that managers stopped using their best relievers as firemen and started using them only in the 9th with a lead. I won’t be mad at all if he gets in; Jim Rice, among others, doesn’t belong in my Hall and I’ve yet to walk a picket line about it.

      The LaRussa argument holds no water. Almost every team wins when they have a lead going into the 9th, regardless of the quality of their closer or reliever usage pattern. The winning percentages have been remarkably consistent for 70 odd years.