Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Closers

The following post is written by Matthew Warburg

With the retirement in January of the current career saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, it seems now would be a good time to repeat a question we’ve heard before: Do closers belong in the Hall of Fame? Some people might say yes, and voters certainly have. For me, the answer is that for the most part they do not. Closers simply do not have a big enough impact on the game to be considered among the all-time greats.

To start with, closers pitch relatively few innings. Of the four modern day closers in Cooperstown (Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley, provided one does not consider Hoyt Wilhelm a modern closer), none pitched more than 1,600 innings as a reliever. To put that in perspective, consider that that is roughly the same number of innings a starter pitches in about seven seasons.  Most Hall of Fame starters pitch between 3000-4000 innings, and even Sandy Koufax’s brief but stellar career encompassed over 2300 innings pitched. Obviously, the fewer innings pitched, the less impact a hurler has on the game.

A closer’s job isn’t particularly difficult. After all, if you enter the 9th inning with the bases empty, no outs, and the lead, as most modern closers do, you already probably have around an 80 percent chance of winning the game. So the fact that the best closers have save percentages in the mid to high 80’s isn’t really that impressive. Consider too that many save opportunities come with two or three run leads, in which case the chance of winning the game is already probably upwards of 90 percent, and the job of closing out a game becomes an even less impressive feat.

Add these two points together, and you get largely unremarkable pitchers whose Hall of Fame candidacies are the product of a poorly designed statistic, the save. Closers wouldn’t even be entering the Cooperstown discussion if not for that stat’s existence. The evidence is in the WAR. Goose Gossage, the closer with the highest career WAR of those already inducted (I haven’t counted Eckersley’s years as a starter), is tied for 425th on the all-time list. Gossage’s best single season, with a WAR of 7.0 (also I believe the best single season by any closer) doesn’t even come close to making the top 500 seasons of all-time (the cut-off is 8.1).

Now consider that Bruce Sutter’s best single season WAR was 6.3, Eckersley’s (as a reliever) 3.2, and Fingers’ 4.1 (the year he won the Cy Young and MVP.) Francisco Rodriguez’s 62-save masterpiece only earned him a WAR of 3.2. Mariano Rivera’s best season is a whopping 5.4; Lee Smith never topped 4.5. And Trevor Hoffman, the current all-time saves leader whose retirement has sparked this debate? A career WAR of 30.7 and single-season high of 4.0.

So are the best closers very good at what they do? Undoubtedly yes. But is what they do very difficult? No. Do they have a significant impact on the outcome of baseball games. No. Maybe that’s why whenever a closer gets injured or traded, a manager is usually able to give the job to his next best reliever and achieve similar results. It just isn’t that difficult or meaningful a job, which is why I don’t think closers belong in the HOF.

This was a guest post written by Matthew Warburg

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark