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

8 Replies to “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Closers”

  1. OK, so this started out fairly reasonably when you said:

    “Do closers belong in the Hall of Fame? For me, the answer is that for the most part they do not.”

    While I don’t completely agree, I can see where you’re coming from.

    But then you threw out these curveballs:

    “A closer’s job isn’t particularly difficult.”


    “But is what they do very difficult? No.”


    “Do they have a significant impact on the outcome of baseball games. No.”

    Are you serious?!?

  2. You say “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.” Perhaps the 2010 Minnesota Twins are a good example. They lost closer Joe Nathan for the season (he had averaged more than 40 saves in the previous 6 years), and yet they won their division with Jon Rausch and Matt Capps (acquired in July from Washington) earning most of the team’s saves. Are there other such examples? And perhaps of greater importance, are there counter examples, cases in which a team lost its closer and fell out of contention as a result?

  3. Glad to see others sharing my view about the way save statistics are over-rated. Closers are kind of like pro football’s kickers who kick the point after touchdowns. The hard part in football is usually driving for the touchdown, not kicking the point after. In baseball the hardest part is getting to
    the 9th inning with a lead, not preserving the lead once you get there.

    Not to say closing is an easy job, nothing in baseball is easy at that level. But it is a greatly over-rated job.

  4. Charles,

    The point I was trying to make is that pitching a scoreless inning, which is pretty much all closers are asked to do these days, is simply not that difficult. Given that they usually enter the game with the bases empty and nobody out, the only jams they have to get out of are usually ones of their own making.

    If someone analyzed all of Hoffman’s saves, for example, you would probably find that he entered the game with the tying run in scoring position in probably only 10-20% of them. Because of how broad the save rule is, most closers enter the game with a pretty large margin of error, which is why many people, myself included, don’t think it’s that difficult of a job to do.

  5. WAR opened my eyes about closers, too. I’m not comfortable with putting NO closers in, so where’s the cutoff? I think three deserve it: Rivera, Gossage, and Wilhelm. While their career WAR isn’t overwhelming, it is WAY ahead of the rest ofthe closer pack and better than a few HOF starters. Fingers and Sutter should not be in. Eck? He’s not a closer. He’s a hybrid.

    If Trevor Hoffman goes in, Lee Smith should. If Fingers and Sutter are in, then Wagner, Quisenberry, Franco, Hiller, and Tekulve should be.

    That’s why I just want those three. They were way ahead of everyone else.

  6. I think for closers a better stat to look at is win probability added, or WPA. This factors in the importance/quality of innings pitched issue you raised. This can be found on BB-Ref, but is only complete from 1974-present, with incomplete records from 1950-1973, and no records prior to 1950 – although this covers most of the closers era, so it shouldn’t be too much of a limitation. According to BB-Ref, Mariano ranks 4th all since 1974, behind Clemens and Maddux, but ahead of Pedro and Randy Johnson. That seems to be pretty comfortably HOF material.
    Trever Hoffman ranks 19th, behind Schilling and Glavine, but ahead of Kevin Brown, so right on the edge of HOF-worthiness (and to me just over the line and into the HOF). From 24-30, we have Goose, Hoyt (incomplete), and Billy Wagner – just ahead of Tim Hudson, Bret Saberhagen, and Kevin Appier. This is probably where we reach HOVG territory, although I think Hoyt gets in because he undoubtedly has some value missing due to data limitations right now, and Goose is closer to Hoffman than Wagner, so he might get in as well.
    So I agree that closers need to be limited in their acceptance (like DH’s), but Mo, Hoffman, Hoyt, and Goose all probably deserve to get in. Four is a pretty selective club. Rollie got in because he was the first to a big milestone of a new and not quite properly valued statistic. And Sutter, who the hell knows.

  7. closer in the hall is a tuff one
    But it is easily one of the tuffest jobs in Baseball
    Its more than just pitching one inning
    9th–the most important inning
    The pressure is tremendous
    there is still way too many things to consider–how about pitching 3 to 4 days in a row
    warming up in the bullpen 10 days in a row
    How many pitch 20 years?
    So to me there just isnt the stats yet needed to really gage them
    The save is still probably the best but I agree with most that it doesnt tell the whole story
    But I will say those like Hoffman deserve to be in the Hall
    What they do for a team cant be told in numbers alone
    If you played the game and know you can get to the 9th with a decent lead and you will win? The pressure you take from your teammates cannot be meassured
    Numbers people in Baseball are important

    But things like this and denfensive stats have yet to really give numbers to show really great defensive players are
    I still remember Stan Musial talking to Ralpk Kiner whem he was a Pirate and wanted to join the Cardinals–Musial told him there was no place for him to play–Musial RF Martain CF Slaughter RF—Kiner is in the Hall and lead the league in Homers quite a few times–But All 3 were much better outfielders than Kiner and Martin was the best of them (He is NOT in the hall) Kiner was pissed off but he could NOT argue–I played semipro 27 yrs Defense was always first–You dont need numbers if you play–Players know who is and who isnt–Same goes for closers and there just isnt the correct stats to really judge the greatness other than the –Save—So yes most of those listed above should be in the Hall–Lee Smith? He is NOT? wrong

    just my opinion

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