Waiting for Trevor

On January 9, 2007, Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with one of the highest voting percentages in history. This was not only as a tremendous accomplishment for him and his family but also a validation for San Diego sports’ fans who often felt that their hero was somewhat slighted during his twenty year career.

Gwynn won eight batting titles and compiled 3,141 hits, but the perception remained that he was never really given his full due in the national media.

There are other players in the Hall of Fame that played in San Diego, Dave Winfield, Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry are among the nine that are enshrined, but all of them, with the exception of Gwynn, are better known for what they did away from the brown and gold.

Next year at this time Trevor Hoffman, who pitched for 16 of his 18 big league years in San Diego, and along with Mariano Rivera is one of only two pitchers to have amassed 600 or more career saves, becomes eligible for the Hall. To most Padres’ fans the enshrinement of Hoffman is a foregone conclusion.

How could he not be a first ballot Hall of Famer?

“I don’t think it will be automatic by any stretch,” said Jay Jaffe of SI.com and the founder of the Jaffe WAR Score system (JAWS), the go-to guide on the Hall of Fame.

“This year even if we do see three or even four guys elected we will still have a glut of holdover candidates with Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines and then you will have Ken Griffey, who is almost a certain first ballot Hall of Famer, and it’s another packed ballot.”

Why Jaffe holds so much sway in any Hall of Fame discussion is that he is the only analyst who creates a framework of who is and is not in Cooperstown and how a particular player fits into it as opposed to the opposite of what most of us do cherry pick statistics to justify the inclusion of our favorite.

“Throw in Jim Edmunds, who I think will get some consideration, and Trevor is also going to have to deal with Billy Wagner. Wagner doesn’t have 600 saves but he has an ERA that is a half a run better along with better peripheral numbers.”

“I think it’s going to take a few years if it does happen. In the end his candidacy will rise and fall in how voters evaluate the save statistic.”

A counter to Jaffe’s view is Bill Center, who covered Hoffman for his entire career with the San Diego Union-Tribune, now UT-San Diego and is a Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) member who votes on the Hall of Fame, and probably saw more of his work than anyone other than Trevor himself.

“To me was just his approach to the role,” Center said when asked what made Hoffman special. “He knew exactly what he needed to and didn’t get too high or too low. He knew whom he was going to face and had an approach to go along with absolute confidence in his fastball/changeup combination.”

A frequent criticism in journalism is that many reporters write to the narrative and for the critics of Hoffman’s inclusion; which could include a rather interesting confluence of hardcore statheads and traditionalists; this will be the main point. Too much will be made out of the save statistic, the role of a relief pitcher and his popularity with the media.

“It doesn’t follow that every great relief pitcher should be in the Hall of Fame, it falls on borderline,” said Jaffe on why there have been only five relief pitchers (Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Rich Gossage and Hoyt Wilhelm) inducted.

“The real issue that so many voters have to wrestle with is can you take a good starter and make him into a great reliever? You usually don’t see it going the other way.”

Jaffe’s scholarship on this issue, and yes, if you read the work he has put into the JAWS system to define it in any other way other than a substantial work of academic scholarship, sells it short. It is a wonderful tool to assist in any analysis of who should or shouldn’t be included but the one part where it may fall a little short is on relievers.

So much of JAWS relies on a historical precedent and places too much emphasis on factors that are beyond the reach of a modern day reliever, such as innings pitched, wins and run prevention.

In the late 1980’s Oakland A’s manager Tony LaRussa and his closer Dennis Eckersley, a converted starter, essentially created the way a modern bullpen is constructed with a pitcher for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The most dominant of the relief pitchers in the bullpen was the closer, the player entrusted with the duty to get the last three outs and rarely threw more than an inning.

And yes, the focus is on closers because the best relief pitcher is always the last guy to take the ball in the ninth inning with a lead.

Wins, Losses, ERA, Strikeouts are important numbers and measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, but the save statistic and more importantly the percentage of save opportunities that were converted is the single most important number for any closer.

“To me that is the biggest factor, save percentage, which has to be in the high 80s or low 90s to be considered elite,” said Center on how he values closers. “You would like to see a baseline of at least 40 saves, but you cannot overstate the importance of the save percentage.”

Hoffman has the third highest conversion rate at 88.70 % and the second most save opportunities of anyone on the list. In addition to being only one of the two closers with over 600 saves its more than likely he will also remain one of only two players with 500 or more saves with no one likely to achieve the milestone of 500 anytime soon.

Finally, the JAWS system just doesn’t pass the eyeball test. Hoffman is ranked as the twenty-first best relief pitcher on the list behind such luminaries as Greg Swindell and John Hiller, both of whom are in the Top 10 as compared to the rest of the position and starting pitcher rankings where there are few if any surprises.

Of the ten closers with the highest number of saves, Eckersley made 361 starts and it falls pretty quickly from there. Joe Nathan made 29 and only one other player, Rivera, made over ten starts. Five, including Hoffman, never started a game.

The Hall of Fame is a museum which attempts to tell the story of a time, place and an era in baseball through the players that competed and its members are inducted by writers, not statisticians/sabermetrians or historians.

It’s not a big leap of faith to believe that most of the voters of the BWAA are not familiar with the careers of lesser known Hall of Famers Fred Lindstrom or Rick Ferrell or are up on the latest changes in the WAR statistic by Baseball Reference.com as compared to FanGraphs. They are writers, many of whom only covered one team and didn’t see players in the other league or are years away from daily coverage of the game. What resonates to them and to the fans are the stories behind the players.

Both Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines belong in the Hall of Fame. So why was Gwynn a first ballot Hall of Famer and Raines is still looking in for his eighth try? Because despite their similarities in most of the advanced metrics; Tony has a better story.

Tim Raines actually got on base more times than Gwynn and stole 808 bases at an 85% clip to Tony’s 308. He may have been a better defender, but the best years of his career were on a now defunct team, the Montreal Expos. He had some drug problems early in his career, bounced around with five other teams before his career ended at 42 with the Florida Marlins hitting .191.

Gwynn was an eight time batting champion, a statistic that everyone grew up knowing about and reading. Only Ted Williams had a higher postwar batting average than him. He won Gold Gloves, was popular in the media, hit .324 in his final year and played his entire career in one city; is a great story and in the end is what differentiates the two nominees.

Hoffman’s detractors can talk about the utility of the modern day closer, run prevention rates and the advantages of pitching in San Diego, but in the end he will be remembered, and possibly judged, for possessing possibly the greatest change-up in the history of the game and being one of only two players with not only more than 600 saves but also more than 500.

It is likely Hoffman will have to wait until the induction of Mariano Rivera in 2018 to also be included, but he has his story and the facts and separation between him and other closers is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The Hall of Fame is an imperfect place. There are obviously players that are in that shouldn’t be and ones that aren’t that should and the voting system is flawed but the Hall has always been a place that acknowledges and recognizes the changes in the game.

“The role of bullpens has changed over time and the role of a closer is as important as any on the field,” said Center. “It’s essential to how the game is played.”

“If you don’t believe me ask a manager.”

“To me there is no doubt that both Mariano Rivera and Trevor belong in the Hall.”

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