If you were a Padres fan watching Trevor Hoffman successfully close another game with AC/DC’s “Hell's Bells” blaring in the background sometime after 2003, you could probably count on hearing play-by-play man Ted Leitner say, “folks, you just watched a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
Book the trip. Rent the hotel room because for the first time since Tony Gwynn was inducted with Cal Ripken in 2001, another Padre - and it’s probably going to be a very long time before there is another one - was going to Cooperstown.
But it didn’t happen that way. In his first year of eligibility, he came close with 67 percent of the vote. But he, like the San Diego fan base, was still on the outside looking in. Hoffman wasn’t tainted by Performance Enhancing Drugs, is popular with the media, and seemingly possessed the unassailable statistics. Despite early indicators that he is doing better in his second go-around, his candidacy is still very far from a sure thing.
So what happened?
“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 in 2015, a year before Hoffman was eligible.
“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.”
If a candidate appears on 75 percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballots, within a ten-year window, they are inducted. Players, managers, and team executives can also be elected by select Veteran’s Committees, but that is another topic. Before getting into who does and does not belong in the Hall of Fame, remember inclusion is for “great players” and that subjective definition can mean many things to many people.
There are “small Hall” guys, who if we ignore the PED argument - and I will since anyone who is reading this has long ago made up their own mind on the subject - would only vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on this year’s ballot as being among the very best at their positions. Others, who make up the majority of voters, tend to have a more inclusive and wider view of who should be honored. Both camps agree that they want to vote for players whom they “tell the story” of the game in the eras in which they played.
Hoffman finished his career with 601 saves, second only to Mariano Rivera's 652. He threw 1089.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 1133 strikeouts against 307 walks and 846 hits. He converted 89% of his save opportunities, which is again, second only to Rivera among closers with over 400 saves.
The main critique of Hoffman is wrapped around the role of a closer; mainly in many voters’ minds, they just don’t throw enough innings to add significant value.
“To me pitchers that faced around 275 batters a year are more of a platoon thing and a subset of pitchers; not players that are worthy of the Hall of Fame,” said Joe Sheehan of SI.com on his reasons for being against Hoffman’s inclusion.
Sheehan who wrote a somewhat infamous article in 2015 where he argued that former Padres’ pitcher Andy Benes was ‘too good and too valuable to do Hoffman’s job’ has not been a fan of closers in his writing. In fact, when viewing it in terms of wins above replacement (WAR) he has a point. In seven seasons with the Padres Benes accumulated 20.7 WAR while in 16 years with the Padres Hoffman only had 25.9.
“If it were me I wouldn’t have voted for [Bruce] Sutter, Rollie Fingers or any of the one-inning closers,” said Sheehan elaborating on his position. “I would vote for Mariano Rivera for the Hall of Fame, but he’s the only one and that is only because of what he has done in the post-season.”
“If you switch Hoffman’s post-season with Rivera’s then I would vote for Hoffman and not for Rivera. It’s not personal, I think Hoffman was a good player, but unless you have some exceptional circumstances as with Rivera in the expanded playoff format that came into play after 1994, I just don’t think relief pitchers or closers, add enough value to justify their inclusion.”
“Even if you look at the salaries that were paid to [Aroldis] Chapman, [Kenley] Jansen and [Mark] Melancon this winter, they all average out to around $16 to $17 million a year, which is about what the Giants pay for their third starter, Jeff Samardzija.”
Regarding the views that players and managers value the role of closers more than sabermetricians, Sheehan retorted:
“Look, I wouldn’t be the best guy to come to Spring Training to teach pitchers how to throw a changeup and most players and managers aren’t the best ones to do baseball analytics either.”
“I’m familiar with all of the arguments that you can plug in any pitcher and they would convert 85 to 90 percent of the saves that an established closer would do, but how many would be able to do it over a 15 plus year period as both Hoffman and Rivera did?” said Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, who voted for Hoffman on his ballot this year and last.
“Hoffman to me was particularly impressive because he was able to reinvent himself when he lost his velocity midway through his career and still maintain the same level of performance.”
Crasnick’s view represents the middle ground of the BBWAA that tends to be less wedded to sabermetrics or the voices of former players like Rich Gossage, who are openly dismissive of modern one-inning closers.
Crasnick is familiar with many of the same types of arguments that Joe Sheehan makes. While he respects Sheehan's work, he disagrees with him in the way the value of a closer is perceived within the game.
“Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are the patron saints of the sabermetric community and we saw that they were willing to flip some of their top prospects to get a rental in Chapman for a couple of months and their first significant move off the offseason was to acquire Wade Davis.”
“I also disagree that the market doesn’t value them. I really don’t know many third starters, that teams see as a third starter, are going to make the type of money we saw paid out to closers this winter. Also, if you look at the trades teams are willing to make to get someone like Craig Kimbrel, I don’t see those types of moves being made to get a part-time player or a pinch-hitter.”
“Finally, to me the big separator for Hoffman is not only how good he was at converting saves, but the length of time. I was the beat reporter for the [Cincinnati] Reds when Rob Dibble was one of the best in the game, but he burned out after four years. The numbers that Hoffman and Rivera put up, regardless of what you think of the save statistic, are big.”
“Everybody has theories, but it seems to me when you want to really try and win games, you go get that closer.”
Ryan Thibodaux runs the BBHOF Tracker where he monitors and posts all of the public Hall of Fame voters’ ballots. He estimates that this year, 435 ballots will be cast with 327 needed for an induction. Last year before the Hall of Fame announcement, Thibodaux had 48 percent of the ballots and this year he expects to be well over fifty percent.
Nathaniel Rakich, a freelance politics and baseball writer, runs a quasi-companion site where he projects the inductees based on Thibodaux’s raw data and this year he has five players projected to make the cut – Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero, which would be the largest induction class since 1936. Last year Rakich correctly predicted every candidate vote total within 3.5 percentage points or few with an average error of only 1.5 points.
“My methodology uses past voting performance as an indicator of what should happen in this year’s election,” said Rakich. In his article, he essentially postulates that voters who make their ballots public are more inclined to be involved on social media like Twitter and more sabermetrically inclined; people who tend to value rate statistics more than traditional.
“The private voters tend to be more likely to vote on traditional statistics, batting average, RBI and in Hoffman’s case saves. Because of this, you see a drop in the numbers for most candidates on the BBHOF Tracker, with the exception of a few players like Hoffman whose numbers actually go up.”
In the 2016 vote Hoffman received 63.5 percent on the pre-voting public ballots and 69.2 percent on the private ballots. Rakich’s model assumes that if this years’ election was like that last, his final number should be higher than the public number we will see on the BBHOF tracker. Roughly, Rakich estimates that Hoffman has around a three to four-point cushion.
"I think if you see Trevor at around 75 percent or above on the BBHOF Tracker, he's a lock. If you see him anywhere around 72 percent or higher, it’s still a pretty good bet that he gets in.”