Baseball: Cooperstown and The Impending Reliever Conundrum

On Tuesday, the Josh Rawitch of the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of the BBWAA balloting for the 2023 election cycle, confirming that long-time Cardinal third baseman Scott Rolen will join Fred McGriff in July’s ceremony.

Among the top stories being the latest player to be enshrined included the result of Billy Wagner, the greatest left-handed relief pitcher in MLB history, who finished at approximately seven percent shy of the election threshold on his eighth try. With two chances left on the ballot and Wagner making up over 17% of ground in 2023, it seems reasonable to expect Wagner to make it before a committee convenes on his career.

The age-old argument every time Hall of Fame voting comes around is that it’s ‘becoming the Hall of Very Good,’ as if Frankie Frisch’ cronyism in the 1940s didn’t elect a myriad of undeserving selections and that it was the utmost exclusive fraternity reserved for inner-circle members such as Willie Mays or Tom Seaver, neglecting precedents already set nearly 100 years ago. If the Hall of Fame as an institution is to celebrate the game’s history and its players, to hold players to a standard such as Robin Yount, requiring absurd anomalies like 3,000 hits in addition to two MVPs, then no player would ever take the podium. The mission of The National Baseball Hall of Fame is succinct: tell and preserve the history of baseball.

As the game evolves, so must the Hall of Fame and its antiquated ways of thinking. As of now, just about 1% of players to have played the game are in the Hall of Fame. On average, 200 players debut in any given season, a number that will only increase should MLB continue to expand and create more jobs at the MLB level. On average, only forty-to-fifty players to play in any given season will eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame. That doesn’t mean players who debut in the year, it means players at any stage of their career, whether it be a debuting rookie like Adley Rutschman, a retiring veteran such as Albert Pujols or a superstar in their prime a la Manny Machado.

All of this is a long-winded, contrived way to say that the ratio of players elected is continually decreasing, making the Hall inherently more exclusive as is. I’d argue that as more time passes, the more players should be included. With deeper understanding of more nuanced statistics and the ability to access footage, statistics and more nuanced contexts higher than ever, fewer players should be slipping through the cracks because it naturally becomes easier to be cognizant of a player’s greatness that perhaps you wouldn’t have been able to contextualize fifty years ago. There are only 18, with the addition of Rolen, third basemen elected to the Hall of Fame. This is abnormally low, and while Adrian Beltre is a lock for 2024 in his first attempt, the Hall has yet to remedy the epidemic. Perhaps on an even larger scale is the lack of relief pitching.

An MLB expert currently at ESPN, one of the best baseball minds in the world and a tremendous sportswriter, was once-quoted during his time at Yahoo Sports saying that the only relief pitcher he’d ever consider voting for is Mariano Rivera, whose postseason “just barely” gets him in. The undisputed greatest closer of all-time and even a very progressive baseball mind wasn’t the most enthusiastic to vote him. There are only seven pitchers inducted as relievers who didn’t pitch at least 300 games as a starter in their career: Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Lee Smith.

As of now, there are only seven pitchers in the history of baseball without ample time as a starting pitcher to be elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Of course, the chasm between how an analyst or fan perceives the dominance of a reliever, especially a position so volatile, is far different than how a front office executive perceives it. Players such as Hoffman and Smith retired the all-time leader in saves, meaning they were the leading relief pitchers of all-time at the end of their career. Yet, they weren’t considered surefire candidates, with the latter even having to wait the entirety of his time as BBWAA eligible. The relievers that were slam dunk cases outside of the outlier in Rivera? 2014 inductee John Smoltz, named on 82.9% of the ballots tabulated. Smoltz notched 3,000 strikeouts, a number matched by only 18 of his contemporaries, and spent only four seasons as Braves closer in his mid-’30s. Dennis Eckersley, the closer who revolutionized and epitomized the specialty of the closer role on the Oakland Athletic ballclubs of the late 1980s, had multiple All-Star selections through his age thirty season with Cleveland, Boston and Chicago. The representation of relief pitchers that didn’t have to wait longer than players of their echelon at other positions is cluttered with starting pitchers who later made the jump.

To use the aforementioned Wagner as a benchmark all by itself would make it extraordinarily difficult to get in. The 6x All-Star has an ERA of 2.31 and ERA+ of 187. For comparison’s sake, that’s lower than the marks set by Hoffman (2.87, 141), Sutter (2.83, 136), Smith (3.03, 132) and Smoltz’ dominant run as a closer (2.65, 162 from 2001-2004). There’s a compelling surface argument that he’s better than the bullpen arms already in, despite not having the intangibles of a Sutter who closed out a World Series for the Cardinals, Smoltz and his Cy Young as a starting ace on a staff with two other first ballot Hall of Famers, and the arbitrary saves numbers that Smith and Hoffman retired with, respectively. He didn’t rock Petco Park with AC/DC or the Bronx with an iconic Kirk Hammett guitar riff, but that lack of an exhibiting song would be a trivial thing to hold against him. It’s interesting that Sandman was referenced, however. It’s well-documented the aura of Mariano Rivera and there’s no argument to be made as to who the greatest relief pitcher of all-time is. To put into perspective just how good Wagner was in his Major League career, his 2.31 ERA stacks up rather sensationally with Rivera’s 2.21 ERA, his .998 WHIP is lower than Rivera’s 1.000 margin, albeit by such a minute measurement that it’s essentially equivalent. His 11.9 K-per-9 is a far higher statistic than Rivera’s 8.2 and represents an incredible pace of strikeouts. From the stance of rate statistics, he’s just as good as Mariano. Rivera’s workload was much higher, his save total shows a sizable difference and Rivera’s postseason dominance is unparalleled. Wagner is no Mariano Rivera, but would we hold other positions to the upper echelon? Should we hold the fact that Alan Trammell or Barry Larkin aren’t Cal Ripken Jr. against them? Is the fact that Mike Piazza isn’t Johnny Bench enough to re-consider his place in baseball’s history? If you look at other Hall of Fame’s, this type of thought process is more or less non-existence. Cortez Kennedy didn’t miss the Pro Football Hall of Fame because Warren Sapp was the best defensive tackle during his era.

To be clear: I have zero doubt that Wagner eventually gets his due. He’s the primary example because he’s the biggest relief name on the ballot and one of the pre-eminent relievers in the lore of the game, but it really goes beyond him. The more the argument for him evolves and continues to improve, the more the argument against him changes. Now it’s about two things: the workload, as no pitcher in MLB history with less than 1,000 innings pitched has been enshrined, and the fact he ‘only’ finished with 422 saves.

Yet, there’s no position more valuable in 2023 than the closer role. The Mets just made Edwin Diaz the highest paid relief arm of all-time, rewarding him for an incredible 2022 campaign with a contract north of $100MM. Teams ride relief arms more than anybody else in the biggest games of the year. Consider the package that the Cubs surrendered to acquire Aroldis Chapman in the summer of 2016 and the way that the ballclub relied on him that October; or the way the Rays rode Nick Anderson’s arm into the ground during the COVID-shortened season for their second World Series appearance. Every team that’s successful in the postseason since the Royals relief corps that featured Greg Holland and Wade Davis almost single-handedly taking them to back-to-back World Series has been built around their bullpen. In a time in the game’s life where starting pitchers pitch fewer innings than ever, a deep and dominant bullpen is pivotal to a winning recipe.

The notion that successful relievers are failed starters has become a dated ideology, one that’s almost as archaic as using wins to justify a starting pitchers value. Chapman, who despite his evident flaws, is one of the most dominant relief arms to ever come through the game. Yet, he has never even started a ballgame in his career because Cincinnati needed a flamethrower out of the pen around the time he got the Big League nod. Current Phillies reliever Craig Kimbrel has been welcoming batters to the jungle and buckling their sha-na-na-na-na knees for thirteen years as the most imposing relief arm of his generation and has never started a game. Other than one start in Triple A-Pawtucket on a rehab assignment for the Red Sox well into his MLB career, he’s never had a start at any professional level. Speaking of the Red Sox, their closer Kenley Jansen was a catcher in the Dodgers system before converting to a relief pitcher. Jansen and Kimbrel are both Hall of Fame bound, because in an era where relievers have never been assessed in a more positive light, they lead the way defining the position.

These players didn’t choose to be a relief pitcher but the teams that put them there did so because that’s how teams run now. An analytically driven game expects a starting pitcher not see a lineup the third time through the order. Do I necessarily agree with the philosophical principles put forth? It’s really not my place to do a deep-dive into whether the philosophy has been a resounding success or an objective failure, and it’s probably somewhere in the middle. But because teams are getting less out of their starting pitchers, relief pitchers are a hot commodity in the marketplace and teams are paying out the wazoo to bring them in. One of the most pressure-cooker situations in sports is coming into a tied ballgame with nobody out and runners on base and it takes a special kind of talent to extinguish the fire on a nightly basis without allowing those runs to cross the diamond.

With relief specialization, it’s natural to theorize that save totals are going to only increase. The exact opposite has seemingly happened. Looking at a team like the Rays who develop a variety of arms, Kevin Cash’s stable hasn’t ever really had a closer. He puts his player in the highest leverage spots. If the bottom of the order is the ninth but you’re up by one run in the eighth with the heart of the lineup, his best reliever is pitching the eighth, regardless of a save opportunity. In 2019 when Emilio Pagan was the team’s closer, and a pretty solid closer for them that season, the Rays had ten different pitchers record saves, including Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo recording seven and eight, respectively. The Rays also introduced the opener concept to shorten the game and bring the starting pitcher in relief, allowing a relief pitcher to face the top of the lineup and give the opposition an opposing look at the start of the game. The goal of the concept was to allow arms such as Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough to acclimate to the Major Leagues without as much pressure, but it became a widely accepted strategy that has completely changed how relief pitchers are utilized.

Between closer by committee, the leverage mindset and inevitable injury bugs, relievers will only be more hurt by the lack of progress on the voting front, because the voting isn’t evolving, but the game’s affliction for the specialization of the position is ever-evolving, making it exceedingly difficult for perception to catch up to it.

The game is just now catching up to the designated hitter and the Hall of Fame with recent inductions of Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and David Ortiz. However, the voters are staunch in their stance that if you specialize in only one aspect of the game, you have to be head and shoulders among those who didn’t specialize in a singular area, thus making it even more arduous for a relief pitcher to get in. If Wagner, comparable to Mariano, isn’t dominant enough to warrant enshrinement on his first eight attempts, what’s the guideline? It’s a random name to mention in 2023, but Tom Henke is a player that didn’t even knock at the door of the hallowed halls in Cooperstown, New York. Henke, a dominant closer for the Toronto Blue Jays, was a top three relief arm of his era. From 1982-1995, the duration of his career, Henke tops Smith in ERA+ by 20%, ERA by nearly .3 points and K-per-nine, while pitching primarily in a league with a designated hitter. Yet, it’s almost a direct comparison of Rivera and Wagner, seeing as Smith has a substantially higher innings pitched and save total during the same time period.

But relievers are explosive. They’re designed to be max-effort every time out, putting an unhealthy strain on an arm. It takes a true workhorse to dominate the league for the better part of a decade and a half the way that Rivera and Hoffman accomplished. Zack Britton is a prime example: in 2015, he posted a 0.47 ERA with Baltimore and was so dominant he garnered MVP votes. From 2014-2016, Britton posted a gaudy 1.38 ERA and 299 ERA+, numbers 199% better than the league-average pitcher during that time period, doing so in the powerhouse AL East and in the confines of an historically hitter-friendly ballpark. To say that it’s one of the most unreal stretches of any pitcher in MLB history would be an understatement, but he’s well off the Hall of Fame radar at this point in his career. Britton underwent Tommy John surgery with the Yankees during the 2021 season and has yet to be signed to play in 2023.

One player who didn’t exactly fare well on the ballot this year is Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez holds the records for most saves in a single season, 69, which he set in a very nice 2008 campaign with the Angels. It was his second of six All-Star seasons, and final season of a five year stretch where he posted a jaw-dropping 200 ERA+. For perspective, he was an All-Star as recently as his age-33 season with the Brewers, where he posted a 2.21 ERA, and was out of the league with an ERA over 7.82 by the end of his age-35 season. Relievers tend to switch overnight, but that doesn’t mean that K-Rod wasn’t must-watch television for a decade and a half. Yet, Rodriguez barely received enough votes to remain eligible for consideration beyond 2023. Just a year ago, long-time Twins closer Joe Nathan fell off the ballot in his first shot after a career that lands him top ten of all-time in a statistic such as saves. The only other players on the list that aren’t enshrined are Wagner and John Franco, who also should probably elicit another look via a committee.

If players that excel beyond compare in the only number traditional purists look at struggle to get in then it doesn’t bode well for the most important players in the game’s current facet. Unless a re-vamp of the outlook changes almost overnight, and the 17% jump in Wagner’s total this year can give a glimmer of a hope for that, then a crucial piece of the story in today’s game and this time in history won’t ever be adequately told. The entire goal of a museum is to do what the voting body may end up preventing through things out of these players control and that isn’t in the spirit of the institution.

I don’t know the answer and re-setting precedent is a difficult process that surely would rub a lot of people the wrong way, but the current format doesn’t give relievers a fair opportunity and unless there’s a designed overhaul with that specifically in mind, it never will.

You can see the induction of Scott Rolen and Fred McGriff to the National Baseball Hall of Fame live on MLB Network in July.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheJameus

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