With the appearance of Hoyt Wilhelm, the first serious candidate for the HoME among relievers, I’ve decided to take a look at relief pitchers this election, not to determine who belongs, and not even to rank them (Eric will be discussing an innovative way of evaluating relievers on Monday). All I’m looking at now is how many relief pitchers we should induct into the HoME.
At the start of this process, we decided that we’d put into our HoME the same number of players as there are in the Hall. We said nothing about following their distribution of players. There are currently either four of five relief pitchers in the Hall, depending on how you choose to categorize Dennis Eckersley, which is a conversation for another day. Is that number high, low, just right? That’s what we’re going to play around with here.
I want to get one thing straight from the start. There’s nothing in the HoME rules that says we must induct relief pitchers. While some might consider closers similar to designated hitters, I don’t. Designated Hitter is a position. You can’t play a game in an American League park without one. It’s kinda a rule. Of course, no such rule exists mandating the use of closers, even if Tony LaRussa wanted us to believe there was.
In theory, I’d be perfectly fine with a HoME without a closer, if that’s where the numbers took us. But this would be a silly theoretical article if that’s where we stopped. Let’s pretend that closer is, in fact, a position. If that were the case, what would the proper number of closers be?
The All-Star Game Method
Since we think All-Star-level play is a critical factor in determining what makes up a HoME-level career, it makes some sense to look at relievers on All-Star teams. What I did was look at the distribution of relievers on All-Star rosters since the advent of the “position” of closer. For the purpose of this research, and with apologies to 1978 HoME nominee Hoyt Wilhelm, I’m going to say that the position was created in 1969. To make my research reasonably manageable for a fairly trivial question, I’m going to look just at AL All-Star rosters every five years beginning in 1969 (and throwing in 2013 for good measure) to determine the percentage of pitchers who were relievers.
Pitchers Closers Percentage 1969 8 1 12.5% 1974 8 2 25.0% 1979 9 4 44.4% 1984 8 3 37.5% 1989 10 4 40.0% 1994 9 1 11.1% 1999 10 5 50.0% 2004 14 5 35.7% 2009 13 5 38.5% 2013 19 8 42.1% Total 108 38 35.2%
Since we think we’ll elect about 90 players from 1969 through the present, and we think about 30%, or 27, of those players will be pitchers, we’d then have nine or ten relievers in the HoME by this measure. While that’s great news for Tom Gordon, it’s awful news for me and Eric. See, if we were to reason that Flash is somehow deserving of induction, the HoME wouldn’t have an iota of credibility.
The Roster Size Method
Let’s consider “closer” a position. Every team has one. And the number of pitchers on a roster has climbed from something as low as eight when the save was introduced in 1969 to as high as thirteen today. Let’s make the math easy. Let’s say that one in eleven pitchers on a roster is the closer. One in eleven is close enough to 9% to suffice. So if 9% of pitchers are closers, perhaps 9% of pitchers in the HoME from 1969 to the present should be closers. Again, if we’re electing 27 pitchers from 1969 until today, 9% is 2.43 pitchers. If you want to call Eck 57% starter and 43% closer, which I don’t think is ridiculous, that means we can have two more closers. Bad for Tom Gordon, good for the HoME. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to induct Eck and two others between now and the time Mariano comes along.
The Value Method
Here at the HoME we spend a lot of our time, almost all of it, really, discussing value. When we talk about “best”, we’re talking value. WAR is about value. Whitey Ford isn’t in the HoME right now because we think his value has been overstated due to his World Series participation, his Yankee-ness, his defensive support, his home park, etc. Hall of Famers like Nellie Fox and Hack Wilson have received HoME obituaries, you guessed it, because they don’t have enough value to justify their inclusion. So maybe we should just make closers all about value.
Hall of Fame voters view value, shall we say, strangely. Rollie Fingers is tied for #376 in history – just among pitchers – in WAR. He’s even with Wilson Alvarez, Rip Sewell, and others. But Fingers pitched in October a lot, retired as the all-time leader in saves, and had a wicked cool mustache. What’s not to value?
Adam Darowski at the Hall of Stats adjusts closers up by 20% to move their WAR values closer to starting pitchers. Adam’s work is top-notch, so I don’t want to really give him a hard time here. Plus, it’s not like his system floods the Hall of Stats with relievers. His adjustment adds one pitcher beyond Eck. But really, 20% doesn’t seem preferable to or more justifiable than 15% or 30% or 41.729%. Does it?
Eric’s piece on Monday will offer a far more precise system. I think it will provide a logical and supportable way to value the best relievers of all-time. But you’ll have to wait the weekend for that bit of brilliance. For now, all I can do is mention that the top relievers of all-time don’t measure up too well in WAR. Among pitchers, Mariano is #70, Wilhelm is #99, Goose is #154, Fingers is #376, and Bruce Sutter comes in at a cool #396. By straight WAR, unless we put more pitchers in the HoME than I’d expect, or unless the Hall opens its doors a lot more between now and the time Mariano is eligible, we could have a HoME without a closer.
No Closers in the HoME?
I think this is a far more reasonable position than the All-Star Method. As Joe Posnanski has reminded us, teams win 95% of their games if they enter the ninth inning with a lead. The won 95% before there were closers, and they win 95% now. What’s more, there’s been no real change over the years in the percentage of games a team wins with a three, two, or one run lead. Nobody is saying closers are value-less. The Braves sure don’t think so. And I’m not saying Eric and I won’t support a closer, or several, for the HoME. All I’m saying is that I think a HoME without a relief pitcher is something that I could stomach, at least until Sandman enters.