Nobody can say the Oakland A’s didn’t go for it this year. They traded away a cost controlled season of their best hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, for Jon Lester. They traded uber-prospect Addison Russell and more for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hamel. And the small market A’s traded for the $10 million two-time defending MLB saves champion, Jim Johnson.
To the surprise of few, I would suspect including Billy Beane and Oakland, Johnson failed. He posted a 7.14 ERA and was released after only 40.1 innings. Meanwhile in Baltimore, failed starter Zach Britton has been outstanding in the closer role.
We get it already. Closers not named Mariano are overrated and overvalued.
We get it, but Hall of Fame voters don’t. Or at least they didn’t.
The BBWAA voted Hoyt Wilhelm into the Coop in 1985. They added Rollie Fingers in 1992. And Bruce Sutter made it in 2006. By the time we complete our 1994 election, all three will have received HoME obituaries. So in this post, we’re going to look at what Hall voters were seeing that we’re not.
Rather than repeat platitudes about how saves are overvalued, how relievers great and not-so-great can close 3-run leads, and how baseball executives are generally catching on faster than the mainstream baseball media, this post is going to get a little philosophical. It’s going to look at how we mis-perceive what’s happening right now as more important than it really is.
But first, just because it’s fun…
Do you remember Brad Lidge in 2008? He converted all 41 save opportunities in the regular season. And then he converted all seven in the post-season as his Phillies became world champions. He was 48 for 48. And then in 2009, he posted an 0-8 record and a 7.21 ERA while converting only 31 of 42 tries.
Do you remember Jose Valverde in 2011? He converted all 49 save opportunities in the regular season. Unlike Lidge, however, he imploded in the playoffs, giving up six runs in 7.1 innings as his Tigers lost in the ALCS and he essentially lost his closer job. But what’s that? You tell me Valverde never blew a save in the post-season either? He was actually 52 for 52 on the year? Imagine that. Please imagine that so you don’t have to imagine what he’s done since.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m really no expert on perception. But it’s been my experience that when people first learn of the existence of something, they oddly believe that it’s increasing right now. By a lot. And it’s a real danger. Take overpopulation for instance. I don’t know what’s been happening on social media in the last year or two, but my students have been talking a lot about it. According to some places on the Interwebs, however, we can give everyone in the world a house and a yard and fit ‘em all in Texas. And Randall Munroe’s book, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, seems to say, I think, that you could fit everyone in earth into Rhode Island. I don’t think they all get houses in this scenario though.
I digress for a moment, but as a baseball fan, you have to click on the link above and read what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light. Spoiler alert: even if you had the bat speed to get around on that heat (pun intended), you wouldn’t have it for long.
And now back to your regularly scheduled ramblings by a speech communication professional and sometimes baseball blogger who’s trying to explain the psychological phenomenon of perception.
We overvalue what’s going on now as compared to the rest of history, particularly the history that hasn’t happened yet. In the case of saves, writers decided that the best in the short history of the statistic was truly great before they gave that stat enough time to develop.
The save became an official statistic in 1969. Murray Chass was 30 back then. So he had already made up his mind about everything and isn’t actually to blame for Bruce Sutter’s Hall of Fame plaque. Or maybe he is. It’s easy enough to blame Murray.
Eleven years into the great save experiment, Hoyt Wilhelm was still the all-time leader. For eleven seasons, whenever someone cracked open the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia and flipped to something like page 1431, Wilhelm’s name topped the chart. Year after year. After year. Clearly, he was the best of all time at this thing that wasn’t even really a thing while he was doing it. Official saves in Wilhelm’s career that weren’t awarded retrospectively? Thirty-one. That’s the same number of saves for Dizzy Dean.
Rollie Fingers took over the all-time lead in 1980. And he had a super-awesome mustache. Oh, and lots of bonus points because we’d already seen him on our television boxes a lot. By this point, he had pitched over 50 innings in the playoffs, most of them as awesome as his mustache. And he had eight saves. Eight playoff saves! (Without any mockery here, Fingers is still second to Mo in all-time World Series saves).
Fingers was still the all-time saves king in 1984. People didn’t really have computers back then, so fans and writers, presumably, were still flipping through paper thin paper and seeing Rollie’s name atop the leaderboard. Actually, the pages were pretty much tissue paper thin. How’d they even print on that?
Ah, you know who was in second in saves by that point? Ol’ split finger himself, Bruce Sutter. Sutter reached second behind Fingers in 1984 and remained there until Rich Gossage passed him in 1987. From that point until Jeff Reardon got by Sutter in 1991, those were the top three in career saves. So it’s no shock that Fingers and Sutter and Gossage are all in the Hall of Fame.
Writers who grew up with that trio, which is all writers because the save hadn’t yet turned 22 years old when Reardon cracked the top three, were no longer super-impressed with big time savers after 21 years. Like a lot of people, the stuff they thought was really cool at age 15 and 16, was just no longer cool at age 22. They never embraced Reardon, not just because we wasn’t as good as the others, I’m arguing, but because they had matured regarding the save by the time Reardon got the all-time lead.
Lee Smith became the all-time saves leader in 1993 and wouldn’t relinquish that title until Trevor Hoffman got past him toward the end of the 2006 season. And Smith was certainly as good as Fingers and Sutter. But the writers didn’t rally around him in the way they did the trio who topped baseball from 1984 until Reardon. They began to realize, it would seem, that saves aren’t as valuable as they once made them out to be.
We’ve spent a good deal of time during our process trying to determine the value of relief pitching. There are talent issues that aren’t understood just by looking at high save totals. And there are WAR issues that aren’t properly seen without the inclusion of leverage. Eric and I use somewhat different inputs to try to reach conclusions about players, but as you know we always need to come together in the end to elect or to kill any one player.
Obviously the list below doesn’t yet include the recently retired Mariano Rivera. Or Trevor Hoffman. Nor does it include active players. What it includes are the 19 relievers who we originally chose to include in our data set.
Miller Eric Average Goose Gossage 1 1 1 Hoyt Wilhelm 2 2 2 Stu Miller 5 3 4 Tom Gordon 4 4 4 Ellis Kinder 3 7 5 Dan Quisenberry 6 5 5.5 Lee Smith 7 6 6.5 John Hiller 8 8 8 Firpo Marberry 9 11 10 Bruce Sutter 12 9 10.5 John Franco 10 14 12 Lindy McDaniel 14 10 12 Keith Foulke 11 13 12 Sparky Lyle 13 12 12.5 Rollie Fingers 15 15 15 Ron Reed 17 16 16.5 Dick Radatz 16 18 17 Roy Face 18 17 17.5 Mike Marshall 19 19 19
By our rankings, anyway, both Eric and I would say Smith was more valuable than Fingers or Sutter. Even while we acknowledge that our mathematical rankings don’t necessarily match our opinions, it’s not like there’s any legitimate argument that Rollie Sutter was really any better than Lee Arthur. They’re in the Hall, frankly, not because they were better, just because they were first.
Guys like Tom Gordon and John Hiller were never great savers. And very, very good pitchers like Lee Smith, John Franco, and Tom Henke compiled their saves later in the life of the stat, later in the life of writers observing the stat.
We’re not arguing that Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter weren’t great, just that they weren’t really any better than the John Francos of the world. Having a great mustache or one transcendent pitch or being great at something when it was newer doesn’t mean that you’re greater overall.
It was pretty easy for us to say that Fingers and Sutter don’t belong in the HoME.
Wilhelm is in the Hall. He’s not in the HoME, and he’s not going to be. But his case is a little different. He was both the first guy, and he was also the greatest career reliever until Goose Gossage. Plus, he may well be the third greatest reliever ever. Still, we have other relievers in the HoME. Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Hal Newhouser, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Urban Shocker, and Sandy Koufax all threw over 5% of their innings in relief. Guys not yet eligible like Curt Schilling and John Smoltz reached that level too. And Dennis Eckersley threw just under a quarter of his career innings in relief.
It’s not like there are no relievers in the HoME. It’s not like the Goose will be the first. Our conversation about Wilhelm ended up being one of our overall representation at the position. And our choice was that we’ll end up with enough relief innings. We thought taking a pitcher with more overall value would be preferable in the end.
I don’t know that we can draw any real conclusions from a non-expert’s opinion on perception. But Eric and I don’t think that Wilhelm, Fingers, and Sutter are worthy of HoME induction, and I think at least two of them are only in the Hall because writers didn’t allow the save enough time to mature as a statistic before they started voting on its basis.