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Rivera, Hoffman set standard as closers
For decades, baseball has had its magic numbers: 300 wins, 3,000 hits, 500 home runs. If your odometer clicks past those mileposts, proceed directly to Cooperstown.
The Steroid Era has changed some of that, forcing us to recalibrate standards and even engage in sanctimonious “whodunit” debates.
And yet the PED effect hasn’t changed how we look at relief pitchers, for a very simple reason: There isn’t an ironclad set of Hall of Fame criteria for them.
But that’s changing now.
Now that Mariano Rivera has passed Trevor Hoffman to set the all-time saves record at 602, the time is right to make the following declarations.
1. Rivera and Hoffman should be first-ballot Hall of Famers. (Duh.)
2. We have a new magic number in baseball.
Rivera, of course, was destined for Cooperstown long before recording his 600th save last week. He has worn the “Future Hall of Famer” designation above his No. 42 since the middle of the last decade — if not before.
Mo has 42 postseason saves (and five World Series rings) that aren’t included in the 602.
But 600 feels right, as the no-doubt, call-the-engraver benchmark for closers. Rivera and Hoffman are the only two to attain such rarefied status. How’s that for maintaining the Hall’s exclusivity?
Check the math: To get 600 saves, you must average 30 saves per season for 20 years — or 35 saves for 17 years. Either way, you must perform at an All-Star level for roughly two decades, in a job that has been known to chew up the labrums of mere mortals in two or three seasons.
Hoffman survived on guile for the last 10 saves or so, laboring to a 5.89 ERA with the Milwaukee Brewers last season. He was 42 then. Rivera is 41 now.
I could say that Mo is showing signs of age, but that would be a lie. He’s not. He’s a marvel of modern professional sports. Equal what these two have accomplished, and you deserve a place on the Rushmore of Relief Pitching.
(And spare me the argument that closers are similar to designated hitters in their impact on the game and therefore unworthy for the Hall. Who has been more vital to the Yankees’ success over the past decade and a half, Rivera or their procession of DH types?)
Frankly, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — which forms the Hall electorate — should send Rivera and Hoffman a gigantic thank-you card. Rivera (with his cutter) and Hoffman (with his changeup) have shown us the outer bound of excellence for a closer. Now we know it takes a truly special pitcher to grit one’s teeth through this many night shifts.
It has taken baseball about four decades to arrive at this moment of statistical nirvana. The save — the imperfect-yet-popular means of measuring a closer’s performance — didn’t become an official statistic until 1969. A development of that vintage is considered “new,” in a sport not known for adaptability. We’re still trying to figure out what this newfangled means.
Case in point: Of the 23 pitchers to save 300 or more games, four are in the Hall of Fame. But they aren’t the top four. They rank sixth (Dennis Eckersley), 10th (Rollie Fingers), 19th (Goose Gossage) and tied for 22nd (Bruce Sutter).
That’s because Fingers, Gossage and Sutter played in a different era. There were more complete games then, thus limiting the number of save chances. And when the closers pitched, they tended to pitch multiple innings.
Fingers, who pitched from 1968 through 1985, had a fundamentally different job than Rivera, who began closing for the Yankees in 1997 after two seasons in the setup role.
“I threw 1,700 innings and had 341 saves — he’s thrown 1,200 innings and has 600,” Fingers said, laughing over the phone during an interview last week. “That’s the difference in relief pitching nowadays. The closers today are one-inning pitchers. Starters don’t go complete games anymore.
“Our staff (in Oakland) was completing 45 or 55 games each year. There went 45 or 55 save opportunities to Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman.”
For that reason, Lee Smith is one of the most vexing cases on the BBWAA Hall of Fame docket — at any position.
Smith pitched from 1980 until 1997. He averaged roughly 35 saves per season during a 13-year stretch in the middle of his career — a lengthy prime, by any measure. He held the all-time saves record (478) for more than a decade, until Hoffman passed him in 2006.
He still ranks third on the list. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.
And yet Smith received only 45.3 percent support from the writers this year, in his ninth appearance on the ballot. He has six more chances to hit the required 75 percent.
“I am perplexed by the lack of closers admitted to the Hall of Fame – I faced many of them and know they deserve it,” former All-Star catcher Terry Kennedy wrote in an email. “Lee Smith should be in. I don’t know why he isn’t already. He was the all-time saves leader, wasn’t he? He saved a lot of games for some pretty awful clubs.
“Perhaps the measure should be how many games a guy saved as a percentage of team wins. Saving 40 for a team that won 100 games is not as special as saving 40 for a team that won 75.”
For Smith — and others of his generation — the 600-save rule shouldn’t apply. A large part of Smith’s value was that he was the seventh-inning man, setup man and closer — at the same time — in a high volume of games. He continued to excel as the job evolved, making five All-Star teams in the 1990s after bullpen specialization had taken root. “He did it both ways – long stints and short,” said former outfielder Tom Goodwin, who believes strongly that Smith belongs in the Hall. “If it matters – and it shouldn’t – he lacked only the flare and flamboyance that some others may have shown on the mound.”
When Smith led the National League with 29 saves in 1983, he recorded more than three outs in a whopping 19 of them, including 14 that spanned two innings or more.
Fifteen years later, Hoffman was the NL leader with 53 saves. He didn’t throw more than two innings in any of them.
Of Smith’s Hall of Fame credentials, Fingers said, “I thought he would be a sure thing. I think he’ll get in next year. . . . There was a time when he was pitching two or three innings for each save. He was in that in-between stage. I think he should have gotten in a long time ago.”
I agree. But once Smith gets in, everything changes.
The current closers must hit from the pro tees.
Hoffman and Rivera have shown us that the 600-save mark is both realistic and sublime. Let’s see who has the fastball and fortitude to join them.
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