Waiting for the next Hall of Fame pitcher

Earlier this week, I wondered when we might see another starting pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame. Granted, we’ve seen five starters elected in just the last two years – Maddux and Glavine last year, Johnson and Martinez and Smoltz this year – so maybe a little (or long) break is perfectly appropriate. I happen to think Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina are eminently qualified, as well. But it’s eminently clear that most of the actual voters disagree with me. There’s another, related question, though … When will we see another pitcher elected, of any sort?

We might be waiting until 2019, when Mariano Rivera’s first eligible.

Rivera will be elected immediately, because a) he’s Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest relief pitcher in history, and b) that should be a relatively weak ballot, with Alex Rodriguez (fuhgeddaboutit), Roy Halladay and Todd Helton the only other first-timers who figure to draw a fair amount of support.

Of course we might see another pitcher elected before Rivera. Maybe the voters will get religion about Schilling and/or Mussina. Probably not, but maybe. What’s more likely, I think, is a great deal of BBWAA love for Trevor Hoffman, who first shows up on the ballot next year. Or, put another way:

And there it is: Billy Wagner, too.

Will Wagner get as much love as Hoffman? No. Not nearly as much. In fact, I’m not sure that Wagner will receive the 5 percent of support he’ll need to remain on the ballot for a second try.

Would that be fair, though? For Hoffman to get all those votes and Wagner to get so few?

Luckily for us, Tango expounded in his blog:

The difference between Hoffman and Wagner is virtually non-existent. If you had to come up with their after-the-fact salaries, you’d probably pay more per year for Wagner, but Hoffman would have more years, to the point that they’d be worth the same. Of course, the voter will gravitate toward SAVES because… well… as much as they tell us about the eye test, they really want eye candy.

Apologies to the voters, but that’s perfectly fair. Many Hall of Fame voters – certainly not all of them, but many and perhaps most of them – are less interested in value and performance than in eye candy, in the form of well-known metrics and hooks: 20-win seasons, MVPs and Cy Youngs, records, et cetera. And this is nowhere more true than with relief pitchers, for whom there are essentially no readily identifiable Hall of Fame standards.

Saves? Hardly. There are only five relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame (including Dennis Eckersley) and Lee Smith’s got more saves than all of them, yet Smith’s topped 50 percent in an election just once, and his candidacy’s going nowhere. Bruce Sutter’s in the Hall of Fame, with fewer saves than Doug Jones and many other non-Hall of Famers. John Franco’s No. 4 on the all-time saves list, and lasted exactly one year on the ballot.

Value? According to Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement, Hall of Famers Sutter and Rollie Fingers were less valuable than John Hiller, Kent Tekulve, Stu Miller.

You might think I’m making a mockery of things, but Hiller and Tekulve and Miller were all, in their times, outstanding relief pitchers.

Leaving Eckersley aside, because he threw so many innings as a starter, the most valuable relief pitchers have been Rivera, Wilhelm and Gossage … with a big gap between Gossage and the next man (Hiller) on the list.

Which is an argument for value, for sure!

The problem for both Hoffman and Wagner is that their value doesn’t approach Gossage’s. What I think is that you need either the saves or the valueor the special hook. Rollie Fingers had the mustache and the saves record (for a while) and his association with a dynastic team and a Cy Young award; Sutter had the Cy Young Award and the legendary splitter.

What does Billy Wagner have? Frankly, nothing that seems to impress Hall of Fame voters.

Meanwhile, Hoffman does have the saves. He doesn’t have the value, and he doesn’t really have a special hook; I suppose the closest to a hook is finishing second in Cy Young balloting twice, but voters pay no mind to second place (cf. Trammell, Schilling).

So, Billy Wagner? Sorry, not close.

And Trevor Hoffman? Considering the uneven nature of the Hall of Fame relievers who have been elected, it’s difficult to say. Absent Mariano Rivera, Hoffman probably would garner plenty of support purely because of his status as Saves King. No. 2 all-time, though? I just don’t know, but I’ll be pretty surprised if he clears 75 percent within his first few years of eligibility.

Finally, yesterday somebody asked me if Hoffman and Rivera will be the last relief pitchers elected. I don’t know that, either. But if Hoffman is elected, that would open the door for another modern reliever or two who’s not Mariano Rivera. And believe it or not, the best candidate is probably Jonathan Papelbon, who’s still young enough and good enough to at least think about reaching 500 saves and having more value than Hoffman. Then again, Papelbon’s going to finish with far fewer saves than Hoffman and he’s never even appeared on anyone’s Cy Young ballot.

So yes, I think Rivera and maybe Hoffman might actually be the last Hall of Fame relief pitchers we see in a long, long, long, long while.