Let me just say right up front that I think the save is a ridiculous statistic. For most of baseball history, it wasn’t even a statistic because there wasn’t a need for it. Starting pitchers averaged almost eight innings per start until the early 1950s. This did not leave many innings for a reliever to pitch. Starters were expected to finish their games and a reliever was an afterthought. Even into the 1970s, starters averaged over seven innings per start. The first time starting pitchers averaged fewer than seven innings per start was in 1974. Twenty-one years later, 1995, starting pitchers averaged below six innings per start for the first time, and that is where the average has remained, a little below six innings per start. Relievers as a group have become more important over time, but assigning the save to the reliever who finishes the game gives the statistic more perceived value than it should have.
The save statistic was a creation of a sportswriter named Jerome Holtzman. Holtzman’s intentions were good. He didn’t think wins and losses were fitting statistics for relievers, so he came up with the idea of a save in 1969. It was refined and the current definition of a save has been in use since 1975. This is the rule:
- He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and
- He is not the winning pitcher; and
- He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
~He enters the game, regardless of the score, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck; or
~He pitches at least three innings.
For many years, the save rule didn’t affect the game on the field. Like most statistics, the save was a recording of what happened. Over time, though, managers have altered their use of relievers to the point that now a manager will designate a closer and that pitcher will pitch in situations most likely to earn him a save. Many closers are saved until the ninth inning, even if there is a higher-leverage situation in the seventh or eighth inning. Many closers won’t even be brought into games with runners on base these days. They’ve become so specialized that they routinely pitch around 60 innings and most often come into a game in the ninth inning with nobody on base and their team leading by one, two, or three runs.
Based on games from 1957 to 2014, the win expectancies for the most likely situations for a closer to earn a save are shown below. All of these situations assume no outs:
The result of all these managerial shenanigans is that the save is just not a good statistic. There have been pitchers who had more than 40 saves despite ugly ERAs. Lee Smith saved 46 games in 1993 with a 3.88 ERA. Antonio Alfonseca saved 45 games with a 4.24 ERA in 2000. Joe Borowski had 45 saves with the Indians in 2007 despite a 5.07 ERA. Those are worst-case scenarios, but it shows that it’s possible for a pitcher to be below average and still rack up a bunch of saves.
Because I don’t value saves as highly as many do, it’s hard for me to see a modern closer being valuable enough in his career to be worthy of the Hall of Fame. Trevor Hoffman is on the current Hall of Fame ballot. He has 601 career saves, which is second all-time to Mariano Rivera. On publicly-known ballots by sportswriters who get to vote for players for the Hall of Fame this year, Hoffman’s voting percentage is at 62.4%. Hoffman has a higher voting percentage than two very good starting pitchers on the ballot, Curt Schilling (60.3%) and Mike Mussina (56.0%). This is absurd. Compare the three pitchers:
Using Baseball-Reference WAR, Hoffman is ranked 315th in baseball history, at 28.0. This puts him in between current Major League pitchers James Shields (28.6 brWAR) and Bronson Arroyo (27.2 brWAR). No one would consider Shields or Arroyo to be remotely close to Hall of Fame pitchers.
So, I am readily admitting that I find it very difficult to believe that Trevor Hoffman is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. He was a good pitcher for many seasons, but these seasons came in 60-inning increments one inning at a time. That kind of usage just can’t compare to a pitcher who starts 30 or more games and pitches 180 or more innings a year.
Hoffman and Wagner
There are two relief pitchers on the current Hall of Fame ballot: Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Hoffman is a popular candidate because he has 601 career saves, second all-time behind the great Mariano Rivera. Wagner only has 422.
That being said, Wagner had very close to the same value as Hoffman during their respective careers. The chart below shows their career statistics:
Look at it this way: Hoffman had an ERA of 2.87 and a WHIP of 1.06 in 1089.3 innings. Wagner had an ERA of 2.31 and a WHIP of 1.00 in 903 innings. Wagner could equal Hoffman’s career ERA and WHIP by pitching 186.3 more innings with an ERA of 5.58 and a WHIP of 1.35. Is it logical to think that Wagner should be more likely to be in the Hall of Fame if he had pitched another 186.3 innings with such a bad ERA and WHIP?
Despite how close they were in WAR and despite the fact that Wagner was significantly better at preventing runs and producing strikeouts, Hoffman currently has 62.4% of the vote on publicly-known ballots. Wagner is at 9.9%. This just doesn’t make any sense.
Personally, I don’t think either Hoffman or Wagner are Hall of Fame worthy, especially when there are many more viable options on the ballot this year, but if Hoffman is getting roughly 60% of the vote, Wagner should be right there with him.