Like many other statistical milestones, the impressiveness of Trevor Hoffman’s 500th save which was recorded last night lies primarily in longevity and remarkable consistency. As the first member of the 500-saves club (Can you call it a club if there’s only one member? If so, I was a member of dozens of clubs as an eleven year-old), Hoffman has Bill Center, a sportswriter in San Diego, citing this achievement as a benchmark to the Hall-of-Fame. Center wrote in an article about a week and a half ago:
“Although no one has 500 saves yet, you hear people say 500 saves are not the equivalent of 500 homers. Simple mathematics say that is wrong… 500 saves mean your team won those 500 games. Not every homer resulted in a victory. Nor did every hit.”
Center’s argument cites the number of members in the other statistical milestones used to measure the worth of Hall-of-Fame players and candidates such as career hits, homeruns, and wins, noting that since Hoffman is the only member of the 500-save club, that his achievement is more impressive than 3000 hits, 500 homeruns, or 300 wins.
I have to disagree with Center on several levels, but I’ll talk about only a couple of them. For one, saves are not as much an individual accomplishment as other stats like hits or homeruns. Generally speaking, the closer has absolutely nothing to do with the first eight innings (more or less) of the game. Hitters and starters obviously do. In fact, every other player in Major League Baseball aside from closers has more to do with a pitcher earning a save opportunity than the closers themselves. By definition, a closer cannot create a save opportunity for himself and his therefore at the mercy of his teammates’ performance in any game. If there is no save opportunity, there is no save, regardless of how dominant the closer may be.
Secondly, if we’re presenting the case based upon team wins as Center has, it’s simply idiotic to claim that a closer has more to do with wins over the course of the season. His assertion not only misleads one to think that every team win is the result of the save (it obviously isn’t), but that those who had successfully reached the 3000 hit or 500 homerun plateaus were not as valuable to their teams’ wins as a closer is, which is downright absurd. Fact is, you need some amount of luck to go along with skill for anyone to even earn 500 save opportunities, let alone convert them. And if you believe in the value of Win Shares, just look up how even the best closers can’t affect their team’s W-L records as much as hitters or starting pitchers.
But I do agree that Hoffman belongs in Cooperstown. In fact, I believe that Trevor Hoffman didn’t need to reach saves 500 to be enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame. He was already worthy for some time prior. I would actually argue that Trevor Hoffman is the second-best closer of the past 50 years, behind Mariano Rivera, and I think that the stats back me up. I looked at the statistics of every closer who had recorded at least 100 saves over their career since 1950 and found that 108 pitchers qualified. Out of this group, Hoffman ranked among the best in many categories that help define his dominance.
He is 8th in ERA (2.70), 2nd in WHIP (1.04), 12th in strikeouts per nine innings (9.73), 13th in walks per nine (2.53), 2nd in K/BB ratio (3.85) and 8th in hits allowed per nine (.76).
Simply put, these numbers are better than those of other closers such as Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, or even Hoyt Wilhelm. In fact, I’d say that the three best closers in the history of the game are still active – Rivera, Hoffman, and Billy Wagner (with Francisco Rodriguez close behind but possibly gaining). At the very least, Rivera and Hoffman have to get into the Hall, not because of their save totals, but purely based on their long-term dominance of hitters. Consider this: in the 14 years that Hoffman has been a closer, his ERA climbed north of three only twice. So in 12 of those 14 years, his ERA was in the 2s. How’s that for consistency?
I don’t completely buy the notion that relievers are nothing more than failed starters. Some of them, certainly, do fall under this category, which is why their statistical outputs vary a good deal from year to year. But guys like Hoffman are different, and I do think that the analogy of long-distance runners and sprinters are apt in cases like his. Who’s the world’s fastest runner – the guy who wins the 100-meter dash or the guy who wins the New York Marathon? It’s completely subjective. I would hypothesize, however, that if players like John Smoltz had been a closer his entire career, his save totals would rival, if not surpass, that of Hoffman based upon how many wins the Braves racked up during Smoltz’s career and how successful he was when he was their closer. But the point remains the same. 500 saves should not be a plateau for the Hall of Fame. There’s a reason why Lee Smith is yet to be inducted – he simply wasn’t good enough, saves or no saves. Hoffman is good enough. Saves or no saves. 500 is just another number.