(Photo by Associated Press)
When voters get their 2016 Hall of Fame ballot, one new name will leap off the page, an absolute no-brainer of a choice. This player will be a first-ballot lock, no ifs ands or buts.
But once the vote for Ken Griffey Jr. is cast, they’ll have Trevor Hoffman to think about.
Right now, after announcing his retirement yesterday, Hoffman is being written about as if he’s a virtual cinch to make the Hall on the first ballot. But I’m not so sure. Voters can be flighty when it comes to closers. I’ve been grappling with the candidacy of Lee Smith for nine years now, going back and forth. Smith, like Hoffman, retired as the career saves leader with 478, a total Hoffman surpassed in September of 2006. Smith gets little love in the Hall of Fame voting, his total having stagnated around the 45.3 percent he received last week in his ninth turn on the ballot.
Just five relievers have made the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm (1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006) and Goose Gossage (2008). Eckersley, a unique hybrid who won 197 games and saved 390, was the only one to make it on the first ballot (A somewhat similar candidate, John Smoltz, will be on the ballot in 2015). Fingers was elected on his second try, while it took Wilhelm eight times on the ballot, Gossage nine, and Sutter 13.
Hoffman retired with 601 saves, a monumental total. By the time he’s on the ballot, however, it’s likely Hoffman will have been surpassed as the career saves leader by Mariano Rivera, who will begin the 2011 season with 559. Yes, Rivera is 41, but he was as outstanding as ever last year at age 40, and isn’t showing many signs of slowing down. Having just signed a two-year deal, Rivera should easily have 70 more saves in him if he stays healthy, which would bring him to 629. Never mind Smith — voters have been extremely unkind to the closers who trailed behind him. John Franco, with 424 saves, was on the ballot for the first time this year — and will be off the ballot next year. He received just 4.6 percent, below the necessary 5 percent to remain. Jeff Reardon, with 367 saves, was also one and done in 2000 with 4.8 percent.
Hoffman is better than Reardon and Franco, and the number 600 will resonate with voters, I’m sure. It resonates with me. Being surpassed by Rivera — the best closer in history, most would agree — hardly is a deal-breaker. But with voters getting more sophisticated by the year and looking increasingly at sabermetric stats like WAR (wins above replacement), in which Hoffman doesn’t fare too well, I’m not so sure if he’ll get in the first time. Keep in mind that Billy Wagner, if he holds to his intention to retire, will also be on the ballot in 2016. Wagner has 422 saves, well behind Hoffman, but some peripheral numbers that are quite impressive.
I have five years to mull it over, and I haven’t really studied it as closely as I will when the time comes. But my inclination right now would be to vote for Hoffman. Yes, saves are an inherently flawed stat, but to pitch long enough and well enough to get 600 of them seems to me to be extraordinary enough to warrant a vote. If 10 closers have 600 saves by 2016, I might reconsider, but right now I’m leaning toward a yes.