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Should Relievers be in the Hall of Fame?

Mariano Rivera pitching for the Yankees; CC by License 2.0

With veteran relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen on the verge of retirement, the question has been brought up about their HOF candidates. How we judge relievers HOF cases has been a big question mark as of late. Judging a reliever is extremely difficult, especially compared to starters. The criteria required for having a reliever in the HOF is questionable and many raise the question if they should even be in the HOF. Today we are looking into the history of relievers in the HOF, where it stands now, and the future possibilities of it.

Right now as it stands there are 8 primary relief pitchers in the HOF: Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter. The relief pitcher as a whole did not become a prominent role until the 70s or 80s and this is where guys like Eckersley, Gossage, Smith, Fingers, and Sutter made their living during this time. During this era, the typical reliever would log in 2 innings per outing on most occasions. The only reliever to pitch before this era to make the HOF is Wilhelm. Wilhelm constantly logged north of 50 appearances per season while still getting over 100 innings per year for most of his career. He was also used in this longer reliever role and due to him playing for 20 years he was able to rack up good numbers that led to him eventually getting in the HOF. During the 80s especially, we saw the league as a whole start to value relievers a lot, in fact, maybe even too much. During the 80s we saw an absurd 5 relievers win the Cy Young Award. Since then just two have won it, so it is safe to say the world of baseball over-valued the RP during this era. When these guys started becoming eligible for the HOF, the HOF voters did not know how to vote for these guys exactly.

Hoyt was induced in 85 making him the first one to make it. It did not come until 1993 when we saw the next one when Fingers made it on his fourth ballot. Fingers was a great reliever but ranks last among the HOF RP in JAWS and 2nd to last in WAR. He was a great reliever but ranks below the top 20 among relievers all-time in both of these stats. To explain Jaws here's is a quote from fellow author Josh Truax in his February article on Bryce Harper's HOF case:

“Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score (JAWS) is a system that evaluates a player's worthiness of induction into the MLB Hall of Fame created by Jay Jaffe. The goal of JAWS is to maintain the Hall of Fame’s standard of player induction by selecting players that are at least as good as the average Hall of Famer at their respective position. JAWS is calculated by taking the players’ seven-year WAR peak. This means taking their seven most productive seasons and averaging it with their total WAR (WAR of their entire career).”

This stat is a nice one to use when making a HOF case and comparing players across time. The next one in was Eckersley, in 2004, who was considered the most slam dunk of the bunch as he spent a good part of his career as an RP and has the highest WAR of any RP in the HOF. Eckersley made it in on his first try and goes down as one of the best RP ever. It was not easy for the next guy to get in as it took Bruce Sutter 13 years to be inducted he was finally put in by 2006. Sutter was the first pitcher inducted in the HOF to NEVER start a game. Sutter is a very interesting case as he ranks just 24th all-time in RP-Jaws and 26th in WAR. He was a great pitcher but looking back at his number they may not be of HOF quality compared to his peers. The next one in from this 80s era was Gossage who got in on his 9th year on the ballot in 2008. Gossage ranks 4th in RP WAR and JAWS all-time. The last of this era is another highly questionable one. Lee Smith was inducted in 2019 as voted by the Today's Game Era committee after not getting voted in during his 15 years on the ballot. Smith ranks 16th in JAWS and 11th in WAR. He was a very good reliever for a long time and his case was highly interesting. The fact is that he is likely a top 10 RP ever and it depends on how people view the RP.

The next era of RP led to our last two, Riviera and Hoffman, being placed in the HOF. This era was the one-inning closer era that started around the mid-90s and lasted until the late 2010s. This era brought us relievers stacking up one-inning saves year after year. No reason to dive into Riviera and Hoffman's HOF case as both were considered slam dunks as two of the best RP to ever do it.

This leads to where we stand today. The last of the 1-inning relievers are in the twilights of their careers and are going to be on the ballot soon enough. The dawn of the new era has come as of late. All of the current HOF were closers of some kind and the saves stat played a massive impact in their HOF candidacy. However as of late teams have begun employing the closer by committee role and rather than using their best RP automatically in the 9th inning, they are putting them in during the highest leverage spot. This is leading to the best RP getting fewer saves which hurts any HOF candidacy. Guys like Clase, Duran, Hader, and Bautista are leading this new era of high-leverage relievers. With Kimbrel, Chapman, and Jansen being at the end of their career it will be interesting to see how we judge these guys. So, are these guys HOF?

The fact of the matter is relievers belong in the HOF as the impact they have on the game is undeniable, but we need to change the bar for RP. We currently see it as guys having to be the BEST RP ever or at least top 10 to even be in the discussion. We need to lower the bar just a little for RP and look at different stats and not compare them to players of other positions. Stats like WAR and JAWS are going to favor guys who play more and the fact of the matter is that RP can accumulate these stats at the rates of other guys. For example, Riviera is considered far and away the best RP ever but his WAR is just average, maybe even below it if compared to other positions. Guys like Kimbrel Chapman, and Jansen are extremely good RP and deserve a legit shot at the HOF but I'm afraid Kimbrel may be the only one with a chance. Even Billy Wagner not being in the HOF is unbelievable as he is statistically a top 10 RP ever. If any player on the ballot is a top 10 player at their position they are normally a slam dunk but not Wagner due to the expectations of RP.

Relief pitchers deserve to be in the HOF. We just need to change how we evaluate them. It will be very interesting to see the future of these in the HOF and who gets in and who does not.


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