I’m a complete fanboy when it comes to Beyond the Box Score. They’re big fans of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over there and constantly publish these “nth best year” charts. Basically, you plot multiple players by showing their best to worst years in a line graph. Gives you the best view of their peak, how high it was, how long it lasted, etc.
Since I’m working on researching what makes a Hall of Fame reliever, I figure a good place to start is with one of these graphs. So, here’s the Hall of Fame relievers plotted that way:
That chart shows Wilhelm with the best 1-year peak, followed by Goose. Eckersley’s peak is high and long.
This graph can be deceiving, though. Why? Eck, Goose, and Wilhelm all did a bit of starting. Eck, of course, did a lot of starting. The chart changes if you remove those starting pitching years. Specifically:
- Eckersley loses his 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 14th, 15th, and 17th-best years.
- Wilhelm loses only one year — his best.
- Gossage loses his 6th best year.
Let’s take a look with those seasons removed:
Well, this certainly paints a different picture, doesn’t it? From a peak perspective, it’s Gossage first followed by Sutter. For longevity, you’ve got Wilhelm first followed by Gossage. Gossage seems to be the Hall of Fame reliever with the best combination of peak performance and longevity. It’s really a shame it took him so long to be inducted.
Somewhat shocking is how this graph makes Dennis Eckersley look. As a reliever, he totaled just 16.6 WAR (less than half of Gossage’s career). If Eckersley had a full relief career at the rate he produced from 1987-1998, he would have been a Hall of Fame reliever. But if you throw out his entire career before 1987? No way. He accrued 42.1 WAR as a starter and would have been a borderline Hall of Famer had he continued starting. I’m really not comfortable calling him a Hall of Fame reliever.
Sutter has that nice peak, but falls off rather quickly. From a career WAR perspective, he’s just not in line with Hall of Famers at other positions. It’s really tough to do that in just 1000 innings. Fingers didn’t have he peak Sutter had, but lasted longer. As a result, their career value is very similar. Neither of them match up to Hall of Famers at other positions.
Of course, the question is: Should relievers’ career value be held up the same against other positions? Next I’ll write about what the outlook for Hall of Fame relievers would look like if that was the case.