The WAR on Relief Pitchers: What Makes a Hall-worthy Reliever?

One of the great things about the Baseball Hall of Fame is that it gives us countless topics to debate—who belongs and who doesn’t? In most cases, each case revolves around a player. However, there are cases that revolve around entire positions. Today, I’m not talking about the relatively small amount of catchers or third basemen in the Hall. I’m not even talking about the DH. I’m talking about relief pitchers.

There are two schools of thought on relief pitchers and the Hall of Fame.

  1. Relief pitcher is a role. Relief pitchers are a subset of all pitchers—those that weren’t good enough to start. Therefore, putting a reliever—any reliever—in the Hall of Fame would be like honoring the best of the pinch hitters and utility men. If they really were that good, they’d be starting.
  2. Relief pitcher is a separate position. Starting pitchers and relief pitchers are both extremely important to the success of a team. There are relief pitchers that are failed starters, but the relievers that stand out have a specific skill set that not every starter has.

If you know anything about me, you know I’m in School #2. That said, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what actually makes a Hall of Fame reliever.

If Pitcher A is a starting pitcher and posts a 125 ERA+ in about 3500 innings, he’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer. With that type of success and longevity, chances are his “sexy stats” (wins, winning percentage, awards) are impressive as well.

Let’s say that Pitcher B is a relief pitcher. He also has posted a 125 ERA+. But he only pitched in 1200 innings. Is he going to be a Hall of Famer? Likely not.

We’re pretty much talking about the difference between Juan Marichal and Jesse Orsoco. One is clearly a Hall of Famer. The other… isn’t. Even though their ERA+ is the same, Pitcher A did it in three times as many innings.

So, what really really makes a Hall of Fame pitcher? How do you measure if his dominance is enough to overcome his severe lack of innings pitched?

I’ve thought about the different stats I could use to research this — ERA+, FIP, leverage index, etc. It wasn’t until WAR (Wins Above Replacement) came along that I felt there was an appropriate statistic. Basically, WAR takes a ton of statistics (and factors such as era and park) and determines how many wins a player was worth for a season or his career.

I’ll tell you this up front… relievers don’t rank too well against starters in career WAR. For example, Mariano Rivera (the best reliever ever) ranks 86th all time among pitchers in WAR. He’s flanked on the all-time list by Jamie Moyer and Kenny Rogers. So, to make a long story short, if you’re going to go strictly by WAR, no reliever would ever be a Hall of Famer.

However, there are already five relievers in there. My gut just tells me there should be relievers in the Hall. Because of the lesser workload (by quantity of innings, not importance), I suppose they’ll never rank with their starting counterparts, so what’s the cutoff? How do we choose which relievers should be in the Hall? That’s now my research topic of choice.

Below is a table of the Top 25 relievers all time by WAR. I’ve included any pitcher who relieved in more games than he started. I’ve heavily relied on the wonderful WAR data over at Baseball Projection.

Legend:

Player WAR Rank WAR IP WAR/9 IP ERA+ GS% First Last HOF?
Dennis Eckersley (B-R) 46 58.7 3285.2 0.160 116 33.7 1975 1998 yes
Mariano Rivera (B-R)* 86 46.8 1070.2 0.411 201 1.1 1995 2009
Hoyt Wilhelm (B-R) 116 41.3 2254.1 0.165 146 4.9 1952 1972 yes
Rich Gossage (B-R) 130 40.0 1809.1 0.199 126 3.3 1972 1994 yes
Lee Smith (B-R) 219 30.3 1289.1 0.212 131 0.6 1980 1997
Trevor Hoffman (B-R)* 243 29.0 1021.0 0.264 146 0.0 1993 2009
John Hiller (B-R) 255 28.2 1242.0 0.204 134 7.9 1965 1980
Ron Reed (B-R) 268 27.3 2477.2 0.099 108 31.4 1966 1984
Billy Wagner (B-R) 277 26.6 818.0 0.292 180 0.0 1995 2008
John Franco (B-R) 296 25.8 1245.2 0.186 137 0.0 1984 2005
Bruce Sutter (B-R) 309 25.0 1042.1 0.216 136 0.0 1976 1988 yes
Kent Tekulve (B-R) 313 24.8 1436.1 0.155 132 0.0 1974 1989
Rollie Fingers (B-R) 318 24.4 1701.1 0.129 119 3.9 1968 1985 yes
Dan Quisenberry (B-R) 324 24.3 1043.1 0.210 146 0.0 1979 1990
Lindy McDaniel (B-R) 342 23.4 2139.1 0.098 109 7.5 1956 1975
Tom Henke (B-R) 354 23.1 789.2 0.263 156 0.0 1982 1995
Billy O’Dell (B-R) 365 22.7 1817.0 0.112 109 41.5 1954 1967
Stu Miller (B-R) 369 22.6 1694.0 0.120 115 13.2 1952 1968
Jeff Fassero (B-R) 377 22.3 2033.2 0.099 107 33.6 1991 2006
Dave Righetti (B-R) 392 21.6 1403.2 0.138 113 12.4 1979 1995
Doug Jones (B-R) 393 21.5 1128.1 0.171 129 0.5 1982 2000
Bob Stanley (B-R) 395 21.5 1707.0 0.113 118 13.3 1977 1989
Rick Aguilera (B-R) 399 21.3 1291.1 0.148 117 12.1 1985 2000
Dick Drago (B-R) 401 21.3 1875.0 0.102 103 36.4 1969 1981
Jeff Montgomery (B-R) 409 21.1 868.2 0.219 134 0.1 1987 1999

I plan to use this table to start some extensive research, but here are some early observations:

Anything jump out at you? Well, besides the fact that Jeff Fassero is among the Top 25 all time in WAR among relievers?

I’ll be using this chart to write some future posts. Stay tuned.