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.
- 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.
- 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.
- WAR Rank is where he ranks among all pitchers all time in Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
- WAR/9 IP is how many Wins Above Replacment the pitcher accrued per nine innings.
- GS% is the percentage of the pitcher’s games that were starts.
- * denotes that Rivera and Hoffman are still active (Wagner is too, but hasn’t pitched in 2009). The IP and ERA+ are through the games of August 7, 2009. The WAR and WAR/9 IP are through the end of 2008.
|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:
- O’Dell, Drago, Eckersley, Fassero, and Reed spent a significant amount of time (over 30% of games) as a starting pitcher. With the exception of Eckersley, you can see in their WAR/9 IP that one of the reasons they are so high on this list is the number of innings they accrued by starting.
- The Top 3 in WAR/9 IP are all active (Rivera, Wagner, Hoffman).
- #4 through #6 in WAR/9 IP are low inning guys (Henke, Montgomery, Sutter).
- When I did some old reliever analysis based on ERA+, my surprise superstar was Dan Quisenberry. With WAR, I’m thinking it might be Lee Smith it shines the most light on.
- John Hiller is one of the most underrated pitchers of all time. Perhaps the most underrated reliever.
- Mariano Rivera is so far ahead of the pack it’s silly.
- Perhaps the best combination of quality (WAR) and quantity (IP) is Rich Gossage.
- Eligible Non-Hall of Famers with both a better WAR and WAR/9 IP than Rollie Fingers:
- Lee Smith
- John Hiller
- John Franco
- Kent Tekulve
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.