Monday, September 19, 2011

Hoffman the Hall of Famer and Why Being #2 Shouldn't Matter

Were you one of the best players at your position during your career?

That's the criteria for the Hall of Fame in my opinion. Of course, there is no real criteria. But if I'm voting on players and looking at a list, thats my first question. Were you one of the best during your career? Baseball is unique in that it cares about its past perhaps more than any other sport. Yet, it is nearly impossible, for a variety of reasons (rule changes, desegregation, steroids), to compare different eras of baseball.

Was Trevor Hoffman one of the best at his position during his career? There is no way to answer that question other than with a resounding "yes."

This of course is being brought up today thanks to Mariano Rivera breaking the All-Time Saves record. Rivera stands alone atop the saves leader board at 602. Who knows where that number will stop, as he shows little sign of slowing down. But, does Trevor Hoffman now being the SECOND greatest closer of all-time somehow invalidate his Hall of Fame credentials? Of course not.

Regardless of whether you believe in the saves stat or deride it as more useless than pitchers wins or RBI, the fact remains that closers are judged by them. A closers job is simple yet incredibly complicated at the same time. Come in, pitch one inning, get three outs. Done and done. Except it is never as simple as "done and done."

Closers are more often remembered for a singular moment of failure. Mitch Williams, Brad Lidge, Byung-Hyun Kim. We know these names not for their effectiveness as a closer but because they failed to get those three outs in critical situations. It is also why the position of closer is perhaps the most volatile in sports. Great relievers have attempted to make the transition from the middle of the game to the end of the game and have failed miserably. It is this volatile nature of the position that makes the careers of Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera so spectacular and so rare. Both are over 600 saves. That number is impressive on it's own. It is made more impressive with context. Like this: Number 2 on the active saves leaderboard is Francisco 323 (wait, Francisco Cordero? Yes, Francisco Cordero). Which means that the mark that Hoffman set and Rivera continues to set is likely not to be matched for a long time. It is likely as unattainable as Ripken's games played, Dimaggio's 56, or Cy Young's 511 wins. Imagine, if you will, that the second person on the All-Time Wins list was at 509 (they aren't, by the way, second place is Walter Johnson at 417). As unattainable as 600 saves is, it is perhaps more impressive that two players during the same generation met that standard.

To reach the totals that Rivera and Hoffman have reached requires consistency at a position could not be less consistent. Yet they were. It is what makes these two closers so special.

And why both are heading to Cooperstown.

Occasionally I will read or hear an argument against Hoffman's Hall of Fame resume. It usually has to do with either A) some sabremetric stat that is not as impressive as one would expect; B) post-season performance.

Let's deal with the post-season issue first. Mariano Rivera is, without question, the greatest post-season closer of all time. No debate. But even he is not without spectacular failure. Game 7, 2001 World Series is submitted herein as exhibit 1. But, unlike Mitch Williams (and so many more) before him, Rivera had already built up a lifetimes worth of playoff appearances prior to blowing Game 7. And he recovered to continue that dominance throughout much of the 2000's.

Hoffman had a fraction of those chances. By no fault of his own. The teams he played for were more often than not mired in mediocre to sub-par seasons, pushing Hoffman's greatness to a mere footprint of multiple MLB seasons. The mere fact that one was not given the opportunity to be great, by no fault of their own, is not reason to keep them out of the Hall of Fame. I don't think anyone's Hall of Fame candidacy should be based on post-season performance. A factor? Sure. But not a criticism.

The second issue is the sabremetric argument. The argument seems to go that by other standards, Rivera so far outshines Hoffman that Hoffman is somehow suddenly not a Hall of Famer. It also follows that the position of closer is not as valuable as one would think, so being the best or second best at this "irrelevant" position is useless. To which I say, SHUT UP!

The job of a closer is to save the game. Whether someone does that with three long fly balls, or by walking three guys then striking out the next three, is irrelevant if the end result is the game was saved. I simply don't care, nor do I think it matters that Rivera has a better K/9 rate, or whatever Bill James stat you want to use. The barometer is saves and by that barometer, Rivera and Hoffman are the greatest...and it's not even close for a third.

Comparisons between Rivera and Hoffman are inevitable. But they are also ultimately pointless. It doesn't matter if Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth was better. They were both great. Who was better, Dimaggio or Mantle? Who cares, because they are both great. The same should be said about Rivera and Hoffman. Two of the greatest closers in baseball history who played during the same time period. They are the standard-bearers for all those who come after them.

Who's better: Rivera or Hoffman? Ultimately it doesn't matter, because both belong, and both will be, in Cooperstown soon enough.

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