On Tuesday, former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera became the first player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame with 100 percent of the vote. Babe Ruth was not unanimous. Greg Maddux was not unanimous. Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford didn’t even crack the 75 percent election threshold in their first years of eligibility. Roy Campanella took five years. Mickey Mantle only got 88.2 percent of the vote. Nine voters didn’t check the box next to Hank Aaron‘s name, and 23 didn’t vote for Willie Mays!
Unlike my esteemed colleague Tom Dorsa, I don’t necessarily believe that Rivera’s unanimous election represents a major shift in thinking about closers in general. This didn’t happen for just one reason. Here are five factors that combined to make it happen, in no particular order:
Dumb, Beautiful Luck
It’s easy to say that Rivera was elected unanimously because everyone agrees that he is a Hall of Famer. Realistically, though, there is probably nothing left in the world that everyone agrees on. Even if you limit it to rational adults, the list is still tiny. And thus, we wake up this morning to a headline like this:
I posted that as a screenshot, because there’s no way I’m linking to that garbage. You can Google it if you want to read it, but I’ll save you the time: It’s the same old re-tread argument about “part-time player” and “failed starter” and blah blah blah. I don’t know if the author’s point of view is skewed by the italicized sentence under his byline — “I write about the New York Mets” — but whatever the reason, we see that a guy with a platform is not a Rivera fan.
And it’s just dumb, beautiful luck that he doesn’t have a Hall of Fame vote. There have been voters in the past who have shared this view of closers in general and would have shared this view of Rivera — probably some of the 85 who didn’t vote for Dennis Eckersley, or the 333 who didn’t vote for Rich Gossage in his first year, some of whom continued to not vote for him for eight more years after that.
Some people don’t think closers belong in the Hall of Fame. We’re lucky that none of them had a vote this year.
Changing of the Guard
Perhaps part of the reason for that dumb luck is a gradual changing of the guard. In 2014, the rules changed for who is eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame. In the past, once you had gained the right to vote — by being a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — you remained eligible indefinitely. Now, a writer has to have actively covered baseball in the past ten years to remain eligible to vote. Simply put, that means there is much less of the “back in my day” crowd. In the past, there were voters who refused to vote for any candidate in his first year of eligibility for the explicit purpose of making sure no one was elected unanimously, the argument being that if Babe Ruth (or pick your favorite player) wasn’t unanimous, then Tom Seaver (or whoever) didn’t deserve to be.
Those voters appear to have died off or been removed from the voting rolls. Every single person voting this year covered baseball for at least ten years and at least as recently as 2009. If you covered baseball from 2000-09, it’s nearly impossible to ignore Rivera’s all-time greatness.
In the same way and for the same reasons, many of the voters who would never vote for a closer are no longer voting — or have changed their minds. Not all baseball writers — including at least one who write(s) about the New York Mets — but all of them who voted this year.
Clearing Up the Backlog
In 2013, with a ballot that included eight players who have since been elected, the BBWAA did not elect anyone to the Hall of Fame. The ceremony that summer honored three men who had been dead for over 70 years, only one of whom was a player. Not coincidentally, it was the next year that the Hall of Fame and the BBWAA changed the eligibility requirements for voters, as described above.
In the ensuing five years, the BBWAA elected 16 players to the Hall, leaving a ballot this year that was significantly less loaded than in previous years. The work isn’t done yet — there were 19 players on this year’s ballot who got at least five percent of the vote, and if I had a vote, I would have seriously considered voting for about 16 of them — but it is significantly improved.
Why does that matter? Well, when you have too many qualified players and a 10-player cap on the voting, voters have to start making tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions might come down to, “I’m voting for the guy with 10,000 plate appearances over the closer.” Sometimes the decisions are more strategic, along the lines of, “I know Player X is going to get in easily, so instead of voting for him, I will vote for Player Y who is on the bubble.” Whatever the reasons, when there are too many qualified candidates on the ballot, it’s hard for any single player to get every vote. This year’s ballot, even though there were still 10-16 players I consider Hall of Famers, had just Rivera and Roy Halladay as slam dunks.
Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs on Twitter) has been tracking Hall of Fame voting for several years, improving his process each year. Perhaps more importantly, as his efforts have gained attention, more and more writers are making their ballots available to him early in the process. As a result, well over half of the total ballots had been tracked and tallied by Thibodaux before the vote was announced, with a hefty chunk of those being public in December before the submission deadline.
This isn’t just a trivial, informational thing. What Thibodaux’s work means is that voters who are considering a strategic vote can track the potential ramifications before doing so. A strategic vote that excludes Rivera in favor of (for example) Larry Walker is much less likely when the voter can see that all 150 public ballots currently include Rivera’s name. No one wants to be the reason a guy isn’t unanimous.
The Wayne Gretzky Effect
Wayne Gretzky. Vin Scully. Mariano Rivera. They might be the only three sports figures who are the undisputed “best ever at what he did.” Tiger Woods was well on his way in gold, but personal issues and a declining game have muddy those waters. Michael Jordan has long been considered the greatest basketball player ever, but LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and others have challenged that title. Even narrowing it down to specific positions, there is very little clarity as to who is the best quarterback or center or starting pitcher or whatever. The sports world is full of debates, which is part of what makes fandom so fun.
But Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all time. Scully is the greatest announcer of all time. And Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. Is he the greatest pitcher? No. But he is absolutely the greatest closer, no matter how you look at it. Most saves? That’s Rivera. Best ERA? Rivera again. Team success? Sustained dominance? Best peripheral numbers? Rivera, Rivera, Rivera.
There was a cool stat going around a week or two ago about Craig Kimbrel, how he’s the only player in history with more saves than hits allowed. That’s really cool and impressive, if somewhat arbitrary. Hits are just one way to get on base, and when you add Kimbrel’s 205 career walks to his 285 hits allowed, the number vastly exceeds his 333 career saves, albeit with a still-impressive 0.920 WHIP. But Kimbrel is just 30, and he is showing signs that his window of dominance might be starting to close.
Rivera was a late bloomer. He didn’t make his major league debut until six months after his 25th birthday, and he didn’t become a full-time closer until he was 27. But after he was Kimbrel’s current age, Rivera posted 487 saves and a 1.98 ERA. Well, that’s not a fair comparison — like I said, Rivera had a lot less mileage on his arm at age 30 than Kimbrel does. Kimbrel has been a closer for eight seasons. After Rivera’s eighth season as a closer, he saved 316 games with a 1.91 ERA.
Kimbrel is great — if he can stay great for eight or nine more years, he might enter the conversation as the greatest closer ever. For now, not so much.
To be fair, the stat about Kimbrel wasn’t intended to say he is better than Rivera. It was more a point about the fact that he is still unsigned as a free agent despite being historically good. But that’s at least partly because, outside of Rivera, closers have a history of not remaining dominant for very long, It’s easy to look at Kimbrel and wonder if we’ve seen his best, because the list of dominant closers who suddenly stopped being dominant is so long. It’s another thing that makes Rivera so impressive — he had 44 saves and a 2.11 ERA in his last season, at age 43!
Does everyone who is the best at what he did deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Of course not. But when it’s a high-profile, high-pressure job like closing, and the gap between you and the next-best is so large — Rivera has a WAR literally twice a high as that of Trevor Hoffman — that’s a Hall of Famer.
Mariano Rivera being the first unanimous Hall of Famer does not mean he is the best player in history. It doesn’t mean he’s the best pitcher in history. It doesn’t even mean he is the most deserving of the Hall of Fame. It just means that he came onto the ballot at the right time in history and had the fewest reasons not to vote for him. That’s not a slight. In fact, “no one in this group, which has found reasons not to vote for every player in history, could find a reason not to vote for him” is pretty high praise.