Trevor Hoffman: A Complicated First Ballot

The fine folks at the BBWAA have three major stumbling blocks when it comes time to casting their vote – designated hitters, possibly tainted players from the Steroid Era, and relief pitchers. Luckily, the voters have at least one of each to fret over this year! Trevor Hoffman joins Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, and Jeff Bagwell on the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. While Ken Griffey Jr. is a surefire first ballot lock, the case for Hoffman is much more nebulous. You see, there has never been a first ballot relief pitcher whose entire career spanned the era of true closer specialization. Dennis Eckersley started 361 games in his career, Goose Gossage only saved more than 30 games in a season once, as his career caught the first few years of the closer boom, and John Smoltz was known more for his work as a starting pitcher. Rollie Fingers once won the Cy Young and MVP in a season in which he saved only 28 games. The role of the bullpen has changed greatly over the past 20 years, but Hoffman will still be held up against Eckersley’s numbers and Rollie’s glorious mustache.

Eckersley did get in on the first ballot, as did Smoltz, but both spent time as a starter. Hoffman appeared in 1,035 games, all in relief, and retired as the all-time leader in saves. A converted minor league infielder, Hoffman possessed one of the best changeups in the game, and led the league in saves twice. There will be plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to question whether or not Hoffman is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Hoffman’s case is a difficult one to figure.

No doubt, Hoffman’s candidacy is hurt by the fact that he spent 16 seasons playing for the mostly mediocre San Diego Padres. On the same stage as Mariano Rivera, Hoffman’s name isn’t likely to come up when the greatest postseason reliever of all time is debated. As it is, Hoffman logged a grand total of 13.0 innings in 12 postseason games. It’s quite difficult to lead your team to the playoffs as a relief pitcher, even if you are one of the best in the league.

Hoffman had an incredibly impressive career. By my estimation, he was forced to reinvent himself as a player at least three times. First, Hoffman, a middling minor leaguer in the Cincinnati Reds system had to become a pitcher. He did so, and had outstanding fastball velocity. Less than two full years into his career, Hoffman suffered a severe shoulder injury while playing beach volleyball during the strike. That was when Hoffman developed his killer changeup. Things went well until the 2003 season. Two shoulder surgeries limited Hoffman to only nine games that year. By that point, Hoffman had only 352 of the 601 saves with which he would retire. If you’re keeping track, nearly half of Hoffman’s career save total came after three shoulder surgeries. You can’t label Hoffman a “compiler,” either. He had an All-Star season at the age of 41. Hoffman was not Jim Thome hanging around long enough to hit 600 homers.

Hoffman’s going to have a difficult time getting into the Hall on his first vote. Smoltz had the compelling narrative of starting and closing, as well as the prestige of being part of the Greg MadduxTom Glavine triumvirate. Eckersley had the postseason numbers. Hoffman has none of those things – only 18 years of doing his job. While the league has fully embraced the role of closer, very few pitchers last that long. Despite the fact that every single team has at least 35 games to save a year, there are only three other pitchers besides Hoffman and Rivera who have recorded at least 400 saves. There really is no comparable pitcher to Hoffman in the past two decades except Rivera. Rivera was a bit more dominant, and had the postseason track record. Both made their living off one pitch. The change for Hoffman, the cutter for Rivera.

The voters of the BBWAA are finicky when it comes to allowing a candidate to enter the Hall on their first attempt, and Hoffman is going to have a tricky go. How does that make any sense? He may be a Hall of Famer in 2017 or ’18, but not ’16. I’m unsure of how many more saves Hoffman will record while he waits.

Overheard at the latest BBWAA meeting, “Well, guys, there are no full-time closers in the Hall yet. We can’t let this guy be the first one.”

Trevor Hoffman retired as the all-time leader in a statistic (until Rivera overtook him), one that is viewed as reasonably valuable to baseball types. He was also the all-time leader in strikeout rate for a relief pitcher. That title could now be handed off somewhat begrudgingly if you are willing to consider Oliver Perez, who has a strikeout rate of 9.39 to Hoffman’s 9.36. Perez has, however, made 195 starts and has recorded only two saves. Hoffman does not, unfortunately, have the eye-poppingly low ERA of Rivera, nor the legendary postseason status. Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, but he’s likely going to have to wait at least two years. Rivera will be the first first-ballot closer, but that will not happen until 2019, unless the BBWAA pulls a rabbit out of the hat for Trevor Hoffman. I wouldn’t bet on that, and that’s a shame. Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, but semantics, and a refusal to accept the closer’s role as a legitimate part of baseball will likely keep him waiting.

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