As you probably know, no Baseball Hall of Fame inductee has ever been enshrined unanimously by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Not Ken Griffey Jr. (99.32%), not Tom Seaver (99.84%), not Nolan Ryan (98.79%), not Cal Ripken Jr. (98.58%), not anybody else since the very first Hall of Fame class of 1936.
That might change when the voting results for the 2019 Hall of Fame induction class are announced on Tuesday, January 22, and the historic figure could be dominant New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, the uncontested greatest relief pitcher in Major League Baseball history. Rivera would deserve the unanimous induction, and the BBWAA will have gone the other way on the previous stance of some voters on closers and relief pitchers altogether.
Rivera is, again, the best reliever in baseball’s long history. With a record 652 saves, a career 2.21 ERA, five World Series titles, and 13 All-Star Game appearances, he is alone at the top of an ever-evolving position of ninth-inning specialists. But historically, not everyone in the BBWAA was on board with the closer spot, which some voters argued was an artificial position that made evaluating pitchers who starred in that role far too difficult, which is also the same argument being used against the best and most Hall-worthy designated hitters.
It took Trevor Hoffman, the first closer to hit the 500-save and 600-save marks, three years to make it the Hall, while Lee Smith, who retired as the all-time saves leader before being surpassed by Hoffman, was only recently inducted by virtue of the Veteran’s Committee vote. Bruce Sutter was one of baseball’s premier pitchers in the 1970s and 1980s and essentially introduced the split-fingered fastball into the sport, but he waited 13 years for him and his 300 saves, 2.83 ERA, and 1979 Cy Young Award to be inducted.Mariano Rivera might get baseball's first unanimous induction into the Hall of Fame. Does he deserve it, and if so, why? @bytomdorsa answers.Click To Tweet
Goose Gossage was a nine-time All-Star and pitched at an elite or near-elite level for much of his 22-year MLB career, and he waited nine years to squeak into the Hall. Rollie Fingers (one of only eight players in MLB history to have his number retired by multiple franchises) and Dennis Eckersley (who also worked, and excelled, as a starter) had next to no trouble finding their way into the fabled museum in Cooperstown, but for outside reasons not experienced by Hoffman, Smith, Sutter, and the relievers on today’s ballot, like Rivera and Billy Wagner.
Rivera will be joining the men mentioned above, along with Hoyt Wilhelm, as relievers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he will be just the second to go in on his first ballot (Eckersley), and he still maintains a 100% vote total on Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable ballot tracker. Also above the 75 percent vote threshold is Edgar Martinez, who played over two thirds of his 2,055 games at the DH position, another “artificial” spot that supposedly takes away from baseball’s roots.
If Rivera is inducted unanimously, the exact reasons the writers degraded Rivera’s closer counterparts fall apart. “A closer is a hyper-specialist, a guy who comes in for an inning, two or three times a week, to finish out a game that his team already had more than a 90% chance of winning anyway. A top closer can only improve those odds by so much,” Tom Van Riper of Forbes says of Rivera, Hoffman, etc. here. “If he were a truly great pitcher instead of just a great closer, he’d be pitching 200 innings every year instead of 60 or 70 innings.”
But the BBWAA’s logic on closers is flawed in that regard. Writers compare Rivera, a reliever, with starting pitchers, which is a completely separate position in the modern baseball era. Rivera, of course, began his career as a starting pitcher before struggling and later transitioning to the bullpen, seeing himself blossom into a league-wide superstar. While he did the same stuff as a starting pitcher, he filled a different void and played an entirely different role.
While the youth of baseball society contends that the reliever and the starter are two different positions, there is still a large group of baseball lifers who maintain that starters and relievers are just two names for the position of pitcher, with starting pitchers being the far superior subclass, because relievers are just used-up starters who couldn’t pitch six innings every five nights.
But the reliever is a position of extreme strength in today’s game. With starting pitching becoming less of a factor in games — average innings pitched per start has been trending downward league-wide for years, while the number of pitchers used in game has increased steadily — relievers are now more than ever a distinct baseball entity.
Nobody would compare a first baseman to a catcher, right? Imagine Mike Piazza being snubbed from the Hall because he didn’t have as many at-bats and as many hits as Jeff Bagwell. That wouldn’t make any sense. When you compare Piazza to other catchers, he is arguably the best offensive backstop in baseball history.
When you compare Rivera to Ryan, Seaver, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson, Rivera can’t hold up. Having pitched far fewer innings, he didn’t accumulate the same impressive totals of wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, or batters faced like the starting pitchers did, and that becomes an area of concern for Hall of Fame voters and fans. But when he is compared to other relievers, he is, by far, the greatest of all time.
Most likely, there will be grandstanding, strategic voting to keep a bubble guy on the ballot for another year, voters who won’t cast votes for players on their first year of eligibility, and guys who (as we have seen before) won’t vote for anyone who played in the steroid era. But if Rivera gets the unanimous induction he might receive, it’ll be because the BBWAA, as a whole, finally came along to relievers and starters being separate baseball establishments.