In 2016 a good closer is viewed as a luxury. A good closer provides a sense of security in the 9th inning. A great closer strikes fear into the hearts and minds of opposing hitters. A Hall of Fame closer tells the opponent the game is over when he’s warming up in the 8th.
Trevor Hoffman pitched 18 seasons with the San Diego Padres, accrued 601 career saves, finished with a 2.87 ERA, and amassed 1133 strikeouts in 1089.1 innings while walking just 307 batters. He was extremely durable, only missing significant time in 2003 when he was limited to just nine games after recovering from two shoulder surgeries.
The case against Hoffman’s enshrinement is admittedly strong. First, no career closer has been elected to the HOF. Second, his career WAR values his performance at about 25 wins added. Even considering Win Probability Added (WPA), which better measures a player’s performance in high-leverage situations, his career is only valued at about 33 wins added – about half of what typical HOF position players can claim. By comparison, Mariano Rivera has over 55 wins added in terms of WPA. That’s a considerable difference between the best and second-best closers of all-time.
Still, his case goes beyond numbers. Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Fame closer. Here’s why.
According to FanGraphs, since the blown save began being recorded in 1988, there are 91 relievers with at least 100 saves. In order of save percentage:
- Eric Gagne, 92%
- Craig Kimbrel, 91%
- John Smoltz, 91%
- Mariano Rivera, 90%
- Greg Holland, 90%
- Trevor Hoffman, 89%
Kimbrel and Holland stand today as two of the best closers in the game. John Smoltz was elected to the HOF in 2015 as the only pitcher with 200 career wins, and 150 career saves. Eric Gagne will never be elected after his PED use, but would garner strong support if he had resisted the juice. Mariano Rivera is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and if you dispute that please reconsider all that you hold to be true about the importance of having a shutdown closer.
It’s abundantly clear Hoffman was as good as automatic when the San Diego Padres put the game in his hands.
Hoffman has the second-most save opportunities in history, and retired as the career leader in saves. Now, that the save record belongs to retired Yankees great Mariano Rivera, who has 652 saves.
Still, Hoffman recorded at least 35 saves 12 times over the course of 18 seasons., and was a seven-time All-Star. He finished in the top six in Cy Young voting four times, his highest finish coming in 2nd in 1998 to Tom Glavine (a 20-game winner that year). He also finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice in his career.
While his numbers may be enhanced due to playing in pitcher-friendly PETCO Park for some of his career, he should not be held liable for his production and environment. He may have had even more save opportunities and saves if he had not played for a club that was pretty average for most of his career. His change-up was absolutely deadly. His signature pitch rivals the infamy of Rivera’s cutter. If Tony Gwynn weren’t nicknamed “Mr. Padre,” Trevor Hoffman would have been.
How can the second-best player at his position all-time not be in the Hall of Fame? Should the honor of being the first closer selected be reserved for Mariano Rivera?
Since no closer has ever been inducted in the HOF, there are obvious difficulties in predicting how the BBWAA will vote next year. After garnering 67.3% of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2015, whether Hoffman’s support rises or falls will be very telling of his future prospect of enshrinement. We can only hope that Hoffman’s bust will reside in the home of his immortal baseball brethren.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs