Friday December 18th, 2015

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

Trevor Hoffman was the antithesis of the physically intimidating, smoke-throwing closer. Undersized as a shortstop in high school, he attracted little notice from scouts, and while a growth spurt eventually led to his being drafted, it took a level of desperation for him even to try the mound. There he discovered the ability to throw a mid-90s fastball, but by the time he began to carve out his niche in the big leagues, his velocity was on the wane.

That doesn't sound like a recipe for long-term success, let alone a career that would draw Hall of Fame consideration. But Hoffman's mastery of the changeup opened new doors—and then slammed them shut on opponents. “It's like it has a parachute on it," marveled the Dodgers’ Paul Lo Duca after whiffing on the signature pitch in 2002.

As the closer role evolved into an inning-at-a-time concern, Hoffman rode that changeup far enough to emerge as one of the game's most proficient and consistent practitioners. Backed by AC/DC's hard-rocking "Hell's Bells," his entry into games became an event unto itself, and he evolved into a franchise icon. In a role with a high turnover rate, Hoffman stuck around long enough to break Lee Smith's all-time saves record of 478 and become the first pitcher to reach the 500- and 600-save milestones, remaining effective well into his 40s.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Schedule for write-ups

The closer's job has evolved into an ever more specialized one occupying a smaller footprint of innings, and the debate over what, if anything, constitutes a Hall of Famer among this class has continued to rage. Only five relievers have been voted into Cooperstown, starting with Hoyt Wilhelm in 1985. Wilhelm owned the all-time record for saves from 1964 (five years before the stat became official) until '80, when Rollie Fingers surpassed him. Fingers—whose resumé was burnished by Cy Young and MVP hardware, not to mention a strong postseason track record—was voted into Cooperstown in short order, though the record he held for 12 years was surpassed in 1992, the year of his induction.

Since then, Jeff Reardon, who owned the saves record for less than a year, sank without a trace when he went up for election in 2000, and Smith, who supplanted him, has nearly exhausted his eligibility while trying to build consensus. During Smith's wait, two of the role's more revolutionary practitioners—at least in terms of usage patterns, not to mention short-term dominance—gained entry: Dennis Eckersley (2004) and Bruce Sutter ('06). The former did so on his first ballot, the latter on his 13th. Archetypal smoke-thrower Goose Gossage breezed by Smith as well in 2008, his ninth year of eligibility.

Does Hoffman fit within that pantheon? It's hardly clear, particularly as advanced statistics have debunked some of the closer mystique, illustrating the modern-day role's limitations even while attempting to account for the concepts of win expectancy and leverage, the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that late-game or tight-spot events have relative to earlier or easier ones. The debate is ongoing, and within my own system, I've changed course more than once while evaluating the aforementioned post-Fingers relievers over the course of a baker’s dozen election cycles. While not entirely sold on Hoffman myself, I do expect that he'll be elected, if not in his first year of eligibility, then relatively soon.

pitcher career peak jaws w l s era era+
Trevor Hoffman 28.4 19.6 24.0 61 75 601 2.87 141
Avg. HOF RP 40.6 28.2 34.4          

Hoffman was born in Bellflower, Calif., in 1967, the youngest of three sons of Ed Hoffman, a former Marine and professional singer who worked as an usher at the Angels' Anaheim Stadium and occasionally sang "The Star Spangled Banner" either as a scheduled guest or emergency fill-in. Older brother Glenn (born 1958) was a former second-round draft pick by the Red Sox and spent nine years (1980–87, '89) playing in the majors; he also managed the Dodgers for half of the '98 season.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Lee Smith

Like his older brother, Trevor played shortstop at Savanna High School, but at just 5'6" and 130 pounds and with only one kidney (he lost his left one in infancy), he didn't attract much notice from scouts. He grew three inches the summer after graduation, however, and the growth spurt continued as he played at Cypress College and then the University of Arizona; ultimately, he filled out to 6'1", 200 pounds. The Reds drafted him in the 11th round in 1989, and he began his career in the Pioneer League, but neither the .249/.319/.289 he hit that year nor the .212/.311/.277 he hit in the South Atlantic League the following year suggested he had a future in the majors. Charleston manager Jim Lett was impressed enough with his arm strength to recommend he switch to pitching, however, and the move clicked. As Hoffman told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci for a May 13, 2002 cover story:

"I was tired of slumping at the plate and air-mailing throws to first base. The idea was easy to accept. For some reason I couldn't handle the daily grind. I could not take that 0 for 4 and just put it away and move on. Pitching, especially relief pitching, gives you more positive feedback. I needed that."

Able to reach 95 mph with his fastball, Hoffman began dominating hitters. He struck out 75 in 47 2/3 innings of relief at Class A and Double A in 1991, then spent most of '92 at Triple A Nashville. That winter, the Reds left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski took him with the fourth pick. Hoffman made the team out of spring training and struck out the Dodgers' Eric Davis, the only batter he faced, in his major league debut on April 6. He made 28 appearances for the team before he was on the move again; on June 24, 1993, he and two other players were sent to the Padres in exchange for Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez, part of the same fire sale that sent Fred McGriff out of town a month later. Hoffman made 39 appearances for the nowhere-bound Padres, who lost 101 games, and finished the year with a 3.90 ERA (108 ERA+) in 90 innings with 79 strikeouts and five saves.

The 26-year-old Hoffman took over the closer's job the following season—not that he got many save opportunities for a team that stumbled to a 10–31 start. Still, he was successful when given the chance, converting 20 of 23 save opportunities, posting a 2.57 ERA and whiffing 10.9 per nine before the strike hit in early August. A pair of off-season mishaps in which he landed awkwardly on his right shoulder led to the beginning of his decline in velocity, but he attempted to offset that by experimenting with his grip for his changeup, going from a "circle change" grip to a "palm ball" grip learned from teammate Donnie Elliot. Via ESPN's Buster Olney for a 2006 feature:

He likes the feel of Elliott's changeup, and decides to try it the first week of the season. Immediately, Padres catcher Brad Ausmus sees that hitters can't pick up the ball. After two changeups, Ausmus thinks, "This is going to be a dominating pitch."

No clues distinguish Hoffman's changeup from his fastball. The arm speed is the same, the spin is the same, even the movement doesn't give it away. "It doesn't move down, like a splitter," says Ausmus, who's now with the Astros. "It moves on a straight line, but it just doesn't get there."

It would take Hoffman a while to master the pitch, though his so-so 1995 performance (3.88 ERA, 8.8 strikeouts per nine, 31-for-38 in saves) likely owed more to his needing surgery to repair a tear in his rotator cuff after the season. Healthy, he enjoyed a breakout season in 1996, posting a 2.25 ERA with 11.4 strikeouts per nine in 88 innings. His 3.9 WAR was tops among National League relievers, and his 42 saves ranked third; he received down-ballot Cy Young and MVP consideration and helped the Padres capture their first division title since 1984. They were swept out of the playoffs, however, when Hoffman served up a two-run homer to the Cardinals' Brian Jordan in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Division Series.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Gary Sheffield

The Padres and Hoffman both regressed in 1997, though the latter still ranked second in the NL in saves (37, for a 76-win team) and WAR (3.1). He put together a career year in 1998, posting a 1.48 ERA over 73 innings, with NL highs in saves (53) and WAR (4.1); he would never improve upon any of those numbers. On July 25, 1998, Hoffman not only tied Rod Beck's club record by converting his 41st consecutive save opportunity but also entered the game for the first time to “Hell's Bells," a song that became his signature tune. "The entrance was more suited to the World Wrestling Federation than the national pastime," wrote The San Diego Union-Tribune of the occasion.

Alas, Hoffman was unable to break Beck's record: Houston's Moises Alou, who had struck out to end the-record-tying game, homered on his first pitch the following night—the only save Hoffman blew all season. Regardless, his outstanding work resulted in his first All-Star berth and a close second-place finish to Tom Glavine in the NL Cy Young voting; Hoffman received more first place votes (13–11) but less overall consideration, perhaps in part because teammate Kevin Brown (18–7, 2.38 ERA, 8.6 WAR to Hoffman's 4.1) drained some of his support. Nonetheless, both pitchers’ performances helped the Padres to their first pennant since 1984. After allowing just one earned run in his seven Division and Championship Series outings, Hoffman served up a go-ahead three-run homer to Scott Brosius in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the World Series against the Yankees. He was thus charged with the blown save and the loss in his lone Fall Classic appearance.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Kent

In the aftermath of that defeat, Hoffman signed a four-year, $32 million contract extension, making him the game's highest-paid reliever, but the deal came only after the star-studded Padres shed free agents Brown, Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley and traded away Greg Vaughn as well. Stripped of just about every player of interest this side of Hoffman and an aging Tony Gwynn (whose last season as a regular would be 1999), the team spent the next five seasons below .500, three of them in the NL West basement. Though unable to match his stellar 1998 showing, Hoffman was fairly consistent during the first four years of that stretch, making three All-Star teams and finishing second in saves three straight times; he averaged 41 saves in 65 innings per year, accompanied by a 2.81 ERA (145 ERA+), 10.1 strikeout-per-nine ratio and 1.4 WAR. The latter mark reflects the fact that scoring at Qualcomm Stadium (previously Jack Murphy Stadium) dipped to Petco Park-like levels relative to the rest of the league, so Hoffman's run prevention was not as exceptional as it had been.

On Oct. 16, 2002, shortly after the season ended, the 35-year-old Hoffman underwent surgery to repair another tear in his rotator cuff as well as frayed cartilage in the shoulder. After reporting for spring training in mid-February, he was still battling pain, which doctors soon determined owed to arthritic degeneration of his clavicle; on Feb. 28, he underwent another surgery to shave down the bone. Although the Padres hoped Hoffman could return shortly after the All-Star break, he didn't make his 2003 season debut until Sept. 2. He made just nine appearances that month, none of them in a save situation.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Jim Edmonds

Fortunately, Hoffman returned to form the following season, the Padres' first in Petco. Despite a fastball that now sat in the mid-80s, he continued to vex batters with his changeup, posting a 2.30 ERA (170 ERA+) in 54 2/3 innings, notching 41 saves (sixth in the league) and 1.7 WAR, the latter his highest mark since 1998. The Padres broke .500 for the first time since that year, winning 87 games and finishing third in the NL West, and they won the division title in each of the next two seasons, albeit with paltry win totals of 82 and 88, respectively, not to mention quick exits at the hands of the Cardinals in the Division Series. Hoffman saved 43 games with a 2.97 ERA in 2005, then—after re-signing with the team as a free agent via a two-year, $13.5 million deal—recorded an NL-best 46 saves with a 2.14 ERA in '06. Via the latter performance, he again finished as runner-up in a close NL Cy Young race, though his 2.1 WAR was less than 1/3 that of winner Brandon Webb.

Along the way, Hoffman racked up the milestones. On May 6, 2005, he threw a scoreless ninth inning against the Cardinals to become the second pitcher in baseball history to reach 400 saves. On Sept. 23 and 24, 2006, he tied and then broke Lee Smith's all-time saves record with Nos. 478 and 479, both against the Pirates. On April 28, 2007, he made his 803rd appearance as a Padre, thus surpassing the Senators' Walter Johnson and the Pirates' Roy Face for the most games pitched with one team. On June 6 of that season against the Dodgers, he banked save No. 500.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Larry Walker

Though he saved 42 games in 2007, Hoffman's season ended on a sour note. He blew a save against the Brewers in the Padres' second-to-last scheduled game of the regular season, via which they could have clinched a wild-card berth. They lost that night and the next (without his help), setting up a Game 163 play-in against the Rockies, who had won 13 out of their last 14 games to force the tiebreaker. With the score knotted at 6–6, the game went into extra innings. Manager Bud Black finally called Hoffman’s number after Scott Hairston hit a two-run homer in the top of the 13th inning, but the venerable closer didn't have it. He yielded three straight extra-base hits, tying the game, and after issuing an intentional walk, he finally got his first out, albeit on a sacrifice fly by Jamey Carroll that brought home Matt Holliday with the winning run—at least as home plate umpire Tim McClelland called it, though replays showed that Holliday never touched the plate.

Hoffman claimed there was no link between the unsightly end to his season and the elbow cleanup surgery that followed later that month. Ironically, his robust health in 2006–07 had already triggered a $7.5 million vesting option for '08 via a games-finished clause. He got off to a rough start that year—his age-40 season—by blowing two of his first six save chances and taking a pair of losses over the course of his first eight outings. His performance normalized from that point, but he pitched sporadically in September and finished with just 45 1/3 innings pitched, a 3.77 ERA (his worst since 1995), 30 saves (his lowest total since '94, save for his lost 2003 season) and a career-worst 0.2 WAR.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Alan Trammell

With Heath Bell groomed as the heir apparent at closer, the Padres offered the 41-year-old Hoffman (now a free agent) just $4 million for 2009, with a $4 million club option for '10, but they soon withdrew the offer. In mid-January, the Brewers—who were fresh off their first postseason appearance in 26 years—signed him to a one-year deal worth $6 million plus incentives, outbidding the Dodgers in the process. Given the move to a less-forgiving ballpark and the loss of the first 18 games of the season to an oblique strain, Hoffman's age-defying 2009 performance (1.83 ERA, 37 saves, 2.2 WAR) was one of the season's top surprises and arguably his best since 1998. The Brewers didn't make the playoffs, but Hoffman made the All-Star team for the seventh and final time.

Unfortunately, after signing a one-year extension with the Brewers in October 2009, Hoffman looked every bit his age in '10. He finished April with more blown saves (four) than successful ones (three) and carried a double-digit ERA into the second week of June; that cost him the closer's job, mooting the celebration of his 1,000th career appearance (May 23) and slowing the chase of his 600th save to a crawl. He finally collected that milestone on Sept. 7 against the Cardinals, his only appearance in a 23-day span, and pitched just three more times, adding one more save, before season’s end. The Brewers declined their end of a mutual option for 2011, but Hoffman remained open to a return to a West Coast team until January, when he finally announced his retirement.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Barry Bonds

Mariano Rivera surpassed Hoffman's all-time saves record on Sept. 20, 2011, but the fact that Hoffman was the man to beat is what forms the cornerstone of his Hall of Fame case. He climbed into uncharted territory on the basis of a combination of good health and consistency; like Rivera, Hoffman rarely led his league in saves (twice to Mo's three times) but was among the leaders on an annual basis, with nine top-three finishes and 15 among the top seven—every season except his injury-shortened one and the bookends of his career. Only three pitchers have accumulated at least 10 seasons with at least 30 saves, and not surprisingly, they're the three atop the totem pole: Smith with 10, Hoffman with 14 and Rivera with 15. Raise the bar to 40 saves, and it's Hoffman and Rivera with nine seasons apiece, with Francisco Rodriguez's five as the next-highest total.

Hoffman's save totals and longevity no doubt owe something to his workload, which was relatively minimal compared to his game-closing predecessors—particularly the enshrined relievers—and a product of the evolution of the closer's role. Wilhelm, Fingers and Gossage were all multi-inning firemen who could be counted upon to work extended stints if need be. Sutter worked multiple innings as well, though generally only when his team had a lead narrow enough to produce a save opportunity. Eckersley, who spent the first half of his career as a starter, became the model for the one-inning save machine we know today.

The difference is stark when comparing Hoffman to the enshrined quintet in terms of the length of their saves. For comparison's sake, I'll include fellow Hall of Fame candidates Smith and Billy Wagner, plus Rivera as well:

pitcher saves 1 ip <1 IP >1 IP
Wilhelm 228 45 (20%) 35 (15%) 148 (65%)
Sutter 300 82 (27%) 30 (10%) 188 (63%)
Gossage 310 70 (23%) 47 (15%) 193 (62%)
Fingers 341 81 (24%) 59 (17%) 201 (59%)
Smith 478 260 (54%) 49 (10%) 169 (35%)
Eckersley 390 231 (59%) 53 (14%) 106 (27%)
Rivera 652 491 (75%) 42 (6%) 119 (18%)
Hoffman 601 498 (83%) 48 (8%) 55 (9%)
Wagner 422 369 (87%) 17 (4%) 36 (9%)

As you can see, long saves accounted for the great majority for Wilhelm, Sutter, Gossage and Fingers, but they form increasingly smaller shares for the others, including less than 10% for both Hoffman and Wagner.

Because of that inning-at-a-time usage pattern, Hoffman's overall workload—1,035 appearances (11th all-time), and 1,089 1/3 innings—is far short of every pitcher above save for those of Wagner (903 innings) and Sutter (1,042 innings). Hoffman threw 612 fewer innings than Fingers (who pitched in 90 fewer games), 720 fewer than Gossage (who pitched in 33 fewer games) and 1,165 fewer than Wilhelm (who pitched in 35 more games). All three of those pitchers did work as starters for awhile, with Wilhelm making 52 starts and Fingers and Gossage 37 apiece, but even limiting the field to relief innings, 27 pitchers have compiled more out of the bullpen than Hoffman, including Smith (1,252 1/3) and Rivera (1,233 2/3).

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Roger Clemens

While Hoffman's workload was a function of the period in which he pitched, its size puts him at a significant disadvantage when those innings are converted to value via WAR, even given that his 141 ERA+ is higher than any of the enshrined relievers save for Wilhelm (147). Hoffman's 28.4 career WAR is less than half that of Eckersley (63.0) and well behind both Wilhelm (47.3) and Gossage (42.0); it's much closer to those of Fingers (26.1) and Sutter (24.6). Meanwhile, his 19.6 peak WAR trails those of that trio (Eckersley 38.1, Gossage 32.0, Wilhelm 26.9) as well as Sutter (24.6), just beating out Fingers (19.2). Hoffman's 24.0 JAWS, which is tied with Wagner for 20th among relievers, trails all of the Hall of Famers except Fingers (22.7) and is 10.4 points below the standard. Even if I exclude Eckersley from the set on the grounds that his work as a starter skews it, Hoffman is well off the mark in all three categories (35.0 career, 25.7 peak, 30.4 JAWS). There's really no way to justify his inclusion in Cooperstown via JAWS and WAR.

That said, while the version of WAR used in JAWS features an adjustment for leverage to help account for the degree of difficulty, it’s not the only way to measure reliever value. Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context-sensitive measure that accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score and base-out situation. For a reliever, a single-season WPA scales similarly to a single-season WAR, which is to say that it’s rare that one is worth more than three wins in a single year, by either measure. The good news for Hoffman is that his 34.1 WPA ranks second all-time, miles behind Rivera (56.6) but ahead of Gossage (third at 32.5), Wilhelm (fourth at 31.1), Eckersley (sixth at 30.8), Sutter (25th at 18.2) and Fingers (27th at 16.2). The average for those five is 25.8; Hoffman is 8.3 wins above that.

Another way to look at reliever value along these lines is to adjust WPA using a pitcher’s average leverage index (aLI) for a stat variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins (referred to as WPA/LI). Here Hoffman ranks fourth all-time (note the discontinuity of rankings outside the top 10):

Rank player wpa/LI ip
1 Mariano Rivera 33.7 1,283 2/3
2 Hoyt Wilhelm 27.4 2,254 1/3
3 Dennis Eckersley 25.8 3,285 2/3
4 Trevor Hoffman 19.5 1,089 1/3
5 Billy Wagner 18.0 903
6 Joe Nathan 15.6 917
7 Rollie Fingers 15.2 1,701 1/3
8 Rich Gossage 15.0 1,809 1/3
9 Tom Gordon 14.7 2,108
10 Kent Tekulve 14.2 1,436 2/3
14 Lee Smith 12.9 1,289 1/3
17 Bruce Sutter 11.9 1,042

The average Hall of Fame reliever (including Eckersley) weighs in at 19.0, just a hair below Hoffman.

Those measures provide a stronger basis for voting for Hoffman than JAWS does, particularly when taken alongside his mountain of saves, seven All-Star appearances and role in helping the Padres to four postseason appearances. That said, since JAWS is what guides my process, I'm not sure that I'm ready to bump a deserving candidate off my (virtual) ballot when I've already got more than 10 competing for its 10 spaces, some of whom have 10- or 15-year maximums or 5.0% minimums working against them. Clear a few of those names off the top (please), allow me another year to research and evaluate whether this system is a better one for handling relievers, and I'll get back to you.

That is, if Hoffman isn't in already. While I have my reservations, the 65 ballots tracked thus far show Hoffman receiving 69.2% of the vote—short of what's needed for election but nothing that can't be made up among what could be nearly 400 more ballots to come. Even if that percentage doesn't rise, a debut above 50% makes Hoffman a lock to get there eventually, with or without my (virtual) support. When he does, his enshrinement will serve to remind that the Cooperstown door remains open to closers of all shapes and styles.

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