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  • Only five relievers have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Here's why Trevor Hoffman will be the sixth, even though the advanced numbers aren't fully on his side.
By Jay Jaffe
December 18, 2017

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2017 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. 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 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.

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 résumé was burnished by Cy Young and MVP hardware, not to mention a strong postseason track record—was elected 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. Smith, who supplanted him, peaked at 50.6% in 2012 but receded to 34.2% by '17, his 15th and final year on the ballot. But during Smith's run, 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 15 election cycles. While not entirely sold on Hoffman myself, his eventual election seems to be inevitable after he fell just five votes shy of election in 2017, receiving 74.0%.

player career peak jaws w l sv 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 second-round draft pick by the Red Sox who spent nine years (1980–87, '89) in the majors and managed the Dodgers for half of the '98 season.

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), scouts weren’t that interested. He grew three inches the summer after graduation, and the growth spurt continued as he played at Cypress College and then the University of Arizona; ultimately, he filled out to 6'1" and 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 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. "I was tired of slumping at the plate and air-mailing throws to first base," Hoffman told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci for a May 13, 2002 cover story. "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 made his major league debut on April 6, when he struck out the Dodgers' Eric Davis—the only batter he faced that game. He made 28 appearances before he was on the move again; on June 24, 1993, he and two other players were dealt 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 changeup grip, 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. But San Diego was swept out of the playoffs when Hoffman served up a two-run homer to the Cardinals’ Brian Jordan in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Division Series.

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," which 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 to 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 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, leaving him with a blown save and a loss in his lone Fall Classic appearance.

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. 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, and three of those were 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. Still battling pain in the spring, he underwent another surgery to shave down his clavicle after doctors determined he was suffering from arthritic degeneration. Despite initial hopes that could return shortly after the All-Star break, he didn't make his 2003 season debut until Sept. 2, the first of just nine appearances, none in a save situation.

Fortunately, he returned to form in 2004, the Padres' first season 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 ‘98, winning 87 games and finishing third in the NL West but missing the playoffs. They went on to win 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 their consecutive Division Series appearances. 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 a third of that of winner Brandon Webb.

Along the way, Hoffman racked up the milestones. His May 6, 2005 save against the Cardinals made him 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, 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.

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, in 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. The game went into extra innings tied at six, and after Scott Hairston’s two-run homer in the top of the 13th inning, manager Bud Black finally called Hoffman’s number. But the venerable closer didn't have it, yielding three straight extra-base hits that tied the game. After issuing an intentional walk, he finally got an out, but it was on a sacrifice fly by Jamey Carroll that brought home Matt Holliday with the winning run—or at least that’s how home plate umpire Tim McClelland called it. Replays show Holliday never touched the plate.

Hoffman claimed there was no link between the unsightly end to that 2007 season and his subsequent elbow cleanup surgery. 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, 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.

With Heath Bell groomed as the heir apparent at closer, the Padres made and then withdrew a lowball offer to the 41-year-old free agent in November of 2008. In mid-January, the Brewers—fresh off their first postseason appearance in 26 years— outbid the Dodgers to sign him to a one-year deal worth $6 million plus incentive. 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) ranked among the season's top surprises and was 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 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 the 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.

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 annually ranked among the leaders, 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 six 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 is a product of the evolution of the closer's role. Wilhelm, Fingers and Gossage were all multi-inning firemen who could 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%)

Long saves account for the great majority for Wilhelm, Sutter, Gossage, and Fingers, but 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 but Hoffman worked 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).

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 his 141 ERA+, which is higher than any enshrined reliever 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 revised standards 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), Eckersley (fourth at 30.85), Wilhelm (fifth at 30.84), Sutter (27th at 18.2) and Fingers (30th at 16.2). The average for the enshrined quintet is 25.7; Hoffman is 8.4 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 27.0 2,254 1/3
3 Dennis Eckersley 25.7 3,285 2/3
4 Trevor Hoffman 19.3 1,089 1/3
5 Billy Wagner 17.9 903
6 Joe Nathan 15.7 923 1/3
7 Rollie Fingers 15.2 1,701 1/3
8 Rich Gossage 14.9 1,089 1/3
9 Francisco Rodriguez 14.7 976
10 Tom Gordon 14.7 2,108
17 Lee Smith 12.9 1,289 1/3
21 Bruce Sutter 11.9 1,042

The average Hall of Fame reliever (including Eckersley) weighs in at 18.9, just a hair below Hoffman.

Hoffman also comes out looking strong via Nate Silver’s Goose Egg stat, a WPA alternative introduced last April at Five Thirty Eight. A Goose Egg (named after Gossage, the all-time leader with 677) is a scoreless inning in a late, high-leverage situation (seventh inning or later, score tied or ahead by no more than two runs, no runs or inherited runners allowed to score, and so on); a pitcher can get more than one in a game. Hoffman’s 580 Goose Eggs rank seventh all-time, with the five enshrined averaging 578 (weighed down by Eckersley’s 352; Fingers is second at 663, Wilhelm third at 641, Sutter eighth at 557). With Broken Eggs (failures in Goose Egg situations) factored in and a replacement level baseline set (Goose Wins Above Replacement, or GWAR, because Nate was having some fun), Hoffman’s 43.7 GWAR is second to Rivera’s 54.6, with Gossage third at 39.4, Wilhelm ninth at 31.3, Sutter 12th at 30.3, Fingers 17th at 25.3 and Eckersley 32nd at 20.8. The five enshrined average 29.6.

Those measures—even the most newfangled one—provide a stronger rationale 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. Since JAWS guides my process, I’d prefer not to bump a deserving candidate off my (virtual) ballot when I've already got more than 10 competing for its 10 spaces, some with 10-year maximums or 5.0% minimums working against them. But at the very least, I’m willing to keep Hoffman under consideration for my final 10.

With or without my (non-voting) support, Hoffman is on his way to Cooperstown, at least eventually. No candidate has ever received as high a percentage as he did in his 2016 ballot debut (67.3%) without eventual election, and none has received it that early in his ballot run without getting elected by the writers. With 2016 near-misses Jeff Bagwell (71.6%) and Tim Raines (69.8%) and first-timer Ivan Rodriguez all competing for ballot space in 2017, Hoffman couldn’t quite make it all the way home; his 74.0% in 2017 edged him within five votes of election, the second-smallest shortfall in the millennium after Craig Biggio’s two-vote margin in 2014.

While there is a precedent for a candidate falling off the ballot after getting even closer than Hoffman (Jim Bunning, 74.2%—four votes short—in his 12th year; eventually, he was elected by the Veterans Committee), 17 out of 18 candidates receiving at least 70% since 1966 have been elected in the following year. Even with holdover Vlad Guerrero (71.7%) joined by first-time locks Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, Hoffman should get over the top this time. 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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