As Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera enter the twilights of their careers, people are beginning to ask if they are Hall of Fame worthy. On the one hand, recent Hall of Fame inductees like Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage might suggest the Hall of Fame voters are beginning to give more respect for closers than they did before. On the other hand, Lee Smith, the former career saves leader has never garnered more than 47.3% of the Hall of Fame vote.
From the outset, one would think that Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. After all, they currently rank 1 and 2 in career saves and are the only closers to ever have more than 500 career saves. However, very few modern day closers have entered the Hall of Fame. So there is very little history to determine what is Hall of Fame worthy for a modern day closer. Closers like Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage were long relief closers. It was not uncommon for them to throw more than 80 innings a year in relief, sometimes throwing more than 100 innings in a year. In fact, Rollie Fingers pitched over 100 innings in a year an amazing 11 times. In contrast, Mariano Rivera has pitched more than 100 innings only once, and only one other time pitched more than 80 innings. Trevor Hoffman has thrown more than 80 innings only three times. The only pitcher in the Hall of Fame that represents the modern day short inning closer is Dennis Eckersley. While he was a closer for only half his career, ultimately, he’s the closer we’ll have to use as comparison for Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
Dennis Eckersley played as a closer for 11 years. In those 11 years, he had a 42-42 record, 386 saves, 2.87 ERA, 140 ERA+, and 0.980 WHIP. He had a phenomenal strike out to walks ratio of over 7 (752 Ks, 106 walks). His career is highlighted by a stretch run from 1988-1992 in which he had a 24-9 record, 220 saves, 1.90 ERA, 199 ERA+, and 0.792 WHIP. During that time he won the Cy Young and MVP award in 1992, and also placed 2nd, 5th, and 6th in Cy Young voting in other years. The 199 ERA+ especially stands out, indicating that his ERA was 50% of the league average over that run.
This run of excellence from Dennis Eckersley has been nearly unmatched by other modern day closers. I say “nearly” for a specific reason. Mariano Rivera has nearly had this run of excellence, however he’s done it for even a longer time. From 1996-2009, Mariano Rivera had a 69-49 record, 526 saves, 2.04 ERA, 223 ERA+, and 0.980 WHIP. Those numbers are even better than Dennis Eckersley’s career as a closer. As of this writing, Mariano Rivera’s career ERA+ is an astounding 206. That is the best ERA+ of any pitcher in major league history, and it’s not even close. Pedro Martinez is in second place with an ERA+ of 154. Closer Dan Quisenberry is the closest reliever with a career ERA+ of 147. Mariano Rivera has never won a Cy Young award, however he’s placed in the top five of Cy Young voting five times. This amount of dominance over an entire career should definitely put Mariano Rivera into the Hall of Fame.
In comparison, Trevor Hoffman is a bit of a different story. Trevor Hoffman has been very good over his entire career, but hasn’t been able to achieve quite the dominance that Mariano Rivera achieved. During Trevor Hoffman’s career as a closer from 1994-2009, he had a 55-62 record, 586 saves, 2.62 ERA, 153 ERA+, and 1.015 WHIP. The numbers are reasonably comparable to Dennis Eckersley’s career numbers as a closer, with the obvious exception of career saves since Trevor Hoffman was a closer longer. His ERA+ is slightly superior but he does have a worse WHIP. Trevor Hoffman’s best years were from 1996-2000 when he had a 25-21 record, 215 saves, 2.31 ERA, 176 ERA+, 0.945 WHIP. That run was really good, but not at the ridiculous level that Dennis Eckersley had over his best 5 year stretch. Mariano Rivera has had several 5 year stretches that were comparable to this stretch, however he has done it over his entire career. Similar to Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman has never won a Cy Young award. He’s placed in the top 6 of Cy Young voting 4 times, twice placing in 2nd place.
With very comparable career numbers to Dennis Eckersley, and having done it over an amazing 15 years as a closer, I believe Trevor Hoffman also gets the nod for the Hall of Fame. While he wasn’t been as good or as dominant as Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera, he has been a sufficiently elite closer for a long enough time. He has been the consistent model of an elite modern day closer. As of this writing, his career ERA+ of 140 gives him the 14th best ERA+ in baseball history. Add in the fact that he will finish his career as the all time saves leader, that should be enough to make him a Hall of Famer.
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Various, “Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, 2011”, Wikipedia
“Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Baseball Statistics and History”, Baseball-Reference
Various, “Baseball Hall of Fame Balloting 2010”, Wikipedia