Though I have spent countless hours studying the Hall of Fame -- the players in it, the trends, great choices, odd choices, philosophies behind the vote -- I still have absolutely no idea what to do with relief pitchers. No idea.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, relievers have been beloved by baseball writers and analysts since the 1970s. There are two things that are strange about this:
1. Before the 1970s, relief pitchers were mostly viewed as nothing but failed starters.
2. Since the save was invented, relievers have developed a level of respect and admiration that still eludes, say, designated hitters.
The second thing is the befuddling one. Exactly zero designated hitters -- players who have hit there at least 60 percent of their plate appearances -- have won an MVP award. David Ortiz came close a couple of times. Edgar Martinez finished third in 1995 despite having a much better season than winner Mo Vaughn. In 2006, DH Travis Hafner had a crazy offensive season -- he slugged a full 100 points higher than MVP Justin Morneau -- but didn't get even one first-place vote.
The weird part of the Edgar and Hafner years is that the winners (Vaughn, Morneau) played first base, which is the position closest to DH.
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By the same token, zero players who have been a DH at least 60 percent of the time have been elected to the Hall of Fame. Martinez is trying to become the first, and though he is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, he still struggles still to get to 75 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, relief pitchers -- closers specifically -- have been treated much better by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) though they are even more specialized than designated hitters. Closers throw between a half and a quarter of the innings starting pitchers throw. And yet relievers have won nine Cy Young Awards since the 1969 expansion, along with three MVP awards.
Video: FLA@ATL: Wagner's 1,170th strikeout sets lefty record
Also, four relievers in the expansion era have been elected to the Hall of Fame. If you look at the Hall of Fame pitchers with the fewest innings pitched, you find three of them:
Hall of Fame pitchers with fewest innings
1. Bruce Sutter: 1,042 innings
2. Rollie Fingers: 1,701 innings
3. Goose Gossage: 1,809 innings
The fourth, Dennis Eckersley, was a good but not great starter, piling up 2,500 innings doing that. It was his relief work that got him to Cooperstown, though he threw fewer than 800 innings as a closer.
All of this makes you wonder: How in the heck can even great relief pitchers such as Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner make a viable Hall of Fame case?
Consider two pitchers on this year's ballot.
One is Hoffman. He pitched 1,089 1/3 innings in his career, posting a 141 ERA+ and a 3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He led the league in saves twice, and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting one year.
The other pitcher tallied 2,025 2/3 innings -- almost twice as many as Hoffman -- with a 136 ERA+ and a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He led the league in ERA three times, in games started twice, in innings pitched twice, in strikeouts three times, in ERA+ three times, in WHIP four times, in fewest hits per nine innings three times. He won two Cy Young Awards. He finished with almost twice as many wins above replacement as Hoffman.
Hoffman will get elected this year, I believe.
Johan Santana, the other guy, will fall off the ballot this year due to non-support, I believe.
You tell me if that makes a lot of sense to you.
This is why I find the relief pitching thing so hard to measure. Everyone knows a good closer is an important part of a winning team. Everyone knows that managers and general managers treasure closers; this offseason, Colorado paid $17 million per year for Wade Davis. But neither of the terrific closers we're talking about today -- Hoffman and Wagner -- ever pitched 100 innings in a season. Neither of them ever accumulated 4.5 bWAR in a season.
Kevin Brown, David Cone, Dave Stieb and Rick Reuschel each had seven seasons with 4.5 WAR or better, and not one of them even made it to a second ballot.
Here's a crazy fact: From 1996-2000, Brown put up a higher WAR (36.9) than either Hoffman (28.0) or Wagner (27.7) did for their entire careers. The combined career WAR of both Wagner and Hoffman is merely what Brown accumulated from 1990-2000.
So what is the case for relievers? Well, the argument is that relievers are a special breed, and WAR cannot capture their value. Yes, they pitch fewer innings, but almost all of them were in critical game situations. Closers are not given the luxury of pitching the lazy early innings of a game or throwing with a big lead. They are brought in, almost exclusively, when their teams are on the brink of victory, when the manager needs someone to close things out, when winning or losing is hanging in the balance.
This is why both of them rank very high all-time in a different statistic called Win Probability Added. To explain it briefly, WPA adds or subtracts an individual contribution to his team's win percentage. In other words, if a closer gets out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the ninth with the game on the line, there's quite a bit of win probability added. And because teams going into the last inning with a lead already have a very high probability of winning, closers will lose a great deal of WPA if they blow the save.
To give you an idea of how important those closer innings are, Hoffman added 34 wins by WPA, 21st on the all-time list. He is stuffed right between Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Robin Roberts, who threw thousands more innings. Wagner's WPA is 29, which puts him in 34th place, ahead of Hall of Famers like Steve Carlton.
With relief-pitcher voting, like with every other part of Hall of Fame voting, most people will choose the statistics and criteria and touchstones that confirm their already strongly held belief. If you don't think many relievers merit Hall of Fame consideration, you will go with WAR or innings pitched or strikeouts or something like that. If you believe that great relievers are no-doubt Hall of Famers, you will go with WPA. I'm stuck in the middle somewhere.
One thing I'm not stuck about: I think Hoffman and Wagner were similarly excellent, with Wagner being the more dominant pitcher. He had a 2.31 ERA to Hoffman's 2.87. There are numerous other statistics in which Wagner was significantly better than Hoffman, but my favorite number connected with Wagner is 0.998. That was his career WHIP. It is the lowest WHIP for any pitcher since the dead-ball era.
But Hoffman has become the BBWAA's favored choice, mainly because of his saves. Hoffman is one of only two pitchers -- the incomparable Mariano Rivera is the other -- to save 600 games. Wagner managed 422 saves. Hoffman saved 40-plus games nine times. Wagner did it just twice.
Video: MIN@NYY: Mo closes out Twins for save No. 602
Still, the careers of Hoffman and Wagner are more similar than different. They both made seven All-Star teams. They were both excellent closers from the mid-1990s to 2010. They finished with roughly the same value. It seems strange then that Hoffman likely will be elected to the Hall of Fame, probably this year, while Wagner polls at barely 10 percent and seems to be losing support. But there are many people who put a lot of stock in the save statistic.
I mention above that Rivera is incomparable. I think this is important to say because there are Hoffman fans who will argue that he was essentially the National League Mariano; every year, several people write in to me to say that he was better than Mariano. Look, I think the world of Trevor Hoffman. I didn't have room for him on my overcrowded ballot, but I think it will be a great day when he is elected, and I still have goosebumps from the first time I saw him enter the field with the song "Hell's Bells" being played.
But he is not Mariano Rivera, and nobody else is either. There's a reason Rivera's WAR (56.6) is more than double Hoffman's. Rivera's ERA (2.21) and all-time great ERA+ (a record 205) and mathematically elegant WHIP (1.000) much more closely compare to Wagner than Hoffman.
But the main difference between Rivera and everyone else, including Hoffman, is his postseason dominance. He threw 141 innings in the postseason, had a 0.70 ERA, saved 42 games and had an absurd 0.759 WHIP. That level of success is untouchable.
Hoffman's postseason experience was extremely limited, and he struggled in the only World Series he pitched in.
Then again, does a reliever have to be as great as Rivera to be a Hall of Famer? The answer is clearly no. That's a good thing, because if it were the case, there would be zero closers in the Hall of Fame … until next year.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.