Voting continues for the 2023 Baseball Hall of Fame class, and it looks like former elite closer Billy Wagner will inch forward while still falling short of the 75-percent threshold for induction. There are two newcomer closers on the ballot in Francisco Rodriguez (“K-Rod”) and Huston Street. What I’d like to do here is examine where we should be more open-minded with relief pitchers, if some of the better starting pitchers are being unjustly left behind and how it applies to current players on the ballot.
Starting with the relievers, there are only a few in the Hall. Mariano Rivera united everyone and made it unanimously. Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter round out the specialists. Dennis Eckersley wouldn’t be in if not for his exploits as an elite-level closer, but he racked up a lot of value as a starter. John Smoltz was a closer for a short span, but he’s in as a starter. Basically, there are seven closers in Cooperstown, but we could include Eckersley to make it eight.
In all of baseball history, that’s an incredibly low number, though there is a reason for it. Multiple reasons, in fact. The relief pitcher is a relatively modern innovation. Wilhelm debuted in 1952 and he was an outlier for years. The ’70s and ’80s are when we saw most of the Hall of Fame closers. The closers in that era often worked more than an inning and carried higher workloads than the closers of recent vintage, so they racked up much more impact each season.
Just as an example: Craig Kimbrel has 394 career saves, good for seventh in history. Rollie Fingers sits 15th at 341. But Fingers worked 1,701 1/3 innings compared to Kimbrel’s current 688 1/3.
The innings shortfall seems to be part of what is preventing Wagner from getting in at this juncture. Though there’s more. Circle back to where I said there are “multiple reasons” why relievers are so lightly represented in Cooperstown. One of those reasons is that most relievers are failed starters. Hoffman was. Hell, Rivera was a failed starter.
That’s where some people have trouble squaring things up. Some new names on this ballot, such as John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Matt Cain were very successful starters. Should they get more Hall looks than K-Rod and Street? It’s an interesting query.
Lackey racked up 2,840 1/3 innings in the regular season, not to mention his 144 postseason innings…