2016: Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds, Trevor Hoffman, Billy WagnerWhile the marquee player on the 2016 ballot will be Ken Griffey, Jr., with discussion likely to include speculation of how much more he could have accomplished had he not missed so much playing time because of injuries, the next player in line will be Trevor Hoffman. The durable relief pitcher, the first to reach 600 saves, was perhaps even more impressive because as a closer, he did not have an overpowering fastball but instead relied on his changeup. But despite Hoffman's auspicious career numbers, his case for the Hall of Fame may not be so apparent.
Meanwhile, three first-time candidates on the 2016 ballot could find themselves lost in the shuffle, and in the case of two of them, that may be a shame as their careers are more substantial than they may first appear. The third, on the other hand, may be a case study in how a superficial look at a career does not tell the whole story.
As the long-time left fielder for the Angels, Garret Anderson can truly be considered a "franchise player" as he spent all but two seasons of his 17-year career with the team. (And let's get the team-name merry-go-'round out of the way now: When Anderson joined the team in 1994, the club was called the California Angels. From 1997 to 2004, they were the Anaheim Angels. But starting in 2005, thanks to owner Arte Moreno's craven marketing sycophancy, they have been known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the silliest name in baseball.) Yet despite being a "franchise player," Anderson was more like a fixture than a star.
I'm a long-time resident of Orange County, California, and although I'm not actually an Angels fan (as a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, any stirrings of fandom I may have been feeling for the Angels were dashed in 2002), I've attended many Angels games because they are the local venue for Major League Baseball. In that time, Anderson was always the second banana, whether to Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Vladimir Guerrero, or even Mo Vaughn during his much-ballyhooed yet ultimately undistinguished two-year stint with the club.
And despite persistent remarks about Anderson "dogging it" that swirled around Angel Stadium and in the local media, he was a consistent ballplayer, one who was the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year in 1995, when he posted a .321/.352/.505 slash line with 120 hits in 374 at-bats including 19 doubles and 16 home runs, 50 runs scored, and 69 runs driven in. (He placed second to the Minnesota Twins' Marty Cordova, and I had to refresh my memory too.)
For his career, Anderson produced a .293/.324/.461 line as in 2228 games, yielding 9177 plate appearances and 8640 at-bats, he collected 2529 hits (92nd all-time) including 522 doubles (44th all-time) and 287 homers (152nd all-time), scored 1084 runs (256th all-time), and drove in 1365 runs (84th all-time, and tied with Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda). Anderson led the AL in doubles in two consecutive years, hitting 56 in 2002 and 49 in 2003, as he smacked 30 or more two-baggers in ten seasons, eight of those consecutively from 1996 to 2003.
But a "consistent" ballplayer is not the same as a Hall of Fame ballplayer, and Garret Anderson's career is that of a compiler. He was good enough to keep a starting slot in the lineup by avoiding injury and maintaining production: For 14 consecutive seasons, from 1996 to 2009, Anderson averaged for each season 146 games played, 614 plate appearances and 578 at-bats that produced 170 hits, including 36 doubles and 19 homers, and 268 total bases, in turn generating a .293/.325/.463 slash line while he scored 73 runs and drove in 92. He finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2002, when he batted .306 with 29 round-trippers and a league-leading 56 doubles.
Left fielder Garret Anderson was an Angels' lineup fixture--but does that make him a Hall of Famer?
Yet the value of Anderson's production tells a different story. His career OPS+ of 102 and career wRC+ of 100 indicate a league-average player—not an insult, but neither a superlative. Anderson generated a 25.6 bWAR and a 23.5 fWAR, hardly Hall of Fame-caliber. Indeed, Jaffe's JAWS places Anderson at 85th place among all left fielders, well below even marginal, if not openly disputed, Hall of Famers Chick Hafey and Jim Rice. Garret Anderson was solid and reliable, but despite his racking up a few fairly impressive numbers, he was not a Hall of Fame-level player.
On the other hand, the same cannot be said for Jim Edmonds, although like Garret Anderson and Gary Sheffield, it is difficult to see how Edmonds's offensive production stood out from the competition. Defensively, of course, Edmonds may be a whole other story, although in the video age his spectacular highlight-reel footage may overshadow his overall defensive metrics as a center fielder. Edmonds did win eight Gold Gloves as an outfielder, and only seven other outfielders have won more since the award was instituted in 1957, while his defensive WAR of 5.9 is certainly respectable for a defender at one of the strength positions up the middle.
A defensive wizard in center field, does Jim Edmonds have the overall career brilliance for the Hall of Fame?
Defensive metrics are still a work in progress—although they are still a better indicator of defensive effectiveness than simply using fielding percentage—but they are generally favorable to Edmonds. FanGraphs' Total Zone rating gives Edmonds a 90 for his career; Total Zone is a runs-scored index, with a zero indicating a league-average defender, so Edmonds was 90 runs-saved better than a league-average defender.
For comparative purposes, these are the FanGraphs' Total Zone ratings for center fielders currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame:
||Total Zone Rating
Should Edmonds be elected to the Hall, his Total Zone index of 90 would place him third all-time—and what center fielder would mind ranking behind Willie Mays and Tris Speaker? For further comparison, Kenny Lofton, who fell off the ballot after his first appearance last year, has a 113 Total Zone Rating. Ken Griffey, Jr., who will be on the same ballot as Edmonds, has a TZ rating of –17, while Andruw Jones, expected to be on the 2018 ballot, nets a TZ rating of 242. Elsewhere, the Baseball Reference version of Total Zone Rating lists Edmonds at 85 runs saved while the site's Defensive Runs Saved index puts him at –7.
But while Edmonds may in fact be one of the defensive greats in center field—you can believe the highlight-reel footage—how does he stack up as a hitter? Will his bat help to carry him into Cooperstown?
Qualitatively, Edmonds looks strong if not overpowering, with a slash line of .284/.376/.527 producing an OPS of .903 and an OPS+ of 132 (tied with Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Joe Morgan, and Jackie Robinson), with a wRC+ of 132 and a wOBA of .385. In 2011 games, with 7980 plate appearances and 6858 at-bats, Edmonds generated a bWAR of 60.2 and an fWAR of 64.0. Jaffe's JAWS ranking puts Edmonds in 14th place among all center fielders; his top-seven bWAR years total 42.5, 1.6 wins behind the average of 44.1 based on the 18 center fielders already in the Hall of Fame, while his JAWS of 51.4 is 5.8 wins behind the aggregate average of 57.2, and his overall bWAR of 60.2 is 10.2 wins behind the 70.4 aggregate average.
Quantitatively, Edmonds, who had been dogged by injuries during his career, compiled decent if not spectacular numbers. He fell just short of 2000 hits; his 1949 hits are 299th all-time. His 437 doubles are 126th all-time, just behind Hall of Famers Luke Appling, Roberto Clemente, and Eddie Collins. His 393 homers ranks 56th all-time, just behind Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Al Kaline. In runs scored, Edmonds ranks 146th all-time with 1251, and in runs batted in, he places 152nd among career leaders with 1199, just behind Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.
Edmonds never led the league in any offensive category. He finished within the top five in Most Valuable Player voting twice: In 2000, his first year with the St. Louis Cardinals, he placed fourth, compiling a .295/.411/.583 line, 42 home runs (tied for seventh-best in the National League), 129 runs scored (tied for third-best), and 103 walks (tied for fourth-best). Edmonds also generated 167 strikeouts that year, third-best in the NL; always a free swinger, Edmonds finished with 1729 career whiffs, 25th all-time, ahead of Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Harmon Killebrew and just behind Hall of Famer Lou Brock—although this is hardly an auspicious career highlight.
In 2004, Edmonds placed fifth in NL MVP voting although he had a better year than he had in 2000: He posted a .301/.418/.643 slash line—his .418 on-base percentage was sixth-best in the NL while his .643 slugging average placed third—from 150 hits, 38 doubles, 42 home runs (tied for fifth-best), 320 total bases (sixth-best), and 101 walks (ninth-best), yielding career bests in OPS (1.061, fourth-best in the NL that season) and OPS+ (171, third-best), while producing 102 runs scored and 111 runs batted in (sixth-best).
Unlike his California/Anaheim Angels teammate Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds, when I saw him in the late 1990s, felt like a game-changing player, whether in center field or at the plate. (I still remember his walk-up music—Limp Bizkit's "Nookie.") He could make a spectacular catch or deliver a clutch hit. And with his career bWAR of 60.3—with FanGraphs giving him a more bullish 64.0—Edmonds deserves serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. Jay Jaffe's JAWS places Edmonds 14th all-time among center fielders, just behind Hall of Fame members Ritchie Ashburn, Andre Dawson, and Billy Hamilton and well ahead of several Hall of Famers including Larry Doby, Kirby Puckett, Max Carey, Earl Averill, and others.
Despite the highlight-reel catches, however, Jim Edmonds does not feel like a Hall of Fame player. He feels like one who is very close, particularly as a defensive centerfielder—he ranks 17th all-time in double plays turned by a center fielder (31), and 20th all-time in putouts (4343) and assists (116). But while Edmonds was a key ingredient on the Angels and the Cardinals, with whom he went to the World Series twice, winning it in 2006—although Edmonds was not an offensive factor in either Series—he was not the prime ingredient, one who shone like a Hall of Famer does. A truly stand-out season or an auspicious career offensive milestone would have bolstered Jim Edmonds's case for the Hall, but as it stands, there are a couple of other borderline center fielders with stronger credentials than his.
As the first relief pitcher to record both 500 saves and 600 saves, becoming one of only two men ever to accomplish those feats, Trevor Hoffman is in some rarefied company—only Mariano Rivera has ever reached those milestones, with Rivera finishing as the all-time leader in saves with 652; Hoffman had notched 601 before retiring. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Major League Baseball has, as of 2014, not only created an award given to the top relief pitcher in each league—up until now, an award had been given to the top reliever in both leagues—but has named the award for each league in honor of Hoffman, for the National League, and in honor of Rivera, for the American League. Hoffman spent his entire career in the NL, most of that with the San Diego Padres, while Rivera spent his entire career with the AL New York Yankees.
Will it be "Trevor Time" in Cooperstown for Trevor Hoffman, the first relief pitcher to reach 600 career saves?
Perhaps the awarding of the top reliever in each league, instead of both combined, is an acknowledgement of the fundamental change in relief pitching in baseball: Historically, the starting pitcher was expected to finish the game, with a relief pitcher coming in only if the starter got into trouble. Now pitching philosophy is structured on the premise that the starting pitcher will pitch into the later innings, such as the sixth, at which point a series of relief pitchers take over, culminating with the closer, whose function is to secure the final three outs of the game, at which point the closer has "saved" the game.
We are simplifying somewhat as there are specific criteria for earning a save, and we will not delve into whether the save is an overrated statistic that does not measure how effective a relief pitcher, specifically the closer, is. And we will touch only briefly on this: In previous decades, a relief ace would enter the game not just at the optimum time currently, which is at the start of the ninth inning with the bases empty. Instead, the relief ace was often called the "fireman" because he entered at any time when the game was "heating up"—the other team was threatening to tie or surpass the reliever's team, and it was his job to "put out the fire" and ensure that the other team was denied. Some analysts criticize the current use of the closer, arguing that if the closer is the best relief pitcher on a staff, he should be brought in to pitch precisely in those "high-leverage" situations—putting out the fire as in earlier eras—when the fate of the game is on the line, and not exclusively for the final three outs, which may not be the most critical outs, but for which the closer will get credit for "saving" the game.
In any event, the Baseball Hall of Fame has never been receptive to honoring role players such as a relief pitcher. To date, only five relievers have been enshrined in the Hall: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Rich "Goose" Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eckersley spent the first half of his career as a starting pitcher before switching roles. The other four epitomized the era of the "firemen," especially Wilhelm, who in many respects pioneered the closing role. The case of Lee Smith is emblematic of the Hall's indifference to relief pitchers: Smith is the prototype of the modern closer, the one-inning specialist who enters the game to record the final three outs. Smith retired after the 1997 season with 478 saves, the most all-time until passed by Hoffman and then Rivera. He has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for 12 years, but he has yet to reach 50 percent of the vote, let alone the 75 percent needed for induction. In his most recent appearance on the ballot in 2014, he lost nearly 18 percent of the votes from the previous year's showing and fell to a tick beneath 30 percent—hardly an encouraging sign as he has just three more chances for election by the BBWAA. (Lee is grandfathered to complete his 15 total years' eligibility that was in force when he first qualified for the ballot, provided he maintains at least five percent of the vote in the next two years.)
Adding to Smith's woes will be the appearance of Hoffman on the 2016 ballot, who had surpassed him as the all-time saves leader until Hoffman himself was surpassed by Rivera. But as the number of saves itself is not an accurate indicator of relief-pitching effectiveness, and thus a criterion for Hall of Fame inclusion, let's examine these closers a little more closely.
The following two tables list various criteria of relief-pitching effectiveness, the first concentrating on the save situation itself, and the second on the effectiveness of the pitching in those situations, with each criterion explained below its respective table. The sample includes the five Hall of Fame relievers already mentioned along with Hoffman, Rivera, Smith, and Billy Wagner, who is eligible for the Hall in 2015.
This table ranks the relief pitchers by save percentage and lists career statistics for end-of-game performance and the leverage—the "pressure"—faced in those situations. (Note: Dennis Eckersley's statistics are for his relief pitching only.)
|Relief Pitchers, Ranked by Save Percentage
SV OPP: Save Opportunities, the number of times the pitcher entered the game qualified to earn a save. Typically the sum of saves and blown saves, but rules in place prior to 1973 results in an anomaly for Hoyt Wilhelm, whose career dated back to 1952.
Saves: Credit to a pitcher for successfully maintaining his team's lead in a game, as defined by Rule 10.19 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball.
Blown Saves: Credited to a pitcher who entered a game with a save opportunity but failed to maintain the lead, allowing the other team to tie or surpass his team's lead.
SV PCT: Save Percentage, the ratio of saves to save opportunities.
aLI: Average Leverage Index, as calculated by Baseball Reference. Measures the amount of "pressure" the pitcher experienced in his appearances. Average pressure is 1.0, low pressure is below 1.0, and high pressure is above 1.0.
This table ranks the relief pitchers by ERA+ and lists various measurements of the pitchers' performance in limiting opposing teams' offensive effectiveness. (Note: Dennis Eckersley's statistics are for his relief pitching only, with an asterisk (*) indicating an aggregate statistic as the reliever-only statistic is not available.)
|Pitchers, Ranked by ERA+
ERA+: Career ERA, league- and park-adjusted, as calculated by Baseball Reference. Positively indexed to 100, with a 100 ERA+ indicating a league-average pitcher, and values above 100 indicating the degrees better a pitcher is than a league-average pitcher.
ERA–: Career ERA, league- and park-adjusted, as calculated by FanGraphs. Negatively indexed to 100, with a 100 ERA– indicating a league-average pitcher, and values below 100 indicating the degrees better a pitcher is than a league-average pitcher.
FIP–: Fielding-independent pitching, a pitcher's ERA with his fielders' impact factored out, league- and park-adjusted, as calculated by FanGraphs. Negatively indexed to 100, with a 100 FIP– indicating a league-average pitcher, and values below 100 indicating the degrees better a pitcher is than a league-average pitcher.
WHIP: Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched.
SO/9: Strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the number of strikeouts by a pitcher, multiplied by 9, then divided by the number of innings the pitcher pitched, to project the average number of strikeouts a pitcher would record over the course of an entire game.
SO/BB: The ratio of a pitcher's strikeouts to bases on balls (or walks).
With respect to save conversions, Trevor Hoffman ranks behind only Mariano Rivera in terms of effectiveness, although as modern-day closers they typically entered a game at the start of the ninth inning, with no runners on base, whereas relievers from earlier eras—Wilhelm, Fingers, Gossage, Sutter—came on in an earlier inning with runners already on base. It is instructive, though, that Hoffman is second in average leverage index, or pitching in high-pressure situations.
In terms of overall pitching effectiveness, Hoffman is equal to or better than the relievers already in the Hall of Fame, and he even bests Rivera in strikeouts per nine innings. That is significant because Hoffman, initially a power pitcher, hurt his pitching shoulder in an off-season injury in 1994 that later necessitated rotator-cuff surgery, which diminished the velocity of his fastball. As a result, he developed a devastating changeup as his out pitch, setting it up with his other pitches, although, like Rivera and his cut fastball, Hoffman too had a pitch that every batter knew was coming, yet those batters had difficulty with it all the same.
In the highly volatile role of closer, one which sees high turnover and variable degrees of effectiveness by the pitcher from season to season, Hoffman was remarkably consistent and remarkably effective. For a 14-year period, from 1994 to 2007, Hoffman averaged, per season, 58 appearances and 61 innings pitched, allowing just 46 hits including 5 home runs while striking out 66 and walking only 16, earning 37 saves while posting a 2.61 ERA, a 154 ERA+, a 1.020 WHIP, a 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio, and a 4.12 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
What is even more impressive is that Hoffman accomplished this while pitching for the San Diego Padres, which had reached the postseason during his time with them just four times, advancing beyond the first round only once. That was in 1998, when the Padres made the World Series but were swept by the New York Yankees—Mariano Rivera's Yankees—with Hoffman, in his only World Series appearance, blowing his only save opportunity in Game Three. In 2007, the Padres battled the Colorado Rockies for the National League wild-card slot, forcing a Game 163 of the regular season in Denver, an exciting contest that went 13 innings. Entering the bottom of the 13th with an 8–6 lead, the Padres brought in Hoffman to save that lead, but he surrendered three runs—the winning one a controversial play at the plate—and was tagged with the loss.
That is the fundamental difference between Hoffman and Rivera—unlike Hoffman, Rivera has been no stranger to the postseason limelight, and he is the greatest postseason relief pitcher ever, but that is as much a function of his team getting him to the postseason in the first place as his performance while there. And Rivera has some high-profile playoff meltdowns too, such as Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, certain to be eliminated in four games in the bottom of the ninth inning when, facing Rivera, the Red Sox scored a run to force extra innings before winning in the bottom of the twelfth inning; they went on to win the series, the only MLB team to win a seven-game series after losing the first three games of that series. Rivera's blown save in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks was an even bigger meltdown in one of the most exciting Series in history: Tacked to a one-run lead entering the eighth inning, Rivera struck out the side—he did allow a two-out single—before facing the D-Backs again in the ninth, in which he gave up two runs, one resulting from his own error, as Arizona came from behind to win its first (and to date only) World Series.
But when compared to both his contemporaries and those relievers already in the Hall, Trevor Hoffman ranks among the best at the position based on both his qualitative and quantitative record. Jaffe's JAWS ranks Hoffman at 21st place among relievers, behind Lee Smith (although ahead of Rollie Fingers), but that is a ranking based exclusively on bWAR alone and does not tell the entire story as Hoffman's consistency and excellence at his position is among the best-ever at that position. (And JAWS also factors in Dennis Eckersley's not-inconsiderable bWAR as a starting pitcher, thus skewing the range.)
And although it is hardly a factor in the evaluation, Hoffman did help to personify the mystique of the closer. In 1998, the Padres introduced "Trevor Time," the announcement that Hoffman was entering the game, running in from the bullpen to the accompaniment of AC/DC's "Hells Bells." It was a gimmick that spread throughout baseball; even the Yankees were not immune—a year later, in honor of Rivera, nicknamed "the Sandman," they began announcing his entrance by using Metallica's "Enter Sandman." (And we'll leave it to pop-culture mavens to ponder the significance, if any, of those two bands, Metallica and AC/DC, also being the favorites of, respectively, MTV's Beavis and Butt-head.)
Although his relatively low profile may make Trevor Hoffman seem to be little more than a compiler, his quantitative and—more importantly—his qualitative record put him on a par with not only existing Hall of Fame relievers but also with certain Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. He belongs in the Hall.
That could also be the case for Billy Wagner, who may be the best relief pitcher about whom you never gave a second thought, but whose own record prompts serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. He may be the greatest left-handed reliever of all-time, but that will not be enough to get him into the Hall. Nor will his ranking fifth in all-time saves with 422, one of only five pitchers with 400 or more saves, although as we have seen with the qualitative comparisons for relief pitchers, Wagner looked pretty formidable with a 187 ERA+, second only to Mariano Rivera in our sample, and an unreal 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, which topped all nine relievers.
Perhaps the greatest left-handed relief pitcher of all time--is that enough to get Billy Wagner into the Hall of Fame?
The two biggest knocks against Wagner are longevity and anonymity. Although Wagner's career lasted 16 years, from 1995 to 2010, and he made 853 appearances, all in relief, he totaled 903 innings pitched, which is light for Hall of Fame consideration as all the other relievers in our comparisons logged at least 1000 innings pitched. (Even John Hiller, a criminally underrated pitcher from 1965 to 1980, whose 545 appearances included just 43 starts, compiled a hefty 1242 innings pitched as one of those stalwart "firemen" riding to the rescue while earning a modest—by today's standards—125 saves.) Moreover, Wagner, who had nine seasons with 30 or more saves, appeared atop the leaderboards only twice, both for games finished, first in 2003 with 67 finishes for the Houston Astros, and then in 2005 with 70 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Wagner did finish within the top ten in Cy Young voting twice. In 1999, he placed fourth as in 68 appearances totaling 74.2 innings he notched 39 saves in 42 opportunities, striking out 124 against only 23 walks for a 14.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched ratio and a 5.39 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, while he compiled a miniscule WHIP of 0.777. Wagner generated an outstanding 1.57 ERA and an equally impressive 1.65 FIP—he hardly needed his fielders—and an otherworldly 287 ERA+, the first of four times he generated an ERA+ over 200 in seasons in which he pitched at least 65 innings. Wagner finished sixth in Cy Young voting in 2006, his age-34 season, amassing 70 appearances, 72.1 innings pitched, 40 saves in 45 opportunities, 94 strikeouts against 21 walks to yield an 11.7 K/9 ratio, a 4.48 K/BB ratio, and a 1.106 WHIP. Wagner's 2.24 ERA was balanced by a 2.84 FIP, but he generated a 196 ERA+.
An archetypal power pitcher with a fastball that could hit triple digits and that had good movement on it, Wagner complemented the heat with a hard slider, making him an outstanding reliever. Injuries nagged him at the end of his career, although in his final campaign, the 2010 season in his age-38 year, he delivered for the Atlanta Braves a record of 7 wins against only 2 losses with 37 saves in 71 appearances, all in relief, as in 69.1 innings pitched he posted a 1.43 ERA, a 2.10 FIP, and a 275 ERA+, striking out 104 batters while walking only 22 for a 0.865 WHIP, a 13.5 K/9 ratio, and a 4.73 K/BB ratio.
Wagner's postseason appearances were significantly less auspicious—in fact, you could say that, overall, they were a disaster. Facing 59 batters in just 11.2 innings pitched, he gave up 21 hits, 3 of those home runs, and 13 earned runs for a 10.03 ERA. The fireballing southpaw also had contentious words for his former employers the Astros, the Phillies, and the New York Mets, but neither aspect will be what keeps him out of the Hall of Fame. Despite Billy Wagner's dominating stuff, he did not dominate the leaderboards, and without the gaudy counting numbers, and until the Hall develops an approach to recognize role players—if it ever does—Billy Wagner will be lucky to stay on the ballot past his first year.