When Trevor Hoffman recorded his 600th save back in September, I kind of paid him a backhanded complement by unfavorably comparing him to Mariano Rivera. The intention wasn’t to denigrate Hoffman, who has had a wonderful career, but rebut the notion that put both relievers in the same class. In any event, Hoffman has now officially retired with 601 saves, leaving him just 42 ahead of Rivera, so, when all is said and done, he may eventually find himself looking up at the great Yankees closer in even that regard.
For a fitting tribute to Hoffman, Buster Olney does the job quite well. However, Olney goes way overboard by suggesting he “should be an absolute lock first-ballot Hall of Famer”. Make no mistake about it. Hoffman deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration, and he does seem a fair bet to win eventual enshrinement. However, he is far from a slam dunk candidate.
If Olney is correct, then it will mean that Hall of Famer votes are still fixated on the saves stat. Recent voting trends, however, suggest otherwise. One of the ironies behind the recent elections of Bruce Sutter and Rich Gossage is a greater appreciation of the roles they filled seemed to come at the expense of the value placed on the modern closer. Gossage’s own comments about the evolving role of the reliever have highlighted this give and take.
When Lee Smith first appeared on the ballot in 2003, he was the career saves leader with 478, but only polled 42.3% of the vote. That same year, Sutter (300 saves) earned 53.6%, while Gossage (310 saves) tallied 42.1%. In the intervening years, both Sutter and Gossage earned enshrinement, while Smith’s vote total stagnated (in the most recent election, he polled 45.3%). If saves were the driving factor behind a reliever’s Hall of Fame credentials then wouldn’t Smith have been the more popular candidate?
It should be noted that Hoffman’s 601 saves are almost equal to the totals of Sutter and Gossage combined. So, it is possible that such a large number could hold sway. On the other hand, if Rivera does eventually take the lead, it could remove some of the bloom off that figure by the time five years go by. What’s more, if guys like Francisco Rodriguez (268 saves, 28 years old) and Jonathan Papelbon (188 saves, 29 years old) continue their march to 400 saves by 2016, it could further remove some luster from Hoffman’s 601.
Assuming that saves alone do not a Hall of Fame reliever make, we then need to examine how Hoffman compares to his peers in other regards. As previously mentioned, Rivera really is in a class unto himself, which may or may not impact the consideration of other contemporary relievers. So, where does Hoffman stand among the second tier of modern closers?
The 400 Save Club
Although Hoffman stands atop the list above in saves, he really doesn’t stand out in any other category. In fact, it’s really Billy Wagner who seems to emerge as the leader of the “not Rivera” group. Considering that both Wagner and Hoffman will go on the ballot together, it could be very difficult for either one to distinguish himself enough to earn a first ballot entry.
Post Season Performance of 400 Save Club
Postseason performance is what really allows Rivera to lap the field. Although Hoffman’s 3.46 ERA is respectable, none of the other relievers really have much of a sample to consider. If anything, Hoffman’s high profile blown save in the 1998 World Series could actually work against him, especially among that portion of the electorate that seems fixated on moments (see Jack Morris).
One final note of warning regarding Hoffman’s Hall of Fame chances comes from the results of the 2011 ballot. John Franco, who is a worthy comparable to Hoffman, not only did poorly in the polling, but actually fell off the ballot with only 4.6% of the vote. Although not 601, Franco’s save total is still fourth all-time, and that obviously had little sway with the voters.
Is Trevor Hoffman a Hall of Famer? At this point in time, I think it is too difficult to tell. What he is not, however, is a lock, and particularly not a first ballot lock. In the wake of a player’s retirement, many can be prone to exaggeration. That’s why the Hall of Fame makes its electorate wait five years before casting a ballot.