Trevor Hoffman retired yesterday and the Hall of Fame argument as to his worthiness has already begun.
While he was playing there was a debate in judging his career with some calling him an automatic Hall of Famer and others—some former players among them—scoffing at the notion based on the perceived easiness of what it was Hoffman and the other closers of the era did.
So which is it and are we going to have to listen to the back-and-forth for the next five years? Let’s look at the pros and cons, defenses and indictments of Hoffman’s career.
Should he be punished or rewarded because of strategies?
Tony La Russa has been unfairly blamed for the proliferation of the “one-inning closer”. Naturally, it’s a misapplication of blame. When he was managing the White Sox, La Russa used his closers as closers were used in the late 1970s-early 1980s. They pitched multiple innings and were worked hard.
It was when he got to Oakland and installed Dennis Eckersley that he ushered in the era of the “specialist”; middle-men, set-up men, closers backing up a pitcher who was generally only asked to give 6-7 innings fostered the notion of La Russa altering the game.
The truth is that La Russa used Eckersley that way because that was how Eckersley was best suited to be used as he made the transition from starter to closer. The truth is, Eckersley pitched more than one inning somewhat regularly during his heyday of the late 1980s; he didn’t pitch 2-3 innings as Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry did in the early part of the decade, but no short reliever does that anymore. Brian Wilson does it occasionally and he’s an anomaly.
Managers who don’t have La Russa’s nerve to innovate—the Jeff Torborgs—took the theory to its logical conclusion. Such was evident by Bobby Thigpen‘s 57 save season in 1990 pitching for Torborg with the White Sox. The hollowness of the save stat became highly pronounced just as Hoffman and John Franco were beginning their careers.
Putting it into context—with Gossage’s lament—it’s not the same as it was; you can’t compare what the relievers do today to what they did before.
Just as players like Wade Boggs shouldn’t have been punished for using the Green Monster in Fenway Park for target practice, how do you blame Hoffman for the way he was used? This was the game when he was pitching; he did as he was told and did it well. The save stat has been made less than what it was when it was created and that’s not Hoffman’s fault.
But maybe he shouldn’t be rewarded for it either.
Was it him or was it the song?
This isn’t a joke.
Did the echoing of AC/DC’s Hells Bells influence the thought that, “Oh no, Hoffman’s coming in!”?
Or was his stuff such that opposing teams and fans threw their hands up in the air or packed their belongings when his name was announced as the new pitcher?
Hoffman wasn’t style over substance, but it was a cool thing to hear the tolling of the bell in the song. That his out pitch wasn’t a Gossage 100-mph fastball; a Sutter split-finger; or a Mariano Rivera cutter lends credence to the idea that teams were more fooled than devastated by Hoffman’s money pitch change up.
Again, not his fault; but something to think about.
There was no “moment”.
Hoffman’s case would be made easier if he’d won a World Series. In his one chance in the Fall Classic, the Padres were swept away by the 125-50 Yankees; but the series wasn’t as much of a washout as the four game sweep suggests.
In game 3, the Padres were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the top of the eighth inning when manager Bruce Bochy called on Hoffman with a runner on first and no one out. Bernie Williams flew out to deep right; Paul O’Neill walked; then series MVP Scott Brosius homered to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead. A lead that Mariano Rivera held giving the Yankees a 3-0 series lead.
Had Hoffman saved the game, could the Padres have won the series? Probably not; but the longer it went, the more of a chance they would’ve had; if they’d gotten it to game 7 with an in-his-prime Kevin Brown ready to pitch, who knows?
But Hoffman gave up the big homer rather than getting the big out.
It’s not a small blip for a borderline Hall of Famer.
Accumulation is not the mark of a Hall of Famer.
Hoffman accrued stats. The one closer of today, Rivera, who’s going to waltz into the Hall of Fame accrued championship rings and the reputation as unflappable because he got the outs in the post-season.
The argument that Rivera had a better team and more opportunities in the playoffs is not without merit, but that has nothing to do with what Hoffman accomplished.
The “woulda, coulda, shoulda” isn’t the same as looking at a Bert Blyleven and examining his career based on the teams he played for and his contemporaries.
I’ve always wondered why the “woulda, coulda, shoulda, argument was enough to get Kirby Puckett into the Hall of Fame when his career ended because of glaucoma, but not good enough for Don Mattingly, who was a far more dangerous hitter than Puckett—was in fact the dominant player in baseball position for five years—but didn’t get the same treatment because his back problems ruined his greatness.
The magic number of 300 wins and 500 homers is being ignored now because the game has changed. Jamie Moyer and David Wells have more wins that some Hall of Famers, but aren’t getting in; members of the 500 club aren’t receiving the honor because of PED allegations. And the save stat has been diminished because of the one-inning save.
You have to put eras into perspective if you’re going to compare them at all.
Will Hoffman get in?
I honestly don’t know.
I’ve gone back-and-forth on the subject myself. Will his numbers be enough when the vote comes around? He’s not going to have the passionate support that Blyleven had from stat zombies; nor is he going to get the old-school support.
If you examine Eckersley—a deserved Hall of Famer—his candidacy was only made viable by the fact that he was a great starter and a great closer. I feel that same thing will push John Smoltz over the top.
Is he a Hall of Famer?