Reconsidering Relievers

Hi! Posted my first Hall of Fame article on my Substack today. It's a basic intro more for people who are less familiar with the Hall of Fame. I wrote it after I wrote this article, which I am going to post here first. Merry Christmas!

I was never a big reliever-for-Hall of Fame guy. I did not support Hoffman’s induction, nor have I supported Billy Wagner’s (Mariano River, of course, is beyond reproach). My argument has been simple: relievers are relatively fungible, they are not (as a rule) as good as starting pitchers, and I do not think the difference between the non-Mariano level relievers is great enough to draw a clear line. I pointed out last year that Joe Nathan & Billy Wagner resemble each other(in value terms), which indicated to me that my theory was right. Furthermore I felt the electorate’s treatment of Nathan also vindicated my position since Nathan failed to last even a single year on the ballot

This year I am reconsidering this position. Several trends or pieces of information factor into my new thinking:

  1. The BBWAA (and Veterans Committee) electorate disagrees with me. Before this year I would have inducted Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Willhelm and maybe Goose Gossage into the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA has inducted all three of them plus: Trevor Hoffman, Rollie Fingers & Bruce Sutter. Last year Billy Wagner crossed the 50% threshold. Lee Smith was inducted unanimously by the Veterans Committee. In short: relievers are no longer specialists who must transcend their position but players who must be considered on their own merits. I am still not convinced this is accurate, but I would rather influence that discussion instead of refusing to consider relievers at all.

  2. As we drift farther into a post-starting pitcher driven era we are seeing far more relievers than we have in the past, and relievers are also clearly separating from each other. This is giving us more data points to compare relievers to, which is helping me demarcate between pitchers. This is useful for both analytical purposes on its own, and also helpful to figure out who the best at the position are as a whole.

  3. Jay Jaffe developed a new JAWS for relievers: R-JAWS, similar to S-JAWS, which is helping differentiate between relievers and distinguish between earlier relievers who gained a bulk of their value from their time as starters (which was skewing the standard JAWS set).

For me there are three sets of criteria I will be using to analyze relievers for Hall of Fame analysis:

First does the reliever have a significant amount of saves, or games finished? In modern baseball almost every team uses their best pitcher as a closer. While saves and games finished are largely a function of opportunities, being given those opportunities says something about how your peers and managers viewed you at the time. Furthermore the save statistic has become one of the key benchmarks used to grade other Hall of Fame relievers. I will give strong consideration to relievers who reach 450 saves/games finished.

When we look at other important career milestones: 3,000 strikeouts & hits, 300 wins and 600 home runs, they all stem from a strong season number done 15 times. 3,000 hits and strikeouts is 200 15 times, 300 wins is 20 wins done 15 times, and 600 homers is 40 home runs hit 15 times. 450 saves is 30 saves done 15 times. Why 30? Well, 30 is usually not good enough to lead the league, but it’s a solid number and takes into consideration that for a closer to get more than 30 saves: their team needs to hand them more than 30 leads. Bad teams can't provide those opportunities.

Second, I want to see run prevention above the best starting pitchers. The median Hall of Famer for starters in run prevention is Juan Marchial with an ERA+ of 123. I want to see relievers with run prevention well above that, my gut feeling is about 135-140. Here are the relievers currently in the Hall by ERA+:

Mariano Rivera: 205Hoyt Willhelm: 147Trevor Hoffman: 141Bruce Sutter: 136Lee Smith: 132Goose Gossage: 126Rollie Fingers: 120Dennis Eckersley: 116

Eckersley’s ERA+ can be explained away by his time as a starter. His ERA+ of 136 after he stopped starting games is a little more in line (although still barely in the realm of where I’d like to see relievers be for Hall of Fame consideration). Sutter, Smith & Gossage are all on the edge; Rollie Fingers falls well short and lacks Eck’s excuse of starting games. Notably Billy Wagner’s 187 fits right in.

Third, beyond superb run prevention and a high saves/games finished total I also like to see some career length. My target number is 900 innings; that’s 15 seasons of 60 innings pitched (roughly a full season for a modern reliever). I am not opposed to considering a pitcher with less, but short dominance is not enough for me: baseball generates crazy dominant closers frequently. What we do not see frequently is the closer who remains dominants for many years.

With those three standards set I would like to briefly examine the careers of three active relievers who intrigue me and they are: Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel & Arolidsi Chapman. The reason why they intrigue me is because I think they help explain why I am reconsidering relievers in point number one: they are not all the same. Jansen & Kimbrel currently rank 15th & 16th in R-JAWS respectively, while Chapman ranks 28th. All three pitchers debuted in their age 22 seasons, all are currently entering their age 35 seasons, and all were dominant closers (arguably either the best, or among the best) in baseball at one point. Conveniently, all three literally debuted the same year: so there are no era effects we need consider in this analysis.

My gut feeling in previous years would be that all three are roughly similar in value, and have been similar relievers over the course of their careers. However, while all three were dominant: they are not remaining equally dominant over time, and they are aging quite differently. Here are their raw stats for comparison:

Craig Kimbrel:

688.1 IP, 394 SV, 567 GF, ERA+ 177, 0.985 WHIP, 14.4 SO/9, 3.92 SO/BB, 8 AS, Rookie of the Year, 2x Reliever of the Year Award

Kenley Jansen:

769 IP, 391 SV, 573 GF, ERA+ 159, 0.938 WHIP, 13.0 SO/0, 4.90 SO/BB, 3 AS

Aroldis Chapman:

640 IP, 315 SV, 484 GF, ERA+ 167, 1.069 WHIP, 14.7 SO/9, 3.29 SO/BB, 7 AS, 1x Reliever of the Year Award

Notice: I did not include bWAR in their stats, which I typically would in Hall of Fame analysis. This is because, while I think bWAR is crucial, I no longer think bWAR it’s particularly valuable when looking at relievers. All WAR are counting stats, and I think WAR is built for starters, not relievers. Although, interestingly enough, Jansen has pitched the most innings by a wide margin: Craig Kimbrel has the highest bWAR.

Thus far all three relievers boast the excellent run prevention I seek, and all three are dominant. We can discuss differences: Chapman is the more prolific strikeout pitcher but allows more baserunners; Jansen allows the fewest baserunners but is noticeably weaker in terms of strikeouts. Chapman has the lowest Save and Games Finished totals, partially because he missed two years setting up for Francisco Cordero, but also because his career slowed considerably compared to Kimbrel & Jansen, making their arcs quite different. It is their career arcs which is of most interest to me.

All three relievers exploded onto the scene at age 22, and all interestingly played in the NL. At first it was Craig Kimbrel who appeared destined for the best career: Kimbrel led the league in saves four years in a row for Atlanta from 2012-2014, watched with insane run prevention (ERA+ of 183, 399, 311, & 223), making four All-Star Games and winning Rookie of the Year honors. While Kimbrel remained effective it was Aroldis Chapman who took center stage next; in between the 2015 & ‘16 seasons the Reds traded Chapman to the Yankees where he remained dominant. After the Yankees proceeded to have an uncharacteristic bad year they shipped Chapman again to the Cubs. Chapman was superb with Chicago, and solid in the postseason, although he did cough up one of Cleveland’s most famous moments in franchise history. Chapman returned to New York where he remained effective before noticeably declining in 2020 and ultimately losing his closing job. Which brings us to Jansen. Kenley was quite effective his entire career in Los Angeles but, unlike Kimbrel, went comparatively unnoticed. Jansen was the NL Reliever of the year in both 2016 & 2017, and led the league in saves in 2017 & 2022. Since 2017 though: Jansen has been the best of the trio.

Of the three R-JAWS ranks them: Jansen, Kimbrel & (well behind) Chapman. This is about how I would rank them as well. When Billy Wagner & Trevor Hoffman spent time together on the ballot I felt both were equally worth (along with Joe Nathan) but differently. Hoffman had the longer career and standard of excellence, but Billy Wagner dominated the game more at his best. I sense a similar difference between Kimbrel & Jansen. While Kimbrel did bounce back in 2021, his 2022 season for the Dodgers looked weak. Jansen may continue pitching for many years to come, and is under contract for two more seasons with Boston.

As the career arcs of these three excellent closers indicate: reliever careers can last long enough for us to see differences between them and while the save numbers might look comparable there is enough data for us to parse for us to make firmer judgments about them. With this fear rectified let us consider the two relievers on the 2022 BBWAA Ballot: Billy Wagner & Francisco Rodriguez.

Billy Wagner

Wagner compares well on basically all three of my metrics for the Hall of Fame. Wagner’s Save total is strong, coming in 6th all time at 422 (with over 700 games finished). Wagner was incredibly dominant; his ERA+ of 187 is better than the previously mentioned still active Jansen, Kimbrel & Chapman (which should favor the active pitchers, who have not pitched into their late 30s yet). Finally, while Wagner retired at age 39 after one of his strongest seasons ever: his career was not short. Wagner managed to cross my 900 inning threshold (if barely).

The one thing which does haunt me a bit with Wagner (and it also haunts me with Joe Nathan) is his poor performance in the postseason. Closers are used to shine in the most important and highest leverage situations. While Wagner did this frequently in the regular season: his postseason ERA is ghastly and over 10. His only defense is that his postseason career only spans 10.2 innings, over four seasons.

Overall, after reconsideration Billy Wagner is a sound choice for the Hall of Fame. I suspect he might even earn induction from the BBWAA, although even if he falls short there I would be stunned if the Veterans Committee did not almost immediately induct him, as they did Lee Smith.

Francisco Rodriguez

I will be honest: K-Rod is exactly the kind of reliever I did not want to induct. I felt at the time there would be numerous relievers just like him who would inevitably become eligible for the Hall of Fame. The fact that since K-Rod retired no reliever has really come close to him (besides Joe Nathan) is part of why I am more comfortable inducting relievers.

K-Rod’s save total is higher than Wagner’s, clocking in at 437. He additionally holds the distinction of saving the most games in a single season, with 62. Furthermore, unlike other closers we’ve considered: K-Rod was good in the postseason with a standout performance for the Angels in the 2002 World Series to add an exclamation point.

Rodriguez’s run prevention was also quite good, with an ERA+ of 147 he fits right in with the other Hall of Famers already inducted. In fact his ERA+ is the same as Trevor Hoffman’s. The other thing which struck me about K-Rod is his innings total: he finished his career with 976 innings, a good full career for a reliever.

The one thing which gives me pause is the aforementioned R-JAWS. Francisco ranks 12th, behind Jonathan Papelbon (whose career was over 200 innings shorter). Why? I am not sure, which was always part of my hesitation of inducting relievers in the past. One thing I will say is if we compare Francisco Rodriguez to his peers using WPA: he looks less good. K-Rod ranks below Nathan, Papelbon, Kimbrel & Jansen on this front (with Kimbrel & Jansen having the potential to climb further). Another thing to consider is Rodriguez pitched less dominantly than Wagner (and Nathan).

Overall, I will say K-Rod is a better candidate than I would have guessed before I looked at his career. I am open to him being a Hall of Famer, but I am not sure I am prepared to support him at this junction. I would rank Rodriguez as the fourth or fifth best reliever outside the Hall, and given how recent relievers are to the game: that’s not good enough for me right now.

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