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Saturday SOC: Resetting the Line for Hall of Fame Relievers

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We consider the cases for Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan to try to establish who is and who isn’t a Hall of Fame reliever.

Wagner delivers pitch

This is becoming Hall of Fame week around here. Earlier at VEB we voted for our own Hall of Fame choices and announced the results, electing Derek Jeter and Larry Walker.

I offered my own (knowingly) controversial take on the 2022 ballot from the perspective of a BBWAA voter. That perspective forces some thoughtful voters to expand beyond an “are they a Hall of Famer or not” approach to account for and counter all-to-frequent less-than-thoughtful ballots from other baseball writers.

My article (which you can find here) sparked that kind of conversation around one choice in particular: Joe Nathan.

Now, you all, our faithful Viva El Birdos readers, definitely do not think that Joe Nathan belongs in the Hall of Fame. I don’t necessarily believe that he belongs in the Hall, either. But I do believe there needs to be way more conversation around relievers of his caliber. Thinking about his case is what inspired this article today.

Let’s look at the voting for the current crop or relief pitchers, both for our community and the BBWAA.

In the VEB ballot, Billy Wagner received just 31.8% of the VEB vote. Nathan received just 5.5% of the vote.

Right now, according to Ryan Thibodaux and his Hall of Fame tracker, Billy Wagner is coming in at 48.2% in the official BBWAA vote. Joe Nathan has received just 2.4% of the vote.

Basically, almost no one anywhere thinks that Joe Nathan is a Hall of Famer. I don’t really feel like he’s a Hall of Famer either. But considering where pitchers like Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan rank on the career relief list, it truly does beg the question – who IS a Hall of Famer reliever?

Let’s look at the numbers. The following is a Fangraphs leaderboard of relief pitchers sorted by career fWAR. There are no date limitations on this list. It runs from 1871 through 2021.

Conversations about relief pitchers always seem to start with Mariano Rivera and everyone else. You can see why here. Rivera is that game’s all-time leader in saves. He’s also the game’s leader in relief fWAR at 38.6. Prefer WPA for your relievers? No problem. 55.76 is also well above everyone else.

He’s the late-inning pitching equivalent of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, or Ted Williams.

Except he’s more than that. His case is so much better than anyone else at his position that he is the first player in baseball history to be unanimously elected into the Hall.

Considering the debate around relievers and the Hall of Fame it still boggles my mind that Mariano Rivera, as good as he was, is the only player that the writers could ever agree on.

In statistical terms, Rivera is what is called an outlier. Outliers are so beyond the norm – even norms of excellent performance by percentile – that you have to remove them from the statistical model or they will push the whole model in the outlier’s direction, skewing the data results.

Eliminating the outlier leaves us with this small clump of relievers sitting at the top of the game’s relief fWAR leadership. From this list we find Hall of Famers Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Rollie fingers, and Lee Smith.

Right with them is Billy Wagner, with just 2 fWAR separating him from Hoffman. He’s just 4 fWAR behind Goose Gossage despite having nearly 600 fewer innings pitched.

The way that relievers were used changed significantly between Gossage’s era and Wagner’s era, but a small margin of fWAR in such a high difference in innings is an argument in favor of Wagner and not against Gossage. Gossage pitched a lot more frequently. But when he pitched, he was notably worse than Wagner.

That shows up in Wagner’s favor when considering the stats we use to evaluate all pitchers. Of the non-Rivera closers listed above, Wagner leads the group with a 2.31 ERA and 2.73 FIP. He has the highest K/9 at over 11.92! That’s an amazing number. His WPA is third on the non-Rivera list.

Bringing saves into the equation doesn’t change anything. Of those five pitchers, Wagner is third on the list in saves with 422, behind Hoffman and Smith.

All-time Wager is 6th on the list of career saves with names like Francisco Rodriguez and John Franco making their appearance. K-Rod won’t be on the ballot until next season and though he is well behind Billy Wagner in nearly every measurable category except saves, I think there’s a decent chance that he outpaces Wagner in the BWAA vote. We’ll just have to see.

Start adding it up and by just about every measure baseball has used to establish who is and who isn’t a Hall of Fame reliever, Wagner belongs.

Do I even need to mention that Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and the Cardinals’ own Bruce Sutter sit well back of Wagner in all the categories we’ve discussed? Still, Wagner is in his seventh year on the ballot and while he’s been inching up, he’s not on track to make the Hall before his 10-year candidacy is over.

So, Wagner is, in my opinion, a clear Hall of Famer when compared against other Hall of Famers. Yet, he’s clearly not a Hall of Famer by the standards of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Or our readers here at VEB.

That begs the question if Wagner isn’t a Hall of Famer, where do we draw the line for election?

Let’s turn now to the player that inspired this article: Joe Nathan.

We’ve established where Billy Wagner sits among the all-time great relief pitchers. Where does Nathan sit in comparison to this well-established group of Hall of Fame closers?

This is the same list as above. The difference is that we’ve sorted it by career save totals instead of fWAR. And I personally find the results fascinating.

Joe Nathan – who pretty much everyone agrees is not a Hall of Famer – is essentially tied with Dennis Eckersley in every meaningful relief statistic. He’s just 13 saves behind Eck, which amounts to less than one save per season pitched. He’s just .9 fWAR behind him. He’s ahead of Eckersley in K/9 by a substantial margin but behind in BB’s. By WPA, Nathan has a huge lead.

I think many old-school baseball writers would bludgeon me with their typewriters if I dared to suggest that Joe Nathan was just as good as Dennis Eckersley, but here we have the data staring us in the face.

No, Nathan didn’t close out some World Series wins. And he lacks some other awards on his mantle. But he’s clearly among the best closers of all time. Probably top 10 by some kind of cumulative relief performance metric that doesn’t currently exist.

Does that mean that Joe Nathan is a Hall of Famer?

Again, not necessarily. His election would mean that strong consideration would have to be given to Jonathan Papelbon. Down the road, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Janson would need to get in. Aroldis Chapman would certainly have to get some consideration.

You might say to yourself – “those guys are or were all great relievers for their generation but they don’t belong in the Hall of Fame!”

To which I would respond, “if the best relievers of a generation don’t belong in the Hall of Fame, then who does?”

Right now, the greater baseball community – both writers and fans – just don’t have a clear picture of what makes a reliever a Hall of Famer or not. Very few relievers have reached the Hall. Almost all of them have had to receive their election through non-BWAA sources.

Since relievers pitch so few innings and under such controlled circumstances, I can understand holding them to a high standard. A “small Hall” of relievers is probably a good thing.

But it does seem like baseball might be tracking toward a “Rivera or bust” approach to relievers and that’s just absurd.

Personally, I think there’s a very clear line of demarcation between who is and who isn’t a Hall of Fame reliever. Just as there is a small collection of relievers in the top 5 or 6 on the large chart above, so is there a larger collection of relievers sitting just below them. There are 11 names between Doug Jones and Sutter but the fWAR difference between those players is just 2.6.

Then there’s another gap starting at Robb Nen that trickles down 20-30 names.

That, folks, is what we call data clusters. Very clear data clusters that, in this case, give us a clean, well-defined statistical model to work. It’s a model that very conveniently fits with our typical understanding of player greatness.

Here are our clusters:

All-Time Great (1): Mariano Rivera.

Hall of Famer (6): Goose Gossage through Billy Wagner.

Hall of Very Good (11): Jones, Nathan, Henke, Papelbon, Kimbrel, etc. (As with every position, some “Hall of Very Good” players actually make the Hall.)

The rest aren’t even in consideration.

From our list of active players, Kenley Jansen has a shot at climbing into the “Hall of Fame” category. Chapman does as well, but voters are going to have to overlook his lower saves totals. They’re also going to have to stay healthy to do so; that’s what all of the elite closers have in common: ridiculous production and longevity. Craig Kimbrel would slide into the “Hall of Very Good”. Someone like Josh Hader could come close eventually, but he’ll have to replicate his current production for another nine seasons.

The line I set above is still extremely exclusive. Considering the way that relief usage is changing throughout the game, it seems likely that these standards would allow no more than one or two relievers to reach Hall of Fame consideration every 10-15 years.

That system just makes sense for me. Billy Wagner should get elected. Joe Nathan should not.

If Wagner is not elected, then I don’t know when the Hall would ever elect another reliever. At least not until someone can challenge Rivera. I’m not sure that’s possible in the modern game.

Thanks for reading! Stay safe out there in this messy weather today.