If the Baseball Hall of Fame is Including Closers, Why Not Wagner?  

by Clayton Richer | Posted on Friday, January 12th, 2018
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SAN DIEGO, CA – APRIL 23: Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros pitches against the San Diego Padres on April 23, 2000 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)

We are still somewhat at a loss as to what to do with relief pitchers in terms of the Hall of Fame. A handful have been inducted over the years, and Mariano Rivera will be going in on the first ballot in 2019, and hopefully, the standard will be cleared up soon as more contemporary closers get admitted. Right now, however, there are only 5 primary relievers in the Hall: 

  1. Dennis Eckersley, whose inclusion is partly thanks to the value he managed to amass as a starter 
  1. Bruce Sutter, who is there because, according to the lore, he was a part of pioneering the splitter 
  1. Hoyt Wilhelm 
  1. Rollie Fingers 
  1. Goose Gossage 

A Prototype is Difficult to Find 

It is difficult to find a prototype or way forward from within these players’ names. The modern closer is, in most cases, a reliever from cradle-to-grave, often working an inning at a time, and whose usage hinges on the save rule. If that is the case, then Rivera and Hoffman are set to be the first two nearly exclusive closers to make it into the Hall of Fame.  

Starting Pitchers versus Closers  

A bigger issue is those starting pitchers that are good-to-great are much more valuable than closers that are good-to-great, and that remains the case even after adjustments have been made to take into account that closers are more likely to be working with high-leverage innings.   

One could namecheck a fleet of starters outside of the Hall of Fame who have made more contributions to the game or who have put in more impressive performances than, for example, Hoffman has. Rivera is an outlier in certain ways, thanks to the fact that he has managed to amass so much value relative to the run-of-the-mill modern closer. Once you include his prominent postseason dossier, however, he is a plausible Hall of Fame outside of the relievers’ lowered standards.

Fingers’ Election Lowered the Bar 

It has to be said that Rollie Fingers being elected lowered the bar, Fingers being a player many punters will instantly recognize thanks to their partaking of baseball wagers on the Australian betting apps that provide it. For the course of his career he put up a WAR of 26.1, and this is higher than Sutter’s mark of 24.6. The latter player, however, at least had the cultural hook working for him thanks to the splitter. Whatever may be said about WAR, which, in reality, is useful as a blunt instrument, the marks that Fingers and Sutter were getting were not what would typically be required of a player worthy of being in the Baseball Hall of Fame.   

Hoffman, however, fits right in, with his  WAR of 28.4. Hoffman, however, has been cut from modern closer cloth, which means that he was primarily a compiler of saves, never making a start, and averaging around 60 innings over each season. And, when Hoffman goes into the Hall of Fame, maybe as early as this year, then it must be asked why Billy Wagner isn’t? Why is the guy who helped us to remember that you can come in under six feet and remain a fire-breathing bad-ass and defied presumptions about left-handed closers while he was at it? Why not indeed.  

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Clayton Richer
About the Author

Clayton Richer is an MLB scribe from north of the border with a slight bias for the Toronto Blue Jays. Clayton has also been the shop-keeper at Baseball Hot Corner since the sites inception in 2012. Follow and interact with Clayton on Twitter @MLBHotCorner or @ClaytonRicher

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