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January 4, 2008

The Class of 2008

Relievers

by Jay Jaffe

Having covered the starting pitchers on the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot last time around, we turn JAWS on the final batch of players, the relievers.

When I first cobbled together the system that became JAWS, just two relievers were in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. Since then, that number has doubled with the elections of Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter. Though there's plenty to quibble about with regards to the latter's election in 2006, it's become easier to sketch out a standard for relievers, particularly with our own Keith Woolner's development of the Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) stat.

WXRL accounts for the discovery that a reliever at the end of a ballgame has a quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing (a ratio called leverage) than a starter does. It measures that impact by comparing a team's chances of winning based on the game state (bases, outs, score differential) before he enters and after he leaves. For the purposes of measuring a pitcher's Hall-worthiness, it functions as something of a career/peak hybrid; one can accumulate a high total via performing well under high-pressure situations for shorter periods or in more moderate pressure situations for longer. Two years ago, I put aside an earlier kludge and began incorporating WXRL totals into a Reliever's Adjusted JAWS score via the formula RAJAWS: ((0.5 x WXRL) + JAWS).

Relievers


Pitcher    W    L    SV     IP   ERA   ERA+ AS CY 3C   HdFS   HoFM   BAL   2007%
Gossage   124  107  310   1809  3.01   126   9  0  0   19.0   126.0   8     71.2
Smith      71   92  478   1289  3.03   132   7  0  0   13.0   136.0   5     39.8
Beck       38   45  286    768  3.30   123   3  0  0   13.0    63.0   --
Nen        45   42  314    715  2.98   138   3  0  0   15.0    92.0   --


Pitcher     PRAA  PRAR  WARP3   Peak   JAWS   WXRL  RAJAWS
Beck         100   404   45.1   34.7   39.9   27.0   53.4
Gossage      243   854   88.4   56.0   72.2   53.8   99.1
Nen          149   492   53.9   45.9   49.9   31.6   65.7
Smith        248   776   83.7   47.3   65.5   47.0   89.0
Avg HoF RP   218   877   89.1   49.6   69.3   39.3   89.0
Avg HoF P    275  1080  104.5   66.2   85.4

A reminder regarding the above alphabet soup items: AS is All-Star and CY the number of Cy Young Awards won; 3C is a column for a pitcher's leads in any one of the triple-crown categories for pitchers (wins, ERA, or Ks); and HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor, respectively.

Given the small sample size of Hall of Fame relievers, it's worthwhile to check out the RAJAWS leaderboard for some perspective. The list is somewhat incomplete, as our play-by-play database currently only goes back to 1959, so it's missing the first seven years of Wilhelm's career, four years of Lindy McDaniel, and seven of Stu Miller (all denoted with asterisks below), to say nothing of their forebears. Nonetheless, we can get a pretty solid idea of where this year's candidates rank with regards to the enshrined and the two active pitchers who are likely bets to reach the Hall soon after retirement, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Here's the provisional version of the RAJAWS Top 20:


Pitcher             WARP   Peak   JAWS   WXRL  RAJAWS
Mariano Rivera      93.9   62.6   78.3   62.5  109.5
Dennis Eckersley   120.8   53.7   87.3   35.1  104.8   HoF
Rich Gossage        88.4   56.0   72.2   53.8   99.1
Trevor Hoffman      82.2   49.2   65.7   62.3   96.9
Hoyt Wilhelm        96.5   47.6   72.1   39.0   91.5*  HoF
Lee Smith           83.7   47.3   65.5   47.0   89.0
Rollie Fingers      80.1   49.4   64.8   45.8   87.6   HOF
John Franco         80.9   41.2   61.1   44.8   83.5
Tom Gordon          85.5   46.7   66.1   33.8   83.0
Billy Wagner        66.7   49.2   58.0   44.9   80.4
Doug Jones          66.5   48.2   57.4   33.0   73.8
Lindy McDaniel      72.0   44.1   58.1   31.3   73.7*
Bruce Sutter        59.0   47.6   53.3   37.4   72.0   HOF
Roberto Hernandez   66.8   46.5   56.7   28.2   70.7
Stu Miller          63.5   43.6   53.6   34.1   70.6*
John Wetteland      58.5   46.5   52.5   35.0   70.0
Tom Henke           59.9   42.7   51.3   36.8   69.7
Tug McGraw          60.1   38.5   49.3   39.6   69.1
Dan Quisenberry     55.2   48.2   51.7   34.0   68.7
Kent Tekulve        64.7   40.3   52.5   30.3   67.7

Last year saw Rivera take over the top spot here, a moment all the more impressive given that Eck's numbers are boosted by his substantial career as a starter. Many of the others above did have seasons as starters, of course, but perhaps not as helpful ones.

Rich Gossage, "The Goose," was a standard-setting reliever for a decade, a useful major league pitcher for another decade, and ten years later remains a yardstick for dominance. From 1975-1985, minus a year-long experimental season as a starter, Gossage blew hitters away in both leagues, helped his teams to three pennants, made nine All-Star squads, and kept his ERA well under 3.00 every single year. He came up with the White Sox, emerging as a force in 1975 when he threw 141 2/3 innings with a 1.84 ERA, had 130 strikeouts, led the league with 26 saves and had 7.621 WXRL (20th best of all time). After a mediocre season in the rotation, the Sox traded him to Pittsburgh, where he returned to relief dominance with a 1.62 ERA and 8.065 WXRL (11th best). That performance prompted Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to throw big bucks at him--six years, $2.75 million--despite the fact Steinbrenner already employed Sparky Lyle, the reigning Cy Young winner, in his club's bullpen. With his 100-mph heat and big-money imprimatur, Gossage usurped Lyle's role as the Yankee stopper. He was brilliant in his six pinstriped seasons, posting a 2.10 ERA (a 183 ERA+), saving 25 games per year, striking out about a batter per inning, averaging 86 innings annually despite a Bronx Zoo-brawl injury in 1979 and the strike in 1981, and leading the league in WXRL twice (for a total of four times).

Gossage left for San Diego via free agency after 1983, and the move paid dividends with a 1984 World Series berth. He was the go-to man in the Padre pen until 1987, but upon a trade to the Cubs after that season, began the familiar trudge of the past-prime reliever, not quite settling into a set-up role, making five more stops (including a cameo with the Yanks), and spending 1990 in Japan. He topped 50 innings only once in that stretch, mostly due to injuries, but he held his own when he did pitch.

Gossage's case as a Hall of Famer is a reasonable one on the traditional merits; that decade of dominance resonating in the public mind thanks in part to a lot of post-season exposure (19 games, 31 1/3 innings, 2.87 ERA). In previous years I suggested that, based on the number of innings thrown and his better-than-average ERA, a solid case could be made for the Goose as the second-best reliever ever behind Wilhelm, but the continued success of Rivera and Hoffman expands the picture; the Goose is now somewhere in the top five.

Gossage's Davenport numbers are just as strong. His two best years are above 10 WARP; by peak, career, and JAWS numbers he's better than more than one-third of the pitchers in the Hall (including Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, and Catfish Hunter), and his PRAA isn't far off the Hall average. Furthermore, he blows Fingers and Sutter away on the RAJAWS scale. He's got the best case of any Hall-eligible reliever, and fully deserves a plaque in Cooperstown. He's surged forward in the BBWAA voting since Eckersley's 2004 election, even continuing the trend as the voters preserved last year's spotlight for election locks Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn:


Year  Votes   Pct
2004   206   40.7%
2005   285   55.2%
2006   336   64.6%
2007   388   71.2%

Given that Gossage had vacillated between 33.3 percent and 44.3 percent in the four years prior to that, I can't deny feeling a tiny measure of satisfaction with the way the five-year-old JAWS project's widening exposure parallels that trend--though the doubling of the Hall's reliever ranks is almost certainly the more influential factor. In any event, there's a very good chance we'll be talking about the Goose's enshrinement in the coming days.

The physically intimidating Lee Smith stepped into the large shoes vacated by Sutter in Wrigleyville and did a very credible job in six years as the Cubs' 100-inning-per-year closer. From 1983-1987, he finished in the top five in saves every season, leading the league once. He was in the top five in WXRL three times in that span, and never lower than 11th. Traded to Boston after 1987, he continued to post high-quality seasons, though his workload and save totals dipped a bit. Traded again to the Cardinals, he flourished, topping Sutter's NL save record and recording 160 saves in parts of four seasons--taking over the all-time lead in that category--before packing his bags again. He finally led the league in WXRL in 1991, with 5.121. Through five more stops, the innings began to take a toll, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 frames a year, one inning at a time, to keep him effective. He spent his last two seasons in a set-up role, with diminishing returns, finally hanging it up in 1998.

From a traditional standpoint, Smith's case starts with his status as the #2 guy on the all-time saves list (Hoffman topped him in August 2006), his seven All-Star selections, and an amazing string of consistency which followed him to virtually every stop on his 18-year ride. Until his abbreviated final season, his ERA+ was always better than league-average--32 percent better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went further than a LCS appearance, and he got bombed in his brief post-season appearances, blowing two ballgames in best-of-fives. His PRAA isn't far below the Hall average without any adjustment for his low inning totals, an impressive feat. His RAJAWS tops two of the four relievers in the Hall, and he's right on the line with the small-sample size average (which again, is missing Wilhelm's initial years but is bulked up by Eckersley's starting). Though the line for relievers is still fuzzy, his ranking suggests he's deserving enough, and the election of Gossage may help him.

The son of former big-leaguer Dick Nen, Robb Nen faced long odds of making it to the majors when he was a 17-year-old, 32nd-round pick by the Rangers in 1987. Though he could dial his fastball up into the high 90s, injuries and control problems kept him from reaching the majors until 1993. He made just nine appearances before Texas traded him to the expansion Florida Marlins for Cris Carpenter. Midway through the next year he took over the closer job for the injured Bryan Harvey, and finished sixth in the league in WXRL while notching 15 saves in the strike-shortened season. That was the beginning of a nine-year span over which he led the majors in appearances and finished second only to Hoffman in saves. It also began a curiously Saberhagen-esque pattern of alternating good and mediocre years. Nen placed in the top 10 in WXRL six times, five in even-numbered years, and put up the following split over his 10-year career:

       ERA  K/BB  WXRL   WARP
Even  1.97   2.3  22.8   35.2
Odd   4.06   4.3   8.8   18.7

Nen's most memorable year was actually one of the odd-numbered ones; in 1997, he saved 35 games with a 3.89 ERA as the closer for the World Champion Marlins, and two more apiece in the NLCS and World Series (where his fastball was clocked as high as 102 MPH). The Marlins' victory made him one of the portable players in Wayne Huizenga's fire sale; just three weeks after Craig Counsell crossed the plate to conclude Game Seven, Nen was traded to the Giants for three players, including the immortal Joe Fontenot.

During Nen's five good-to-great years with the Giants, he set career highs in WARP (8.9) and WXRL (5.693) in 1998 and in saves (45) in 2001, leading the NL in the process. He helped the Giants to the World Series in 2002, pitching through shoulder pain that risked further damage. He underwent the first of three surgeries after the season, but thereafter was never able to throw without pain, and after two full seasons on the DL, was forced to retire. He just did reach 10 major league seasons, the minimum to reach the Hall ballot, and while he left it all out on the field in pursuit of a second championship ring, that's not enough to get him to Cooperstown.

We conclude our look at this year's ballot by peering into its darkest corner in the form of Rod Beck. Like Ken Caminiti last year, the 38-year-old Beck died of drug-related causes before the ballot was announced. Caminiti's early demise coincided with his first-time eligibility on the ballot, while Beck's invoked the waiver of the five-year waiting rule, most recently used for Darryl Kile. Beck last pitched in the majors in 2004, the 13th season of a career spent entirely in the bullpen; his 704 appearances without a single start ranks him seventh all-time among "pure" relievers. With a long, stringy mullet and a fu manchu mustache, the heavyset Beck, nicknamed "Shooter," clearly relished fitting into the tradition of the imposing, half-crazy closer.

Drafted by the A's in 1986, Beck didn't reach the majors until 1991, three years after being traded to the Giants in a minor league deal. By the middle of his second season, he was serving as the Giants' closer; he saved 17 games with a 1.76 ERA and ranked third in the league in WXRL. He led the league in WXRL in 1993 (7.432), and finished seventh in 1994, placing second in saves in both years (48 and 28, respectively) while making the All-Star team. He pitched for the Giants through 1997, then signed a free agent deal with the Cubs, but after setting career highs with 51 saves and 6.0 WARP in 1998 and placing fourth in WXRL, he lost his closer job the following year. Elbow problems inflated his ERA and hastened his exit, though he flourished after a waiver deadline deal to the Red Sox--his third straight year of contributing to a playoff team. Beck spent two more years in a setup role for the Sox before missing all of 2002 due to Tommy John surgery.

Shorn of his trademark locks, he rehabbed in early 2003 with the Iowa Cubs, earning media attention for parking his Winnebago behind the right field wall of the team's ballpark and sharing beers and stories with fans who came around after games. Resurfacing with the Padres later that summer, he saved 20 games with a 1.78 ERA in the absence of Hoffman, who'd undergone shoulder surgery. Though his comeback made him a cause célèbre, it concealed the fact that Beck was struggling with a cocaine problem. He began the 2004 season in a rehab program, pitched poorly when he returned, drew his release in August, and apparently continued a downward spiral until his death last June. He's got no case for a spot in the Hall of Fame, but he deserves to be remembered for connecting with fans in a way that few recent players have, even as he battled his demons.

So, taking a step back to look at the entire slate, after analyzing the entire 2008 Hall of Fame ballot, we come away with unqualified yes votes for Bert Blyleven, Rich Gossage, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, and Alan Trammell, all of whom pass the career and peak JAWS benchmarks at their respective positions.

We've also got a qualified yes vote on Mark McGwire for surpassing the peak benchmark but not the career one. If one ignores the rather large volume of steroid-related allegations surrounding Big Mac, he's just about close enough to wave through via the "Terrence Long Rule," but ultimately the decision to vote for or against him is based on subjective beliefs rather than objective measures. My inclination is to vote for him; you can save your angry emails over that until my next piece, when I examine this year's results and address a few steroid-related threads that have emerged over the past several weeks.

In the meantime, I expect Gossage and perhaps Jim Rice to gain election this year, a result that could produce very mixed emotions around these parts. I'll be chatting here on Tuesday, January 8 at 2 p.m. Eastern, just as the vote totals are announced.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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