January 5, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: Relief at List
With my winter crunch work for the Baseball Prospectus annual and this JAWS series drawing to an end, I'm bleary-eyed, having delivered something on the order of 21,000 words on the topic of this year's Hall of Fame ballot over the past two weeks. Yet among the 33 players on this year's Hall of Fame ballot, one position remains unaddressed thus far: relievers. Mercifully, just two of them are on the ballot, holdover Lee Smith and newcomer John Franco. Does either measure up?
When I first cobbled together the system that became JAWS—see here for background as to the system as it pertains to this year's pitchers— just two relievers were in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. Since then, that number has more than doubled with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006) and Rich Gossage (2008). Though there's plenty to quibble about with regards to Sutter's election in 2006, the larger class has made it 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. Five 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).
The physically intimidating 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 5.1. 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 number three guy on the all-time saves list, 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 RAJAWS tops those of Sutter (52.8) and Fingers (61.8), but with the admission of Gossage (73.5) and the replacement level adjustment from a couple of years back, he's now fallen below the Hall average, well behind Eck (76.8) and Wilhelm (65.0 and counting, since we haven't integrated play-by-play data for his 1952 and 1953 seasons) too. The line for relievers remains fuzzy, and while the JAWS system has come down on Smith's side in the past, he's currently a no.
The left-handed son of a New York City Department of Sanitation worker is forever identified as a Met thanks to the 13 seasons he spent with the Mets (1990-2003, with a year off due to Tommy John surgery), but Franco was actually drafted by the Dodgers in 1981, and spent the first six years of his major league career with the Reds (1984-1989), a period which coincided with Pete Rose's managerial career. He quickly made an impact, leading the NL in WXRL in 1985 while sharing closer duties with righty Ted Power; remember, this was in the time before the one-inning automatons, when managers still let matchups and multiple-inning assignments play a role in their choice of ninth-inning guys.
Franco took over the lion's share of those duties the following year, and placed in the league's top five in saves for four straight years, leading the NL with 39 in 1988, placing second in WXRL in both 1986 and 1988, making the All-Star team three times and receiving some down-ballot MVP consideration in the one year within that stretch in which he didn't (1988). He also won the NL Rolaids Relief Man Award in 1988, based upon a formula where each save is worth three points, each win worth two, and each loss and blown save worth negative two.
The Reds finished second in the NL West in every year from 1985 through 1988, but they slumped to fifth in 1989, and Franco dropped to 20th in WXRL as his Fair Run Average nearly doubled over the previous season (1.90 to 3.71). With Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton in the fold, the Reds traded Franco to the Mets in exchange for Randy Myers. That completed what became the Nasty Boys trio, a ferocious bullpen bunch which helped Cincinnati win the 1990 World Series under new manager Lou Piniella.
Franco landed on his feet in his first year as a Met, again leading the league in saves and winning the Rolaids award while earning All-Star honors as well. His performance slipped in 1991, and he spent a good deal of the next two years on the disabled list due to elbow woes. He was downright awful during the latter year, finishing with the NL's third-worst (-1.7 WXRL) on a team that boasted three of the league's four worst totals and one which ranks as the seventh-worst bullpen since 1954. Those were the Mets who became notorious as The Worst Team Money Could Buy, to borrow the title of the Bob Klapisch/John Harper book.
Franco rebounded from his woes to return to the league's top 20 in WXRL in each of the next five seasons, including top ten showings in 1997 and 1998, but given his advanced age (37) and injury history, the Mets traded for the younger, harder-throwing Armando Benitez as insurance in December 1998. When Franco hit the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon in the middle finger in early July of the following season and missed two months, he was supplanted as closer. He returned in September and chafed at not getting his old job back even while Benitez pitched well enough (he ranked third in WXRL) to help the Mets reach the postseason for the first time since 1988. The controversy died down at least somewhat as the Mets reached the World Series the following year, with Benitez closing and Franco setting him up; the latter notched just four saves, the first time he failed to reach double digits since his 1984 rookie season. By that point he was second in career saves behind only Smith.
Franco spent four more seasons in Flushing, missing all of 2002 and some of 2003 due to elbow woes—a torn ulnar collateral ligament and flexor tendon—that could have ended his career at age 41. He returned from surgery and spent another full season with the Mets before finishing his career as an Astro at age 44.
Unfortunately for Franco, that's not enough to justify election to Cooperstown, as he's still about six RAJAWS points shy. He'll have to settle for recognition as arguably the game's second-best lefty reliever behind Wagner, who's above the bar now but who will likely fall below it assuming Rivera and Hoffman gain quick entry to Cooperstown upon becoming eligible.
Having pored through the 33 candidates on the ballot over the course of eight articles, we're left with a JAWS-endorsed theoretical ballot of eight players: Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, and Alan Trammell. The early returns suggest Alomar and Blyleven will gain entry after last year's near-misses, with Larkin breaking 60 percent and Jack Morris remaining above 50 percent, but the rest of the JAWS slate failing to garner even a majority of the votes, though I retain some optimism Raines can approach 50 percent. I'll be chatting about the impending announcement at 1 PM Eastern, and will return with a full wrap-up on Thursday.