The Ongoing Quest to Define a Hall of Fame Reliever

I'm constantly thinking about what makes a great reliever. As usual, I often come up with the quality vs. quantity debate, so while I had some time to kill in a Nashville airport, I figured I'd look at the intersections of those lists. Here are the top relievers in history, WAR per 200 IP and by raw WAR.

First, by rate:

Top Relievers by Wins Above Replacement per 200 IP (GS<100, IP>800)
Name Innings Games Starts WAR WAR/200 IP
Mariano Rivera 1090.1 917 10 49.9 9.16
Billy Wagner 833.7 782 0 27.0 6.48
Trevor Hoffman 1041.8 985 0 31.5 6.05
Jeff Mongomery 868.6 700 1 21.1 4.86
Bruce Sutter 1042.1 661 0 25.0 4.80
Lee Smith 1289.4 1022 6 30.3 4.70
Dan Quisenberry 1043.2 674 0 24.3 4.66
John Hiller 1241.9 545 43 28.2 4.54
Rich Gossage 1809.3 1002 37 40.0 4.42
John Franco 1245.7 1119 0 25.8 4.14
Steve Farr 824.3 509 28 16.4 3.98
Randy Myers 884.7 728 12 16.9 3.82
Doug Jones 1128.2 846 4 21.5 3.81
Mark Eichhorn 885.8 563 7 16.5 3.73
Hoyt Wilhelm 2254.2 1070 52 41.3 3.66
Roberto Hernandez 1071.5 1010 3 19.5 3.64
Jeff Reardon 1132.4 880 0 20.3 3.59
Gary Lavelle 1085.1 745 3 18.9 3.48
Kent Tekulve 1436.3 1050 0 24.8 3.45
Jay Howell 844.6 568 21 14.5 3.43

 

And now by quantity:

Top Relievers by Wins Above Replacement (GS<100)
Name Innings Games Starts WAR WAR/200 IP
Mariano Rivera 1090.1 917 10 49.9 9.16
Hoyt Wilhelm 2254.2 1070 52 41.3 3.66
Rich Gossage 1809.3 1002 37 40.0 4.42
Trevor Hoffman 1041.8 985 0 31.5 6.05
Lee Smith 1289.4 1022 6 30.3 4.70
John Hiller 1241.9 545 43 28.2 4.54
Billy Wagner 833.7 782 0 27.0 6.48
John Franco 1245.7 1119 0 25.8 4.14
Bruce Sutter 1042.1 661 0 25.0 4.80
Kent Tekulve 1436.3 1050 0 24.8 3.45
Rollie Fingers 1701.3 944 37 24.4 2.87
Dan Quisenberry 1043.2 674 0 24.3 4.66
Lindy McDaniel 2120.4 983 72 23.4 2.21
Tom Henke 789.6 642 0 23.1 5.85
Stu Miller 1694 704 93 22.6 2.67
Joe Nathan 685 533 29 22.1 6.45
Dave Righetti 1403.5 718 89 21.6 3.08
Doug Jones 1128.2 846 4 21.5 3.81
Bob Stanley 1707.1 637 85 21.5 2.52
Rick Aguilera 1291.2 732 89 21.3 3.30

A colored background means that player appears in the Top 20 of both lists. If it is colored orange, that means the player appears in the Top 10 of both lists.

Picking the players who are in the Top 10 of both lists should, conceivably, be pretty much the list of Hall of Fame relievers, right? Let's see (in no particular order):

  • Mariano Rivera
  • Rich Gossage
  • Trevor Hoffman
  • Lee Smith
  • John Hiller
  • Billy Wagner
  • John Franco
  • Bruce Sutter

On this list, we have exactly two Hall of Fame relievers—Sutter and Gossage. Of course, Rivera, Hoffman and Wagner are still active while Franco is not yet eligible. So, who's missing? Dennis Eckersley is a special case. I don't really consider him a Hall of Fame reliever (he actually was worth much more as a starter). He's more of a Hall of Fame hybrid. Neither of his "careers" is Hall-worthy by itself, but he belongs if you combine them. So, where are Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers?

Wilhelm is a bit of an odd duck himself. With over 2200 innings in his career, he was used much differently than the relievers who came after him. In raw WAR (which, spelled backwards, is "raw WAR"), Wilhelm is second all time. That's pretty special. As a rate stat, he ranks 15th. While the #15 rank doesn't look all that special, every pitcher ahead of him not named Gossage trails him by at least 900 innings (often by well over 1000). I'll never question Wilhelm's induction. He's a pioneer and he deserves it.

Rollie Fingers is a Hall of Famer because, for a while, he was the all time save leader. It's too bad somebody got in for leading in a flawed and meaningless statistic. Fingers was certainly a great pitcher—he's 11th all time in raw reliever WAR. But he doesn't even sniff the Top 20 as a rate stat, though. He actually ranks 34th, behind the likes of Greg Minton and Dan Plesac. I don't think Rollie Fingers is a bad pitcher. I just don't think he's any better than Kent Tekulve.

That brings us to the two pitchers on this short list who are eligible for the Hall, but aren't in—Lee Smith and John Hiller. I've written a lot about relievers, and these two guys come up an awful lot. I just so happen to think they both should be in the Hall of Fame. Honestly, I think Smith's saves hurt him. People assume he's 100% pure modern save fluff. Not true. He was a hell of a pitcher. Hiller's an interesting case, as his dominance was more condensed (even though he had a heart attack and recovery squeezed in there). Without a doubt, he's the most underrated reliever in history. In his only appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, he collected just 2.6% of the vote. Smith has managed to stay on the ballot for seven years, peaking at 45%.

A guy who just barely missed this short list is one of my favorites—Dan Quisenberry. Quiz ranked 7th in WAR/200 and 12th in raw WAR. I've often compared him to Bruce Sutter (although they were very different pitchers). Sutter ranked 5th and 9th on both lists, respectively. Still no argument from me if Quiz was a Hall of Famer. Alas, he fared about the same as Hiller (3.8%).

What's your stance on relievers? Are there too many enshrined? Too few? Just right?

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