Ranking Relievers: The BBWAA and wWAR Pretty Much Agree

For the past few years, I've been consistently trying to figure out what makes a relief pitcher worth of the Hall of Fame. Before you can pick which relievers should be inducted, you need to rank them. And that's where it's tricky. What method do you use? Saves? Nope. Save percentage? Still flawed. ERA? ERA+? I swore by those in the past, but I've come around. Shutdowns/meltdowns? Getting there, but still doesn't accurately gauge career value. WAR? Probably the best, but even WAR is incomplete by itself (doesn't tell the whole story of peak performance vs. "compiling").

You guessed it! I'm going to use Weighted WAR (wWAR)!

The nice thing about using wWAR is it allows you to rank relievers using a single metric (one that adjusts "plain old" WAR for peak performance, postseason heroics, and more). For relievers, wWAR also handles seasons as a starting pitcher differently. Perhaps most importantly, wWAR  allows you to choose your own Hall of Fame baseline. Perhaps you believe no relievers should be in the Hall. Maybe you think only Mariano Rivera deserves it. Maybe you think Billy Wagner is a Hall of Famer. If so, you should open the doors for all relievers above him.

I'll be completely honest. When deciding which relief pitchers would go into the Hall of wWAR, I absolutely picked "The Wilhelm Line", meaning only relievers better than Hoyt Wilhelm's 55.0 wWAR would get in. That means just Rich Gossage and Wilhelm are in (with Rivera queued up). What about Dennis Eckersley? Well, he's an odd case. Let's just go to the graphic:

Rp_medium

Click to enlarge

And here's a table of all relievers with 25+ wWAR.

Rk Name WAR/162 WAE WAM wWPA wWAR
1 Mariano Rivera 56.3 32.2 0.0 21.4 109.9
Dennis Eckersley (total) 58.5 20.4 1.4 1.6 81.9
2 Rich Gossage 40.8 21.0 9.1 1.7 72.5
3 Hoyt Wilhelm 38.9 14.6 1.4 0.1 55.0
4 Bruce Sutter 25.1 14.2 7.2 2.0 48.6
  John Hiller 27.5 14.7 6.3 0.1 48.6
6 Rollie Fingers 26.4 9.6 1.8 6.8 44.6
7 Lee Smith 30.6 10.9 1.5 -0.4 42.6
8 Trevor Hoffman 31.7 10.6 0.0 -0.6 41.7
9 Billy Wagner 29.3 10.9 1.8 -0.9 41.1
10 Dan Quisenberry 25.3 12.3 4.0 -1.2 40.3
11 Tug McGraw 21.2 9.3 3.3 3.6 37.3
12 Francisco Rodriguez 22.8 10.4 1.8 -0.1 34.9
  John Franco 26.1 6.6 0.3 2.0 34.9
  Joe Nathan 22.3 10.8 2.7 -0.9 34.9
15 Lindy McDaniel 22.8 9.3 2.6 0.0 34.7
16 Keith Foulke 20.1 10.7 2.9 0.8 34.5
17 John Wetteland 21.4 7.9 1.6 2.9 33.9
18 Kent Tekulve 24.8 8.4 0.7 -0.1 33.8
19 Jeff Montgomery 21.6 9.2 2.9 0.0 33.7
20 Tom Henke 24.0 7.0 0.4 1.6 32.9
21 Doug Jones 22.2 9.3 0.6 0.0 32.1
22 Mike Marshall 17.7 10.6 3.2 0.5 32.0
23 Jonathan Papelbon 17.1 8.0 2.7 3.7 31.5
24 Dave Righetti 22.9 6.5 1.2 0.8 31.4
25 Stu Miller 22.7 7.8 0.7 0.0 31.2
26 Jesse Orosco 21.0 6.5 0.7 2.0 30.2
27 Roberto Hernandez 19.5 9.1 1.9 -0.5 30.0
28 Francisco Cordero 21.4 6.8 1.2 0.0 29.4
29 Bob Stanley 21.7 7.1 1.4 -1.1 29.1
30 Sparky Lyle 19.6 6.6 1.0 1.8 29.0
31 Mark Eichhorn 17.4 7.6 3.4 0.0 28.4
32 Randy Myers 17.3 6.1 0.6 3.1 27.1
33 Greg Minton 17.3 6.9 2.7 0.0 26.9
  Robb Nen 17.3 6.6 0.8 2.3 26.9
35 Rick Aguilera 22.6 3.6 0.0 -0.1 26.1
  Troy Percival 18.3 5.4 0.7 1.6 26.1
37 Steve Farr 16.3 7.1 1.6 0.7 25.7
Dennis Eckersley (relief) 16.5 6.4 0.2 2.5 25.6
38 Gary Lavelle 17.6 6.8 1.0 -0.1 25.3
39 Terry Forster 18.8 5.9 0.0 0.3 25.0

 

Key Observations:

  • The BBWAA and wWAR… um… agree? This was kind of a shocker. There's one expection (that we'll get to), but otherwise the list of Hall of Fame relievers corresponds perfectly to their ranking by wWAR. I did not see that coming.
  • The exception: John Hiller. I've been saying for a long time that he's the most underrated pitcher in the history of this game. It's a tough claim to stick to after doing all that Hall of wWAR research, but it still may be true. He is absolutely the most underrated relief pitcher in history. Does he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Probably not. Does he deserve to be in a Hall of Fame that includes Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers? Absolutely. Don't know John Hiller? You should read up on him. I believe he's the only player to resume his career after having a heart attack.
  • Mariano Rivera was good. In fact, he's the only relief pitcher who would ranks as a Hall of Famer if you include no adjustments for relief pitchers, whatsoever. He has provided the same value as a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, just one inning at a time. Unbelievable.
  • You want to induct Trevor Hoffman? Fine. But you should also induct Lee Smith. Again, my personal stance is that only Rivera, Gossage, and Wilhelm are Hall of Famers. But if you're going to put Sutter, Fingers, and Hoffman in, you should put Hiller and Smith in. That would be seven relievers—nine if you include Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera. That's enough. Sorry Wags and Quiz.
  • Dennis Eckersley just doesn't fit anywhere. He is truly unique in history and the graphic above shows it. He didn't do enough as a starter to meet the Hall of wWAR starting pitcher threshold. He didn't do enough as a reliever to meet the reliever threshold (though it seems the popular belief is that he did). Add both of his "careers" together and you have a Hall of Famer. A slightly-above-borderline Hall of Famer, but a Hall of Famer.
  • Quisenberry ≠ Sutter. I've been saying for years that it's ludicrous Bruce Sutter could be inducted while Dan Quisenberry was left off after one ballot. They are incredibly similar by traditional stats and WAR. But with wWAR, they start to separate thanks to Sutter's peakier peak and playoff WPA. Still, the gap between Hall of Famer and one-and-done should be larger than 8.3 wWAR.

What stands out to you? Which relievers would you put in the Hall of Fame?

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