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Jonah Keri is wrong: Relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame

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Relief aces are now a legitimate category of player. When you’re asked to perform a job, and you do it better than anybody, shouldn’t you be recognized for that?

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San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves, Game 3 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I almost never disagree with Jonah Keri.

I mean, why would I? The 42-year-old has emerged over the last 15 years as one of the most eloquent and influential baseball writers this country has. Many of his columns have formed the core of mainstream sabermetric thinking, allowing for what was once the provenance of the obscure to enter the broader cultural conversation.

Furthermore, Jonah Keri almost never writes hot takes.

I mean, how could he? The Montreal native is one of the most generous and ebullient writers in any discipline. His joy for the game spills out from the edges of his paragraphs with a delightful regularity most of us could only hope to tap into. Keri is not one for the newspaper columns, the TV talking heads, or the Twitter outbursts, with their irrational and dyspeptic moralizing of whatever the story of the day may be.

So imagine my surprise when Keri, not once, but twice in the same week, decided to lambast the very concept of a modern relief pitcher being voted into the Hall of Fame.

Keri’s Hall of Fame column last month specifically cited his belief that the likes of Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith are not worthy of the Hall of Fame. According to Keri, the fact remains that modern, one-inning relief aces just don’t pitch enough to make as large an impact as starting pitchers or position players. “The notion that even the best pitchers filling such a limited role could be more valuable to a team than a top starter or an MVP-contending position player is nuts,“ says Keri.

Keri doubled down three days later as a guest on The Ringer MLB Show. “It is so stupid to vote for relief pitchers for the Hall of Fame,” Keri told hosts Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann. “Relief pitchers are glorified pinch hitters,” he continued. “I really don’t think that Trevor Hoffman makes a much more compelling case than the best situational hitter of all time. I just don’t.”

This is about as hot-blooded as you’ll ever read or hear Keri on any issue. Given his generally inclusive spirit, it certainly caught me a bit off guard. But the question is a serious one if Keri is raising it. Are relievers in fact “glorified pinch hitters?” Are they unable to accrue as much value as a starter or position player, and thus have less impact on a game’s outcome?

I would argue that this is not only untrue, but incredibly unfair to an entire class of player that has emerged in the wake of Dennis Eckersley’s 1988 season. The likes of Hoffman and Wagner should not be compared to Matt Stairs or Lenny Harris, but rather as their own, large category of player. If center fielders are to be judged against each other, then, relievers should be given the same opportunity. As such, their candidacies must be taken seriously, and in the cases of Wagner and Hoffman, both should eventually be elected to Cooperstown.

The primary issue, here, is the consideration of the role itself. As Keri puts it, relievers are too situational to be compared to those who play every day, or take the mound every fifth day. If we use wins above replacement as our statistical baseline — as Keri’s arguments implicitly suggest — that is obviously true. Mariano Rivera accrued 32.2 WARP in his career. Chris Sale has pitched almost as many innings after only five seasons in the majors, and has already racked up two more wins than Mo did in 14 extra years. No, the modern relief ace does not generate as much WAR-based “value” for his team.

How much of that is the pitcher’s fault, though? Keri makes the point that many have over the decades; that relievers are just failed starters. I would be foolish to claim that, should Clayton Kershaw move to the bullpen next year, that he would instantly become the greatest reliever of all time. No one could dispute that. So many relievers end up where they are because they didn’t have the stamina to throw seven or eight innings every five days, or were never able to develop a third pitch to keep hitters guessing.

I am not aware of any situation where a reliever actively chose his role. At some point along the way, some combination of a team’s front office and coaching staff, or a college coach, decided that the bullpen was a guy’s only available option. He was thereafter relegated to a single inning, four days a week.

We can go further. Tony La Russa forever changed how relievers were used when he decided in 1988 that Dennis Eckersley would only pitch the ninth inning, and only when the Athletics were tied or had a lead. That was a coaching decision. Before that moment, relievers were firemen who consistently threw three innings a game. That wasn’t the choice of the pitcher—it was the choice of the manager. So too with the one-inning setup of the last 29 seasons. Is it fair to blame Wagner or Hoffman for never being allowed to do what Andrew Miller did with Cleveland in 2016?

Therein lies the problem of using wins above replacement as a measurement of pitcher value. When it comes to WARP — Baseball Prospectus’s WAR model that uses Deserved Run Average as its foundation — we have the best possible method of determining the run value for every event a pitcher is responsible for, and adding those up over time. Since both starters and relievers don’t call the shots with the amount of times they are used, it seems invalid to then use career WARP totals to compare pitchers across eras, and then decide which ones meet the threshold for induction to the Hall.

As for Keri’s comparisons of relievers to situational hitters like Stairs or Harris: OK, fine. LOOGYs and mopup men might fit the bill here. But does Wagner? Hoffman? Miller? It’s one thing to say that a guy meant to get a starter out of a jam in the sixth inning is akin to a pinch hitter tasked with getting on base late in a tie game. It’s quite another to say that Wagner, with his career 33.2 percent strikeout rate, is a pinch hitter of the mound.

Keri frequently uses the words “context” and “situation” to argue against relievers. “They usually come into games with the bases empty, often up two or more runs, needing only three outs (typically five to 20 pitches) to finish the game,“ he states. There’s a conflict in his argument, here. One of the primary functions of wins above replacement is to strip out context and elements beyond the player’s control, in order to properly evaluate his contribution. If Keri wishes to use a primarily context-independent stat like WAR to evaluate position players and starting pitchers, why should relievers get dinged because they were asked by their managers to enter a clean ninth inning with a lead? Should we not continue to parse situationally independent data in order to judge them—specifically, situationally independent data that doesn’t rely on volume of work that is most often out of the pitcher’s control?

Finally, it seems patently unfair to reject an entire class of player whose importance to the modern game has skyrocketed in the last few decades. Relief pitchers are an essential element to baseball, and have been for a long time. They should be given the opportunity to be judged against each other, not against the likes of Manny Ramírez and Greg Maddux.

Which leads me to Billy Wagner.

It’s true that Wagner, should he ever be elected to the Hall, would go in as having thrown the fewest innings of any elected pitcher in history—903. Over the course of 15 seasons, Wagner never stared a game. Upon his establishment as a closer in July 1996, he almost never threw more than one inning at a time. He tallied 29.1 WARP in his career; Randy Johnson earned 147.4.

But put Wagner into the context of sheer dominance. If we set the innings threshold to 900, Wagner’s 33.2 percent strikeout rate is the highest since 1916 (the first year K% can be measured). His 187 ERA+ is second only to Mariano Rivera all-time. His 63 DRA- is tied with Randy Johnson as the greatest since 1951 (the first DRA is able to be calculated). In other words, Wagner, despite throwing 386.3 fewer innings than Rivera, is still either the best or second-best relief pitcher of all time.

It’s good that Rivera is in this conversation. Keri cites the Yankees legend as the one exception he would be willing to consider. Yet, the only thing really separating Wagner from Rivera is time. They essentially performed the same roles, and did exactly what their managers asked of them. Batter for batter, Wagner was just as dominant, and by some measures, even more dominant than Rivera was. So why might Rivera possibly get a pass from Keri, and not Wagner?

Hoffman is slightly more complicated. He was never as dominant as either Wagner or Rivera, and despite being great, his candidacy leans heavily on save totals, a measurement I am happy to toss into the garbage. But by DRA-, Hoffman’s mark of 77 is only one point lower than Rivera’s. Of the top 15 pitchers by DRA- with at least 900 career innings logged, three relievers make the list: Wagner, Rivera, and Hoffman.

By every legitimate measure, Wagner and Hoffman should both be seriously considered as Hall of Famers, since they are two of the three best ever at their position. Cooperstown represents the history of baseball, and serves to honor its finest players. Designated hitters like Frank Thomas, Edgar Martínez, and David Ortiz have all either been elected, will be elected, or the sabermetric consensus agrees (including Keri) that they should be elected. Relief pitchers should not be any different. They are a crucial part of the game. It’s time that the BBWAA, and sabermetrically inclined writers like Keri, recognize them as such.