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Starters, relievers, and the Hall of Fame

Relievers might belong in the Hall of Fame, but let’s make sure we ask the right questions to find out.

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

Two weeks ago, MLB Now did a segment on relief pitchers, where they discussed their merits in the Hall of Fame. On the panel was Brian Kenny (host of MLB Now), Jon Heyman, Mike Lowell, and our own Evan J. Davis.

Every single one of them seemed to agree that the best relievers belong in the Hall of Fame, but there were some problems with the evidence they used to back up their points. At around the 5-minute mark of the segment, they displayed this graphic:

As you can see, Billy Wagner was highlighted in yellow. Evan went on to say that Wagner was probably one of the greatest pitchers on a batter-for-batter basis of all time. But this graphic is misleading.

I don’t think we should be comparing Wagner to Johnson, Martinez, Schilling, Hernandez, and Koufax. All of those pitchers pitched more than Wagner did, and the innings limit was arbitrarily set to (barely) include Wagner.

Wagner only pitched 903 innings in his career. Every other pitcher on that list pitched more than 2,000. Look, if I tell you Wagner had a 63 DRA- in 903 innings pitched, and Randy Johnson had the same DRA- with 4135.3 innings pitched, the fun fact isn’t Wagner, it’s Randy Johnson!

My biggest problem with that graphic was that the information was organized to make Wagner look good, and better than what he already was. The only reason Wagner was on that graphic was because of the 900 innings limit. If the innings limit was 905, then Wagner wouldn’t appear on that list.

I suspect this problem of misleading comparisons is pretty widespread, and I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular. But Evan also wrote an article a couple weeks ago titled, “Jonah Keri is wrong: Relief pitcher should be in the Hall of Fame,” itself a response/disagreement with Jonah Keri’s take that relievers don’t produce enough value to be in the Hall of Fame.

Early in the article, Evan criticized Keri for comparing relief pitchers to situational hitters: “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.”

I don’t have any problem with this statement, and in fact, think it’s a pretty good way of thinking about relief pitcher’s cases for the Hall of Fame. But then Evan didn’t follow his own rule! Especially in this paragraph:

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.

My biggest problem here is with the last statement. Basically, Evan suggests at the end of that paragraph that Wagner is arguably the greatest relief pitcher of all time. He writes that he was able to accomplish that “despite” throwing 386 13 innings fewer than Rivera.

The problem here is that 386 13 innings pitched is a big difference, especially when talking about relief pitchers, and his durability is one of the main reasons Rivera’s career was so outstanding.

One’s ability to pitch innings and quality innings shouldn’t be looked over or ignored and should be considered a benefit. Throwing few innings is a flaw, and a big one. It’s the whole reason many people think relievers don’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

Relievers are also complicated, and in order to be able to say that one is the best or the second best, one needs to first define who is a reliever, and who isn’t. This issue, while sounding simple, can actually be quite complicated and muddy. (It’s something I want to examine in more depth in a future piece.)

I understand that Evan was trying to show how dominant Wagner was, and he did; Wagner was undoubtedly an extremely dominant pitcher. But even when we’re talking about relievers, especially when we’re talking about relievers, we can’t overlook a pitcher’s flaws. Wagner’s flaws need to be considered in the context of his Hall of Fame case.

Evan also made this statement in regards to Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame case, “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.”

Like I said, I’m fine with Evan’s argument that relievers should only be compared to themselves; I think it’s a good one. But I think it’s a bit contradictory to say that relievers should be compared to themselves, and then compare relievers to starters.

(I’m also not sure that the statement is true; Bruce Sutter (a reliever) is #15 on the list, with a DRA- of 78. (I downloaded the data from the Baseball Prospectus Pitcher Career page, and then filtered the data in R. You can find my code on GitHub.))

So, do relievers belong in the Hall of Fame? Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t have a great answer. You can make a compelling case either way. I actually think Evan makes the best case for relievers being in the Hall of Fame:

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.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. One shouldn’t be comparing relievers to any other position in baseball, at least not when considering their Hall of Fame case.

The best case is to suggest that relievers, as Davis points out, are an essential part of today's game, and should be compared to themselves. Davis is also critical of WAR in his piece, but I think it’s currently one of the best ways to judge a player’s career. WARP would be the measure I would choose because it uses DRA, but what makes WARP so useful here is it takes into account innings pitched, which you need to take into account. It probably gives the best “objective” way to value a player.

And while comparing relievers to starters is probably a bad idea, for career WARP. I think it’s perfectly fine to use WARP as a measure to compare relief pitchers to each other. In any case, it’s the best we’ve currently got in the public sphere. (There’s also a case to be made that the metrics don’t properly value relievers and that relievers should have their own independent metric, which better takes into account leverage, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

The case against relievers is well known. They simply don’t pitch enough innings to be as valuable, as other players. This is also a reasonable stance to have and is mine if you put a gun to my head.

Wagner and Hoffman should be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame, but the issue is complicated, and it should be treated as such. When we’re asking these questions, it’s critical to consider all of the information at hand, and be certain we’re defining and contextualizing it correctly.