The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Prediction: We've seen the last of Hall of Fame relief pitchers

When Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera took the podium to deliver their Hall of Fame induction speeches, I believe we saw the last of major-league relievers to have a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.  With the way the reliever role, especially the closer, has evolved, we won’t likely see another dominant reliever who will make a significant impact on the game as pitchers such as Rivera, Smith, and 2018 electee Trevor Hoffman.

The population of relievers in the Hall is already scarce.  Only eight of 80 elected pitchers have been relievers.  Others include Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley.  Even Lee Smith, third all-time in saves, had difficulty getting elected; he failed to get in by vote of the baseball writers during his fifteen years of eligibility, instead being selected afterwards by the Hall of Fame Eras Committee (formerly called the Veterans’ Committee).  The current list of viable candidates for future consideration remains relatively small as well.

The reliever role, as a full-time job for a pitcher, didn’t become institutionalized until late 1950s.  The measure of relief pitcher effectiveness became the “saves” stat, which The Sporting News began reporting as an unofficial stat in 1960.  Saves became an official MLB statistic in 1969.  Fireman of the Year and Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards were created by MLB’s commercial partners to recognize the top relievers in the game, since relief pitchers weren’t often considered for league MVP and Cy Young awards.

The distinction between starter and reliever roles has become blurred during the past couple of seasons.  This has particularly been revealed during post-season play. Teams are commonly using relief pitchers as “openers” to start games in place of traditional starters.  Relievers are now being used to pitch multiple innings, and the conventional closers are being brought into games before the ninth inning, depending on game situations.  Pitchers like Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith made their marks by coming into games in the ninth inning to close out games in which their teams held leads.

A consequence of the evolving use of relief pitchers is that they will eventually be perceived as commodity or utility players with little ability to distinguish themselves from one another and even with starters, as long as that distinction continues to exist.  Today’s middle-relief pitchers already suffer from that stigma, as compared to their “closer” counterparts who have more opportunities to rack up saves.

So what will Hall of Fame voters use in the future to evaluate the career performances of relief pitchers?

Popular thinking among many baseball analysts is that the saves statistic should be de-emphasized and even discontinued.  Keith Law, in his 2017 book Smart Baseball, makes the argument saves are irrelevant as a measure of individual performance, because “they give credit to certain relief appearances based solely on their context in the score, the inning and the end result.”  Law asserts pitchers might meet all the criteria for a save and still pitch poorly, thereby negating its importance.

Of course, stats such as ERA, WHIP, FIP, and SO/9 are still relevant, but how do you judge a pitcher who throws 180 innings per season against one who only throws 50-60 innings if they have similar results in these stats?  Starters with more innings pitched will naturally be seen as having more overall impact on the outcomes of games.  With no other measure to differentiate them, relief pitchers will have fewer chances to be evaluated for their contributions as potential Hall of Famers.

During the past twenty years, solid relief pitchers such as John Franco, Jesse Orosco, Robb Nen, John Wetteland, and Jeff Riordan have never garnered serious consideration for Hall of Fame election.  Billy Wagner, with his stellar performance numbers as a closer, has been on the ballot since 2016; and yet he is also having difficulty obtaining a substantial number of votes (his highest percentage was 16.7% in 2019).

All-star relievers Joe Nathan; Francisco Rodriguez, and Jonathan Papelbon will become Hall eligible soon, but they will likely suffer the same fate as Wagner.  The same may be true for the top relievers in the game for the past few years, including Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen.

Unless a sentimental Eras Committee awards one of these relief pitchers with Hall of Fame honors after their ten years of eligibility, we won’t see another one in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown.

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