Bill James on relievers in the Hall

Bill James is in the middle of a four-part series on his website (sorry, subscription only) that deals with the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot. Admittedly, the article is a bit late, but it’s laid out and written in the classic James style. Which, to me, makes it a must-read.

In the section about Lee Smith (whose mob nickname would have been “Shuffles,” according to Bill—a classic Jamesian touch), he has this to say about relievers in the Hall:

…modern baseball fans and contemporary baseball media over-rate and over-value the contributions of the bullpen, and this is now being reflected in a rush to induct Closers into the Hall of Fame. Since 1992 the BBWAA has elected two catchers to the Hall of Fame, two first basemen, two second basemen, two left fielders, two center fielders, one DH—and four Closers. And, if Lee Smith is the standard of a Hall of Fame closer, then there are several more who will need to be inducted in the next ten years.

Closers don’t pitch that many innings. Yes, they do pitch important innings, but in order to project the value of a closer up to the level of the value of a position player, you have to give him a leverage index of 3.5 or 4—in other words, you have to assume that a typical batter/pitcher outcome when a closer is on the mound is 250% to 300% more important than a typical batter/pitcher matchup in another situation. The problem is, it’s just not true; the innings that are pitched by a closer are not that important.

When people are asked to emphasize something or de-emphasize something, based on their intuitive judgment, they’re going to mis-position it; I think that’s just a fact. I think that we are emphasizing bullpens to an extent that exaggerates their real importance, and I think that we are rushing to put Closers into the Hall of Fame based on that exaggerated sense of their importance. It is my opinion that we need to slow down and think a little bit more carefully about what we are doing.

One reason that Closers are as dominant as they are, of course, is that they only pitch one inning at a time. Many closers, like Lee Smith, were failed starting pitchers. Freed from the responsibility of pitching multiple innings, they are able to come in and throw gas for one inning, and this enables them to be very effective pitchers.

That’s great—but is that a good reason to put that pitcher in the Hall of Fame? I’m not sure that it is. If Gary Bell (1960s starting pitcher, won-lost record of 121-117). . .if Gary Bell had been able to come into the game and throw high heat for one inning at a time, I would predict that he would have been an extremely effective pitcher—but would that have been a good reason to put Gary Bell in the Hall of Fame?

This isn’t exactly news; baseball analysts have been saying that relievers are overrated for a while now. But I’m hoping that when Bill says it, more people (in particular, people who are BBWAA members) will listen.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.
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Steve Treder
12 years ago

Yes, the complicating dynamic is, I think, this:  it’s unquestionably very valuable to shut down your opponent in the ninth inning to grab a victory.  That’s what gets everyone’s attention.

But, as James suggests with the Gary Bell example, for any pitcher of reasonable major league ability, doing so is not all that challenging a feat.  That’s what is far less understood.

And, of course, the concept that the (more challenging) achievement of the starting pitcher to put his team in position to have the ninth-inning lead in the first place seems to be overlooked as well.

12 years ago

We also tend to put more value on closers because the psychological impact—disappointment—is much higher if we blow a game that we expected to win by giving up three runs in the ninth.  But giving up three runs in the fifth, sixth or seventh, instead of the ninth, yields the same loss.  We just don’t feel the same degree of disappointment.  So closers become all-important in our minds, not based on their impact on wins and losses, but because of our investment in expecting to chalk up a victory.

12 years ago

Maybe James gets to it in a part of the article not block quoted above, but I’m curious if he thinks none of the 4 relievers who have been selected were worthy. I’m very much a “small Hall” proponent, but even I believe Dennis Eckersley is a worthy HOF member. And going forward, I’d be interested if James supports Mariano Rivera getting in.

Matt Vandenbrand
12 years ago

I agree that the preceived value of a closer is far greater then their actual value. After all if guys like Brandon Lyon, Leo Nunez etc can rack up 20+ saves a seasons, then the closer’s job can’t be that hard can it?

Sure racking up 30+ saves is an impressive feat, but less so when 8 other guys do it as well.

Teams can always develop closers, by drafting college closers, or bringing them up through the minors in short relief, or more often, just putting a guy in the role and saying, here, 3 guys, bring the heat get the save.

Maybe because I’m young, and I don’t remember the games from back in the day, but closers today really are liquid assets and are just as replaceable as your tooth brush is. Of course there are teams out there that will pay a fortune to land one at the trade dead line or via free agency, but it’s not necessary to do.
Though I suppose the idea of managers being able to trust one guy in the role is nice, and having a “safe” option is something that fans and managers alike can look forward to when the 9th rolls around.

On the bright side we should only see 3 modern day closers enter the hall- Rivera, Hoffman, Wagner.

Gerard Ottaviano
12 years ago

Maybe this question needs to be interpreted in a different light.  I believe everyone will accept the premise that baseball has created the position of “closer”.  That said, doesn’t it make perfect sense to recognize the best of the best at that position and put them in the Hall?  The precedent has already been set in evaluating a shortstop or middle infielder or catcher in a different manner than someone would an outfielder or corner infielder.  So, now that a specialization has been created within the pitching category, recognize it and reward the best ones.  I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be evaluated quantitatively relative to starters.  If you want to say starters are more important than closers, that is fine, but does that necessarily mean a closer should not be in the HOF?

Steve Treder
12 years ago

“I believe everyone will accept the premise that baseball has created the position of ‘closer’.”

No, everyone won’t.  Baseball has clearly created the role of closer, but a role isn’t a position.

Leadoff hitter is a role, not a position.  Backup infielder is a role, not a position.

The closer mode is a distinct manner of deploying a given pitcher, but the position he’s occupying remains pitcher.

This distinction is important, because while every team also has a leadoff hitter, and a backup infielder (and a cleanup hitter and a backup catcher, and so on), no one would seriously suggest the HOF should focus on representing the best performers in each of those roles.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

Good post, Steve.

In the article, James definitely supports Rivera getting in, maybe Hoffman.  He doesn’t comment here about previously elected relievers, such as Fingers.

Travis Bickle
12 years ago

Too bad James didn`t address the Year Boston decided to not use a closer based on his suggestion that it wasn`t needed. It lasted a couple months before they had enough of the blown games. The one thing the sabergeeks like James can never reflect in a stat is the human element, the ability to do something when it counts. To these nimrods the game will always just be numbers on a page.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

Travis, your comment is ill-informed.  Bill didn’t tell Boston that a closer “wasn’t needed.”  My understanding is that he had nothing to do with it—it was Theo’s idea.  Plus, the idea wasn’t that they didn’t need a “closer,” but that investing too much money in the bullpen didn’t make economic sense; a theory that still rings true.  One season doesn’t make/break an idea.

Marty, I don’t believe the difference between a position and a role is semantical.  It’s real—as your own post highlights.  The real question is whether those four closers should all be in the Hall.  Bill, among others of us, doesn’t believe they all should be (not should Lee Smith be getting serious Hall of Fame consideration), and that one of the reasons is that voters are treating the closer “role” as a position.

12 years ago

It all depends on what you believe should be the criteria for entering the Hall of Fame.

You might think the standard for entering the Hall of Fame require meeting some objective level of value over their career (perhaps requiring players from all positions – not roles – have representation in the Hall).

However, suppose you think entrance to the Hall should also consider subjective qualities: how we watch baseball and our interactions involving the game. I’m well aware closers aren’t as important as other position players and starting pitchers, but I still find myself yelling at Papelbon whenever he blows a save. My anger towards his performance is disproportional to how he affects the game. That’s part of watching baseball. Like it or not, closers occupy baseball fans time, thought and energy.

If closers are a part of the baseball ‘story’ from season to season, then I think there is a place for that role in the Hall of Fame. Objective value need not be the only yardstick.

12 years ago

Mike, fascinating point that although closers may be less critical to wins and losses, they are fundamental to the fan’s experience.  It is this disconnect between emotion and strategy that I think is too often ignored by managers—but you are absolutely right that things like the Hall should perhaps be impacted more by a player’s contribution to the experience of being a fan and less by pure statistical analysis.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

It’s a good point, Mike, similar to my post about Jack Morris and the importance of that seventh game of his. If you go with WPA as your yardstick, then I think Rivera, Hoffman and Gossage should be in.  But Smith?  No.  And Sutter and Fingers?  No, no.

Cooper Nielson
12 years ago

Maybe a better (but certainly not perfect) analogy would be: closer = pinch-hitting specialist.

Neither is a “position,” but both are regular, predictable roles or modes of usage. Both are used much less often than “regular” players, but in situations of higher-than-average leverage. Both, arguably, would be used MORE if they were better in some way (better fielders, more durable, etc.)—though in the modern approach to the bullpen, guys like Feliz and Soria, who probably DO have the tools to perform well as starters, are intentionally left in the bullpen.

I don’t see Manny Mota, Dave Hansen and Lenny Harris ever getting into the Hall of Fame. But are they really THAT different from Bruce Sutter or Lee Smith?

Steve Treder
12 years ago

In fact, James himself (where was it—the NBJHBA?) wrote an excellent article comparing the usage/impact of Dennis Eckersley with that of Jerry Lynch.

Marty Bergen's Overworked Housekeeper
12 years ago

No one would seriously suggest that a closer role is of equal significance to a backup catcher role, either.  Certainly teams don’t behave as if it was, as measured by focus, in-game strategy, salaries, etc.

And since the best leadoff hitter happens to be in the Hall of Fame, and so is the best cleanup hitter, and so is the best defensive shortstop and so forth—not as representatives of their “roles” but for their performances while filling them—it’s not some insane new reach to think that a “closer” might receive similar consideration. 

That four “pitchers who accumulated most of their innings at the tailends of games” have already been inducted suggests that the role of semantics is being treated like the role of 25th man.

mark f
12 years ago

Manager asks player X to go out and do a job, player X performs a quality job over 80% of the time:

PLAYER         GS   QS   QS%
Felix Hernandez   34   30   88%
Josh Johnson   28   23   82%
David Price   31   25   81%

In modern times we determine that they are stud pitchers and worthy of Cy Young consideration regardless of wins and losses.  Good for us, we have made some growth.

Manager asks player Y to go out and do a different job, player Y performs a quality job over 80% of the time

Player         IR   IS   %S
Tonny Sipp       45   9   20 (or 80% success)

Most people would not know which team/division or team this guy calls his home.

Manager asks player Z to go out and do a job, player X performs a quality job over 93% of the time:

Player         SV   BSv   SV%
Rafael Soriano   45   3   94%
Neftali Feliz   40   3   93%
Joakim Soria   43   3   93%

In modern times we call these guys clutch closers and if they string multiple season together like this they are elite pitchers and if they string over a decade of seasons like this together, HoF is talked about.

Are we comparing Neftali Feliz to Gary Bell?  Times are changing and we were able to forgive SPs for not throwing 25+ CGs, 300+ innings and pitching on 3 dyas rest, so why can’t we embrace relievers??


Paul G.
12 years ago

In my mind, evaluating closers from an HOF perspective is difficult because of the unusual, near black and white measure of success.  It’s the ninth, your team is up 4-1, hold the lead.  Three consecutive strikeouts: SUCCESS.  Final score of 4-3 with the bases left loaded: SUCCESS.  It is theoretically possible to have a closer who holds every lead given to him – a 100% success rate – and have an ERA well into double digits.  Would that pitcher be great (he always succeeds) or lousy (his ERA indicates someone who should not have a major league job)? 

Then you get into the matter that the one inning closer is, necessarily, forcing his team to carry one or two more pitchers to make up for his limited and specialized workload.  My relief ace has 45 saves and an ERA of 1.50, but as a consequence I have to carry a couple of replacement level pitchers who lose me a few games plus I lose a couple of bench players that could win me a couple.  It would seem to me that the one inning closer must necessarily be discounted, at least compared to the Gossages and Sutters of the world, for that reason.

Mark F
12 years ago

Do I agree with the rush to include closers to the HoF, no.  The criteria for pitchers who are non-starters needs to be established and needs to be set higher than the current thinking of the HoF voters.

Perhaps my examples were a little over the top.  My point, on the other hand, is not.  I do advovcate that #1 starting pitchers (play in 20% of the games and pitch 15% of the innings) ought to be the bulk of the pitcher HoF candidates and closers (pitch in 40%, try to close out 30%, while participating in 4% of the innings) should be a smaller percentage considered for the HoF.  What I am trying to emphasize is the criteria for being a HoF pitcher who happens not to be a starting pitcher should begin to evolve.  What makes us so sure Rivera is a lock and Lee Smith is a “not likely” exists in our minds already.  How can we find ways to express our thoughts about relievers to allow the truly best pitchers – starters or non-starters – to be identified for HoF consideration. 

We don’t ask pitchers to throw strikes, we ask them to get hitters out knowing that they won’t be perfect just like we know hitters will not get hits 100% of the time – but more like the 26% success ratio that you have described.  We have somehow collectively determined that getting a hit 33% of the time over a long career makes one a strong HoF candidate.  Create a baseline for expectation, measure against it. Isn’t this WAR?

Rivera will not be given HoF consideration for having 626 save opportunities, the fact that he saved 89% of those opportunites and did so with such dominance (1.00 WHIP and 2.23 ERA) will be the factors that push him towards consideration.


Dave Studeman
12 years ago

No offense, Mark, but that’s silly.  We ask hitters to get a hit, and they only do it 26% of the time.  So perhaps none of them should be in the Hall?

12 years ago

Trevor Hoffman’s career WAR = 30.7

Roy Halladay’s WAR in the last FIVE years = 29.4

Enough said.

12 years ago

1.  Boston’s bullpen experiment “failed” because: (a) the scrutiny was so intense that they didn’t have the opportunity to use the approach over an extended period of time (i.e., a season); (b) the pitchers didn’t perform; and (c) the “culture” of baseball does have an effect: pitchers have been told over and over that only certain individuals can “close,” that the 9th inning “is different,” and that “relievers need to know their roles.”  I believe that these ideas, repeated over and over, do have some psychological effect (yes, pitchers are human too). 

Boston’s concept, however, was entirely sensible—find the best matchups; use the pitchers flexibly, in the most advantageous spots; don’t lock them into mindless roles.  If the 3,4 and 5 hitters (all power hitting all stars) are up in the 8th, consider using the closer in the 8th and if necessary someone else in the 9th.  Instead, the save stat dictates how pitchers are used.  Manager send out a “set up guy” (maybe the 7th best pitcher on the team) to face the best hitters on the opposing team.  And the closer, with his 9th inning super powers, faces the bottom of the order.  This is silly.  The culture needs to change.

2.  Someone above suggested that Eck was clear HOFer.  To me, Eck is a good example of James’ argument.  For a few years he was an above average starting pitcher (although not a HOFer).  When he couldn’t get it done any more, he switched to relief and became a dominant one inning “closer” for a relatively short period of time (87-92).  I’ve always believed that there are dozens of Ecks out there.  Decent starting pitchers who could be very good closers.  I was shocked that Eck was such an easy choice for the writers.  And then I heard so many commentators discussing his “amazing” combination of wins and saves.  As if being a failed starting pitcher actually helps a person’s HOF case.

Eric R
12 years ago

“Too bad James didn`t address the Year Boston decided to not use a closer based on his suggestion that it wasn`t needed. It lasted a couple months before they had enough of the blown games. “

Just to toss it out there; in 1884 the Chicago White Stockings hit 142 HRs, the all-time team high before that was 34 and that would remain the highest until Murder’s Row, the 1927 Yankees [also hit 59 more HRs than they allowed; previous highest was 23 and unmatched until the 1920 Yankees].  They finished 5th in the standings, I guess that proved that hitting alot of HRs [and alot more than you allowed] was a bad idea…

“Manager asks player X to go out and do a job, player X performs a quality job over 80% of the time:”, etc

But by that measure doesn’t it kind of put Steve Jobs and a great Apple intern [hasn’t spilled one cup of coffee in Jobs’ lap yet and always has today’s copy of the San Jose Mercuty News on Jobs’ desk before 7am!] are kind of on the same level.  They are both performing at the highest levels at their positions, but that doesn’t mean we give the intern a key to the executive washroom and exclusive access to a company jet.

12 years ago

Mark, beautifully stated.  It is sad when the ill-conceived stats (and agents’ advice to their clients, based on those stats) dictate an important part of baseball strategy.  The Yankees and Red Sox have both put together, at least on paper, deep bullpens.  In the case of the Sox, the anointed closer is probably NOT in fact strongest arm.  So perhaps Francona will have enough other talent to engage them more strategically.