Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Torn on Trevor Hoffman's Legacy

Trevor Hoffman announced his retirement today and leaves the game as the all time saves leader with 601. With the announcement comes relief that the pitcher won't attempt another year after struggling so badly last year. The difficulty now is to figure out how Hoffman fits into the history of baseball. He is certainly revered by many and nobody else has ever done what he has done. But how important is that? That's the million dollar question.

Trevor Hoffman never started a single game in his career. All of his 1035 appearances were in relief. He not only holds the saves record but also the record for most games "finished" in a career with 856. Mariano Rivera may break the Saves record this year with a big season. That's great and all. But the Fan has heard so often about how little a save actually means. So then, what does Hoffman's career mean?

Not only did Hoffman never start a game, he never finished a season with more than 90 innings pitched. He averaged 72 innings pitched per season in his career. But for his last eight full seasons (not counting 2003 when he was hurt) his average was closer to 57 innings per year. If you take his total innings pitched and divide it by seven (a starting pitcher's game), it boils down to the equivalent of 155 starts, or five full seasons for that average starter.

Hoffman finished with a grand total of 30.7 in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Roy Halladay has accumulated 29.1 WAR in the last five years. How can you compare the two? Is the save an oddball stat? Would it be akin to holding the record for the most hit by pitches or sacrifice bunts? Or is saving a game more important than that? The Fan is still torn by the question. But both the gut and the brain seem to think that saving a game isn't much different than pitching a career of seventh innings just as well. Statistics show that any team over time will win 95.5% of its games when leading going into the ninth inning.  But there are just as many others who believe that Mariano Rivera is the single most important figure in the Yankees run since 1996. The Fan doesn't.

Precedent has been set by the Hall of Fame .Sutter is in there and so are Eckersley, Gossage and Fingers. So the odds are certainly favorable that Hoffman will be elected to that grand body five or six years from now (or soon after). This Fan just can't quite justify it. Hoffman DID finish in the top five for Cy Young voting  four times. He does finish with a career 9.4 K/9 rate and a 1.058 WHIP to go along with his 2.87 and career 141 ERA+. He did have eight seasons with 40 or more saves and one season where he hit 53. His three-year run from 1996 to 1998 was about as good as it will ever get for a closer.

Again, the Fan is simply confused by what it all means. At this point in time, Hoffman will be considered the second best closer ever (with Rivera everyone's favorite). But Billy Wagner might have been better. Then again, does that mean anything in the grand scheme of things with five seasons worth of innings pitched? Perhaps we just don't know yet. Perhaps someday some sabermetrician will figure out how to properly value closers. And that will be a godsend because as of right now, Hoffman's exploits were either overrated or under appreciated.

In either case, thanks for the memories, Mr. Hoffman. You are a class act.

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