A Case for Tom Henke

For those individuals well versed in baseball trivia, a question I will soon put forth might shock a great deal of baseball enthusiasts.  The Hall of Fame has acknowledged the relief pitcher, with selections of firemen such as Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm, and recent inductions of Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter.  Sutter and Gossage are modern relief artists, who both reached 300 career saves, however, when you ask the question who has the most career saves between Hall of Famers Gossage, Sutter and their unenshrined peer Tom Henke, few people would put forth the proper answer.  The two men with plaques in the Hall of Fame were outperformed by the underappreciated closer of the Blue Jays.  Henke saved 311 career games to Gossage’s 310 and Sutter’s 300.

The closer has become a valuable piece to a roster and few stoppers were as dynamite as Tom “The Terminator” Henke.  An overpowering closer who racked up high strikeout totals while also limiting base-runners by issuing few walks, Henke was an elite fireman whose career is more impressive than his two enshrined peers.  Not only did Henke amass more saves than Gossage and Sutter, but he also posted lower career totals in ERA and WHIP.  His totals weren’t just a little lower than the two Hall of Famers—they were a great deal lower.

When Henke hung up his spikes, he walked away from the game with a tidy ERA of 2.67.  Bruce Sutter’s career mark was quite a bit higher at a respectable 2.83 while Gossage’s exceeded 3.00, albeit by the scantest of margins.  With a career WHIP of 1.092, Henke was that uncommon fireman who kept runners off base.  Not only was The Terminator difficult to hit, but he was also stingy with bases on balls.  Bruce Sutter’s career WHIP of 1.140 was much higher than Henke’s while Gossage posted a decent career mark of 1.232, far inferior to both Henke and Sutter.  Henke enjoyed three seasons with a WHIP below 1.000, a feat matched by Gossage but not by Sutter, who only had two such campaigns.

Tom Henke posted an ERA under 2.50 in seven separate seasons (Sutter only had three such years) and enjoyed six 30+ saves seasons.  Relief pitchers are typically judged by the games they saved, which baffles the analyst as to why Sutter and Gossage were enshrined at the expense of Henke.  Whereas Tom had six 30+ saves seasons, Goose only notched two such campaigns while Sutter enjoyed four.  Of the three, Henke was also the most reliable, for he stringed together four consecutive seasons with 30 or more saves, while Bruce Sutter’s 30+ saves seasons were all spread out throughout his career—he never had back-to-back 30 saves seasons.

The mark of a terrific pitcher is limiting base-runners, and with firemen, the need to keep batters off base is of uppermost importance.  Oftentimes, especially in the days of these three gentlemen, stoppers were brought into games with runners already on base.  With inherited ducks on the pond, the fireman capable of missing bats was important.  Henke bested his peers in this regard as well.  In only one season did Henke allow more hits than innings worked—Gossage allowed this to happen in five seasons and Sutter in three.  On average, Henke allowed 6.9 hits per nine innings, a mark that easily eclipsed Sutter’s 7.6 and Gossage’s 7.4.  Strikeouts, the best way to strand runners, was a forte of Henke’s as well, for The Terminator averaged 9.8 whiffs per nine innings: Gossage (7.5) and Sutter (7.4) lagged way behind.

Many things separated Tom Henke from his bullpen peers, but what was most impressive about his game was his terrific location for a power pitcher.  Your typical late inning flamethrower simply pulls back and uncorks a fastball as hard as he can throw it, with little regard to accuracy, which, as one would imagine, often leads to free passes.  Strikeout-to-walk ratios aren’t as impressive as they could be given this disregard for control.  But Henke had both the strikeout arm and the control pitcher’s accuracy.  He retired with an impressive SO/BB of 3.38, which outdistanced Gossage’s (2.05) and Sutter’s (2.79) by margins immense.  At the top of his form, Henke posted five seasons in his career with a SO/BB of 4.25 or higher—something Bruce Sutter only did once, while Gossage was never able to perform.

Tom Henke was an elite closer, who, upon his initial run at the Hall of Fame, failed to receive even two percent of the vote from the BBWAA.  Why Henke was overlooked and the voters zeroed in on Sutter and Gossage is anyone’s guess, but it seems clear to me, that the best fireman owns not a plaque in the Hall of Fame’s gallery.


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