Billy Wagner & Trevor Hoffman

This last Hall of Fame vote saw the worthy Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza gather the required number of votes necessary from the baseball writers for enshrinement. Three other players, all worthy of the honor in their own rite, Jeff Bagwell (71.6%), Tim Raines (69.8%) and first-timer Trevor Hoffman (67.3%) all received over 65 percent of the vote, thus making them strong candidates for enshrinement next year, with a pair of stars, Vladimir Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez, making their initial presence on the ballot. However, the focus of this entry will be on one relief pitcher, who, like Hoffman, was on the ballot for the first time last year. This pitcher only received 10.5% of the writer’s vote. Was Trevor Hoffman really 57 percentage points better of a pitcher than Billy Wagner?

Hoffman and Wagner were the two finest firemen in the National League during the late 1990s and on into the 2000s. Their paths to the majors couldn’t have been any more dissimilar. Although Hoffman had Major League bloodlines—his brother Glenn was a shortstop for the Red Sox—he wasn’t taken until the 11th round by the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were more interested in Trevor’s bat and he spent his first two years in their chain as a position player before transitioning to the mound. The Marlins took him in the expansion draft and quickly flipped him to San Diego for Gary Sheffield, where Hoffman would make a name for himself as an elite closer. Wagner, by contrast, was the twelfth overall selection by the Houston Astros in the 1993 draft. In his brief minor league career, Billy never once made a single relief appearance, having been groomed as a starter, only to settle into the Majors as a power closer.

What the Baseball Writers must have done was simply glance at the career saves totals of these two distinguished closers. Trevor Hoffman rests second on the all-time saves list behind Mariano Rivera with 601, while the southpaw Wagner is currently fifth with 422. With close to 180 more career saves, it’s little wonder that Hoffman received a higher percentage of the Hall of Fame vote. Throughout history, voters have been more impressed, especially in regards to pitchers, with career totals rather than dominance and excellence. Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt were both serviceable Major League pitchers, whose high wins totals, thanks to pitching for the offensive juggernaut of the Ruth-powered Yankees, carried them to Cooperstown. Peers such as Charlie Root and Urban Shocker have better peripheral stats however. Few would argue that Tom Glavine, one of Atlanta’s three co-aces during their marvelous run, was a better pitcher than Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling, even though his career wins totals dwarfs theirs, and he, not Schilling, is a member of the Hall of Fame.

Career totals should not be scoffed at, for a productive longevity is the mark of a quality player, but excellence in a trade, rather than sustained quality, seems to be a more modern standard. Some recent Cy Young Award winners have had lesser win seasons than their peers, but nevertheless, given their dominance in peripheral stats, they, not the quality starters on winning clubs, gather the award.

Both Wagner and Hoffman were selected to seven All-Star teams during their careers and each hurler enjoyed seven campaigns with a WHIP under 1.000. Hoffman gets extra credit points for leading the NL in saves on two separate occasions while Wagner never did lead the circuit in that category. However, when one peruses the stats that showcase a pitcher’s excellence: WHIP, strikeout-to-walk-ratio, strikeouts-per-nine-innings, etc., they see that Billy the Kid was the better pitcher.

Wagner is that rare gem whose career WHIP rests under 1.000. That, as far as pitching is concerned, is like having a lifetime batting average north of .330. Billy’s career WHIP is an impressive 0.998, which makes Hoffman’s terrific 1.058 career WHIP look rather pedestrian. Both men weren’t cut from the Jim Kern/Mitch Williams mold—racking up sizable strikeout totals to go along with massive base on bases totals, thus enabling them to have very impressive WHIPs. They coupled their power arms with solid control.

In 903 career innings pitched, Wagner only surrendered 601 hits and just 300 walks, which enabled him to be one of but a few pitchers to average less than one batter to reach first on average per inning during his career. Trevor Hoffman, by contrast, worked more innings at 1,089, but gave up 846 hits and issued 307 walks, allowing for a WHIP north of 1.000. And, although Hoffman worked more innings than Wagner, Billy the Kid amassed a greater total of career strikeouts: 1,196 for Wagner compared to 1,133 for Hoffman. Wagner’s strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark was an astounding 11.9; far superior to Trevor’s 9.4 mark. The former Astros closer thus ended his career with a 3.99-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio; handily better than Hoffman’s 3.69-to-1 showing.

Earned Run Average (ERA) is another stat of common focus, and in this regard, Wagner doesn’t just eclipse Hoffman by a marginal mark, but by a career showing greatly superior to Hoffman. Billy the Kid ended his career with a minuscule 2.31 ERA (he had five seasons with an ERA south of 2.00, including his final two seasons in the Majors) while Trevor’s 2.87 career ERA (with only two years of a sub 2.00 mark) hardly compares with Wagner’s brilliance in this regard.

In conclusion, the voters must have perused the career saves list and valued Hoffman much higher than Wagner, when Wagner was clearly the more dominant pitcher of the two. Personally, I think both men belong in the Hall of Fame. For whatever reason, relief pitchers tend to fizzle out quickly, despite their limited workloads, and those stoppers like Hoffman, Wagner and Mariana Rivera, and their Cooperstown-neglected forefathers Lee Smith and John Franco, who sustained excellence for many years, should, and I expect will, over time, acquire more respect from the voting populace.

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