Trevor Hoffman was a great relief pitcher. No question about that.
Before Friday night, there were even some who might have argued that Hoffman was the greatest relief pitcher. Because if you measure a relief pitcher purely by saves (as "some" do), then Hoffman was the undisputed champion of relievering, with 601 saves.
He's not the champion of saves any more. Now he's the co-champion, and very soon he will be the non-champion, at which point it will be exceptionally difficult to argue that he's the greatest relief pitcher. I mean, more exceptionally difficult. Since it was already exceptionally difficult.
Even before Saturday afternoon, when Mariano Rivera recorded his 601st career save, he held a 2.22 career ERA; Hoffman's was 2.87.
Even before Rivera recorded his 601st career save, he had pitched 1,207 innings; Hoffman pitched 1,089 innings.
Even before Rivera recorded his 601st save, he had been an All-Star 12 times; Hoffman was a seven-time All-Star.
Even before Rivera recorded his 601st save, he gave up roughly four home runs per season; Hoffman gave up seven home runs per season.
Frankly, it's been a few years since a comparison like this even made sense. Rivera's in a class of his own and has been for quite a while. So if you (or I) insist on dragging Trevor Hoffman into the conversation, then we should figure how Hoffman compares to the great relief pitchers who have many fewer saves than he.
Before we leave Rivera, though, there is another thing that simply must be said ...
Mariano Rivera has saved more than 601 games. A lot more.
Having spent his entire career with the Yankees -- who have reached postseason play in all but one of his 16 seasons with the franchise -- Rivera has thrown 140 postseason innings, or roughly two seasons' worth of innings. In those 140 innings, he has recorded 42 saves, 8 wins and 1 loss.
He's also given up only two home runs while recording a strikeout-to-walk ratio 25 percent better than his already impressive regular-season mark.
No, Trevor Hoffman didn't get nearly as many chances to garner himself with postseason laurels; he pitched in three postseasons, and totaled 13 innings. But are we to completely ignore Rivera's outstanding performance in the October crucible ... and Hoffman's 3.46 ERA in those 13 innings?
How great has Mariano Rivera been?
If some genius in Cooperstown were just today starting an institution to honor baseball's all-time greatest players, Mariano Rivera is the only relief pitcher behind whom I would throw my full support. Almost everyone else -- and I say this with all due respect to the five relief pitchers who are currently in the actual Hall of Fame -- is marginal at best, because they were failed starters or had short careers or averaged only 75 innings per season or weren't actually all that dominant for more than a few seasons or whatever.
Leaving aside the strong possibility that a lot of major-league pitchers could be outstanding relievers if given the chance, the fact remains that when you're throwing 75 innings per season and are usually asked to protect two- or three-run leads, there is relatively little you can do to help your team win.
Here's how FanGraphs ranks the Hall of Fame relievers
D. Eckersley 67 fWAR
Rich Gossage 30
Bruce Sutter 22
Rollie Fingers 20
Their WAR doesn't go back far enough to get Hoyt Wilhelm, so let's run the same exercise, but this time with Baseball-Reference.com's version ...
D. Eckersley 59 rWAR
Hoyt Wilhelm 41
Rich Gossage 40
Bruce Sutter 25
Rollie Fingers 24
Eckersley, as you know, is famous for his relief work in the late 1980s and early '90s ... but a huge chunk of his WAR actually derives from his earlier work as a durable starting pitcher. Without his relieving he wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame ... but without his starting, he wouldn't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Wilhelm, too ... a significant bit of his value derives from the two seasons in which he was mostly a starter.
What about Hoffman? He's got 23 fWAR -- little better than Sutter and Fingers -- and 31 rWAR.
Just so you know, we usually wouldn't think of electing a starting pitcher to the Hall of Fame who didn't have at least 60 Wins Above Replacement. There are 10 post-1960 starters with between 50 and 60 rWar. What do they have in common? From Kevin Appier (50.4) to Tommy John (59.0), none have been elected to the Hall of Fame, or are likely to be elected.
But the bar is obviously much lower for relief pitchers. Should it be? I have my doubts. Serious doubts.
The Hall of Fame is based largely on precedent, though. Once you've elected Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, it's difficult to justify not electing Trevor Hoffman (of course, it's also difficult to justify not electing Billy Wagner and Lee Smith and John Hiller, but that's a whole 'nother column). Given a chance, I would probably vote for Trevor Hoffman, if only because precedent suggests nothing otherwise.
Mariano Rivera, though? He's got 56 rWAR and 39 fWAR. Plus who knows how many postseason WAR. Plus he doesn't seem to be nearly finished pitching yet.
When it comes to relief pitchers, there has been Mariano Rivera and then, two or three notches down, everyone else. And it's likely to stay that way for a long, long time.