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What should it take for a closer to get in the Hall of Fame?

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Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner have solid Hall of Fame cases. But how elite should a closer be to get into Cooperstown?

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Trevor Hoffman's career intersected nicely with my personal baseball fanaticism. Right as I was learning who the sixth- and seventh-inning relievers were for every team -- you know, for fun -- Hoffman was becoming an All-Star closer. Of his 51 career saves against the Giants, I probably watched 30 or 40 of them, which is roughly equivalent to a full season for a closer. His mid-career reinvention as a pitcher who had 50 different words for changeup was frustrating, mesmerizing art. There have been a lot of relievers come through the game in the last three decades; Hoffman might be one of the most unique.

And I'm still not sure if he's a Hall of Famer.

Billy Wagner presaged the era of 100 mph, coming up when pitchers just didn't do that very often. He started off as a mess of fastball and splinted physics, but he eventually wrassled that power and made it work, like Randy Johnson before him. Wagner would occasionally break and sproing, as you might expect from a human being who had no right to throw that hard, but he somehow managed to pitch at a high level until he was 38.

And I'm still not sure if he's a Hall of Famer.

So it's time to explore the idea of closers in the Hall. Wagner and Hoffman are great candidates to explore because of their longevity and novelty. They did the closing thing longer than just about anybody else before them, and they did it in a way that was instantly recognizable and delightfully memorable. But neither of them pitched more major league innings than Madison Bumgarner did before turning 26. Neither of them accrued more wins above replacement than Vernon Wells, Edgardo Alfonzo, or Von Hayes.

Of course, using WAR to evaluate closers is like using stolen bases to evaluate pitchers -- possibly unfair and probably pointless. Back in the days of yore, teams would have thrown Wagner and Hoffman into the rotation until they failed, and the fallback option would have been to waste them in a relief role where high-leverage situations were the exception, not the rule. It's not Wagner and Hoffman's fault that they played in a specialized era, performing a role that every team now considers essential. If anything, the pendulum is swinging toward appreciating high-leverage relievers more, not less.

Let's come up with a Golden Rule of closers in the Hall of Fame, then. We'll assume they belong, just like designated hitters. We'll also assume that the bar should be really, really high for closer to get into the Hall of Fame, just like a DH. Which leaves us with this Golden Rule:

Make sure you're not creating a Hall of Hey This Guy Stayed Healthy.

That is, make sure that raw saves aren't the basis of consideration. Staying healthy is how Roy Halladay will get in the Hall and why Johan Santana will stay out, so don't minimize the importance of health. But make a list of every closer under 30. Guarantee them a dozen more years of good health. They'll rack up saves. Piles of them. Hundreds and hundreds of saves, and since the closer is a relatively recent invention, they'll climb the all-time leaderboard.

I didn't suggest that you make a list of the best closers under 30, or the closers who've made an All-Star team. This applies to every closer. Give them an arm that doesn't wear down, and they'll accumulate enough stats for Hall of Fame consideration. You don't get that with starting pitchers. You don't get that with hitters. Just because Rusty Staub accumulated 11,229 plate appearances, it doesn't mean that he was a serious Hall of Fame candidate. But if he racked up a counting stat in more than half of the games he played in -- like Hoffman did with saves -- maybe that would be enough to confuse a few voters.

Look, Staub is 13th all-time in Games Available To Help a Team, so ....

But GATHAT doesn't exist. Saves do. And as stats go, they're roughly as important.

No, we have to look for the closers who were markedly better than their peers for their entire career. Forget WAR, which suggests that Mariano Rivera was roughly as valuable as Bob Johnson and Bobby Abreu and not the peerless relief deity he really was. Forget raw or adjusted ERA, which fluctuates too wildly for relievers who have a handful of bad outings, even if they're surrounded by brilliant ones.

So if you forget saves, WAR, ERA, or ERA+, how do you evaluate a closer for the Hall of Fame? There's probably a way to dig into the advanced stats like WPA/LI, but there's no chance of that catching on with the masses. Not to mention, a stat that puts Joakim Soria's career over Bruce Sutter's would be a tough sell.

If not stats, then what? This isn't a rhetorical question. I'm flummoxed. The eyeball test isn't an option because eyeballs are nothing but moist sacs of obfuscation. And I don't want to go full Jacobellis v. Ohio on closers in the Hall. "I know it when I see it" isn't good science, and it's not the easiest path to intellectual honesty, either.

It's all of the above, then. It's saves, run prevention, strikeouts, reputation, dominance, rarity, the eyeball test, and, of course, longevity. The best recipe for that sort of stew is probably something like a 162-game average multiplied by career length. How does Billy Wagner fare with something like that?

Average 162-game season over 16 years: 2.31 ERA, 187 ERA+, 72 innings, 94 strikeouts, 24 walks, 34 saves

That's an elite closer for 16 years. But that's just a 162-game average, which doesn't account for time lost to injury. Wagner missed the equivalent of over two seasons when you add the DL time up, so factor that in.

That pitcher, closing for your team, for 13 or 14 years? You would notice. That's a reliever who is clearly better than his peers for a long time. I'm still on the fence, but I'm leaning toward Wagner in the Hall.

Now Trevor Hoffman:

Average 162-game season over 18 years: 2.87 ERA, 141 ERA+, 72 innings, 74 strikeouts, 20 walks, 39 saves

That's a good closer for a long time. And while he missed just one season to injury, he was never a high-workload reliever, especially in the later years. Still, he made the Padres better than the average team, consistently, for two decades. That has to get serious Hall consideration.

But to pick a team mostly at random, Hoffman's first team, the Marlins, had 21 different pitchers with 10 saves or more while Hoffman was active. Those pitchers had an average ERA of 3.22 from 1993-2010, striking out 7.99 batters per nine innings. They accumulated 544 saves in those 18 seasons, or about 30 on average every year.

The Marlins would have been better with Hoffman instead of the hodge-podge of Robb Nen, Antonio Alfonseca, Braden Looper, Matt Mantei, Juan Carlos Oveido, Joe Borowski, Todd Jones, Vladimir Nunez, Armando Benitez, Matt Lindstrom, Kevin Gregg, and Bryan Harvey. That's indisputable. But is the difference between Hoffman and those pitchers enough to make him a Hall of Famer?

I'm still on the fence, but leaning against it. It seems like the best argument for Hoffman is longevity and health, which is important. But he didn't give the Padres the same kind of advantage that you would expect from an 18-year Hall of Fame career, even when you adjust downward for relievers.

The second-best argument is a badass changeup, though, which is also very important to me. I love that pitch.

This is just my thought process. Every voter will have their own spirits in the cocktail, but the Golden Rule of closers in the Hall of Fame is what I'll always go back to. Don't weight longevity too much. The year after Trevor Hoffman retired, the Padres enjoyed a Hoffman-like season from Heath Bell. The year after that, they acquired Huston Street, who was Hoffman-like for years. If you're describing a Hall of Famer to me, you would hope their teams said, "What now?" frantically when they weren't around. It's hard for closers to make teams that reliant on them.

A Hall of Fame closer is probably someone rare and effective, someone distinctly better than his peers for over a decade or more. Closers should still get serious consideration for the Hall, as they're all an important part of their team, but if you're wondering why the standards are so high, it's because they should be. As the Era of the Closer gets longer and longer, expect this argument more and more.