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What makes a Hall of Fame closer, featuring Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner

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After a year of reflection, I’m pretty sure that I can put my finger on the difference between Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman.

Trevor Hoffman

In a few hours, a closer might not be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s according to Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable ballot tracker, and while it’s going to be close for Trevor Hoffman, he’ll probably have to wait another year. As someone who watched Hoffman and Billy Wagner excel for decades, I’m unsure how to feel about this.

However, I’m starting to clarify my position on this. Last year, I wrote a long article about my inner turmoil with Hoffman and Wagner, in which I acknowledged their uniqueness, but still wouldn’t commit to voting for them. Here was my only rule at the time:

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

And I’ll stand by that. A closer who pitches for 30 years, with a 3.50 ERA and 30 saves every year, isn’t a ... wait, that would be fascinating. But, no, sorry, that wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer. Longevity isn’t a synonym for excellence. Guided Light ran from 1952 to 2009, and there’s a decent chance that this is the first time you’ve thought about it in a decade, if you’ve ever thought about it.*

* It was a television show.

So what does make a Hall of Fame closer? It has to exist, at least if you’re going to subscribe to the Edgar Martinez Theory of Ballot Management. Closers exist. Teams find them important. This isn’t going to change soon, if ever. The best of the best of the best deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Simple.

But you don’t want to reward longevity and fortuitous health for its own sake. There’s a fine line to balance, and I’m not sure if that rule up there helps enough. That’s made me come up with a new rule.

A Hall of Fame closer should have an abundance of oh-my-word-how-can-we-possibly-hit-this-guy seasons.

Lee Smith was the inspiration for this wrinkle. Smith pitched for 18 years, and he was excellent in about 11 of them. He helped define the modern closer role. And I was starting to wonder if I was the jerk, the curmudgeon, against a player that I didn’t watch closely with my own eyes. He was truly a fine pitcher for a long time.

In 1983, Smith threw 103 innings, striking out 91 and issuing 27 unintentional walks. His ERA was 1.65, and he finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. When he came in, a young, fireballing 25-year-old dynamo, the other teams thought “Oh, my word, how can we possibly hit this guy?” He was roughly as good in 1990 and 1991, and he pitched extremely well through some supremely offense-heavy eras.

But other than a handful of exceptional seasons, he wasn’t much different from Jason Grilli If He Stayed Healthy For Two Decades. That’s not a knock on Grilli, who has reinvented himself several times over and thrived. But a season like Smith’s 1996 isn’t much different from what the Blue Jays should expect from Grilli next year. There are a lot of those seasons in Smith’s career. When he came in, it wasn’t always a four-alarm panic in the minds of the three hitters due up.

Smith had maybe four or five oh-my-word-how-can-we-possibly-hit-this-guy seasons. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying much attention back then, so I’m willing to accept that he transcended the stat line, and if 75 percent of the voters agreed with that, I would go along.

Where does that leave Hoffman and Wagner, then? When I took a look at Hoffman last year, I posited that ...

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.

That might have been a little too harsh, though. Because those seasons from Bell and Street, most certainly did strike fear into the hearts of the three hitters due up. They were excellent seasons. Continuing what Hoffman did wasn’t a fait accompli. Not by a long shot.

Hoffman had about eight or nine or 10 oh-my-word-how-can-we-possibly-hit-this-guy seasons. He was outstanding in so, so many seasons. It doesn’t show up in his WAR — consider that he finished second in the 2006 Cy Young voting with just 2.1 WAR, which seems like a serious disconnect — but there was an inevitability with Hoffman that made me grouse and assume the worst for my favorite sports team. The worst usually happened.

I’m now leaning toward a “yes” for Hoffman. Not while the ballot is so gummed up. Maybe not next year. But I’m comfortable with the idea that he was much better than his peers for much longer than he had a right to be. If there are closers, and if teams find them important, there aren’t very many who come close to being as successful as Hoffman was for almost two decades.

Wagner flips the oh-my-word-how-can-we-possibly-hit-this-guy theory on its head. He makes it seem like Hoffman had one or two of those seasons and reevaluate the previous five paragraphs or so. Because that’s what an unhittable pitcher looked like. In 2003, when Wagner struck out 105 in 86 innings, with a 1.78 ERA, during the peak of the Steroid Era, he was a flaming demigod. Pitchers just didn’t do that.

There just wasn’t enough of it. At least, there wasn’t enough to make the decision easy. We have 10 healthy-ish seasons and three kinda-almost-healthy seasons of prime Wagner. He threw more than 80 innings just once and more than 70 innings five times. Tyler Clippard has done that already. So has Matt Belisle and Chad Qualls. It feels as if there’s a reliability that a team would want from Wagner that his body couldn’t provide. It wasn’t just Wagner being a deity for 80 innings every year. It was Wagner for 60 and Doug Henry for 20. Or Wagner for 50 and Aaron Heilman for 30.

Still, he was as dominant of a reliever as we’ll ever season, and he did it for years. I’m leaning yes, but still haven’t made up my mind. I’m scared he’s the Will Clark of closers, where the lines of brilliance and absence bleed into each other, and it’s impossible to determine what’s what.

We have progress, though. There are two rules for considering a closer for the Hall of Fame, and they go something like ...

  1. Make sure you're not creating a Hall of Hey This Guy Stayed Healthy.
  2. Make sure he has an abundance of oh-my-word-how-can-we-possibly-hit-this-guy seasons.

Hoffman passes. Wagner probably does. Pretty sure that Smith doesn’t. More and more modern closers will come up for a vote, and we’ll have to figure this mess out. This simple litmus test will help, even if we’re still making it up as we go along.