MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Hall will eventually come calling for Hoffman

Hall will eventually come calling for Hoffman

NEW YORK -- Former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman will be inducted into the Hall of Fame someday soon -- if not this year, his first on the ballot.

Hoffman faces the age-old dilemma of how eligible voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America view relievers in general, and one-inning closers in particular.

Thus far, only six pitchers who spent at least parts of their careers as closers have been inducted into the red-bricked museum on upper Main Street in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Rich "Goose" Gossage and, most recently, John Smoltz. The BBWAA has only elected 119.

Here are the caveats: Eckersley and Smoltz were also highly effective starters, and Sutter is the only pitcher in the Hall who spent his entire career as a closer until injuries ended it prematurely. Even the great Mariano Rivera, eligible in 2019, made 10 starts early on for the Yankees on his way to a record 652 saves, 42 more in the postseason.

Hoffman, a converted shortstop, would be the second pitcher in the Hall to never have started a game, his 1,035 appearances all coming in relief. He's the all-time National League leader with 601 saves, but the question is whether that will be enough for voters to eventually carry him in.

Note that Fingers had 341 saves, Gossage had 310 and Sutter had 300, but all of them pitched in an era when closers were used for multiple innings. Should Hoffman be penalized because of the way his managers -- mostly Bruce Bochy with the Padres -- used him?

Eckersley, with 390 saves along with 197 wins, was the first of the era to be turned into a one-inning closer by manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan in 1987, when all of them were with the A's.

"I think the numbers are what they are," Hoffman said recently. "I think I pitched in an era that was riddled with people's concerns about players doing it fairly. I did it honestly. I felt like I was one of two guys, Mariano and myself, who stood out. Not to take anything away from Billy Wagner, who had a great career. Mine was pretty good. So we'll just leave it at that."

Wagner is also on the ballot for the first time this year. He had 422 saves during 16 seasons for five teams and is highly regarded. Lee Smith, third on the all-time list behind Rivera and Hoffman with 478 saves, is in his 14th season on the ballot and really has never generated any traction.

Neither did John Franco (424 saves) nor Jeff Reardon (367), who fell off the writers' ballot after failing to generate at least five percent of the vote and aren't likely candidates for the Expansion Era Committee, either.

Writers of their era considered Sutter, Gossage and Fingers to be seminal closers who had massive impacts on the way the game was played and managed late last century as bullpens became a major factor.

In the famous "Bucky Dent Game No. 163" in 1978 that gave the Yankees the American League East title over the Red Sox, few remember that Gossage actually saved the game three times that afternoon at Fenway Park: Once for Ron Guidry in the seventh inning and twice for himself in the eighth and ninth. In the end, Carl Yastrzemski popped out foul to third baseman Graig Nettles with runners on first and third to send the Yanks on to what would eventually be a World Series win over the Dodgers.

That would never happen today, nor would it ever have happened in Hoffman's time. Three relievers at the least are now asked to do the job Goose did that day.

Hoffman was workmanlike, and almost every time he was used -- particularly in his 16 seasons for San Diego -- got the job done within the parameters he was asked.

The Padres were an inferior team for most of the Hoffman era, winning the NL West four times and losing the 1998 World Series in a sweep to Rivera's Yankees. Consequently, Hoffman didn't excel in the postseason, logging four saves, a win and a 3.46 ERA in 12 appearances.

All that notwithstanding, the Padres won 1,128 games when Hoffman was available after he arrived in the June 24, 1993, fire sale trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins. With 552 saves and 54 wins, Hoffman contributed to an astounding 53.7 percent of San Diego's wins before he left for the Brewers as a free agent after the 2008 season.

Comparatively, with much better players surrounding him, the Yankees had 1,613 wins when Rivera was available to pitch during his 19 seasons. With his 82 wins and 652 saves, Rivera contributed to 46 percent of the Yanks' wins during that period.

The Yankees made the playoffs 17 times in Rivera's 19 seasons, winning the World Series five times to go along with seven AL pennants. That gave Rivera a huge sample size in the postseason and he parlayed that into those 42 saves, eight wins and an 0.70 ERA in 96 additional appearances to his 1,115 during the regular season.

Hoffman and Rivera will always be regarded in the same breath. After all, Major League Baseball has named its annual awards for the top relievers in each league after them. But because of the way he performed under the harsh lights of the postseason, the perception is that Rivera was a much more dominant pitcher than Hoffman, making him an almost certain first ballot Hall of Famer, which Hoffman is not.

Rivera did it with one pitch, a nasty cut fastball. Hoffman's calling card was a changeup that he developed after missing all but nine September outings during the 2003 season because of surgery to correct an impingement in his right shoulder that Spring Training.

How dominant, though, was Hoffman? Opposing batters hit .211 against him, .188 with two out and .150 with two strikes. Hoffman had 1,133 career strikeouts, and 536 on 0-2 counts. He walked 307 in 1,089 1/3 innings, had a 1.058 WHIP and a dominant 0.84 ERA in his 601 saves. Hoffman blew only 95 saves -- an average of 5.28 a year -- in 18 seasons.

Those are just the highlights. Only those who were in San Diego for much of Hoffman's career knew what to expect every time he came sprinting out of the bullpen to the strains of AC/DC's "Hells Bells" at either Qualcomm Stadium or Petco Park. Game over.

All of this and more is why the pearly gates of the Hall eventually will swing open for Hoffman. If not now, someday very soon.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.