Hell’s Bells

Trevor Hoffman's 600 saves tell a fine tale of triumph

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Warning: This will end up being about Trevor Hoffman and the Hall of Fame.

A couple of months before spring training back in 1980, baseball’s playing rules committee made an announcement: From this day forward, uniform numbers on the back of the jersey MUST be at least six inches in size. There would be no more of those little tiny numbers back there that nobody could see. So it shall be written. So it shall be done.

They quietly also announced that the Game Winning RBI would become an official baseball statistic.

Ah, the Game Winning RBI. In the joyous history of sports over the last 50 years, there are a handful of bizarre quirks — bare-footed kickers, the old three-to-make-two NBA free throw rule, the Game Winning RBI — that can still make many of us smile and shake our heads. The Game Winning RBI (no hyphen, for some reason) was a very simple concept. It was “the RBI that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes.”

Bill James was just beginning his baseball writing career then, and he remembers thinking two things when the Game Winning RBI became official:

1. The idea was interesting.
2. Oh boy, did they mess it up.

See, done correctly, the Game Winning RBI could have shown which players had the most important hits over the season. Unfortunately, in execution, it was a disaster. Because the rule was so simply stated, it did not differentiate between a run-scoring grounder in the first inning of an 11-0 victory or a two-out, walk-off grand slam in the ninth. Both were simply Game Winning RBIs. When you add in the various problems with the RBI as a statistic, well, the Game Winning RBI was more or less dead on arrival. Few people bought in.

Even so, the GWRBI (as it was abbreviated) was an official baseball stat for eight years. It was in all the boxcores. GWRBI leaders were shared on a weekly basis in most of the newspapers. Ken Singleton led the majors the first year with 19. Keith Hernandez remains the all-time GWRBI leader with 129 during the years of the stat.

Here are the annual leaders while GWRBI was an official stat:

1980: Singleton, 19
1981: Dwayne Murphy, 15
1982: Keith Hernandez, Don Baylor and Jack Clark, 21
1983: Harold Baines, 22
1984: Eddie Murray, 19
1985: Keith Hernandez, 24 (official record)
1986: Glenn Davis, Gary Carter, 16.
1987: Danny Tartabull, 21
1988: Mike Greenwell, 23

After the 1988 season, the GWRBI died as quietly as it had been born. Nobody really ever explained why it was started or why it ended. There have been various small efforts to keep the thing alive and by piecemealing information from various pages on the Internet, I was able to come up with a very unofficial list of the career Game Winning RBI leaders going back to 1957:

1. Henry Aaron, 275
2. Albert Pujols, 268
3. Eddie Murray, 256
4. Carl Yastrzemski, 247
5. Frank Robinson, 239
6. Reggie Jackson, 238
7. Barry Bonds, 231
8. Chipper Jones, 229
9. Willie Mays, 228
1o. Tony Perez, 226

You ask — OK? What does this have to do with anything?

Well, consider a possibility: Let’s say that the Game Winning RBI did not die in 1988. Let’s say it is still around as an official statistic and is very popular. People refer to it all the time. Teams use it to determine, in part, how much to pay players. Broadcasters and sportswriters refer to it constantly in their reports.

And now: Let’s say people use the GWRBI to help determine if a player belongs in the Hall of Fame. Say: Fred McGriff. He has a borderline Hall of Fame case (last year, 13 percent of the vote). Now, let’s add his 200 Game Winning RBIs — more than Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey or Roberto Clemente — to his case. What if that made all the difference. What if, based entirely on GWRBI, his Hall of Fame percentage skyrocketed to 65 or 70 or even 75 percent. That would be weird, right?

Now, consider that the statistic we’re really talking about here is not the GWRBI.

It’s the save.

* * *

In 1960, a baseball writer named Jerome Holtzman was riding on the Chicago Cubs’ team bus and thinking about relief pitchers. A year earlier, Pittsburgh reliever Roy Face had shaken the baseball world. On the surface, his year did not seem very special. He only threw 93 innings. His ERA of 2.70 was fine but hardly earth-shattering; the Cubs’ top reliever Bill Hentry had a lower ERA with more innings pitched. So what was the big deal about Roy Face?

He had an 18-1 record.

It was wild — one of the wildest statistical peculiarities in baseball history. And it made Face famous. He made the All-Star team. He finished seventh in the MVP balloting. Holtzman was curious, so he went and looked at Face’s season statistics. He found that Face’s record was basically a case of him coming into a lot of close games, pitching well enough, and having the Pirates score a lot of runs.

Just four examples:

In Win 2, Face blew a one-run lead, but the Pirates scored four the next inning to give him the victory.

In Win 6, he came into a 6-3 game with two runners on and was on the mound as three runs scored. Dick Stuart homered the next inning to give the Pirates and Face the win.

In Win 9, he gave up the tying run and the Pirates scored three for him.

In Win 14, he gave up the tying run and the Pirates scored the game-winner.

What Holtzman realized was that while Face was a good pitcher who had a good year, it wasn’t THAT good a year. The statistics deceived. Win-loss record was a terrible way of determining the worth of a reliever (Ed: It’s not that great a way of determining the worth of a starter either, especially now). The idea of a save had been in the air for a long while — the Brooklyn Dodgers, among other teams, had been using some version of it for years — but no one had ever come up with an actual formula for the save. Holtzman sketched the save rules on the team bus — very similiar to the rules we use today. He showed his invention to Cubs broadcaster and legendary player Lou Boudreau. “I like it,” Boudreau said.

Holtzman sent the save rules to The Sporting News, and the editor J.G. Spink loved it so much he paid Holtzman either $100 or $200 for it. Neither one knew then, of course, that the save would change baseball and earn relief pitchers hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is possible that saves will get Trevor Hoffman into the Hall of Fame.

* * *

Now, let me pause for a minute to speak emotionally. Trevor Hoffman was an absolute blast to watch. One of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed in sports was being in San Diego in 1998 when “Hell’s Bells” began to play and everyone in the stadium went crazy and Hoffman began that jog in from the bullpen. There was this, “Um, what’s happening here?” feeling. And then the goosebumps started popping.

So cool. But everything about Hoffman’s story was cool. He was an everyday minor-league player in the Cincinnati organization who couldn’t hit, so he became a pitcher. At first, he had a blazing fastball — he was all arm, no finesse. The Reds didn’t really know what to do with him, so they left him unprotected and he was drafted by Florida in the expansion draft. After showing some promise, he was traded to San Diego for Gary Sheffield. The Padres fans weren’t crazy about that deal. They booed Hoffman for a while.

He pitched OK and then he hurt his arm, supposedly playing Nerf football. The fastball lost a lot of its fire. And so, Hoffman created one of the greatest change-ups in baseball history. Paul Lo Duca used to say it had a little parachute. For 15 years, Hoffman rode that change-up the same way that Han Solo rode the Millennium Falcon … it got him out of a lot of jams. By Jerome Holtzman’s save statistic, it got him out of more jams than any pitcher west of the untouchable Mariano Rivera. Hoffman saved an astounding 601 games.

This year, Hoffman is on the Hall of Fame ballot, and if early returns are any indication, he looks like he will get a lot of support. There is even an outside shot that he will get the 75 percent necessary his first time around.

* * *

Now, let me pause to speak unemotionally: Is Trevor Hoffman really a Hall of Famer? Or is this really like making the Game Winning RBI case for Fred McGriff?

Let’s look at numbers OTHER than saves. Hoffman only pitched 1,089 innings in his career. For starters, that’s barely five years’ worth. The other day, I was talking with a baseball writer who was saying he would not vote for Johan Santana because the career was not nearly long enough — I suspect a lot of writers feel that way. Santana “only” won 138 games. He “only” had 1,988 career strikeouts.

Santana pitched almost 1,000 more innings than Hoffman.

Bret Saberhagen has a similar story. Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards and was one of the great starters of his time. He got only seven Hall of Fame votes because his career was way too short. Saberhagen pitched well more than twice as many innings as Hoffman.

Look at these two pitchers:

Pitcher 1: 61-75, 2.87 ERA, 1,089 innings, 846 hits, 1,133 Ks, 307 walks.

Pitcher 2: 91-35, 2.62 ERA, 1.172 innings, 960 hits, 1,067 Ks, 332 walks.

Pitcher 1 is Hoffman. Pitcher 2 is Dwight Gooden in just his first five years.

One thing you could say is that such comparisons are pointless because those guys were starters and Hoffman was a reliever. The jobs were different and so you have to view them differently. And that’s fair.

But then it’s also fair to say that EVERY reliever is really a failed starter. Goose Gossage was a failed starter. Rollie Fingers was a failed starter. Dennis Eckersley had stopped being an effective starter and was put in the bullpen as a last-ditch effort to get value out of him. Even Mariano Rivera was a failed starter.

Hoffman was put in the bullpen because nobody thought his stuff could play as a starter. He started only 12 games in the minors and never started even a single game in the majors. At first, nobody thought he could. And then, he was so good as a one-inning guy nobody would dare move him.

The statistical analyst Tom Tango puts it this way: On this year’s ballot, you have starter Mike Mussina and closer Trevor Hoffman. There is no doubt Hoffman will get much more support. But, if the two switched roles, who would have the better chance of success? Is there even a question? It’s not hard to imagine Mike Mussina having Trevor Hoffman’s career. It is all but impossible to imagine Hoffman having Mike Mussina’s career.

See, Hoffman’s entire Hall of Fame case revolves around the huge number of saves he accumulated. It’s all about the save. Let’s stop comparing him to starters and instead compare him to some closers. Billy Wagner comes on the ballot this year. They are contemporaries, they both spent almost their entire careers in the National League. Through age 38, they had somewhat similar numbers.

Hoffman: 49-55, 2.71 ERA, 482 saves, 885 innings, 1.045 WHIP, 965 Ks, 250 walks.

Wagner: 47-40, 2.31 ERA, 422 saves, 903 innings, .998 WHIP, 1,196 Ks, 300 walks.

Wagner was better. His ERA was lower, his strikeouts higher, his WHIP lower — he was the more dominant pitcher.

Then what happened? Wagner retired to be with his family (even though he had a spectacular season for Atlanta). Hoffman kept pitching for four more years. Hoffman wasn’t great by his standards in those four years. His ERA 3.51, his WHIP was 1.18, his strikeouts were way down. But, pitching for mostly mediocre teams, he kept notching them saves — 119 of them to be exact.

And that pushed him over 600 saves for the career.

And that is the story here: The save. Powerful it is. For a player to get 75 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, he needs a story, a narrative that captures the imagination. For the very best players — the Aarons, the Mays, the Madduxes, the Griffeys — the narrative is easy.

But for those others who straddle the borderline, they need something. Dwight Evans was probably a better player than Jim Rice — but Rice had the MVP Award and he led the fierce reputation and the more compelling Hall of Fame case. The aforementioned Bret Saberhagen was probably a better pitcher than Catfish Hunter — but Hunter had the nickname and more wins and the more compelling Hall of Fame case.

Trevor Hoffman’s 600 saves tell a story that a lot of voters like.