Trevor Hoffman, Hall of Famer?
June 18, 2007 16 Comments
Congratulations to Trevor Hoffman. A few weeks ago, Trevor notched his 500th career save, which makes him a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame. And as my father would say at this juncture, I think that’s nice. Really.
I don’t want to come off as saying that Trevor Hoffman is a bad pitcher. In fact, I think he’s a rather good pitcher, and if I were a Major League manager, I’d love to hear “Hells Bells” playing and knowing that he was taking the mound for my team. It’s just that I’m not sold on closers going into the Hall of Fame based only on how many saves they’ve racked up. (I’m also not a believer in magic numbers for HOF admission, such as 3000 hits, 500 HR, etc. For more information, please see McGriff, Frederick Stanley.) If you’d like to make the case that Hoffman strikes a lot of batters out, keeps runners off base, doesn’t give up homeruns in key situations, has good control, or signed a lot of autographs for kids before batting practice and you want to put in him in The Hall for that, I’m listening. Just understand that I’m not all that impressed with large numbers of saves.
Those who follow Sabermetrics (or are even casual fans of the game) have probably heard the arguments on why saves aren’t a reliable indicator of a relief pitcher’s skill set. Sure, a save means that the pitcher did something right that day. He pitched, recorded the last out of the game, didn’t blow the lead, and his team won. And in fact, he might have performed stunning feats of pitching heroism and actually deserve a gold star next to his name. He may have pitched a very tense ninth and guarded a one-run lead against the middle of the best-hitting lineup in the league. But, then again, he might have gotten a cheap save, coming in to guard a 3-run lead against some league patsies. Just about any serviceable Major League pitcher can guard a three-run ninth inning lead almost as well as the established “closers” out there. The save rule doesn’t discriminate.
Like it or not (and I am decidedly on the side of “not”) there is a small cadre of pitchers who make $6-8 million a year because they have attained the magical tag of “closer.” Compare this to their brothers who make about a quarter of that, based on the fact that they are “only” middle relievers. How did they attain this coveted status? Why they racked up a bunch of saves in a season. How does one rack up saves? Well, nowadays, by pitching the ninth inning (or in the event of an extra innings game, the last inning), whether that was actually the most critical juncture in the game or not.
It’s easy to see why people might believe that the ninth inning is the most important point in a game. It seems a little strange to suggest otherwise. After all, the ninth inning is the last inning. It’s all over afterwards. However, it’s not always the case that games are most decided by what happens in the ninth inning. In a blowout, where the score is 16-1 and the utility infielder is living out his lifelong dream of pitching garbage time mop up relief (likely pitching to his fellow utility infielder!) what happens in the ninth inning does nothing to decide the game. But what about the following situation? Runners on first and third with one out in the bottom of the seventh, with your team up by a run. You would scratch your head if the manager brought in your team’s “closer” here, because it’s not the ninth inning, but perhaps this would be a good time to do so. Consider, your team’s chances of winning are hanging in the balance here. A strike out or a double play would be fantastic right about now. A home run puts you two down. Even a base hit ties the game. A lot depends on this at bat. You want your best in the game right here, not your fourth best. But, the fourth best is usually what you get, because it’s not yet a “save situation.”
How important is this situation compared to any other situation? Well, we have a statistic called the leverage index that tells us exactly that. The intricacies of leverage have been discussed elsewhere, but the only important thing to understand is that it’s a mathematical way of determining exactly how important any point in a given game is. So, when does the most important at-bat (the highest leverage point) in a game occur most often? In what inning does it usually happen? Well, at least using data from 2000-2006, the answer may surprise you. Take a guess.
If you said the 8th inning, you’re right, at least technically (more on this in a minute).
Inning % of games in which highest leverage point occurred
I think it’s a good idea to combine the 9th inning with extra innings for this discussion because they are the “last” innings, so perhaps there is some merit to the idea that baseball games are won and lost most often in these innings (added together, the 9th and later innings account for 18.5% of all highest leverage points), but I’m betting that few fans think much about the 8th inning and how important it is.
Now, the preceding table represents all games, including blowouts where saves are generally not awarded. (There is the odd game here and there where a reliever will go the last 3 innings to mop up in a 9-2 winning effort and be awarded a save for his effort.) Since our discussion concerns saves, let’s restrict ourselves to games in which a save was awarded. Highest leverage points by inning in those games where a save is awarded:
Oh really? In less than a quarter of the games where a save was awarded did the highest leverage situation occur in the 9th inning, and the critical inning the plurality of the time was the eighth inning not the ninth. Given that closers generally only pitch the ninth inning, this means that it’s likely that they weren’t the ones on the mound when the big moment came. I re-ran the numbers to account for all games in which the final score was within 3 runs, figuring that there might have been a save situation in the bottom of ninth, but whoever was in there blew it, thus there would be no save awarded. The numbers did change a bit from above, turning into 32.0%, 15.7%, 23.1%, and 29.2%. So, the ninth inning contains the most critical situation in close games about 3 out of 10 times, but the eighth inning is still checking in at 23%.
Finally, I looked at what percentage of the time that the gentleman who was awarded the save was actually the one on the mound at the point of highest leverage in the game (where his team was in the field). The answer: 26.7% of the time. In only 26.7% of games where a save is awarded does the “savior” actually handle the biggest at-bat that his team faces in the game. Padres fans, in case you were wondering, In games Trevor Hoffman saved from 2000-2006 (covering 254 of his saves), he was on the mound 25.6% of the time at the point of highest leverage.
Does anyone else want to make the case that closers are overpaid? They generally make their millions based on how many saves they rack up, yet it seems that most of the time, they’re not the ones who actually save the game. They were simply cunning enough to get their managers to let them into the game last and took advantage of what was probably a pretty good bullpen in front of them. A bullpen that already did the dirty work.
A few objections come to my mind. One is that lately, teams have been designating one pitcher as an eighth inning guy in addition to designating someone as a closer. He’s generally not quite as good as the closer, and he might “make” some high leverage situations for himself by putting a few runners on in a close game (runners usually increase leverage). So, it might be a mark of distinction that the closer is so good that he didn’t make a mess for himself. Another is that I could, I suppose, take a look at things from the standpoint of win probability and check to see which relief pitcher added the most win probability to the team’s chances during his tenure on the mound. I might do that as a follow up.
Update: I ran the win probability numbers. Percentage of games in which a save was recorded that the gentleman recording the save was the same gentleman who added the most in terms of win probability to his team (using the assumption that everything that happens while the pitcher is on the mound is his credit/fault): 20.5%.