Relief pitchers

ESPN.com published a couple of articles this week making the Hall of Fame cases for Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Good stuff, though of course it's no substitute for my analysis, which is after the jump.

Career statistical overview
Rick Aguilera3183.577.1886-8189557
Goose Gossage3103.017.47124-10737681
Doug Jones3033.307.2569-794640
Lee Smith4783.038.7371-926802
Bruce Sutter3002.837.4368-710512
John Wetteland3302.939.4648-4517523

  • This is the first year on the ballot for Aguilera, Jones, and Wetteland.

  • Rick Aguilera was named to three consecutive All-Star games from 1991-93.

  • Goose Gossage was named to nine All-Star games and led the league in saves three times. He won the Rolaids Relief Award in 1978.

  • Doug Jones' first productive Major League season came at age 31. He was named to five All-Star teams.

  • Lee Smith is baseball's all time saves leader and won the Rolaids Relief award three times. He was named to seven All-Star teams, including five consecutively from 1991-95.

  • Bruce Sutter was named to six All-Star teams and won the Rolaids Relief Award four times. He won the Cy Young in 1979 and was the World Series MVP in 1982.

  • John Wetteland won the Rolaids Relief Award in 1996 with 43 saves, and also had 7 postseason saves that year on the way to being named the World Series MVP. He appeared in three All-Star games (1996, 1998, and 1999). He recorded 40 or more saves four times.

Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersly, and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Eckersly was inducted partly on the strength of his starting pitching, while Wilhelm and Fingers were recognized for their contribution to the evolution of the position. Wilhelm and Fingers, then, provide the only known criterion for admitting a pure reliever to the Hall of Fame. Namely, historical significance.

Bruce Sutter, along with Dan Quisenberry, Goose Gossage and a few others, pioneered the shift from general purpose reliever to specialized closer. Quisenberry and Sutter were the elite closers for their era, this even though their save numbers fall short of those posted by modern closers. Arguably, Sutter made a contribution to the evolution of the position and should be admitted to the Hall on that basis. A better argument, though, would make reference to the fact that Sutter dominated his position for six seasons.[1]

Sooner or later the voters are going to have to figure out what the standard is for a Hall of Fame reliever. This year, Aguilera, Jones, and Wetteland each showed up on the ballot with 300+ saves. That number seems to be the standard for a good, but not great, run as a closer. But what about Lee Smith? He's been on the ballot for three years and has been getting about half the votes needed for admission. This even though he's the all time saves leader with 478. By any reasonable standard Lee Smith is a Hall of Famer. The question is, how long will it take the voters to settle on a reasonable standard?

1 As an olde tyme Royals fan, I can't help but notice that these arguments for Sutter also apply to Quisenberry. Since that's so, I'm perplexed and offended by the fact that Quisenberry received only 18 votes in his single year of eligibility, while Sutter began with over 100 and has climbed to 344, a whisker short of election.

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