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• As Mike's Baseball Rants continues to explore, the role of the reliever has been in a nearly constant state of evolution across baseball history. Several pitchers are often identified as paradigm of the "modern" reliever based upon their pattern of usage, including Wilhelm, Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley.
• Finally, most baseball fans, whether knowledgeable statheads or simply men on barstools (not that the two are exclusive, and that'll be another round for me, thanks), intuitively grasp that while relief pitching is an important part of the game, the impact of an ace reliever isn't on par with that of an ace starter or All-Star position player. Several measures of player value -- both sabermetric and economic -- bear that out.
All of this combines to make a reliever's road to the Hall of Fame an uphill one. But that doesn't eliminate the question of where our three candidates fit in with respect to the two already in the Hall, to each other, and other good-to-great relievers who are or will be eligible for the Hall in the not-too-distant future. With Eckersley up for election next year, and a generation of save-happy closers on the horizon (Smith, the career leader, has already arrived), it's worth looking at some ways to compare them.
Last year Baseball Primer's Rich Rifkin introduced a measure designed to judge relief pitchers based on a combination of innings pitched and on ERA+ (which is park-adjusted ERA relative to the league). The reasoning behind this is simple: a pitcher's job is to prevent runs; a good pitcher prevents runs at a better than league-average rate; the more innings a pitcher throws at a better-than-average rate, the more valuable he is.
Based on the widely-agreed notion that Wilhem was the best ever, Rifkin called his measure the Hoyt Scale, and created a simple formula:
(ERA+) + 4*IP/75 = uH (unadjusted Hoyts)
Rifkin then produced a Hoyt Constant such that Wilhelm winds up with exactly 100 Hoyts, and all other relievers are calculated relative to the master. By Rich's calculations, the best relievers after the ol' knuckleballer were Kent Tekulve and Rich Gossage (84.2), John Franco (82.8), Dan Quisenberry (81.7), Lee Smith (80.4), Tom Henke (80.2), Sparky Lyle (81.0), and Rollie Fingers (79.3).
This was a quick-and-dirty attempt at getting a handle on the relative values of a select group of top-notch relievers, but it contained a few flaws. First off, Rifkin's numbers for calculating the Hoyt factor were off; for whatever reason he reported Wilhelm's total number of innings in relief as 1,890 when it's in fact 1,870 (still a major league record).
That's a minor problem, easily correctible. However, a much larger problem exists. Several pitchers in the group we're examining, including Wilhelm, have significant numbers of innings pitched as starters. Using a pitcher's total ERA+ and total number of innings favors anybody who racks up the mileage a starter gets; yet we're trying to measure relievers.
While breakdowns between innings pitched and runs allowed as starter/reliever are not always available, we do have a large amount of data for the thirty-five pitchers in my study. Using Retrosheet and a few instances where ALL of a pitchers appearances in a single season were starts, I was able to completely separate the stats as starter and reliever for eleven pitchers. Another eight obliged me by never starting a single game. That's over half of the pitchers for whom I was able to use Relief IP and Relief ERA+ to recalculate their Hoyts. We'll call all of these pitchers whose stats cooperate with our mission Group A. Wilhelm himself is included in this group because if we know his Relief IP, we know his Starting IP. I made an estimate of his Relief ERA+ which I'll explain shortly.
Here are the Group A pitchers, sorted by Relief Innings Pitched (RIP). GS(d) is the number of games started for which we have data for, and RERA+ is Relief ERA+. The rest should be familiar:
G GS GS(d) W L Sv IP RIP ERA+ RERA+ H. Wilhelm 1070 52 0 143 122 227 2254.3 1870.0 146 145 K. Tekulve 1050 0 0 94 90 184 1436.3 1436.3 132 132 S. Lyle 899 0 0 99 76 238 1390.3 1390.3 127 127 L. Smith 1022 6 6 71 92 478 1289.3 1252.3 132 143 T. Burgmeier 745 3 3 79 55 102 1258.7 1248.7 119 120 J. Orosco* 1187 4 4 85 78 142 1261.3 1243.0 130 132 B. Stanley 637 85 85 115 97 132 1707.0 1159.0 118 131 J. Franco* 998 0 0 88 76 422 1150.3 1150.3 143 143 J. Reardon 880 0 0 73 77 367 1132.7 1132.7 121 121 D. Jones 846 4 4 69 79 303 1128.3 1112.3 130 130 M. Jackson* 960 7 7 60 67 142 1141.7 1108.0 127 131 G. Lavelle 745 3 3 80 77 136 1085.0 1077.7 126 128 D. Quisenberry 674 0 0 56 46 244 1043.3 1043.3 146 146 B. Sutter 661 0 0 68 71 300 1042.3 1042.3 136 136 J. Montogomery 700 1 1 46 52 304 868.7 863.7 134 136 D. Eckersley 1071 361 361 197 171 390 3285.7 807.3 116 180 T. Henke 642 0 0 41 42 311 789.7 789.7 156 156 R. Aguilera 732 89 89 86 81 318 1291.3 740.3 117 131 J. Wetteland 618 17 17 48 45 330 765.0 683.0 148 165 T. Hoffman* 632 0 0 45 44 352 701.0 701.0 146 146
Group B consists of pitchers for whom we have incomplete data on their time as starters. For the group, we have data on 55% of their total starts. For Goose Gossage, we've got 32 out of his 37, for Rollie Fingers only 8 of 37. I went ahead and removed the known starter stats from their lines, such that we've got Relief IP and Relief ERA+ which still include some starter innings (which we'll adjust for down the road). Interestingly enough, every pitcher in either Group A or Group B had a better ERA+ as a reliever than as a starter, sometimes dramatically. Here are the Group B pitchers, sorted again by RIP (keep in mind that this RIP is not a complete total):
G GS GS(d) W L Sv IP RIP ERA+ RERA+ R. Gossage 1002 37 32 124 107 310 1890.3 1659.0 126 139 R. Fingers 944 37 8 114 118 341 1701.3 1656.7 119 122 G. Garber 931 9 1 96 113 218 1510.0 1505.7 117 117 T. McGraw 824 39 15 96 92 180 1514.7 1435.3 116 121 C. Carroll 731 28 9 96 73 143 1353.3 1299.0 120 123 M. Marshall 723 24 19 97 112 188 1386.7 1285.0 118 124 J. Hiller 545 43 35 87 76 125 1242.0 1012.0 134 135
Group C pitchers are the ones for whom we have no data on separating Relief IP and Relief ERA+. Five of the eight are older pitchers, contemporaries of Wilhelm who spent most of their careers as relievers. Perranoski and McMahon combined for only three starts; we could have ignored the lack of data and thrown them into Group A, but I chose to keep them here once I decided to add Nen and Hernandez to the study. Sorted by IP:
G GS GS(d) W L Sv IP RIP ERA+ RERA+ L. McDaniel 987 74 0 141 119 172 2139.3 n/a 109 n/a S. Miller 704 93 0 105 103 154 1694.0 n/a 115 n/a E. Face 848 27 0 104 95 193 1375.0 n/a 109 n/a D. McMahon 874 2 0 90 68 153 1310.7 n/a 119 n/a R. Perranoski 737 1 0 79 74 179 1174.7 n/a 123 n/a R. Myers 728 12 0 44 63 347 884.7 n/a 122 n/a R. Hernandez 696 3 0 48 51 320 775.0 n/a 143 n/a R. Nen 643 4 0 45 42 314 715.0 n/a 138 n/a
Here's a quick comparison of the three groups:
G GS GS(d) W L Sv IP RIP ERA+ RERA+ A 16769 632 580 1643 1538 5422 26022.3 21851.3 130 136 B 5700 217 119 710 691 1505 10598.3 9852.7 121 126 C 6217 216 0 656 615 1832 10068.3 n/a 119 n/a
In general the trend seems to be that the more data we have on these pitchers, the better that data reflects on them. Note the improved RERA+ for the A's and the B's.
Back to Wilhelm. Poring over his stats, I became concerned about the impact his one year as a regular starter (1959, 32 GP, 27 GS, 226 IP, 173 ERA+) had on his overall stats. So I decided to cobble together an estimate of his Relief ERA+. Knowing his total number of starts and innings as a starter, I calculated his number of innings pitched per start (7.39), and then resolved his pitching lines for each year he started games:
Not a bad estimate; his ERA as a "starter" here is 2.48 compared to his career ERA of 2.52. But the one thing which troubled me about this was the last column, the estimated innings pitched per relief appearance. For 1958, this comes out to over 5 innnings pitched per appearance. I decided to rerun the numbers using a higher estimate for that season (8.0 IP/GS) and a lower estimate for all the others (6.75):
My extra work eliminates only one more run, but it does get his innings pitched per appearance down to a more uniform range. I then removed the totals from his line and recalculated his ERA+ as a "reliever": 145, compared to his overall 146. Not a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but enough to satisfy a few nagging doubts I had about the impact of that 1959 season.
Using Wilhelm's Relief ERA+ and Relief IP, we can now calculate a new Hoyt Constant so that the man winds up with an even 100. In Rifkin's original study it was .4051 (100/246.8), here it becomes .4086 (100/244.73).
One more hurdle remains: how to avoid overestimating the number of Hoyts for the Group B and Group C pitchers. I decided to dock them a small amount for each missing start as a percentage of their total appearances, settling on the following formula:
Hoyt = G - (1.5*(mGS)/G) * uH * Hc
G is Games, mGS is missing Games Started (the ones we DON'T have data for), uH is Unadjusted Hoyts, and Hc is the Hoyt Constant. I tested the factors of 1 to 3 in increments of 0.5, and 1.5 provided a good equilibrium; anything more and you penalize the old swingmen too much, anything less and you reward them too much for piling up the innings as a starter. For what it's worth, I also ran the calculations another way, using a very reasonable 6 IP/GS for the missing Games Started; the results are almost identical.
Anyway, and without further ado, here is new Hoyt list:
Even with the slight deduction for five missing starts, Gossage clearly leaps into second place in this study. Smith edges Tekulve for third place and Franco's alone in fifth. The next seven pitchers are separated by a mere 1.5 Hoyts. Rollie Fingers is right in the middle of that pack. In his original piece, Rifkin used Fingers' score to define the cutoff for Hall of Fame relievers. By this measure, Smith, Tekulve, Franco, Quiz, Wetteland, and Lyle should get the nod, while Orosco, Henke, McDaniel, Garber, Stanley, Sutter and a whole bunch of others fall by the wayside.
Intuitively, this isn't a bad conclusion, but it's worth remembering that Fingers' exact position might be considered somewhat fluid. We're missing 29 of his starts, and additional data (say, Retrosheet splits for 1970, when he started 19 games) could shift his position. If I'd used a different deduction factor, say 2.0 instead of 1.5 per missing start, it would have knocked him below Orosco and Henke at 80.7. A deduction factor of 1.0, on the other hand, would slide him past Quiz, Wetteland, and ol' Sparky at 83.3. Admittedly, one of the reasons I settled on 1.5 was because he fit into the middle of this grouping rather than significantly beyond or behind it.
It's just as well that we don't depend too much on Fingers' exact position, because as a barometer of what makes a Hall of Fame reliever, it's the definition of a slippery slope. But more importantly, the question is, is the Hoyt Scale alone enough to tell us who belongs in the Hall and who doesn't? I don't think so. It ignores postseason credentials, awards, and other factors. But it's of great help in pointing us in the right direction.
Let's remember what the Hoyt Scale does and doesn't do. The Hoyt is a measure of career value for relievers based entirely on runs and innings and the pitcher's performance relative to the league average. It doesn't take into account peak value. It dismisses any performance a pitcher had as a starter. It ignores the relatively trivial aspect of the reliever's W-L record, and somewhat helpfully shades us from being influenced by save totals. It's worth noting how the all-time save leaders rank:
Most of the more recent closers don't fare so well on this list, given their low number of innings pitched; Wetteland is the exception. On the contrary, the Hoyt rewards yeomen who racked up quality innings amid little fanfare. Tekulve, Orosco, McDaniel, Garber, Burgmeier, and Lavelle aren't exactly tip-of-the-ongue names when it comes to relief aces, but those guys were very good for a long time. Not Hall of Famers, perhaps, but no slouches either.
I should add somewhere in here that among the lower reaches of our "Top 35 (Guys Whose Hoyts I Bothered to Calculate)" there are probably pitchers I've omitted who would score just as well, especially among active players and players whose splits I don't have. Today's free-agent signing Steve Reed, a guy I suggested the Yanks find a spot for, rolls in at a respectable 71.5. Among older pitchers, Ron Reed, Dave Smith, and Steve Bedrosian are around 70 as well. If anyone finds a pitcher above 75 who's not active and who's missing from this list, let me know.
Among our three candidates for BBWAA election this year, Gossage has a clear edge on Smith, and Sutter's even further back. I still want to examine what Win Shares and the Leverage Index tell us about these relievers, but rather than dragging this out even longer, I'll hold that for another day.