We can’t help but compare things: apples to apples, apples to oranges, Trevor Hoffman to Mariano Rivera. The Hoffman-to-Rivera comp is obvious, of course. They were both great closers with overlapping careers, and they met head on in the 1998 World Series; shoot, Hoffman and Rivera even had competing heavy metal songs as entrance music (give me Trevor’s Hells Bells any day).
In the end, where Hoffman was great, Rivera’s bat-crippling cutter made him the best relief pitcher ever. Even by Baseball Prospectus’ DRA—which rates the two pitchers closer than any other advanced metric—Rivera’s 3.03 mark bested Hoffman’s 3.29 by a quarter of a run. Further, Rivera’s WARP, thanks in part to a heavier workload, topped Hoffman’s by a slightly larger gap, 33.6 to 25.2. None of this even considers Rivera’s sublime postseason track record—save for a couple of notable blown saves—where he somehow managed a 0.70 ERA and two home runs allowed in 141 high-pressure innings, all against the game’s best hitters.
So, we’ve solved it: in a battle of two greats, Rivera was better. For every Peyton Manning, there’s a Tom Brady; for every Kobe Bryant, there’s a Michael Jordan; for every Alydar, there’s an Affirmed (for all you horse racing fans). In the somewhat narrow spectrum of baseball closers of the 1990s and early 2000s, Mariano Rivera is no. 1 and somewhere, not far after him, there’s Trevor Hoffman.
Of course, what this comparison whiffs on is measuring Hoffman in context with everyone else. Not just the nearly untouchable Rivera, but also the (nearly untouchable) Billy Wagners and the Robb Nens and the Jose Mesas. So, with the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I looked at all closers who debuted at any point from 1990 to 1999 and recorded at least 200 career saves. This is essentially Hoffman’s peer group, and we’ve already weeded out the many, many relief pitchers who tried and failed to crack that 200 save mark.
Here’s the group, sans the pesky Rivera, with a number of statistics:
The only guy who’s really comparable to Hoffman here is Billy Wagner, and Wagner is a much better Hall of Fame candidate than the 11.1 percent vote tally he got this year would indicate. Outside of Wagner, the rest of this group suffers from one of two problems: they either didn’t have Hoffman’s longevity, or they didn’t have his performance track record.
Take the durable, long-lasting subsection, the guys with at least 1,000 career innings. Jason Isringhausen had a nice run in the middle of his career, but these closers are basically the journeymen type. Even Isringhausen, who racked up 272 saves from 2000 through 2007 with the A’s and Cardinals, had a K%-BB% not quite half of Hoffman’s figure. Bob Wickman somehow survived as a competent reliever for 15 years with a 1.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Todd Jones was sort of like Wickman, but worse, yet he looked the part and ran with the convincing disguise for a long time. Roberto Hernandez played for 10 different teams and wore four different uniform numbers (34, 35, 36, and 39, if you’re keeping track at home).
On the other end, the closers from this group with comparable numbers to Hoffman generally didn’t last nearly as long. Robb Nen, who’s a dead ringer for Hoffman inning-for-inning, had a seven-year stretch of 30 or more saves during which he put up a 200-plus ERA+ three different times. But he only pitched until he was 32, abruptly retiring due to a bum shoulder that was predictably ravaged by the demands of the craft. Hoffman was 32 back in 2000, and he lasted—mostly healthy—for another decade. Same goes for Joe Nathan, who had a dominant run in the middle of his career with the Twins, but struggled to string together full (or good) seasons past his 34th birthday. Likewise, former Padres great Rod Beck only surpassed the 50-inning threshold once after turning 30, and the effectively wild Ugueth Urbina spent his age-33 season in a Venezuelan prison.
Hoffman ranks second among pitchers on the above table in DRA, WARP, K%-BB% (trailing only Wagner in those three), and even in the little-used save percentage. Ignoring Wagner again, nobody even gets close to Hoffman by WARP, which, in its simplest form, is a combination of innings and DRA, with only Nathan, Nen, and Wickman getting within 10 full wins of Hoffman. Remember, this group is already the cream of the crop among Hoffman’s contemporaries, so his general dominance in comparison goes to show why it only took him three shots to reach the Hall.
In the end, the instinctual comparison to Rivera is inevitable and appropriate. Rivera’s the best ever at his craft, for now at least, and it’s only natural to put other modern-day relievers up against him. Just like other starting pitchers get compared to Pedro Martinez or Clayton Kershaw, or other position players have to deal with Mike Trout, or other animal documentary narrators must confront David Attenborough, anyone doing their work out of the bullpen must contend with the menacing presence of Rivera.
Beyond Rivera, however, lies the great unwashed masses of relief pitchers, the flameouts and the injury prone, the perpetually average and the one-hit wonders. It is there, among the Jeff Zimmermans and Antonio Alfonsecas and Troy Percivals, where Hoffman makes his Hall of Fame case. Durability and high-level performance for a relief pitcher, a breed of baseball player that’s more volatile than any, is harder to find than a blown Hoffman save, and it was Hoffman’s bread and butter.
Thankfully, the Hall of Fame doesn’t recognize only the best player at each position; it’s big enough for Rivera, Hoffman, Wagner, and, down the road, plenty of current relievers who continue to redefine the position. Hoffman did his thing better than most, for one year in Florida, two years in Milwaukee, and 16 mostly brilliant ones in San Diego. Now it’s on to Cooperstown forever.
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