To me, the most interesting new name on the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot (which has no shortage of debatable, interesting candidates) is John Franco. His career numbers:
|162 Game Avg.||5||5||2.89||68||47||26||76||71||28||24||5||30||59||138||1.333||1.97|
As far as closers go, Franco was one of the best of his time. He pitched a ton of innings deep into his 40s, posted a 138 ERA+, and is 4th all time in saves. He will no double garner a few Hall of Fame votes this year based on the saves alone. But does he really deserve to be there?
It has been my long-held belief that relief pitchers for the most part should not be in the Hall of Fame. Relief pitchers have the playing time, relative to starters, of a backup first baseman. If you ask yourself, “How good would my backup first baseball have to hit for me to recommend him for the Hall?”, the answer would probably be, “Pretty damn Bonds-like.”
Now, relief pitchers, unlike bench hitters, generally pitch lower ERAs than their starting peers. They are often used in higher leverage situations where the fate of the game hangs on every pitch. But that doesn’t mean that their contributions are all that much more worthwhile than starters. If Sabathia holds the game to 1-0 through 8 innings, Mariano Rivera may feel pressure, but he’s only doing for one inning what Sabathia did for 8. And also unlike bench players, relievers don’t simple graduate into the rotation after they’ve proven that they can play well.
But imagine if you had that Barry Bonds bench player? You’re in the National League, and this guy is just physically incapable of playing the field for more than 1-2 innings a game. But damn, he can hit lefties late in the game really well. He hits an OPS+ of 180+ over his career, 250+ during his best years, but never exceeds 100-150 at bats. Is he a Hall of Famer?
By my count, current HOF relievers include Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Willhelm. John Franco is about as good or better than Gossage, Eckersley and Sutter, and pitched in a significantly different-enough era to fail to compare to Fingers and Wilhelm, who pitched much more. And at the same time, was arguably better than Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman’s statistics to date:
|162 Game Avg.||2.87||68||56||39||72||56||25||23||7||20||74||288||141||1.058||3.69|
Franco has pitched more to a basically equal ERA+ compared with Hoffman. Hoffman has the saves statistic, but I don’t think that in this day and age we need to debate its merit.
Besides Fingers and Wilhelm – old-school relief pitchers who played a lot more than their modern peers and were much better when they pitched than Gossasge and Eckersley – I strong believe that there is only one relief pitcher in all of baseball who deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame – Mariano Rivera. His statistics:
|162 Game Avg.||2.23||67||57||38||79||61||21||20||4||18||2||72||205||1.003||3.94|
Those are some Bonds-like numbers. While Hoffman, Franco, et al pitched like Gary Sheffield hit – at a solid, arguably HOF-caliber level for a starter – Rivera has blown his competition out of the water. He’s the backup first baseman who is so good that he forces his way into the Hall of Fame. But the other guys? Overrated.