Trevor Hoffman: On the Meaning of Saves and 601 Quality Appearances

Max BorlandContributor IIIJanuary 14, 2011

PEORIA, AZ - MARCH 2: Trevor Hoffman #51 of the San Diego Padres delivers the pitch against the Seattle Mariners on March 2, 2008 at Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona. The Mariners won 6-2.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

When Trevor Hoffman announced his retirement yesterday, immediate talk about his Hall of Fame candidacy, his 601 saves, and his reputation as a great Padre surfaced. I do consider him worthy of the hall of fame as he, along with Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner, were the most effective closers who did it for the longest time. But it seems as if they’re a dying breed.

As Trevor Hoffman joins Billy Wagner in riding off into the sunset, the MLB is arguably down to just one great, longtime closer. I certainly think Hoffman has had a praise-worthy career, deserving of much of the respect he has received from people in baseball and fans of the game but I am not entirely certain about how to judge his career, specifically with respect to the hall of fame and his role as a closer.

Closers are something you find. Something managers create. Saves happen by accident. You don’t try for them; in fact you try not to have them. If your team is winning by three, you want to make it four. That’s just how baseball works, the goal is to spend nine innings making a win as likely as possible until it either happens or doesn’t.

An articles on Yahoo! Sports states, “Hoffman almost always got the toughest outs in a baseball game—the final three.” I assume most of those outs were tough. He was pitching against major league hitters. You cannot quantify how much tougher the ninth inning made those outs.

In fact, of his 601 saves some were probably pretty tough and some were undoubtedly very easy. Sure, he was in situations in which one bad pitch would lose the game for his team. But he also probably often had a cushion of two or three runs.

Let’s consider all those occasions where the final three outs are easier than the first three. Say your starter had to work just a little harder in the first inning to retire Victorino-Polanco-Utley than your closer did when he faced Ruiz-Valdez-Dobbs.

The idea that the closer you are to the end of the game, the more difficult the outs become is dubious. Why would there be extra pressure, aside from the fact that everyone in baseball attaches extra importance to it? It depends on the situation itself, so we have to be careful with the importance we attach to saves. I would still rather have vintage Billy Wagner or Mariano Rivera on the mound in a tough situation than vintage Hoffman.

Is there any real different in pitching with a one-run lead in the ninth inning versus pitching with the same lead in the eighth? Or the fourth? Can we measure things like clutch performance? Like guts? Grit? Heart? We cannot measure them save for counting up the number of times a broadcaster says something like, “man that guy has heart, what a gutsy effort.”

I once read an article suggesting that managers use their best reliever in the first tight situation in a game. For instance, the Yankees might be gridlocked 2-2 with the Red Sox in the sixth inning. Say Boston is up to bat and there are two men on and one out, the starter is pooped, the writers (it was in a collection of essays called Baseball Between the Numbers) suggested Mariano Rivera enter the game in this rough situation as he is the one most able to escape the situation.

What this would do is, a) make it easier for your team to avoid giving up more runs and burying yourself, b) give the Yankees more of a chance to win by keeping the game close longer so they can potentially bury their opponent, and c) limit the chance that the Yankees wind up having to face Boston’s best reliever in the later innings. I wonder how many games were lost when Kyle Farnsworth or Luis Vizcaino were tasked with escaping sixth- and seventh-inning jams.

In short, it could be beneficial to use your best pitcher when you need him most. I wonder how many save opportunities squeaked away because a mediocre reliever gave up a slim lead in the sixth. This especially makes sense for teams with good offenses.

The one hitch in this plan is that the ceremonious quality of the closer’s role would be stripped of him. There’s no glamour in the tough outs of the sixth inning. That’s the dirty work. Fewer flashbulbs are going off then. There’s something special about being a few outs away from a win. It’s like the game is entirely in your hands if you’re on the mound at that time.

So what does Trevor Hoffman have 601 of, if saves are a silly statistic? Well, he has 601 not-terrible ninth innings. Which is more not-terrible innings than many pitchers have in their careers. He has retired 3268 batters, all the while allowing relatively few runs to score. He owes this to the dominance he showed in his prime and impressive control. He owes it to a very good fastball-changeup combination.

I will remember Trevor Hoffman as one of the best relief pitchers of his generation. The silliness of his role aside, I cannot deny an impressive pitching performance (or about a thousand of them). It’s the ceremonious nature of the role that adds to his reputation. How many Padre fans remember Hoffman standing on the mound while their team won a game. How about when they made their way to the 1998 World Series?

As the closers of the past fifteen years prepare to make their runs at Cooperstown, I wonder which number will stand out the most in five years. 601 or something else?