Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame Status Anything But Certain
Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman are the headline first-timers next year on the Baseball Writers of America Hall of Fame ballot.
Griffey Jr. is a slam dunk. Hoffman is not.
The long-time San Diego Padres closer locked down saves for the better part of sixteen seasons, compiling a whopping 601 in his 18-year career. Hoffman is currently second in history, behind New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera.
Pitching in the relative anonymity of the National League West for the lion’s share of his career, Hoffman did what many closers could not do and stayed healthy. With 2003 being the lone exception, he appeared in more than 50 games every season from 1995 through 2010. Closers have a short lifespan, bogged down with injury or confidence issues. Hoffman blew away hitters at a rate of 9.4-per-nine for a generation and slammed the door 88.8 percent of the time asked.
The BBWAA considered him a top five candidate for the NL Cy Young Award four times, finishing second twice. (1998 and 2006) Hoffman garnered Most Valuable Player votes four times as well, including a seventh-place finish during the Padres’ pennant-winning campaign of 1998. During that year, he led the league in saves with 53, scattered 41 hits over 73 innings and struck out 86 hitters. A career-best WHIP of 0.849 was one of the main reasons the Padres breezed to a division title over the San Francisco Giants by nine and a half games.
Hoffman added to his Padres lore by fanning 11 in 7.1 innings in San Diego’s series wins over the Houston Astros in the League Divisional Series and League Championship Series crown against the Atlanta Braves. No one was stopping the New York Yankees—you remember the team that strolled to 114 regular-season wins and regarded as one of the best all-time—that year and San Diego was quietly swept.
He never came close to matching those numbers again.
Hoffman and the Padres would not return to the playoffs until 2005. In 2006, he led the leagues in saves for the second time as the Padres made the playoffs again, before losing for the second year in a row in the LDS. Relying less on fanning hitters, he recorded 46 saves and a WHIP of 0.968 at the age of 38.
Those two seasons bookend a stellar career primarily spent in one season doing his assigned job. Great credentials for sure, right?
Along with designated hitter, no role in baseball is frowned upon more than closer. Any pitcher can enter a game in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less, retire the side and get the credit. Tony LaRussa made the one-inning closer popular with Dennis Eckersley and other managers followed.
Hoffman is the dictionary illustration of a modern closer, a pitcher charged with holding the lead over the last three outs. From 2001 until he relinquished the closer’s role with the Milwaukee Brewers his last season in 2010, his innings pitched never exceeded games appeared.
Worse, Hoffman accumulated seven All-Star Game selections in a career spanning nearly 20 seasons. With a career that reeks of consistent, more often than not, other NL managers did not consider him a top five closer come July. Never considered the best at his position during his career—Mariano Rivera says hi—Hoffman’s biggest cardinal sin is leaving the game a compiler for a statistic considered overrated. Completing the task 601 times is noteworthy, but convincing writers that alone is worthy is hard. Ask Lee Smith and Jeff Reardon.
Perhaps someone will come to Hoffman’s defense as they did for Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven and push him over the threshold, but those odds are long. Chances are the call he and San Diego wants to get will not be coming in 2016.