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December 20, 2005

Class of 2006

The Relievers

by Jay Jaffe

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In the past quarter-century we've seen a drastic change in pitching usage patterns. Not only has every team gone to a five-man rotation, but starters rarely pitch complete games anymore. Instead they routinely yield to a bullpen which, if the lead fits into a narrow box outside of which 95 percent of all managers are afraid to think, passes the baton to a one-inning specialist imbued with mystical powers that relievers of an earlier era somehow did not possess.

If this specialist, called a closer, is successful--and for the most part, such success is as attainable as that for an NFL placekicker--he collects a statistical cookie called a save (mmm, cookie) and is exalted by the media. Meanwhile the closer's fireman predecessors, who often pitched two or three frames at a clip and entered when the score was tied or (heaven forbid) tilted in the other team's favor, receive little love from the Hall of Fame electorate, which has trained itself to value an 80-inning/40-save season more highly than the 110-inning/25-save ones of that bygone era.

We shouldn't be fooled by high save totals; it's the runs that matter, and due to the limited innings they throw, the Davenport numbers tell us that it's nearly impossible for the best late-model relievers to be more valuable than the best everyday players or starting pitchers. Annual Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP3) totals above 10.0 are common for elite players at their peaks, but the best relievers--of either variety--top 8.0 only in a rare Mariano Rivera/Eric Gagne-caliber year. The three enshrined relievers (Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, and Dennis Eckersley) have a combined two seasons above 8.0 as relievers (Eck topped 8.0 twice as a starter).

To address this problem while still finding room to reward the bullpen's crème de la crème, the JAWS system addresses the relievers on the Hall ballot by using the concept of leverage. Research by Tangotiger using play-by-play data and a Win Expectancy Matrix has shown that good relievers have a quantifiably greater effect on the outcome of a ballgame than starters. Because of their timing late in close games, the results of the plate appearances against them are magnified by some factor, which is called leverage (LEV). A starting pitcher will have a LEV very near 1.0, but an ace reliever might have one approaching or even above 2.0, meaning that the batters he faced were twice as important to the outcome of a ballgame. Here at BP, Keith Woolner has built on the concept of leverage to tally Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) in our revamped reliever reports; Woolner has calculated the cumulative impact, in wins, a pitcher adds to his team's total by measuring their chances of winning based on the game state (bases, outs, score differential) before he enters and after he leaves.

At this time last year, we didn't have enough play-by-play data to calculate LEV for each reliever on the ballot; instead I had advocated setting a JAWS standard for relievers based on a 1.43 LEV, a figure by which every reliever's contributions could theoretically be multiplied to produce a level of equivalence. I called that the Point Seven Solution, because it was derived by simply multiplying the JAWS standards by 70 percent to yield the same result. Thanks to Woolner's efforts, we now have actual LEV figures for this year's ballot, though we don't have complete leverage stats for the enshrined relievers, as Wilhelm and Fingers pitched some of their innings prior to 1972, the earliest season of our current play-by-play data (an expansion of that set back to 1960 is pending).

However, it appears that the 1.43 LEV estimate was too low; the six relievers' LEVs here run from 1.793 (Sutter) down to 1.485 (Jones). Multiplying any of those pitchers' JAWS figures by that LEV puts them well above the JAWS standard for pitchers, which is too generous. We can't let every gray-bearded reliever who comes waltzing onto the ballot into Cooperstown, particularly when the BBWAA isn't letting any of them in. Furthermore, since LEV only applies to a pitcher's relief innings, it's also rather sloppy. Discounting JAWS x LEV by the percentage of innings pitched as a starter doesn't work well either. Most pitchers' performances in the two roles aren't equivalent enough to justify that; in fact, many relievers were sub-replacement level as starters.

However, if we add a percentage of a reliever's WXRL total to his JAWS--admittedly, this is sort of like enlisting Captain Kirk to fight Darth Vader--we get numbers that put the relievers on the ballot in the realm of starter totals, JAWS-wise. WXRL is something of a career/peak hybrid; one can accumulate a high total via performing well under high-pressure situations for shorter periods or in more moderate pressure situations for longer. Using 50 percent (0.5 x WXRL + JAWS) works well in that it keeps the relievers on the ballot relatively in line with where they fit via the Point Seven Solution. We'll call this new figure RAJAWS (Reliever Adjusted Jaffe WARP Score) because unpronounceable acronyms (such as the one I used for this system before I megalomaniacally stamped my name on it) are no fun.

Relief Pitchers

            W    L   SV   IP    ERA  ERA+  AS  CY  3C  HOFS   HOFM
Aguilera   86   81  318  1291  3.57  117   3   0   0   12.0   90.0
Gossage   124  107  310  1809  3.01  126   9   0   0   19.0  126.0
Jones      69   79  303  1128  3.30  130   5   0   0   11.0   79.0
Smith      71   92  478  1289  3.03  132   7   0   0   13.0  136.0
Sutter     68   71  300  1042  2.83  136   6   0   1   17.0   91.0
Wetteland  48   45  330   765  2.93  148   3   0   0    0.0   93.0

Aguilera   141   590   64.2   40.1   52.2   22.7   1.63   63.5
Gossage    244   778   84.0   51.2   67.6   54.0   1.53   94.6
Jones      173   574   63.7   46.2   55.0   33.1   1.49   71.5
Smith      244   709   77.4   44.0   60.7   47.5   1.68   84.5
Sutter     168   507   55.2   44.5   49.9   37.6   1.79   68.7
Wetteland  177   487   53.7   42.8   48.3   35.3   1.77   65.9
AVG HOF P  239  1009   99.3   61.9   80.6
RP 70%     167   706   70.0   43.0   56.4

John Wetteland came up with the Dodgers in 1989, and split his time between starting, relief, L.A. and Albuquerque for three seasons. After the 1991 season, he was traded to the Reds, who flipped him to the Expos, where manager Tom Runnells installed him as the team's closer. Wetteland took to the role well, finishing third in the league in saves and fourth in WXRL He dominated the next year, with a 1.37 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 85.1 innings, saving 43 and racking up a whopping 7.112 WXRL, second in the league and 29th-best of the post-1972 era. He wasn't quite as good the following year, but he was part of the memorable Expos team that was in first place when the strike ended the season prematurely.

Three days after the strike settled, Wetteland was traded to the Yankees. As the closer there, he helped Buck Showalter's squad back to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, then won the World Series MVP for Joe Torre's team the following year as the Bronx Bombers returned to the winner's circle. But the Yanks had an up-and-coming setup man named Mariano Rivera (who had actually outdone Wetteland in WXRL, 6.879 to 6.138), so they let Wetteland and his signature sweat-stained cap go via free agency. He signed with the Rangers, helping them to division championships in 1998 and 1999, but after a couple years of declining performance due to back trouble, he hung up his spikes at age 33. He's got the highest WXRL per 100 relief innings (5.17) of any pitcher on the ballot--Lee Smith is next at 3.79--but his career didn't have nearly the length to give him a real Hall of Fame case.

Rick Aguilera began his major-league career at the back of the Davey Johnson-era Mets rotation in 1985, and was a member of the 1986 World Champions; in fact, it was Aguilera who surrendered two runs to the Red Sox in the top of the 10th inning of Game Six, sending the Mets to the brink of elimination before the rally which culminated in Bill Buckner's infamous error gave them new life. He remained in the rotation into 1988, but elbow surgery knocked him out of action for most of that year, and when he returned, the team shifted him to the bullpen. He pitched well in the role, but at the trading deadline the Mets shipped him off to Minnesota as one of five players in exchange for Frank Viola. Oddly enough, he finished the year in the Twins' rotation, but settled into the closer's job the following season. He held onto that role for the better part of a decade, save for a late-season rental by the Red Sox in 1995 (he returned as a free agent that winter) and an abortive return to the Twins' rotation in 1996. In 618 innings as a Twin, he put up a 3.54 ERA (a 130 ERA+), and was among the league leaders in saves nearly every year. He holds the Minnesota franchise record with 254 saves, more than double his closest competition, Eddie Guardado.

Early in 1999, the Twins traded him to the Cubs in a deal for Kyle Lohse. He wasn't the regular closer that year, but he resumed the role for the following season. Despite 29 saves, his 4.91 ERA prompted him to hang up his spikes. For his career, he's got a healthy LEV figure, but he didn't accumulate too many WXRL. Only twice was he above 2.7, and he never finished higher than third in the league (his split season between Minnesota and Boston was his best, at 4.178). He falls short here.

Look up "well-traveled reliever" in a reputable dictionary and you'll see a picture of Doug Jones, suitcase in hand, requisite bushy mustache atop his lip and a boarding pass to the next stop, two towns down the line, tucked under his arm. Over the course of 19 years, Jones pitched for nine teams, including multiple tours of duty in Milwaukee (with whom he debuted in 1982) and Cleveland (where he resurfaced in 1986 after a few more years in the minors). He didn't make the majors to stay until 1987, his Age 30 season (tack on another 10 minor-league teams to his total), but he enjoyed four good years as an Indians reliever before a bad one--the single worst post-'72 WXRL, in fact--ran him out of town. From Houston to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Chicago, back to Milwaukee and then to Cleveland and finally to Oakland, Jones alternated good years and bad ones, his ERA often doubling from one year to the next, his slow-slower-slowest repertoire sometimes getting lost in transit: 5.54, 1.85, 4.54, 2.17, 5.01... He never led the league in saves but he finished in the top four five times, and he led the league in WXRL in 1988 and 1992 (rebounding from that nadir of -3.148). He got to taste the postseason just twice, with the 1998 Indians and the 2000 A's.

For all of his ups and downs, Jones had a better peak than any reliever on this Hall ballot except for Gossage. But his inconsistency, which occasionally caused him to be demoted to lower-leverage innings or to wind up with sub-zero WXRLs, places him the lowest among this sextet in WXRL per 100 innings (3.02). He's closer by the old Point Seven standard than he is using RAJAWS, but falls short either way. No go for DoJo.

Bruce Sutter holds a historic spot in the evolution of the reliever, and an even more important one in the evolution of pitching in general. Sutter came up with the Cubs in 1976, and by the next season was lights out, pitching 107 innings with a 1.34 ERA and 129 strikeouts while posting 31 saves and 7.595 WXRL, (19th best, but second to Rich Gossage's 8.119, which ranks 10th). Credit for Sutter's success was due largely to mastery of the split-fingered fastball, a pitch unfamiliar to big-league hitters. Sutter didn't invent the splitter, but he was the first successful practitioner of it. The innovations around Sutter didn't stop there. Prompted by his ace reliever's tendency to wear down as the season went on, in 1979 Cubs manager Herman Franks decided to limit Sutter's usage mainly to close games when his team was ahead--in other words, save situations. Sutter tied the National League record with 37 and won the Cy Young, thanks to a 2.22 ERA/101-inning season.

After five stellar seasons in Chicago, he was traded to the Cardinals, where he posted three strong years as well as his first subpar one. He was an instrumental piece of the 1982 World Champions, saving 36 games in another 100-inning season and notching a win and two saves in the World Series. In 1984 he set a career high of 122.2 innings and an NL record with 45 saves while posting a 1.54 ERA. After finishing second three times, he finally led the league in WXRL with 7.713 (16th best). Coincidentally or not, that was his last effective season. Lured by Ted Turner's cable riches, he left for the Braves via free agency after 1984. But in Atlanta his shoulder broke down, and he was never the same pitcher again. He pitched 152 innings of 4.55 ERA ball for Ted's $10 million, and was done at 35.

The traditional case for Sutter is that in addition to being attached to two notable innovations, he was one of the few relievers to win a Cy Young, a six-time All-Star who threw a lot more innings than today's closers. Excluding the strike year of 1981, he averaged 104 frames a year from 1977-1984. The BBWAA voters, who gave him 66.7 percent of the vote last year, might very well put him over the top this year. But Sutter's short career hurts him via a WARP-based methodology; he doesn't come close via either RAJAWS or the Point Seven standard. If he were a borderline case, I could be persuaded to wave him through, but instead I'll wave at the BBWAA bandwagon as it passes me by.

The physically intimidating Lee Smith stepped into the large shoes vacated by Sutter in Chicago and did a very credible job in six years as their 100-inning-per-year closer. From 1983-1987, he finished in the top five in saves every season, leading the league once. He was in the top 5 in WXRL three times in that span, and never lower than 11th. Traded to Boston after 1987, he continued to post high-quality seasons, though his workload and save totals dipped a bit. Traded again to the Cardinals, he flourished, topping Sutter's NL save record and recording 160 saves in parts of four seasons--taking over the all-time lead in that category--before packing his bags again. He finally led the league in WXRL in 1991, with 5.143. Through five more stops, the innings began to take a toll on his body, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 frames a year, one inning at a time, to keep him effective. He spent his last two seasons in a setup role, with diminishing returns, finally hanging it up in 1998.

From a traditional standpoint, Smith's case starts with his status as the all-time saves leader, his seven All-Star selections, and an amazing string of consistency which followed him to virtually every stop on his 18-year ride. Until his abbreviated final season, his ERA+ was always better than league-average--32 percent better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went further than an LCS, and he got bombed in his brief postseason appearances, blowing two ballgames in best-of-fives. His JAWS is above the Point Seven standard for relievers and he's well above the Hall average for PRAA without any adjustment for his low inning totals, an impressive feat. His RAJAWS is well beyond the three relievers we've examined thus far, and puts him over the Hall JAWS standard. A yes vote here, though the writers, who gave him just 38.8 percent last year, aren't likely to see things that way.

If the subject is standard-setting relievers, "Goose" Gossage carried the mantle for a decade, pitched in the majors for another decade, and ten years later is still held up as a yardstick for dominance. From 1975-1985, minus a year-long failed experiment as a starter, Gossage blew hitters away in both leagues, helped his teams to three pennants, made nine All-Star squads and kept his ERA well under 3.00 every single year. He came up with the White Sox, emerging as a force in 1975 when he threw 141.2 innings with a 1.84 ERA, had 130 strikeouts, led the league lead with 26 saves and had 7.632 WXRL (18th best). After a mediocre season in the rotation, the Sox traded him to Pittsburgh, where he returned to relief dominance with a 1.62 ERA and 8.119 WXRL (10th best). That performance prompted Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to throw big bucks at him--six years, $2.75 million--despite the fact Steinbrenner already employed the reigning Cy Young winner, Sparky Lyle. With his 100-mph heat and big-money imprimatur, Gossage usurped Lyle's role as the Yankee stopper. He was brilliant in his six pinstriped seasons, posting a 2.10 ERA (a 183 ERA+), saving 25 games per year, striking out about a batter per inning, averaging 86 innings annually despite a Bronx Zoo-brawl injury in '79 and the strike in '81, and leading the league in WXRL twice (for a total of four).

Gossage left for San Diego via free agency after 1983, and the move paid dividends with an '84 World Series berth. He was the go-to man in the Padre pen until '87, but upon a trade to the Cubs after that season, began the familiar trudge of the past-prime reliever, not quite settling in a setup role, making five more stops (including a cameo with the Yanks) and spending 1990 in Japan. He topped 50 innings only once in that stretch, mostly due to injuries, but he held his own when he did pitch.

Gossage's case as a Hall of Famer is a reasonable one on the traditional merits; that decade of dominance resonating in the public mind thanks in part to a lot of postseason exposure (19 games, 31.1 innings, 2.87 ERA). Based on the number of innings thrown and his better-than-average ERA, a solid case can be made for him as the second-best reliever ever behind Wilhelm. His Davenport numbers are just as strong. Gossage's two best years are just a few hairs below 10 WARP; by peak, career, and JAWS numbers he's better than many starters in the Hall, and his PRAA is above the Hall average. Furthermore, he compares favorably with the two enshrined "pure" relievers, Wilhelm and Fingers, with the highest peak among them by a healthy margin:

           PRAA   PRAR  WARP   PEAK   JAWS
Wilhelm     279   915   93.9   46.7   70.3
Gossage     244   778   84.0   51.2   67.6
Fingers     156   697   76.4   46.4   61.4

By RAJAWS, he's a country mile beyond the standard. He's got the best case of any reliever on this ballot and fully deserves a plaque in Cooperstown. The BBWAA, which gave him 55.2 percent of the vote last year, a solid 15 percent gain after four years of declining support, needs to turn the Goose loose.

So after analyzing the entire ballot, we come away with votes for Albert Belle, Bert Blyleven, Will Clark, Tommy John, Alan Trammell, Gossage, and Smith. That's a pretty full ballot, though it's doubtful the voters will see things that way. Some admittedly can't even be bothered to think when it comes to filling theirs out. It's entirely possible none of these candidates will get the 75 percent necessary for enshrinement. We'll find out for sure on January 10 just who gets the call to Cooperstown, and I'll be hosting a chat once the results are announced.


Score that one E-6: In my previous piece on the starters on the ballot, I made two mistakes worthy of correcting here. First, Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts pointed out that I was wrong to declare that Nolan Ryan "waltzed in with an all-time record percentage of the vote." I should know better, because after getting this wrong in evaluating the 2004 ballot, I got it right last year. Ryan got the all-time highest vote total, but was second in percentage to Tom Seaver by a few hairs. Those who forget the past…

Second, reader A.M. pointed out that Alex Fernandez wasn't drafted out of the University of Miami. He went there as a freshman, but transferred to Miami-Dade Community College so that he'd be draft-eligible after his sophomore year. As my colleague Jim Baker reminded us last week, Fernandez won the 1990 Golden Spikes award while at Miami-Dade.

James Click, Peter Quadrino, and Keith Woolner contributed research to this article.

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