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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Do Baseball Hall of Fame Voters Know Something That We Don't?

I read about the Baseball Hall of Fame's ballot in this morning's paper. Among the eligible candidates are relief pitchers Rich "Goose" Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith, the all-time saves leader.

A few days ago, the Blue Jays inked free-agent closer B.J. Ryan to a five-year deal. Yesterday, the Mets signed former Astro and Phillie closer Billy Wagner, 33, to a four-year, $43 million deal. Wagner did a great job for the Phillies last year and helped them to a great finish.

There are three relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame -- Dennis Eckersley, the one-time starer turned reliever who walked virtually no one and enabled manager Tony LaRussa to re-define the role of the closer in modern times, Rollie Fingers, who played for the great A's teams in the early 1970's and later for the Brewers, Hoyt Wilhelm, an early knuckleballer who starred for many teams. There have been many outstanding closers between Wilhelm and Eckersey and thereafter, but the Hall of Fame voters haven't considered them worthy of admission. Gossage was lights out, and it looked like the ball literally disappeared into the catcher's mitt when he pitched. Sutter helped define the modern closer's role, and Lee Smith saved game after game after game (although I wouldn't put him in the Gossage or Sutter category; he is a Phil Niekro, relatively speaking, to Gossage's Gibson or Carlton, for example).

While I think that Gossage definitely belongs in the Hall and Sutter probably does and that a good argument can be made for Smith, none are there. Which begs the question: how important is a top-drawer closer to a team? After all, the game's best closer over the past several years, Eric Gagne, played for a non-playoff team, and the White Sox won the World Series this year without a bona fide closer. Are the barriers to entry to becoming a very good closer as high as they are to becoming a very good starter? And can you win the World Series without a top-drawer closer more so than a stopper, a #1 starter?

My answers to those questions are (i) it depends, because if you have starters who can go 7 or 8 innings a top-drawer closer can make a huge difference, (ii) not as great, as new and very good closers seemingly are minted every season (this year, it was Chad Cordero who emerged with the Nationals, and I think that turning an existing reliever into a #1 starter would be very hard to do) and (iii) probably more likely than you can win one without a #1 starter.

That's not to knock excellent closers, because they certainly make a difference. The question, really, is how valuable they are. Is Wagner, in a position that has more transients than the New York Port Authority, worth the big bucks at age 33, when a lot of hard throwers can break down? Will he make that much of a difference in New York, a team that had an iffy bullpen last year? Sure, he shores it up, but who will pitch the 7th and 8th and give Wagner the opportunities? From another angle, compare him and the Phillies closer of 2006 and see what the net gain (or loss) will be for the Mets? Then again, the Phillies' starting pitching corps isn't as strong as the Mets.

Mariano Rivera is perhaps the best closer of all-time, and a likely Hall of Famer. He clearly made a difference for the Yankees and their World Championship teams from the mid-1990's on. He's the first example of where a great closer makes a big difference. Rivera aside, though, is it wise to spend so heavily on the best closer when you could spend money on that extra starter or on that extra bat? I'm not a baseball numbers cruncher (I respect those who are), but I wonder what the math guys have to say about this. Did the Mets spend wisely?

The Mets probably are the team to beat in the NL East in 2006, although the Braves won't give up their perch without a fight and have won the division an unthinkable 14 years in a row. The Braves won't yield; the Mets will have to take the division. Will it be a great year for them, now that they've added Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner to a roster that already includes Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, or will they end up with a swollen roster that can seem to get it all together and therefore be fodder for the New York media? And are the Mets done, or will they finally swing the trade that brings Manny Ramirez to Shea Stadium as well?

The Phillies lost a lot when they lost Billy Wagner yesterday, and all Phillies' fans know that. Let's not gloss over the fact that Wagner is a tremendous competitor and made a big difference for the club. GM Pat Gillick had to make a decision about where to lock up some of his money, and he decided that a four-year, no-trade commitment just didn't make any sense. The Mets beat out the Phillies four years ago for Tommy Glavine because they gave him a fourth year, and it appears now that they overpaid for the future Hall of Famer in the process. Will the same be said about what they did with Wagner?

Only time will tell, and the overarching question is the value of the top-drawer closer or the closer, period. Is the reliever that comes in with the based loaded and no outs in the sixth or seventh and gets the team out of a jam with no runs scored (a la El Duque in the playoffs against the Red Sox) in fact more valuable than a closer? And are closers somewhat fungible, in that there's not as huge a difference, relatively speaking, among tiers of closers the way there might be among tiers of cleanup hitters? Is that hypothesis right, or is it wrong?

Great closers are great to have, but my guess is that they don't get the respect that they deserve because they don't get to shine unless their teams have good enough starters to put them in the spotlight. That's not necessarily fair to an otherwise great closer, but it might explain why the position doesn't get taken that seriously come time for voting for the Hall of Fame.

And if that in and of itself is an indicator of the collective wisdom of baseball minds and guardians of the game, then is that a statement that the Blue Jays definitely overpaid for B.J. Ryan and the Mets overpaid for Billy Wagner?

Let's watch the next couple of seasons and see.


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