This does not include John Smoltz, who registered 154 Saves and was one of the game’s top closers from 2002-04. Smoltz was a starter for 481 of his 723 career games.
Do the math. That means less than 2% of the enshrined players can be legitimately classified as a closer.
Since the 1970’s the closer position has evolved into one of the most important strategic positions in the game.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that immediately upon his eligibility in two more years, the former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera will be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
This year there are three closers on the 2017 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot who are all returnees from a year ago. All three are worthy of enshrinement, among the best pitchers in the history of the game.
Trevor Hoffman strode out to the mound across parts of 18 big league seasons with the Marlins, Padres, and Brewers. He was a 7x All-Star, 2x Rolaids Relief Man Award winner, and twice led the National League in Saves.
He registered 14 seasons with 30+ Saves, nine of those with 40+ Saves. In both 1998 and 2006, Hoffman was the runner-up in Cy Young Award voting. In addition, Hoffman received the 2004 Hutch Award and the 2006 Lou Gehrig Award.
He currently holds records for NL Career Saves, Consecutive Seasons with 40+ Saves, Seasons with 40+ Saves, Most Relief Pitcher K/9, and Most Career Games Pitched with one team.
Hoffman is second all-time in Saves to only Rivera with 601 over his career. He finished with just 846 hits allowed over 1,089.1 innings with a 1,133/307 K:BB ratio. His career 6.99 H/9 mark is 7th in MLB history. He is 9th all-time in MLB history with 1,035 games pitched.
Introduced early in his career as a power reliever, an injury during the 1994 off-season prompted him to reinvent himself. Hoffman would develop one of the greatest changeups in the history of the game, and pitch with strong results past age 40.
His #51 has been retired by the San Diego Padres, and he has been inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. He currently oversees pitching instruction at all levels of the Padres operations.
A year ago, Hoffman received 67% of the votes in his second year of Hall of Fame eligibility. He is considered one of three extremely strong returnees on this year’s ballot.
Lee Smith plied his trade across 18 big league seasons with eight different teams, spending 14 years in the NL and seven in the AL. But he is best known as the closer for two NL Central Division arch-rivals, the Chicago Cubs and Saint Louis Cardinals.
Smith was a 7x All-Star, 3x Rolaids Relief Man Award winner, and led his league in Saves four times. He is third behind only Rivera and Hoffman with 478 career Saves.
He was at the vanguard of the era when closers were expected to simply come in and shut the game down with one final dominant inning, and did that as well as any pitcher in history.
Smith finished with a higher career Saves Percentage than Fingers, Gossage, or Sutter. He finished having allowed 1,133 hits over 1,289.1 innings with 1,251 strikeouts.
Smith finished 2nd in the 1991 NL Cy Young voting when he was 8th in the NL MVP vote. He was 4th in 1992 Cy Young voting, and then finished 5th in 1994.
This is Smith’s final year being considered by the BBWAA. A year ago he received 34.1% of the vote, and is a longshot to reach the Hall this year. His best shot will come in future Veteran’s Committee balloting.
BILLY THE KID
Billy Wagner is 6th on the MLB all-time Saves list with 422, and may be the most dominating left-handed closer ever.
Wagner pitched 16 seasons for five teams, and is best known for his first nine years of work with the Houston Astros. He then spent the mid-00’s closing for a pair of NL East rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets.
A 7x NL All-Star, Wagner won the 1999 Rolaids Relief Man Award when he also finished 4th in the NL Cy Young vote.
He was also part of a combined no-hitter while with the Astros in the 2003 season. In 2006 with the Mets, Wagner finished in 6th place in the Cy Young voting.
Wagner allowed just 601 hits over 903 innings with an 1,196/300 K:BB ratio.
There is little doubt that, had he wanted, Wagner could have continued as a dominant closer for at least a few more seasons when he retired at age 38 following the 2010 season.
In his final season with the Atlanta Braves, Wagner registered 37 Saves with a 1.43 ERA and 0.865 WHIP. He had a 104/22 K:BB ratio that year, allowing just 38 hits in 69.1 innings.
Wagner was named on just 10.5% of the ballots a year ago in his second year of eligibility. He needs to receive at least 10% this year in order to remain on the ballot, and it may be a narrow result.
ODDS THEY REACH ENSHRINEMENT
These three closers would have to be a part of any all-time bullpen that you would want to put together. They are easily among the top ten in the history of the game, and their numbers and performances compare favorably to the closers already in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Only Hoffman, for whom the official award given to the top National League relief pitcher is now named, has a shot this year. But both Smith and Wagner should be seriously considered in future years by those Veteran’s Committee voters.