There are 55 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, counting just the 20th Century guys. There are five relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame, counting Dennis Eckersley. Here's where those five relief pitchers fall on the Wins Above Replacement list (pitchers only), according to Baseball-Reference.com:
40. Hoyt Wilhelm
48. Rich Gossage
54. Rollie Fingers
55. Bruce Sutter
So Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter anchor the list. Here are the five pitchers between Gossage and Fingers: Jack Chesbro, Bob Lemon, Catfish Hunter, Jesse Haines and Rube Marquard. Hunter, like Fingers, no doubt benefited from the halo effect that comes from pitching for the dynastic Oakland A's. Haines and Marquard were both cronyism selections during the very worst days of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee. Chesbro's 41-win season carried a lot of weight with the electors. And Bob Lemon ... well, he's a curious one.
Frankly, if you started with Gossage and excised him and everyone below him from the Hall of Fame, nobody would have a great reason to complain. Except them and their families, I mean. Because that would be a real drag, especially every summer when all their pals were converging on the Otesega Hotel.
There is, of course, potentially a big problem with using Wins Above Replacement to evaluate relief pitchers. Wins Above Replacement doesn't account, probably can't account, for the psychological advantage conferred by a lights-out reliever, for the simple reason that it's almost impossible to measure such a thing. Or even confirm that such a thing actually exists. But just about everybody involved with the game tells you that without a lights-out fireman, everything can go to hell in a hurry.
Fair enough. Anything's possible, especially anything that can't be disproved. But if we're going to add some bonus points for things that can't be measured, shouldn't we also consider this question?
How many starting pitchers might have been brilliant relief pitchers if given the chance?
That's a very difficult thing to say. We can guess, I think, that most good starting pitchers might well become good relief pitchers; we might even guess that most decent starting pitchers would become good relief pitchers. But how many starting pitchers would become great relief pitchers? Not just performing brilliantly for a season or three, but for 15 or 20 years? Considering the difference between the workloads and (some will say) the mentalities involved, it's very difficult to say.
We might look at this another way, though ... It's very difficult to say because nobody's even tried to find out. How many good starting pitchers -- that is, pitchers with good track records as major-league starters -- have been converted to relief duties?
Ryan Dempster might come to mind. Ryan Dempster posted a 5.46 ERA over the three seasons before he shifted to bullpen duties (granted, Dempster actually fared worse as a reliever than he would as a starter, upon moving back to the rotation).
John Smoltz might come to mind. Smoltz spent four seasons in the bullpen after recovering from arm surgery. He later returned to starting. As a starter, he issued one walk for every three strikeouts. As a reliever, Smoltz issued one walk for (almost) every six strikeouts. As a reliever, Smoltz threw harder with better control. Which is saying something. Considering he was a fantastic starter.
But managers don't even try that move unless a starting pitcher has been ineffective or injured. Here's a list, though, of good starting pitchers who just might have been Smoltz-like relievers if given the chance: Kevin Brown, Kevin Appier, Tim Hudson, David Cone, David Wells, Chuck Finley, Javier Vazquez, Al Leiter, Freddy Garcia, Josh Beckett, Pat Hentgen, Jason Schmidt, Kevin Millwood and hey what the hell, how's about Bret Saberhagen?
For starters. Managers don't make the switch, though. Never. So it's difficult to say.
It's not difficult for me to say the bar for relief pitchers should be higher than it's been, Cooperstown-wise. I wouldn't have voted for Fingers, I wouldn't have voted for Sutter and I would have voted for Gossage only because he was better than Fingers and Sutter. The Hall of Fame's gatekeepers had already established that relief pitchers belonged within, and so it made little sense to keep Gossage out.
If Mariano Rivera were elected to the Hall of Fame tomorrow, he would come in 32nd on that aforementioned Wins Above Replacement list, just a hair below Eppa Rixey (and a couple of hairs above Red Ruffing). Mariano Rivera doesn't need any bonus points for improving his teammates' and managers' psychological well-being. He doesn't need any bonus points at all.
He gets them anyway. He's thrown 141 postseason innings -- roughly two regular seasons' worth of innings -- and posted a 0.70 ERA, allowing exactly two home runs. Mariano Rivera has thrown 141 postseason innings, and you can probably remember every postseason home run he's allowed: Sandy Alomar in 1997 and Jay Payton in 2000. It's sometimes argued that you can't give a player extra credit for postseason accomplishments, because other players haven't been blessed with the same opportunities. But what about a player who performs brilliantly in the postseason? That must be worth something, no?
If you give Rivera extra credit for just a couple of average Rivera seasons, he zips past Rixey on our list, along with the likes of Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning, Hal Newhouser and perhaps even Dennis Eckersley. Give him double extra credit -- for pitching so brilliantly in the postseason, or just for the added importance of the postseason -- and now he's in Jim Palmer territory, on the borderline of the 20 greatest pitchers since the 19th century.
The bar for relief pitchers should be exceptionally high. Dennis Eckersley clears the bar because he was a good starting pitcher for more than a decade. Hoyt Wilhelm clears the bar because he averaged 107 innings per season and pitched until he was 50. Mariano Rivera clears the bar because he's done virtually everything that a modern relief pitcher might possibly do. I would usher Rivera into the hallowed Hall ... and then close the door right behind him.