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Baseball Hall of Fame ballot brings familiar debates to the fore

Longtime Yankees closer Mariano Rivera holds the major-league record for saves with 652. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Longtime Yankees closer Mariano Rivera holds the major-league record for saves with 652. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Much of the spotlight will be on pitchers as voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America prepare their ballots for the 2019 Hall of Fame election.

Two newcomers to the ballot stir old discussions. Longtime Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, with metrics that mark him as the best reliever of all time, renews the debate about how much bullpen pitchers must accomplish to merit election.

And the late Roy Halladay might spark debate about whether high peak value outweighs a career value that’s a little lower on the Hall scale.

Rivera, Halladay, Todd Helton, Lance Berkman and Andy Pettitte are among prominent ballot newcomers. Holdovers include Edgar Martinez, who appeared on 70.4 percent of the ballots last year, Mike Mussina (63.5 percent), Roger Clemens (57.3 percent), Barry Bonds (56.4 percent) and Curt Schilling (51.2 percent). Seventy-five percent is needed for election.

Clemens (139.6 bWAR) and Bonds (162.8) are among the 30 players with Baseball-Reference.com WARs of 100 or more.

If Rivera is elected, he’ll be the seventh pitcher primarily used in relief to enter the Hall. With 652 saves in 1995-2013, Rivera surpassed Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman as the all-time leader.

But saves are highly dependent on team and usage. And because relievers pitch fewer innings, reliever WARs are lower than starter WARs. Rivera’s career 56.2 bWAR is below the Hall average of 61.8 for starting pitchers but nearly double the 28.7 for relievers.

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In relievers’ favor, those used primarily in the late innings of close games face higher-leverage situations than starters do.

That’s reflected in Rivera’s win probability added, the sum of the impact of each at-bat on the Yankees’ chances of winning or losing. In Baseball-Reference.com WPA totals starting in 1914, Rivera’s 56.59 ranks fifth among pitchers behind Clemens (77.75), Lefty Grove (75.13), Greg Maddux (59.46) and Warren Spahn (56.93).

Despite pitching only 1,230 innings, Rivera had a WPA on a level with Maddux (5,008) innings and Spahn (5,243). That’s not to say Rivera was more valuable overall, but if ever a reliever was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, it’s Rivera.

Halladay, who died in a plane crash last year, was 203-105 with a 3.38 ERA in his career. Of the 24 pitchers in the Hall primarily as starters and whose careers extended at least five years into the expansion era that began in 1961, only Sandy Koufax has fewer victories (165).

By career value, Halladay’s bWAR of 53.2 is below the Hall average of 61.8 for starting pitchers. But Halladay has Hall-level peak value. In his best seven years — 2002-03, 2005 and 2008-11 — Halladay was 130-51 and had a bWAR of 50.6.

That’s a peak WAR that tops the Hall average of 50.1 for starters. Among all players on the ballot, Bonds (72.7), Clemens (66.0) and Halladay are the only players to break 50 in terms of peak bWAR. Schilling is next at 48.7, followed by Andruw Jones and Helton at 46.5 each.

By seven-year peak, Halladay was better than most Hall of Famers. Whether that’s enough for enshrinement is the question before the voters.