The closer has evolved rapidly in the past 20 years, and even more recent than that. The closers of today are even different from when Trevor Hoffman earned his last career save on September 29th, 2010.
We have seen in the past few postseasons that the bullpen has evolved into a multi-headed monster of 100 MPH fastball pitchers with wipeout sliders.
Now that Trevor Hoffman has been named to the 2018 Hall of Fame class, let’s take a look at some of the game’s top closers and see how they stack up against the all-time National League saves leader.
Padres fans got a good, albeit brief look at Kimbrel when he pitched for San Diego in 2015. He has been a full-time closer for the past seven seasons. Let’s compare that to Hoffman’s first seven seasons slamming the door in the ninth.
Those first seven seasons for Hoffman were from 1995 to 2001. In that span, he averaged 41 saves with a 2.61 ERA with an ERA+ of 155, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also amassed a WAR of 15.8.
Kimbrel, in that same span, has impressive numbers. He has averaged the same amount of saves, 41, as Hoffman, but with a stifling 1.86 ERA. His ERA+ is sky-high at 214, with 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kimbrel also has a slight edge in WAR at 17.2 from 2011 to 2017. Needless to say, Kimbrel is putting together quite the resume that is comparable to Hoffman. Now, the question is, can Kimbrel sustain this for another seven years like Hoffman did, plus a few more?
The Padres have a division rival with a formidable closer. Jansen has been closing for six seasons for the Dodgers. He has 230 career saves. Hoffman exceeds Jansen in most categories. Hoffman had 246 saves in his first six years, including 346 games finished to Jansen’s 312. Jansen does have a better ERA and ERA+ in that time however. In WAR, Hoffman proved more valuable with a 14.6 WAR compared to Jansen’s 13.3.
What made Hoffman great was that he did these things for a span of 16 years.
The Cuban left-handed pitcher burst on to the scene as a flame thrower, blowing away radar guns. Hoffman rarely touched above 90 in his later years. Yet Hoffman was the steady hand Chapman has failed to achieve.
Chapman has been an on-and-off closer for six seasons. He briefly lost his job last year with the Yankees.
There is no question his velocity is superior to any pitcher today. However, what separated Hoffman was his steady, consistent presence, with an even keel. He would never go on a tear, striking out 20 batters in a row, blowing them away the 100 MPH gas. But he would also rarely just lose control and melt down, as Chapman has from time to time.
Chapman has earned 203 saves in his first six years, compared to Hoffman’s 246. Chapman also walked 147 batters compared to Hoffman’s 116, who also pitched about 70 more innings. Chapman certainly has a wild side that Hoffy never did.
Let’s take a look at someone who has been doing it a lot longer than the previous guys, just about as long as Hoffman did it. K-Rod has pitched for 16 seasons, just two fewer than Hoffman. At his peak from 2005 to 2009, he was unstoppable. Since we have his whole career to compare, let’s first take a look at those five peak years and compare them to the best five-year stretch of Trevor’s career.
In those five seasons, Rodriguez saved 229 games with a 2.62 ERA and a 167 ERA+. He was an All-Star three straight years during that time and posted a 10.7 WAR. He led the majors with a whopping 62 saves in 2008, which is still a single season record, with a 2.24 ERA, finishing third in Cy Young voting.
Hoffman’s peak five years were from 1998 to 2002. Hoffman tied the then- single season record of 53 saves in 1998 with a ridiculous 265 ERA+. He accumulated 217 saves with a 161 ERA+ and his FIP was better than Rodriguez’s at 2.65 compared to 3.14. He also had a 9.6 WAR. Their five-year peaks were very similar.
However, over the stretch of their entire careers, it’s no contest. K-Rod leads all active pitchers with 437 saves, but he has a long way to go to catch Hoffman’s 601 for second all-time. In order to catch Hoffman in the same amount of years in his career, Rodriguez would need to average 82 saves the next two years. Not happening. K-Rod owns a career 148 ERA+, which is slightly better to Hoffman’s 141. Hoffman has the edge in career WAR 28.4 to 24.5.
Overall, Hoffman has had the better career. K-Rod might be a borderline Hall of Famer. The ice has melted a bit for voters with Hoffman getting in with 79.9% of the votes so who knows? We don’t know how much longer K-Rod will pitch either. His 2017 was rough with a 7.82 ERA and just seven saves for the Tigers.
Hoffman’s career is one to be celebrated. With how bullpens are used today, I am not sure some of his numbers will ever be touched. 601 saves is very lofty. If Kimbrel doubles his career, he would still fall short. Hoffman was one of the most consistent pitchers of this generation and he will take his rightful place in Cooperstown in July.