© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003
The hour is late. The outcome is near.
It is time to make a choice on relief pitchers and you fear disaster either way. Yet, as is often the case, you must take a subjective measure of the bullpen's effectiveness and eventually decide.
Should you put your closer in the Hall of Fame?
It is a simple question, really. The answer is either yes, or it is no. All that's at stake is a man's legacy and a small piece of immortality.
This is the decision to be revealed today when the Baseball Writers' Association of America announces the vote totals for the Hall of Fame.
Eddie Murray is probably a shoo-in. Ryne Sandberg and Gary Carter also will get heavy support. But the question of the day is how the closers fare.
More and more, voters are being asked to decide the value of relief. Three eligible pitchers -- Goose Gossage, Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter -- bring 300 or more saves with them to this year's ballot.
So what should be the fate of the all-time leader in saves?
The game's all-time home run leader was elected on his first ballot. The all-time leader in victories was elected 65 years ago. (The all-time hits leader still is not in the Hall of Fame, but that's another column.)
Smith, who is on the ballot for the first time, retired with 478 saves. No other reliever has more than 425 and only John Franco has more than 400.
So the choice seems simple.
Smith is in, right?
The closer's role is among the most paradoxical. Essential in the ninth inning, but largely unappreciated at every other moment.
Like a placekicker in football, a closer is something of a specialist. And, thus, something of a freak. Their stats are different from every other player and their workload is absurdly small.
A team plays roughly 1,500 innings a season. The average closer might put in 90. That's about six percent of the season.
Now, you may argue, that six percent can be more valuable than another player's 90 percent. Which is why the Devil Rays once paid Roberto Hernandez $6-million as a closer, while shortstop Felix Martinez made around $300,000.
Still, it is not easy to justify a place among history's greatest players for someone who works three or four innings a week. Memories may be made in the ninth inning, but that does not necessarily mean fame is, too.
If you make a case for Smith as a Hall of Famer, you can make one for Franco and Jeff Reardon, as well. Franco had eight 30-save seasons. Smith had nine. Franco's career ERA is 2.75. Smith's is 3.03.
The problem with that argument is saves are one of baseball's weakest stats. And by giving Smith a bronze bust, it would open debates for a slew of better-than-average relievers who compiled gobs of meaningless saves.
Once, they were called firemen. For in the 1970s and early '80s, it was their job to maneuver teams out of dangerous situations.
But the reliever's role has evolved. Now they arrive when no fire is burning. Often, when there is not even an ember in sight. They merely show up at the start of the ninth and assist in the final details.
Closers, they are called. As if they are arriving to finish up the paperwork on your mortgage. And sometimes, their job seems that impersonal.
Start of the ninth inning, three-run lead, nobody on base?
That's a save.
Two outs in the ninth, man on first, three-run lead?
That's a save.
Saves are not as cheap as assists in the NHL, but they aren't exactly numbers to live by.
Some would argue Gossage and Sutter are more deserving than Smith. That they helped define the role of a closer and earned the bulk of their saves in an era when it was not uncommon to pitch both the eighth and ninth.
Sutter, they contend, was a trailblazer with his splitfinger fastball and, for five seasons, dominated the National League.
Not to quibble, but here are three arguments against Sutter's case:
Jim Kaat, Tommy John and Bert Blyleven.
They have quadruple the number of innings pitched as Sutter and nearly as many wins as Sutter has saves. Yet no one is arguing their cases.
Would a general manager have traded Sutter for one of those pitchers? Not in his prime. But Sutter's prime lasted about five years.
This is not to say all relievers should be shunned. Hoyt Wilhelm is the only reliever in the Hall and his honor was deserved.
Gossage may also warrant Hall consideration. Although his 310 saves do not approach Smith's numbers, Gossage was the premier reliever in the '70s when a manager did not routinely call his closer for every lead.
The best argument for Gossage is his eight All-Star appearances, an indication managers considered him one of the league's elite pitchers.
Would the Hall be cheapened if Smith or Gossage were elected? Not at all. But it's important for voters to look long and hard at a player's impact and not simply his statistics.
Otherwise, the Hall could find itself in a save situation.