A Conversation About Mariano Rivera and Unanimous Election to Hall of Fame

Hi Sean,

Happy New Year, I hope 2018 was a good one for you.

If you have been following Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame vote tracker, you know Roy Halladay looks to be cruising into a first ballot selection. Edgar Martinez looks likely to get elected in his 10th and final year. Mariano Rivera remains on pace to be the first unanimous selection to the Hall. I’m curious about your thoughts on this final point, because personally I am not a fan.

Hi Moshe,

Hope you had a good year. I did other than the end of the Cubs season.

As we have discussed before, Mariano Rivera has a career bWAR of 56.2, far above any relief pitcher ever. I think it’s fair to say he is one of the greatest relievers of all time, if not the greatest. The question is a simple one in my humble opinion: Is this player a Hall of Famer? I think almost everyone believes Rivera is.

If that’s the case, he should be a unanimous selection. The same was true of Greg Maddux a few years back, since not a soul on this planet feels he was short of Hall of Fame status. The fact he wasn’t an unanimous pick was frankly a joke.

Hi Sean,

I completely agree it is ridiculous that Maddux was not a unanimous selection and I want to make clear that I have no objection to the concept of unanimous selection. The first such choice is going to be a big deal, however, and that player is going to be remembered. No reliever should be that guy.

I agree with your assessment of Rivera as the undisputed GOAT reliever, but he is a fringe Hall of Fame candidate even so. Relief pitchers are basically failed starting pitchers. They pitch one-third of the innings per season and thus provide fraction of the value. While a “typical” HoF starter has at least 65 career bWAR, no career reliever has ever exceeded 42 bWAR (Goose Gossage). Most had less than 30 bWAR, like Bruce Sutter (24.2), Lee Smith (29), and Trevor Hoffman (28). By pure wins among replacement, none deserved enshrinement.

Rivera is the exception. At 56.2 bWAR, he is at least in the right neighborhood to be a legitimate first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate. But as the first unanimous candidate? Come on.

Mike Mussina, who is apparently a borderline candidate, inexplicably languishing on the ballot for five years, earned 83 career bWAR. While I accept that WAR is an imprecise statistic, a difference of 27 WAR suggests Moose was way more valuable than Rivera. It gets even worse when you realize Rivera earned less than 40 career fWAR. If I were building a team from scratch in the 90’s, I would take Mussina over Rivera in a heartbeat. So how is Rivera the slam dunk candidate?

I can accept Rivera as a fringe Hall candidate made more worthy by his postseason heroics and status as best reliever of all time. But when history looks back on the first unanimous selection, I want an inner circle Hall of Famer, like Maddux.

Hi Moshe,

While I agree that your average MLB reliever is not valuable, I think a dominant closer is very helpful. And WAR doesn’t do justice to high leverage pitching. Thus total innings are what weigh on WAR, not the importance of those innings. So I have no problem with dominant bullpen arms reaching Cooperstown. Honestly, my issues are less about this specific case and more about the Hall of Fame process in general.

When the first HoF class was elected in 1936, none of the players were unanimously selected by the baseball writers association. A truly mind-boggling move since Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner were in that class. Instead of acknowledging the mistake of those first writers, future voters doubled down on the error. If the Babe couldn’t 100 percent of the vote, no player can.

The logic behind this mentality seems deeply flawed to me. Writers who totally believe someone is Hall-worthy leave them off the ballot to honor past players. So you are outraged a truly great player was slighted by not getting a unanimous election? Well the perfect way to atone for that miscarriage of justice is to slight a truly great player by denying them a unanimous suggestion. How does that make sense?

Now the debate has moved to which player can be worthy of the first unanimous choice? It makes this whole process seem even sillier to me. Ken Griffey Jr. has come the closest at 99.2 percent. I defy you to find someone who thinks he isn’t a Hall of Famer. Can we just knock this off and elect truly great players unanimously? Am I being unreasonable here?

Hi Sean,

The Athletic recently discussed ($) the history of non-unanimous selections and largely agreed with your sentiment that it is time to get this over with. Here is my problem, however. You asked whether we can just knock this off and elect truly great players unanimously. To me, Rivera is not truly great. Tom Seaver (110 career bWAR) was truly great. Maddux (107 bWAR) was truly great. Randy Johnson (101 bWAR) was truly great. Rivera is half those guys.

Your own argument holds that a dominant closer is very helpful,” but is “helpful” really the standard for a unanimous Hall of Famer? A truly great player is essential, not just helpful. Think Johnson with the Diamondbacks.

You make an interesting argument regarding WAR and high-leverage situations. Win probably added (WPA), which incorporates leverage context, shows Rivera is fifth all time among pitchers, suggesting he is a much more deserving candidate. On a related note, I feel like we could have a whole post discussing the relative merits of WAR v. WPA.

Yet plenty of elite starters are on both the WPA and WAR leaderboards. In fact, the WPA top 10 includes Seaver, Maddux, and Johnson (for the record I chose those names before ever looking at the WPA leaderboard). Rivera, on the other hand, is nowhere near the top of the WAR board. Thus, I still feel comfortable labeling Rivera short of “truly great.”

I am against Rivera being selected unanimously not because I think no one deserves that honor. I am against it precisely because someone does. Albert Pujols deserves to be unanimous. So does Ichiro Suzuki. So will Mike Trout. Adrian Beltre is probably worthy. Not sure about Derek Jeter, but that would make another good conversation. Rivera is just not.

Being the best reliever of all time is like being the best all-time NFL placekicker. You will always be less valuable than a mid-tier quarterback. Rivera is a borderline HoF candidate and I do not want history recording otherwise. I fully admit this puts me in the cranky and crotchety division of baseball fans, but I’m comfortable with that in this instance.

Hi Moshe,

I think we have reached a fair compromise here. Both of us agree some players are deserving of unanimous election to the Hall. Our disagreement on Rivera means he likely won’t be that person. Sound good to you?

Hi Sean

Sounds great to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this debate and look forward to our next one.

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