This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.
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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 7, No. 125
December 21, 2015
Trevor Hoffman and Andy Benes were born about two months and 2,000 miles apart in 1967. Not that either of them would have cared at the time, but there were 782 complete games in MLB that year, and just 649 saves. In 375 of those saves, the pitcher credited with the save recorded at least four outs -- about 57% of the time. Two pitchers, John Wyatt and Elroy Face, led the league with 10 saves of one inning or fewer apiece -- a good month for someone like Glen Perkins these days.
Benes, from Indiana, would grow big and strong, dominating schoolboy hitters in Evansville, staying home for college at the Missouri Valley Conference outpost and becoming the very first pick in the 1988 draft. The Padres selected him and signed him to a contract with a $235,000 signing bonus, the highest ever to that point. A little more than a year later, Benes made his debut for a Padres team struggling to stay above .500 and within shouting distance of the Giants in the NL West. He acquitted himself well, with a 3.51 ERA (100 ERA+) in ten starts as the Padres closed on, but never caught, the Giants.
The strapping right-hander would never see the Padres' farm system again. For the next five years, he took the ball when it was given to him and tried to be an ace: 33 starts and 219 innings a year from 1990-93, as Tom Werner tore down the Padres, and on pace for more of the same when the players went on strike in 1994. In the 1994 Player Ratings Book, Bill James called Benes "one of the best pitchers in the game," while noting that Benes's win totals wouldn't rise until he joined a better team. At the start of 1995, it was clear that Benes wouldn't be a Padre for much longer. Even having his worst year -- 4.17 ERA -- Benes was one of the prizes at the '95 trade deadline, and would eventually be sent to the Mariners in exchange for Marc Newfield and Ron Villone. Those names may not mean much today, but Newfeld was a top-30 prospect and Villone a top-60 prospect at the time, representing the kind of package you can't get any more for a half-season of an impending free agent.
Hoffman had a less-direct path to his MLB career. Undrafted out of high school and barely recruited, Hoffman ended up at Cypress College in Orange County, Calif. He played well enough to eventually land at the University of Arizona and -- as a shortstop -- was drafted by the Reds in the 11th round in 1989. Benes took about a year to reach the majors; Hoffman took almost two just to find his position. After two seasons of anemic batting in the lower levels of the Reds' minors, the organization moved him to the mound to take advantage of his arm. After a year of effective relief work, he rose to become the #8 prospect in the Reds' system per Baseball America. The Reds tried him as a starter in 1992, but he was back in the bullpen by the end of the year. The Marlins took Hoffman in the expansion draft after the season and he made the team out of spring training. By the end of April, he was the expansion squad's set-up man behind Bryan Harvey, even as his command often failed him. Hoffman had a 3.52 ERA on June 22 when the Marlins shipped him as part of a three-player package to San Diego for Gary Sheffield.
The very first save opportunity Hoffman got in San Diego was protecting a 1-0 lead for Benes on June 27, 1993. The first overall pick turned the game over to the converted shortstop on a night when the starter had struck out ten men over seven one-hit innings, only to leave for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. Hoffman would blow the game, allowing a pinch-hit RBI double to Gary Varsho in the eighth.
The two players would be teammates for two years, but in that time, Hoffman went from some kid acquired in a fire sale to an established closer, saving 20 games in the four-month 1994 season and 31 more in the shortened 1995 one. Benes went from the Padres' ace to a focal point for the local fans' frustration -- this #1 pick who couldn't win 20 games! -- and eventually became a Seattle Mariner.
At 21, Benes was the most desirable amateur baseball player in the country. At 21, Hoffman was a college shortstop. At the age of 24, Benes was a 15-game winner, Hoffman was a failed shortstop and failed starter throwing Triple-A relief and about to be exposed in the expansion draft. At the age of 25, Benes was an ace, while Hoffman was the guy the ace's team could pay a lot less than they had to pay the MVP-caliber third baseman. At 26, Benes had already thrown more MLB innings than Hoffman would in his entire career.
At 48, Benes is a forgotten man, while Hoffman is a candidate to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In thinking about Hoffman and the Hall of Fame, I keep coming back to Andy Benes. Benes was a starter in college and in the minors and for all but a handful of outings in his 14-year major-league career. He was a horse in that role -- basically healthy through the age of 33, missing a handful of starts in 1997 not to an arm problem but a broken finger. Benes is one of the better overall #1 picks of all time. He may have disappointed Padres fans by being a league-average starter rather than a superstar one, but he was an All-Star and he picked up award votes a handful of times. When he hit free agency, which he did twice, he was paid the going rate for top-tier starting pitchers. At no point during his career did anyone suggest that Benes should stop throwing 200 innings a year and start throwing 70.
If they had, would he be on a ballot today?
Benes is why I can't get behind the idea of Trevor Hoffman for the Hall of Fame. I don't know for sure that Benes could have done what Hoffman did, but I know that many, many pitchers have done so. I am certain that Hoffman could not do what Benes did, and just as certain that what Benes did -- be a good starting pitcher for a decade -- is more valuable than what Hoffman did, which is to be a short reliever, and then a one-inning reliever, for 15 years. Benes isn't being considered for induction; in fact, he never appeared on a ballot.
Average starting pitchers are more valuable than closers, and we know this because salaries are made public. The most money anyone's every paid a relief pitcher in a given year was $15 million -- that was to Mariano Rivera. Rafael Soriano did the best in the market, at $14 million per season. The biggest single contract went to Jonathan Papelbon, at $50 million. Do any of these numbers cause you to gasp? Jeff Samardzija has been a lesser version of Andy Benes for the last four years; he's going to make $18 million a year. J.A. Happ is a #4 starter, maybe a #5. He'll get $12 million a year. This very offseason, Happ and Darren O'Day were both free agents. O'Day has been one of the best relievers in baseball for four years running; he got less over four years than Happ got for three. The best starting pitchers in baseball make $30 million a year. The best position players in baseball make $25 million a year. The best reliever ever maxed out at $15 million.
Given everything we've seen over the past 20 years, closers being made out of starting pitchers and first basemen and catchers and shortstops, with the industry drawing a clear distinction between the players it values and the players it doesn't, with every roster now peppered with guys who can do what Hoffman did, elevating the standard for what a pitcher in this limited role can do if trained for it, how can we consider players in this role -- this thing you land in when you can't do the other stuff -- for the Hall? How can we forget Andy Benes and lionize Trevor Hoffman when the real difference between them is that Benes was too good and too valuable to do Hoffman's job?
The argument against modern relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame is the gap between Andy Benes and Trevor Hoffman. Is there much question that if you told a 26-year-old Andy Benes to stop providing all those starts and all those innings, and instead focus on throwing 15 pitches a night three days a week, he'd have been both more effective and less valuable? Or that if you'd told a 26-year-old Trevor Hoffman to start carrying his weight and ramp it up, he'd have washed out of the league in under two years?
If you want to put Trevor Hoffman in the Hall of Fame, that's fine. Just remember to save the spot on the wall next to him for Andy Benes, because then Benes belongs, too.