How few innings does a Hall of Famer need to throw?

Joe Nathan (Keith Allison)

When Mark Buehrle logged 11 percent of the vote in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, it marked a decent initial step in a case that could gain appreciation over time.

There was also the chance that 11 percent could be his high-water mark. Perhaps a voter here and there just wanted to give him a nod for making their jobs easier in case they didn’t get a second chance, but they ultimately lack enthusiasm for his résumé as newer, better candidates garner more attention.

Alas, Buehrle might be facing the latter fate. As Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker rumbles toward 100 ballots, Buehrle is running below the 5 percent threshold required to reach a third ballot. Buehrle’s polling at 4.1 percent, with three votes already lost.

In another vote total I’m watching, Billy Wagner has gained four votes at this point, and he’s hovering around 50 percent. And thanks to Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs, I’m suddenly watching Joe Nathan‘s total as well.

Nathan probably won’t be a threat to darken Cooperstown’s doors, at least through the BBWAA, but Jaffe thinks he should get Wagner-like consideration, sees other thinking the same. He voted for Nathan on his ballot, not necessarily because he thinks Nathan deserves entry, but because he warrants longer consideration.

Like Wagner, Nathan fares better via R-JAWS than by traditional JAWS. He’s short on innings (923.1, just 20.1 more than Wagner) because he didn’t stick in the majors as a reliever until age 28, and missed nearly three full seasons due to shoulder surgery (labrum and rotator cuff) and two Tommy Johns. But he’s hardly short of high-impact innings, which is why he’s fifth in WPA among pitchers who made at least half their appearances as relievers, and seventh in R-JAWS, just below Wagner. Among pitchers who faced at least 1,500 hitters in high-leverage situations (aLI > 1.5), his .592 OPS against (.200/.280/.312) is the lowest. While not as dominant as Wagner or Mariano Rivera, he did a very Rivera-like job over the 2003-13 stretch, posting a 2.24 ERA, 2.57 FIP and 30% strikeout rate while notching 340 of his 370 saves. Like Wagner, Nathan’s postseason work wasn’t much to write home about, but we’re talking about 10 innings spread over six series, of which only two saw him throw more than a single inning; it’s tough to ding him for such small samples. […]

In the end, the ballot status and current shares of the vote for this quintet offers a clear solution. Nathan has netted just one vote (!) from among the 89 ballots published in the Tracker, and while I’ve been led to believe more are coming for him via as-yet-unpublished ballots, it’s clear that he needs all the help he can get even to remain in the discussion. If I’m not fully convinced he’s a Hall of Famer, I’m 100% certain he deserves a longer look, and so he gets my vote.

Jaffe didn’t vote for Buehrle, and that’s fine. Buehrle doesn’t have the strongest case, and Jaffe is cool to it, which is his right. I’m more annoyed by Joe Cowley dropping Buehrle from his 10-player ballot while retaining Omar Vizquel, whose pending sexual harassment allegations have led to a drastic drop in support (update: the domestic abuse charges were apparently disregarded in court, although no announcement has been made pertaining to MLB’s investigation).

It’s also wise that Jaffe sees Nathan’s case as similar to Wagner’s, at least enough to evaluate them in tandem. But to me, it seems like the level of Nathan appreciation should inform the Wagner discussion more than Wagner’s current clip should inform Nathan’s chances. Nathan might not even be the most accomplished non-Wagner closer on the ballot, because Jonathan Papelbon is also there.


Nathan has an edge in innings due to the two years he spent as a starter for the Giants at the turn of the century, and loses the edge in ERA/ERA+ because of his lack of success there. Wagner and Papelbon spent their entire carers as reliever, so it’s not quite apples/apples between them. Compare their peaks as a closer, and they’re pretty similar:

Closer peaksGIPSVBB%K%ERA+
Nathan, 2002-136756753407.629.9196
Papelbon, 2006-15635656.23495.828.2185

I didn’t include Wagner because his entire career is basically a peak except for one bad year in the middle of it all. Between the other two, Nathan has the superior run, especially considering he has a big edge in unearned runs allowed (10 to 27). So it’d appear that Papelbon isn’t really worth considering on Nathan’s level.

Except then you look at postseason careers:


Wagner’s teams lost six of seven series. Nathan’s teams reached the postseason six times, and it went 0-6 in those postseason series, including a blown save in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS, the only game he had a chance to affect.

Meanwhile, 17 of Papelbon’s 18 October appearances were scoreless, with a blown save accounting for all three runs on his tab in his final postseason save attempt. But at least he had a wealth of other successes to point to.

Nathan was lousy in October, just like Wagner was lousy in October. And while the postseason shouldn’t make or break a guy’s chances due to an unequal amount of opportunities across teams and eras, when a pitcher throws fewer than 1,000 innings, it seems like his case should be considered naturally flimsy, and thus reliant on any and every big-game performance in order to distinguish himself.

As it stands, I don’t know how one is going to distinguish Wagner from Nathan from Papelbon from Francisco Rodriguez from Aroldis Chapman from Craig Kimbrel from Kenley Jansen over the coming years, and I’m not sure why the door is being propped open for them when guys who threw four times as many innings are shrugged off.

Let’s go back to Nathan. In Jaffe’s career summary of Nathan, he details Nathan’s attempt to hang as a starting pitcher.

Filling in for injured Giants starter Mark Gardner, he made his major league debut on April 21, throwing seven shutout innings against the Marlins, then went eight innings and allowed two runs against the Expos a week later. After spending most of May in the big league bullpen, he returned to the minors but rejoined the rotation in August, and finished the year with a respectable 4.18 ERA but much shakier 5.95 FIP in 90.1 innings; walks and homers (4.6 and 1.7 per nine, respectively) were a problem.

Nathan spent 2000 bouncing between the Giants’ rotation and the injured list due to shoulder inflammation and tendinitis, finding only limited success; seven of his 15 starts were quality starts, but he walked more batters than he struck out and finished with a 5.21 ERA and 5.65 FIP in 93.1 innings. He didn’t pitch after September 11 due to recurrent shoulder pain, and that winter, he underwent surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum. He spent all of 2001 in the minors, getting rocked for a 7.29 ERA in 108.1 innings and at one point surrendering four consecutive homers in a Pacific Coast League game; his fastball bottomed out at 83 mph.

It’s a little trite, as well as increasingly incorrect, to say that closers are merely failed starters. That said, Nathan made his debut the same year as Hudson, and a year before Buehrle, in the same role that they conquered, and he couldn’t come close to holding up. He then shifted to a far easier job that naturally sets up pitchers to succeed. When the Hall of Fame ballots arrive a decade or so later, Nathan can elbow out guys who shouldered more than three times the workload.

  • Buehrle: 3,283 IP
  • Hudson; 3,127 IP
  • Nathan: 923 IP
  • Wagner: 903 IP

This development is just the weirdest thing to me. Say what you will about Lee Smith‘s induction, but at least he approached 1,300 regular-season innings. That’s the same as Rivera, who also threw a whopping 141 incredible postseason innings, making him an entirely different animal. The closer the innings totals have drifted toward 1,000 — and without any kind of postseason success to augment the relatively meager regular-season outputs — the less I understand the pull. Bruce Sutter currently has the lightest workload of any Hall of Fame pitcher at 1,042 innings, and his election was one of the more controversial ones. Wagner and Nathan would take that low bar and bury it.

Perhaps the recent experience with Kimbrel on the White Sox has made me more sensitive to the reflexive elevation of the closer role. It was strange to hear him referred to “a future Hall of Famer” in the same passages that suggested his constitution was so delicate that he couldn’t pitch eighth innings as effectively as he could handle the ninth. How is that a job to be immortalized, at least on par with starting pitchers and full-time position players?

The number of people who can achieve what Buehrle and Hudson did are dwindling. The Wagners, Nathans, Papelbons, etc., are growing in legion. as the game battles an unwelcome parade of interchangeable relievers recording 15 strikeouts per nine, it’s worth wondering which pitchers are truly worth remembering.

(Photo by Keith Allison)

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I love it when Jim gets salty.


One thing Jim should have mentioned is that Buehrle had success as a post season reliever as well as starter. Small sample, but successful.


Spot on. Durability and eating innings are skills and they help a team win more than they are given credit for. Buehrle has 2,300 more IP than Wagner or Nathan, so what if we combined Wagner or Nathan’s careers with 2,300 IP from a replacement-level pitcher? I don’t, at the moment, have the energy to look it up, but I suspect Buehrle is the far more valuable player in that scenario. Something similar could apply to oft-injured players. Their success can’t be discounted, but it has to be measured along with the time they missed—and the cost of that time to their team.


I gave Wagner the benefit of the doubt and combined his career with two, solid MLB starters. I picked these guys because they had long-enough careers to combine with Wagner to get in Buehrle’s ballpark for IP. As you can see, the results are illuminating: 

Mark Buehrle: 3,283 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 59.1 WAR
Billy Wagner + Aaron Harang: 3,225, 3.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 51.5 WAR
Billy Wagner + Freddy Garcia: 3,164 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 62.1 WAR
(I picked these fairly traditional stats because most metrics are trying to be predictive, whereas HOF is about what’s happened)

In order for Wagner’s production to match Buehrle’s, you’d need to fill in Wagner’s missing innings not with just anyone, but with a couple of guys who were All-Star caliber pitchers at points in their relatively lengthy careers. And Buehrle *still* has more IP.

Trooper Galactus

It might be a stretch to even say Jackson was “merely decent at starting” given 8 of his 17 seasons he produced negative bWAR. He also made 94 appearances as a reliever and was still pretty bad, so I’d say he had his chance to morph into some variation of Joe Nathan. Good lord, it’s astonishing how long teams employed that guy based on, like, two good seasons.


This is a point Joe Sheehan has been trying to drive home for a long time.

Papelbon might deserve a look. He never really got the chance to be a failed starter. He was pushed into a role and was so successful at it that they hesitated to remove him from it.


Theoretically: 217 and 2/3 innings. The voters wouldn’t keep out the all time save leader. Rivera has 652 saves. A 100% successful closer that was only used for 1/3 of an inning each save, and solely for save situations, would need 653 saves, or 653 thirds of innings for a total of 217 and 2/3 career innings.


Yes, also theoretically, one could do this by never throwing a single pitch. If the closer always came into the game with at least one baserunner, he could pick someone off for the 1/3 inning and save. Realistically, after this trend started, runners would just stop leading off.

karkovice squad

I think the standard for a specialist role shouldn’t just be whether/how good they were at it but whether it was game changing or their level of performance was notable for being achieved in an unusual way. So I think Wagner’s case is that “as the game battles an unwelcome parade of interchangeable [hard-throwing] relievers recording 15 strikeouts per nine” he’s arguably the archetype.

Nathan and Papelbon were very good but I don’t think their dominance speaks for itself, they didn’t so much change the game as follow the trend, and it’s not like they did it with a pitch no one else was throwing or one that was better than anyone else threw.

karkovice squad

Fair. I guess since I don’t find the best case for Nathan all that compelling, I’m not much concerned about whether letting Wagner blaze his own trail would provide coat tails to anyone else. But maybe I’m underestimating how many people will carry that torch. Just to mix all the metaphors.


“ their level of performance was notable for being achieved in an unusual way.”

This applies to Buehrle and why he should be in the HOF

Right Size Wrong Shape

Each year I have a harder and harder time caring about the HoF voting, in part because of the conversations surrounding the cheaters, but mostly because it’s so subjective and the group doing the subjecting includes the Joe Cowleys and David Haughs of the world.

Joliet Orange Sox

I agree with Jim completely that closers are overvalued. I’ve commented here often about this topic, in particular when Kimbrel was referred to as a future hall of famer when the trade first happened.

I think the hall of fame has a serious problem evaluating pitchers in large part because of overvaluing saves and wins. It took Bert Blyleven 14 years on the ballot to get in despite throwing almost 5000 innings, striking out over 3700, and piling up 94.5 bWAR.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joliet Orange Sox
As Cirensica

I’m more annoyed by Joe Cowley dropping Buehrle from his 10-player ballot while retaining Omar Vizquel, whose pending domestic-abuse and sexual harassment allegations have led to a drastic drop in support.

I think Vizquel domestic-abuse case is no longer pending (the other case is still on going), as he got divorced and the judge didn’t give Vizquel’s former wife not even the benefit of the doubt. Her domestic abuse allegations were rejected by the judge for lack of support or evience. Of course, despite all of this, like Hawk would say, the damaged is done.

Joliet Orange Sox

Without any consideration of off-the-field factors, I just don’t see Omar Vizquel as a hall of famer. I’m old enough to have seen his entire career while I was an adult paying attention and I never thought I was seeing an all-time great. He was an excellent defensive shortstop but I think it is hard to make the hall just on defense unless it beyond excellent like Ozzie Smith. I think if Vizquel makes it, why wouldn’t Simmons make it if he pays a few more years and I don’t think anyone has ever thought of Simmons as a hall of famer.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joliet Orange Sox

Beuhrle threw a perfect game AND a no-hitter. That alone should get him into the hall.

joe blow

Seriously? Maybe you would like Bobby Jenks in the HOF since he retired 41 hitters in a row ?


My issue with Joe Nathan’s candidacy is how much better Johan Santana was, who quickly fell into oblivion. I didn’t pay enough attention to Billy Wagner so I don’t really have an opinion on him other than he might be like 30% as good as Mariano.