Former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is recognized by most as the greatest closer in baseball history. The role of “closer” has only really existed in the last five decades, but Rivera — with a record 652 saves and a career 2.21 ERA — has always seemed a cut above the rest. Across his 19-season career, he finished with an ERA below 2.00 11 times. He was even more vicious in the postseason, limiting the opposition to 11 earned runs across 141 innings in the playoffs — a 0.70 ERA.
Rivera is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. The only unknown is what percentage of the electorate will vote for him. There has never been a unanimously-elected player. The closest anyone has come to unanimity is Ken Griffey, Jr., who garnered 99.32 percent of the vote in 2016.
In part because of Rivera, one writer with a Hall of Fame vote, Bill Ballou of the Telegram & Gazette, has chosen not to submit his ballot at all. In a column published on Saturday, Ballou explained that while Rivera indeed was great, he has a distaste for the concept of the “closer” role and finds closers in general overrated. Ballou points out that, despite a 5.90 ERA in this past postseason, Craig Kimbrel was 6-for-6 in save situations. Ballou also correctly points out that closers have a comparatively easier job than many other pitchers: they come into the game with the bases empty, typically pitch only one inning, and don’t have to go through the lineup multiple times like starting pitchers. Ballou’s overarching theme is that just because something happens at the end of a game doesn’t make it more important than the events that preceded it. In other words, closers get a lot more credit than they deserve.
Ballou’s point is one that a lot of Sabermetric-leaning analysts have pointed out for a while, so he isn’t exploring new land here. He is, however, using it to justify a controversial decision to abstain from voting entirely. This is different than submitting a blank ballot because a blank ballot would be considered as not having chosen to vote for all of the players, ruining everyone’s chances — particularly Rivera’s — of unanimity. Abstention simply takes that responsibility away from Ballou while still allowing him to make his point.
Along with Griffey, a handful of players who were eligible for the Hall of Fame in the last couple of decades were thought to have had the chance to go in unanimously. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony Gwynn, just to check a few names off the list. All came close to varying degrees, but for each player, there was at least one voter who felt he shouldn’t go in unanimously. Recognizing that makes the hand-wringing over entering the Hall of Fame unanimously — and, on a similar wavelength, being elected on the first ballot — pointless. Rivera still likely doesn’t get elected unanimously. And no matter what percentage of the vote a player gets and no matter if it’s the player’s first or 10th time on ballot, he gets the same plaque and the same celebration in Cooperstown. Ballou’s column has drummed up a bit of controversy, but it really shouldn’t have. And he shouldn’t have felt the pressure to have had to decide to abstain from participating rather than, in the minds of many people, tar a candidate’s path to the Hall of Fame.