On Thursday, news came out that Yankees iconic closer Mariano Rivera will be retiring after the 2013 season. No one will ever question the 43 year old’s consistency, professionalism, and overall career numbers. In many minds, he is the greatest closer of all time, no two ways about it. While Rivera’s body of work clearly speaks for itself, including his 42 post-season saves, I don’t think it’s right that many baseball fans outside of the San Diego area do not even consider Trevor Hoffman to be in the same class as Rivera as the greatest closer ever.
In many ways, Rivera had several advantages over Hoffman. Rivera was consistently on much better teams than Hoffman. Because Rivera’s Yankees were winning more games per season that Hoffman’s Padres, Rivera was simply getting more overall save opportunities than Hoffman. Additionally, the Yankees were basically a lock to make the playoffs pretty much throughout Rivera’s entire career, including several World Series championships, giving him many more opportunities to flourish in post-season play. The Padres only made the post season a handful of times during Hoffman’s time with the Padres, and made it out of the first round only once (in 1998, when they lost in the World Series to Rivera’s Yankees). Granted, one may make the argument that more opportunities increase the chances of failure, which makes Rivera’s accomplishments even more remarkable. However, most people judge “the greatest closer of all time” by total number of saves and post-season success, both of which Rivera has a significant leg up. It’s not Hoffman’s fault the Padres were not as good as the Yankees. You play the cards you are dealt; Hoffman played his better than people give him credit for. Even so, Hoffman is the first pitcher ever to 600 career saves.
Much like Rivera’s cutter, Hoffman’s success as a closer was mostly due to one devastating pitch: his change up. Hoffman used to throw 93-95 mph when he first started closing for the Padres after he came over from the Marlins in the Gary Sheffield trade in 1993. However, several shoulder surgeries caused him to lose velocity on his fastball and he needed to find another way to get hitters out. That’s where the change up came into play. Even as Hoffman’s fastball velocity continued to decline throughout his career, the difference in speed from his fastball and his change up, along with his deceivingly high leg kick and intimidating mound presence, constantly kept hitters off balance.
Another aspect of the argument, albeit off the “mound,” are the entrances of each player coming in from the bullpen. As a kid, I went to literally 30-40 Padre games per season with my dad and brother. No memory is as vivid as Trevor Hoffman entering the game from the left field bullpen of Qualcomm Stadium to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” with 60,000 screaming fans during the 1998 NL pennant race. I’ve seen Mariano Rivera come out to “Enter Sandman;” it’s not even close which one is better (any non-Padre fan needs to go YouTube right now and find a Trevor Hoffman Hells Bells video).
I am not saying Trevor Hoffman is the best closer of all time, but I am saying the debate between Mariano Rivera and Hoffman is closer than people think. And just because Hoffman played on a team that was not as successful as Rivera and played in a much smaller market doesn’t mean it should be held against him. Nevertheless, both men have outstanding character and work ethic, and the two closers stand on top of the relief pitchers mountain of greatness.