The Hall of Fame called Bruce Sutter on Tuesday. The former ace reliever had been waiting quite a while, but finally got the call this year, his 13th of eligibility. While Sutter was one hell of a closer, I don't think he belongs in the Hall. I think our standard for closers is not quite what it should be if Sutter gets in, and especially if they induct Lee Smith anytime soon. The easiest way to look at this question is to determine whether or not Sutter is the best relief pitcher not in the Hall. I'm here to propose that he is not; that honor goes to Goose Gossage, and it's not really close. You can see Rob Neyer's comments here, much along the same lines. But I'm going to take a look at Sutter and Gossage and see just who really was better. Perhaps there's something I'm missing here.
Sutter was one of the pioneers of the split-finger fastball, and that is (in my mind) the main reason he was inducted ahead of Gossage. Sutter did not invent the pitch, and neither was he the first to throw it. He was simply the one who made it famous, hardly the kind of thing someone can be given credit for. But this is what makes Sutter stand out to the voters.
Sutter also had the reputation of being more of a big-game pitcher, as opposed to Gossage. I'm not sure this reputation is at all accurate; I think it stems from the way the two were used. Sutter (300) compiled fewer saves than Gossage (310), but he actually compiled a lot more per season; Sutter only played 12 years against 22 for Gossage. So Sutter was getting more saves per year, although using saves in any sort of argument says more about the way a pitcher was used, rather than how good said pitcher actually was.
The best argument for Sutter (in my opinion) is that he had bigger seasons. Sutter's best seasons were better than Gossage's. Sutter's 1977 with the Cubs (1.34 ERA, 31 saves and 129 K in 107.1 IP) is better than anything Gossage ever did. Gossage's best season was, believe it or not, 1977 with the Pirates. He posted a 1.84 ERA with 26 saves and 151 K in 133 IP. It's a tough call, but Sutter's was the better season, in my opinion. Sutter won a Cy Young Award and Gossage did not, which would seem to confirm this theory, although Cy Young voting is spotty at best. By my own accounts, Sutter was the best pitcher in the NL twice: 1977 and gain in 1984 with St. Louis. Gossage was never the best pitcher in the league; I think he was the 2nd-best pitcher in 1977, behind Sutter himself. This is an important point; Sutter was, at his best, probably a better pitcher than Gossage, if not by a whole lot.
Gossage may not have the edge in quality; but he has the edge in quantity. In fact, Gossage pitched so very much more than Sutter that it overwhelms the small edge in quality. Here's a mini-chart to illustrate the differences between the two (RSAA stands for Runs Saved Above Average; WARP1 for Wins Above Replacement Player):
Sutter: 3 great seasons, 3 good seasons, 2 average seasons, 12 seasons total
Gossage: 3 great seasons, 5 good seasons, 3 average seasons, 22 seasons total
Sutter: 1042.1 career IP, 2.83 career ERA, 134 career ERA+
Gossage: 1809.1 IP, 3.01 career ERA, 124 career ERA+
Sutter: 168 career Win Shares, 123 career RSAA, 54.5 WARP1
Gossage: 223 career Win Shares, 160 career RSAA, 83.8 WARP1
Pay special attention to the last two. Win Shares represent how much a player contributed to his team's wins over his career. WS give Gossage a huge edge, despite the fact that (as the career ERA shows), Sutter was slightly more effective per inning. WS show Gossage as a whopping 33% more effective than Sutter. The RSAA adjusts for amount of playing time; a great player in a short career can outperform a good player over a long career just by being more above-average; it's a more accurate measure of a pitcher's overall career effectiveness. It has Gossage 30% more effective. WARP1 is an absurdly complex measure developed by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to take everything into account. It has Gossage an amazing 54% more effective.
What about intangibles? Is there anything we're not taking into account here? Neither man had a reputation as either a great leader or great troublemaker; it's hard to argue leadership in anyone's favor. As far as postseason performance, Sutter pitched in one postseason: the 1982 playoffs. He threw 4.1 IP in St. Louis' NLCS win over Atlanta, but posted a 4.70 ERA against Milwaukee in the World Series (which St. Louis won anyway). So Sutter has a 3.00 ERA in 12 postseason innings. I don't see that he deserves any special credit for that, as it's right in line with his regular season performance, and there's nothing to suggest that he was inordinately instrumental in the Cardinals' 1982 World Series win.
Gossage appeared in 4 postseasons: 3 with the Yankees (1978, 1980, 1981) and one with San Diego (1984). Gossage allowed only 2 runs in the 1978 postseason (throwing 6 shutout innings in the World Series). He got hammered in the 1980 ALCS, albeit in just 1/3 of an inning (3 H, 2 ER). Gossage threw 14.1 IP of shutout baseball in the 1981 playoffs, blanking the Brewers (ALDS), A's (ALCS) and Dodgers (WS). That's a pretty amazing performance. 1984 was more forgettable, however, as he allowed 6 runs in 6.2 IP. All told, Gossage possesses a 2.87 postseason ERA, with 8 saves and 29 K in 31.1 IP. He didn't have the reputation, but he was a better overall postseason performer than Sutter, although it must be said that Sutter played for generally worse teams.
This broad sampling of the stats we have at our disposal (from a variety of sources) shows that Gossage isn't just better than Sutter -- he's obscenely better. If it were much closer, we might be able to make an argument for Sutter based on intangibles. As it is, there's just no reason to believe that Sutter deserves to go into the Hall ahead of Gossage.
The voters think of Sutter and they think of the fearsome split-finger. So they vote for him. They don't think of Gossage as being as fearsome, so he stays out. This is mainly because of chance; injuries ended Sutter's career at the age of 35, meaning he didn't stick around long after he was effective (although he did spend 3 very disappointing years in Atlanta). Gossage played until he was 43; it's one of the reasons he's so much more valuable than Sutter. But Gossage had his last good year in 1985 and didn't retire until after the 1994 season. So the voters' most recent memory of Gossage is of the has-been sticking around long after he was effective; whereas Sutter still retains that magic place in their memories.
The psychology of making poor decisions is better explained by psychologists; but suffice to say that making snap judgments and actively ignoring evidence aren't the ticket to respectability. All of this evidence took me less than an hour to unearth, an hour that I guarantee less than 20% of the voters took out of their day. The voters trust their memories more than they trust the objective evidence, which is a sure ticket to folly. But try telling them that. There's nothing else the sabermetricians can say, scream though we might.