We suggested Monday that Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel is a relative lock to make the National League All-Star team, given that he has 18 saves in 20 opportunities and a minuscule 0.66 ERA.
If Kimbrel is indeed part of the 2021 National League All-Star team, it would mark his eighth trip to the midsummer classic. Using All-Star Game appearances to measure someone's place in baseball history is a very flawed line of thinking, but the list of players to make eight or more All-Star teams and not ultimately be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame is very small, and non-existent among relievers.
The 33-year-old closer currently has 366 career saves, which is 11th in MLB history. Kimbrel will soon leapfrog contemporaries like Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan, but he's pretty unlikely to approach the totals of the top two in league history; Mariano Rivera (652 saves) and Trevor Hoffman (601 saves). He'll even have an uphill battle to top Lee Smith (478 saves) and Francisco Rodriguez (437 saves), who are third and fourth in MLB history in saves, respectively.
Still, that makes you wonder if saves are the best metric to determine the Hall of Fame worthiness of a reliever. It's no doubt impressive how long Hoffman pitched a high level for, but Kimbrel's career ERA (2.10) is 77 points lower than Hoffman's (2.87). Kimbrel's career FIP (2.20) is 88 points lower than Hoffman's (3.08). As Kimbrel pitches more, the gap may get closer, but that works both ways. Hoffman - who pitched in 1,035 career games - had a 25.9 career fWAR. After 611 games, Kimbrel has an 18.6 fWAR. Kimbrel has a real chance to match or even top Hoffman in that category.
There's no doubt that longevity should factor into the evaluation of someone's Hall of Fame-worthiness, but peak dominance should arguably carry more weight.
Since debuting in 2010, Kimbrel's 2.10 ERA is the lowest among relievers who have pitched 400 or more innings, topping Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. His 2.20 FIP is second over the same period, trailing just Chapman. For more traditional voters, he led baseball in saves every season from 2011 to 2014, while pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel's 346 saves between 2010 and 2019 were the most during the 2010s, 45 more than Jansen, who was No. 2 on the list.
Kimbrel is perhaps more appreciated nationally than Billy Wagner was, but how Wagner's time on the ballot develops could ultimately offer a glimpse into how Kimbrel will fare. Wagner was a seven-time All-Star who is sixth in MLB history with 422 saves. He also has better ERA and FIP marks than those of Hoffman, and is just shy in terms of fWAR. Wagner - who starred for the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Braves - is unquestionably one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history. But in 2021, his sixth year on the ballot, Wagner peaked at 46.4% of the vote, quite a ways away from the 75% needed for election.
Like Wagner, Kimbrel has pitched for a slew of teams, spending 2015 with the San Diego Padres and helping the Red Sox to win the 2018 World Series. And like Wagner, Kimbrel's case is probably more likely to be based on peak dominance than counting stats, like Hoffman. That may mean that at the conclusion of his career, Kimbrel hangs around on the Hall of Fame ballot for quite a while, but never is elected.
But if Kimbrel's career numbers don't make him worthy of election, you're left to wonder if any reliever will ever have dominant enough numbers to be a slam-dunk election again. And given the increasing role of relief pitchers in today's game, it makes less and less sense each year that closers are seemingly held to a higher Hall of Fame standard than every other position.