Rivera has had much, much more postseason exposure than Hoffman and for that reason, has the highest public profile of any closer. That should not diminish any consideration of Hoffman's work. No matter how you choose to weigh their many and relative merits, in closer consistency over long years, Hoffman and Rivera form a duo at the top. A first-ballot Hall of Fame election awaits both of them.
I was fortunate enough to be in San Diego on the occasion of Hoffman's 500th save, June 6, 2007, fittingly enough against the Dodgers. Afterward, Hoffman talked about the credit his teammates deserved and how humbling it was simply to be mentioned among the great closers. At that point, of course, he was the only man on Earth with 500 saves, and the rest of us weren't mentioning any other closers in the same paragraph. But Hoffman's modesty could be counted upon, in the same way he could be counted upon in the closer's role.
I left PETCO Park about two hours after the game, and noticed a large crowd near the Padres players' parking area. And there was Hoffman, still signing autographs. From the size of the crowd, it didn't appear that he was close to being done, either. But this was Hoffman, too. Here he was on the night of unprecedented professional accomplishment, and his postgame was devoted to the fans.
Hoffman's record, in a job that defines the possibilities for ups and downs, was up an astounding amount of the time. Many clubs would be satisfied with a closer who converted 85 percent of his save opportunities. Hoffman, over 18 seasons, the vast majority with the Padres, converted 92.6 percent of his save opportunities.
If his success came in unprecedented quantities for a closer, the way he achieved that success was singular, too. Hoffman's out pitch, his money pitch, his best pitch was a changeup. Late in his career, while his fastball velocity declined, the changeup was still in force and in effect. In a role that is heavily populated by flame-throwers, Hoffman was at the other end of the spectrum, winning with finesse and command, guile and guts, intelligence and fortitude.
It finally began to unravel for Hoffman in 2010 with the Brewers. He was hit hard early in the season and lost the closer's role to Jon Axford. Hoffman handled the demotion with typical class and continued to work. He was effective in a setup role, and the Brewers, knowing how much he wanted to reach 600 saves, found some save opportunities for him late in the season. The record will show that Hoffman was successful in his last five save opportunities with Milwaukee.
Hoffman's career is one that will live on in the annals of the game. Not only was he one of the very best in baseball in the closer's role, he was perpetually a terrific teammate and became in his veteran years a fine role model for younger players. And through all of that, he was always first in line to deflate his own importance.
Hoffman is a rare and valuable combination of success as both a pitcher and a human being.