In 2001, Tom Henke got six Hall of Fame votes for 1.2 percent of the ballots, far short of the five percent needed. And while his final career numbers fell short of Cooperstown, how he left the game sparked an intriguing “what if?” about his Hall of Fame prospects.
Hall voters have been remarkably slow to embrace the relief pitcher. It took eight ballots to get Hoyt Wilhelm in. Rollie Fingers wasn’t in on the first ballot. It took 13 turns to get Bruce Sutter in. Goose Gossage, the biggest no-brainer other than Fingers, inexplicably took nine ballots before getting in.
So when the undeniable greats had trouble getting voted in, a borderline candidate like Henke has little to no chance.
But take a close look at Henke’s career. His Baseball Reference page lists his similar pitchers as the likes of Robb Nen, John Wetteland, Todd Worrell, Dave Smith, Rod Beck and Troy Percival. That seems about right. Each one of those pitchers were dominant pitchers for a stretch before injuries caught up with their careers.
Armando Benitez is also listed as a similar pitcher, which is a slap in all of their faces. Flush all of his stats down the drain. Being compared to Benitez as a reliever is like comparing a singer to Alfafa from the Little Rascals.
Henke broke into the majors with the Rangers and went to Toronto in the compensation draft. For those of you who have no idea what the compensation draft is, it is the answer to the question “Why was there a strike in 1981?”
When Henke’s career turned a corner as a 27-year-old middle reliever for the 1985 Division Champion Blue Jays, he looked like a late bloomer. But in 1986, Henke no longer fought for saves with Bill Caudill and Jim Acker and became the closer by himself. The result was he became one of the most feared relievers in the game.
Partially fear because of his imposing height, his big glasses couldn’t have made batters feel any more comfortable. “He throws that hard and can’t see? Maybe I shouldn’t dig in.”
He struck out 9.8 batters over nine innings over 14 seasons in the bigs. His individual season save total wasn’t as gaudy as some of his contemporaries (like his fellow Hall of Fame ballot rejects Dave Righetti and Steve Bedrosian who racked up some eye popping regular seasons.) But by the late 1980s, Henke was saving games along side Duane Ward and being part of a devastatingly deep Toronto bullpen.
In 1989, when the Blue Jays returned to the playoffs, Henke saved only 20 games. But he finished 56, struck out 116 batters in only 89 innings and pitched to a 1.92 ERA. Over the next three seasons, the Blue Jays made the post season two more times with Henke leading the deep pen, instead of being a compiler, while keeping up around a four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio.
In 1992, when future Hall of Famer and saves compiler Dennis Eckersley couldn’t contain Roberto Alomar and the Blue Jays, Henke clinched the pennant in Toronto. He lacked that great career highlight moment, as he blew the save in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series against Atlanta. The Jays would win the game in extra innings and it was Mike Timlin who closed out the series.
But Henke saved two games in the series and outshone his Atlanta counterpart, Jeff Reardon, who was roughed up in Games Two and three.
The Blue Jays decided to stick with Duane Ward as their closer after the World Series, and Henke went back to Texas. There he saved 40 games for the first time in his career. Then after the 1994 strike, he landed in St. Louis. The result was one of his best seasons. He saved 36 of the Cardinals 62 wins, pitched to a 1.82 ERA and made the All-Star team. At the end of the season, he was the 1995 National League Rolaids Relief Award winner. He had never received that honor in all of those years pitching in Toronto.
In 1995, after years of piling up substantive seasons of leading the bullpen and being one of the most respected—but not one of the most celebrated—closers in the game, he seemed poised to start to pile up the stats and pad his Cooperstown resume. Sure he was 37 years old, but he wasn’t logging 200 innings a season. He could start climbing up the saves leader chart and maybe pick up another Rolaids Award.
Maybe he would join a playoff-bound team and get another shot at a ring (and a chance to close it out himself.) And when all was said and done, writers would look at his career and say “Wow, he just might be a Hall of Famer!”
So what did he do?
That’s right. He was declared the league’s top reliever and hung up his spikes. Maybe he wanted to go out on top.
Maybe he knew that piling up saves wasn’t going to make a compelling Cooperstown case. (It sure never helped Lee Smith, Reardon and John Franco.) Maybe he saw the late Dan Quisenberry, who has an argument for election, be dropped after the first ballot.
Or maybe the Hall of Fame never entered his mind, and he was a humble family man who was content with 14 big league seasons, multiple All Star appearances, a World Series ring, millions of dollars in the bank, love and respect from a fan base and walking away on top.
If only he were greedier. He might be in the Hall of Fame.
(An earlier edition of this post was written for The Hardball Times in 2011.)