Part 10 of our Hall of Fame series puts the spotlight on closer Billy Wagner. You can find the first nine parts of the series at the links below.
The Mets signed Wagner prior to the 2006 season, and the closer had a strong three-year run for New York from 2006 to 2008. During that time, Wagner pitched to a 2.40 ERA (56 ERA-) and a 2.89 FIP (65 FIP-), with 10.84 K/9, 2.54 BB/9, and 0.82 HR/9, while averaging 34 saves in 62.2 innings per year. In 2008, the lefty suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the last two months of that season and most of 2009. He made just two appearances for the Mets in 2009 before being traded to the Red Sox. Although the injury cut his time in New York short, Wagner was an important piece of three winning Mets teams, including one in 2006 that won the division for the first time in 18 years and made it to Game 7 of the NLCS. Wagner was on the mound both when the Mets clinched their division title and advanced to the NLCS:
The case for
In parts of 16 seasons, Wagner pitched to an outstanding 2.31 ERA (54 ERA-) and 2.73 FIP (63 FIP-), with 422 saves, 11.92 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, and 0.82 HR/9 in 903.0 innings of work. It’s hard to identify Wagner’s peak, as his career was excellent from start to finish. In his 12 full, healthy seasons as a closer, Wagner’s worst adjusted ERA was 72, indicating a 28% better-than-league-average ERA. His worst adjusted FIP was 69, meaning that his fielding-independent metrics were 31% better than league average.
If one had to identify Wagner’s prime, it would probably be the last 10 years of his career. From 2001 to 2010, the lefty pitched to a ridiculous 2.13 ERA (49 ERA-) and 2.68 FIP (61 FIP-), with 11.19 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, and 0.78 HR/9, while averaging 32 saves in 62.1 innings per year for the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox, and Braves. In his very last big league season, Wagner was a good as he ever was, posting a career-best 1.43 ERA (36 ERA-) and a 2.10 FIP (53 FIP-), and saving 37 games for Atlanta.
Wagner’s dominance was especially remarkable when you consider the time in which he played. Having lasted from 1995 to 2010, Wagner’s career neatly overlapped the heart of the Steroid Era. While hitters around baseball were bulking up and producing unprecedented offensive numbers, this (generously listed) 5-foot-10-inch southpaw was blowing them away with his 100-mile-an-hour fastball and wicked slider. Had Wagner pitched in today’s more pitcher-friendly era, his raw numbers would have been even more impressive than they already were.
Wagner was honored for his success with seven All-Star Game selections, two top-six finishes in Cy Young voting, MVP votes on two separate occasions, and the 2003 Rolaids Relief Man Award. He also made it to the history books as the last of six Astros pitchers who threw a combined no-hitter against the Yankees in 2003:
Speaking of those history books, Wagner’s career has a prominent place in them. Simply put, Wagner was one of the greatest relievers to ever play the game. In 2010, he became just the fifth member of the 400-saves club and set the all-time strikeout record for left-handed relievers, both of which you can watch below. Among all relievers, Wagner ranks sixth all-time in strikeouts, WAR, and win probability added. Now here’s where things get really impressive: Among all pitchers in baseball history—both starters and relievers—with at least 500.0 innings of work, Wagner has the highest K/9 rate, the second-lowest adjusted ERA, and the second-lowest adjusted FIP. In the latter two categories, only Mariano Rivera ranks higher. In other words, you can argue that, on an inning-for-inning basis, Wagner was the second-most dominant pitcher in baseball history.
JAWS ranks Wagner as the 20th-best reliever in the history of the game. Wagner’s JAWS is tied with Trevor Hoffman’s and higher than that of Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. It is also higher than those of excellent non-Hall-of-Fame relievers like Dave Righetti, Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw, Keith Foulke, Tom Henke, and John Franco. However, as we explained in Franco’s Hall of Fame profile, JAWS probably undervalues modern-day relievers like Wagner because it's based on WAR, which itself rewards innings pitched. Unlike those of yesteryear, today’s relievers derive their value from dominating in high-leverage situations, usually an inning at a time. Therefore, when you compare Wagner to his contemporaries, only Rivera and Joe Nathan rank higher in JAWS. Moreover, about half of the relievers ranked ahead of Wagner in JAWS—including contemporaries Tom Gordon and Kerry Wood—spent significant portions of their careers racking up innings as starting pitchers.
The comparison to Hoffman is an interesting one. Many believe that Hoffman will eventually get to Cooperstown and, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, he already has the support of 62.7% of the voters who made their ballots public. While that falls short of the 75.0% needed for induction, it would be an excellent start for a first-ballot player and would almost ensure that he gets in one day. Wagner, by comparison, appears on only 10.0% of public ballots.
Although Hoffman threw nearly 200 more innings and compiled nearly 200 more saves than Wagner, Wagner was much more effective in the innings he did pitch. For that reason, their career JAWS and WAR totals are very similar. If Hoffman does get inducted, he will help establish a new standard for contemporary Hall of Fame relievers. It’s a standard that Wagner appears to meet.
The case against
The biggest knock against Wagner is that his career workload did not match those of many of his contemporaries—much less those of the older relievers ahead of him in JAWS. For example, Wagner’s 903.0 innings pitched are less than those of Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, and Trevor Hoffman. While he was in the league for 16 years, Wagner only threw more than 30.0 innings in a season 13 times. Neither Rivera nor Hoffman, both likely future Hall of Famers, reached that mark fewer than 17 times.
As a result, Wagner ranks lower in JAWS than four of the five relievers in the Hall of Fame—Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, and Bruce Sutter—as well as fifteen non-Hall-of-Famers, including Lee Smith, Joe Nathan, and Dan Quisenberry. Furthermore, Wagner’s 24.0 JAWS is much lower than the average Hall of Fame reliever’s score of 34.4.
Wagner is also hurt by two other factors that Hall voters tend to consider. First, due to the presence of other great closers who played alongside him, Wagner was rarely considered the best in the game. Indeed, he never led his league in any significant pitching categories, aside from two top marks in games finished.
Second, Wagner was not a strong postseason pitcher. While it’s hard to read much into 11.2 innings of work, he did give up 13 runs in those innings, resulting in an ugly 10.03 ERA. And it’s not as if that ERA ballooned because of one or two bad outings: The lefty allowed runs in seven of his 14 postseason appearances. While any one of these factors alone might not be enough to tank his Hall of Fame candidacy, his relatively short workload, lack of recognition as the game’s best closer, and poor postseason performance could present Wagner with an uphill climb to the doors of Cooperstown.
Prospects for induction
Wagner retired in 2010 and will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot this year for the first time. Were he to make it in, it will probably take a few years for his candidacy to build momentum, and he almost surely will not get in on the first try. There are a couple of reasons for this. First is that, due to the large number of suspected PED users lingering on the ballot, it has become very crowded with great players. Wagner may have a hard time distinguishing himself in that deep field. Moreover, while some voters may consider Wagner a Hall of Famer, he may not be among their top 10 choices and, due to the 10-player limit per ballot, would therefore not get their vote.
Second, fellow closer Trevor Hoffman is also debuting on the ballot this year. Fair or not, most baseball writers seem to view Hoffman as the better closer. When Mariano Rivera debuts on the ballot in 2019, Wagner will have to find his way out of both of those pitchers’ shadows.
Nevertheless, Wagner’s candidacy has 10 years to build momentum toward the 75.0% support needed for induction. Hopefully he maintains the 5.0% support per year needed to stay on the ballot because, as probably one of the top 10 relievers in baseball history, Wagner deserves a long and serious look for a ticket to Cooperstown.