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Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame case

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The former Mets closer deserves far more Hall of Fame support than he is receiving.

2006 NLCS - Game Two - St. Louis Cardinals vs New York Mets Photo by Bryan Yablonsky/Getty Images

It’s Hall of Fame voting season again, which means it’s the season of arguments over who deserves to be inducted, constant critiquing of every ballot made public, and a litany of misinformation about PEDs. The official ballot for this year has been out for a little over a month now, and several former Mets are included on it. Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent are on their fourth and fifth ballots, respectively, and both have interesting cases for induction. Darren Oliver and Rick Ankiel also make an appearance on the ballot, and fan favorite Jason Bay gets a nod this year as well.

But the former Met with the best case for the Hall of Fame this year is former closer Billy Wagner, who spent four years in Queens and was the closer for three of them, including the 2006 season. That year, he saved 40 games and the Mets took the National League East title. That said, his legacy goes far beyond his days in blue and orange. Wagner compiled a heck of a career in his time on the Astros, Phillies, Red Sox, and Braves.

This is the fourth year that Wagner has appeared on the ballot. There have been 85 public ballots submitted so far, and Wagner has only appeared on 12 of them, or 14.1%, per the information gathered by Ryan Thibodeaux. This is not much of an improvement over how he’s polled over the first three years on the ballot, only garnering 10.5%, 10.2%, and 11.1% of the vote in his first three tries. This kind of support for Wagner is quite disappointing since he is one of the best relievers ever and has a very strong case to be inducted.

For starters, Wagner’s 424 career saves rank sixth all-time, and while saves obviously are not the most telling stat of a reliever’s worth—John Franco is fifth with 424 saves, for example—Wagner brings so much more to the table than just saves.

Wagner displayed a longevity that is rare for relievers throughout the history of baseball. In his lengthy 15-year career, Wagner amassed 903 innings pitched, a plateau that only 59 relievers in the entire game’s history have reached. And of those 59 relievers, Wagner’s K% of 33.2% is the best of them all by a safe margin. What’s more, his career ERA- of 56 is second to only Mariano Rivera, and easily trumps other Hall of Fame relievers like Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage. His FIP- is also second to Rivera, and his career opponents’ batting average of .184 is number one by a large margin. In fact, he’s the only of those 59 relievers to have an opponents’ batting average under .200.

The argument could be made that because Wagner only compiled 903 innings, his rate stats can’t be fairly compared to other Hall of Fame relievers who accrued well over 1,000 career innings, and therefore had more of a decline phase than Wagner did. And while that is a fair argument, Wagner still provided roughly equal or more value than many of them in his 903 innings than most of those Hall-of-Fame relievers did in their 1,000+ innings.

By fWAR, a counting stat, Wagner ranks sixth all-time among relievers, and all five of the relievers above him—Rivera, Gossage, Hoffman, Fingers, and Smith—are Hall-of-Famers. While bWAR paints a slight different pitcher, pegging Wagner at only 16th all-time among relievers, his 27.7 bWAR is still only 0.3 bWAR behind Hoffman, and only 1.3 bWAR behind Smith. His being among Hall-of-Famers in both measures should garner him far more consideration that he has received thus far, but that has not been the case.

Even with all of those impressive accolades in mind, though, the most striking thing about Wagner’s career might just be that he could have kept going even longer. In his final season in 2010 with the Braves, at age 39, Wagner posted a sparkling 1.43 ERA in 69.1 innings and totaled 37 saves. He probably could have continued being an elite reliever for a few more years before calling it quits, but he wanted to retire. Regardless, he still remains one of the most dominant and consistent relief pitchers that baseball has ever seen, and while he might not have the name value of a Rivera, Hoffman, or Gossage, he belongs in the Hall of Fame along with them.