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Ballot 16 (tie): Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner

Played 16 years for five teams

Six-time All-Star averaged 12 strikeouts per nine innings, saved 422. 27.7 WAR, 16.5 WAA

Pro argument: One of the greatest closers and strikeout pitchers in baseball history.

Con argument: What do you do with relief pitchers?

Deserves to be in Hall?: Depends how you feel about relievers.

Will get elected this year?: 0% chance

Will ever get elected?: 30-40%

* * *

Billy Wagner is right-handed. If you are ever in a situation where you need to motivate people or try to expand someone’s view about human possibility, you can start there. Billy Wagner is right-handed. And with his left hand, he threw baseballs about as hard as anyone in the history of this game.

He began throwing left-handed in anger. Wagner’s childhood was not easy. He grew up in a tiny farming town in Virginia; his parents married just out of high school. His father went to Vietnam when he was 2. His parents divorced when he was 5. He spent the next ten years of his life bouncing from home to home. When he was 10, he punched his mother’s second-husband after he got abusive. When he was 14, he moved into the home of a cousin and felt, for the first time, some kind of stability.

All the while, he would say, he felt this rage that he would unleash by throwing baseballs as hard as he could against a family barn. He had twice broken bones in his arm and right shoulder when he was 7; a friend named Chip had fallen on his arm when they were playing something called hat football. After the cast came off Chip came over for more hat football and broke Billy’s arm again.

And so, young Billy Wagner could only throw with all his might when he threw left-handed. And throwing with all his might was the purpose of Billy Wagner’s young life.

“When you see that special arm,” Tim Purpura, former general manager of the Houston Astros once said of Wagner, “you just know it.”

I love that quote because … it wasn’t even Wagner’s good arm. What would have happened to Wagner without those hat football injuries? Would he have developed his right arm as well as he did his left? Maybe not (you could even say “probably not) and this leads to an even more intriguing question: Are there others who concentrated their athletic efforts on their dominant arms and legs when the real greatness was locked on the other side? Do all of us have untapped potential in our supposed weaknesses?

There’s another fascinating thing about Wagner: He basically taught himself how to throw that hard. That’s not too uncommon — baseball is filled with self-taught fireballers from Walter Johnson to Satchel Paige to Wagner. But here’s the thing: When you watched Billy Wagner’s throwing motion, you sensed that this was the perfect way to throw a baseball, absolutely perfect, with the glorious leg kick, awe-inspiring balance, and with that power leg drive, the drive that reminded everybody of Tom Seaver. It looked like it came out of a book. But he didn’t get any of that out of a book. No coach taught him (“They just said, ‘Hey, get on the mound, throw at the mitt and take it from there’). He just figured out how to throw a baseball that hard by, you know, throwing a baseball hard.

No scout or college recruiter made it out to Tannersville, Va., to watch Wagner pitch in high school. He would say that he might have had a chance to pitch at Virginia Tech, but he wanted to play football too so he scraped together whatever money he could and made it to Ferrum College in what the school proudly calls “Historic Virginia.” Well, “Historic Virginia” sounds better than “35 miles south of Roanoke.”

That turned out to be a good break. Wagner said the Ferrum baseball coach, Darren Hodges, made one small adjustment in his delivery — his first bit of real coaching — and instantly he was throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s. Oh the scouts found him after that. As a sophomore, Wagner struck out 109 batters in 51 1/3 innings – that’s 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings. The next year, he struck out 133 and Houston drafted him with the 12th pick in the draft.

He was something of an odd prospect – a 5-foot-10 lefty who threw insanely hard but really didn’t have a second pitch. He was a starter throughout his minor league career, and he struck out 501 in 415 innings. But when he was called up as a 24-year-old, he was used exclusively as a reliever … and he would be his entire career. He never made a single major league start even though he’d had some success as a minor-league starter. Wagner always said relief pitching better matched his personality anyway. He loathed the anticipation that led up to a start; he used to throw up before games. He preferred being the in pen and just getting the call; it left no time to feel the nerves.

Wagner was an instant sensation in the Astros bullpen. In his first four seasons, he had 101 saves, a 2.35 ERA and he struck out 394 in 252 innings. It’s fair to say that baseball had never seen anything quite like him. Through 1999, here are the highest strikeouts-per-nine innings (min. 50 ip).

  1. Billy Wagner, 1999, 14.95 so/9
  2. Armando Benitez, 1999, 14.77 so/9
  3. Billy Wagner, 1998, 14.55 so/9
  4. Billy Wagner, 1997, 14.37 so/9
  5. Rob Dibble, 1992, 14.08 so/9

Wagner was basically doing all that striking out with his fastball. He would throw a curveball once every couple of weeks just to prove that he had one. There was a rumor for a while that Randy Johnson was teaching him the slider, which sent numerous batters into therapy. “He doesn’t need a slider,” Matt Williams said plainly. That Unit slider didn’t really tak (though later he picked one up from Brad Lidge that helped him in the second half of his career). Early on, Billy Wagner was a fastball-fastball-fastball pitcher.

Wagner got hurt in 2000 and had the only subpar season of his career. Other than 2000, Wagner had a sub-3.00 ERA every single year. Other than 2000, Wagner struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings every single year. Wagner ended his career with 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine. It is the highest strikeout-per-nine total for any pitcher ever with 500 or more innings. That speaks for itself.

As far as his Hall of Fame case goes, well, Wagner is hurt by three of factors. One, he bounced around a bit in the second half of his career, pitching for the Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves, and a Hall of Fame case always looks a lot clearer to people when a player has been with one or two teams. Two, Hall of Fame voters have shown a strong interest in saves, and while Wagner saved 422 games – sixth all-time – it pales compared to his ballot-mate Trevor Hoffman’s 601 (and it’s also less than Lee Smith, who will not get elected, and John Franco, who was off the ballot after one year).

And then there’s this: Wagner retired at the height of his powers. He was 38 years old his last year in Atlanta, and he went 7-2 with a 1.43 ERA, 2.10 FIP, 37 saves and 104 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. It was a fantastic season, one of Wagner’s best. But he announced in May that he would retire at the end of the season to, yes, spend more time with his family. Unlike the many people who say that, Wagner really meant it. He’d had enough of the criticism, enough of the pressure, enough of the people telling him how to pitch. He wanted to go home and be with his four kids.

In August, when it was clear that he was having an all-world season, Wagner was asked repeatedly if he would reconsider. “I’m retiring,” he said. “I don’t know how to say it in a politically correct way that anybody’s going to believe me. Until I don’t show up next year, nobody’s going to believe me. Brett Favre (bleeped) it up for everybody.”

Even in the months after he retired, people still didn’t believe him and pointed out that he had not yet signed the retirement papers. But Wagner really did retire, leaving behind millions of dollars and a bunch of counting stats that might have pushed up his Hall of Fame chances. Mariano Rivera saved 170 games after he turned 39, Trevor Hoffman saved 119, Dennis Eckersley saved 115. If Wagner had done that he’d have saved more than 500 games and might be a better Hall of Fame candidate in the eyes of some voters. He went to be with his family instead.

There’s an interesting argument to be made between Hoffman and Wagner. It seems clear that Wagner was the more dominant of the two, but Hoffman was the more consistent. Wagner has the lower ERA and higher strikeout totals, but Hoffman has the impeccable saves record and a longer career of excellence.

I tend to believe if you think one is a Hall of Famer you should also think the other one is – I can’t see drawing a line between them unless you are that in love with the save statistic. As of right now, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s essential Hall of Fame tracker, Hoffman is getting 72.1% of the vote and Wagner is getting 11%. That doesn’t compute for me.

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32 Responses to Ballot 16 (tie): Billy Wagner

  1. William Keane (@largebill68) says:

    “I tend to believe if you think one is a Hall of Famer you should also think the other one is – I can’t see drawing a line between them unless you are that in love with the save statistic. As of right now, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s essential Hall of Fame tracker, Hoffman is getting 72.1% of the vote and Wagner is getting 11%. That doesn’t compute for me.”

    It computes if you keep in mind that voters are limited to 10 votes and there are 15 viable strong candidates. With the vote limit voters are not going to pick two closers (many won’t even pick one) and when choosing between the two, most voters look at the difference between save totals more than the ratio numbers.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    I never appreciated Wagner until he pitched for the Braves and was utterly dominant at age 38. I saw him a lot with the Phillies and he seemed less dominant. Maybe it was all the inevitable criticism he got from Philadelphia fans. When the Braves signed him, it seemed like the typical signing of an older veteran. Meant to create a media splash, but would probably not end well. I was very surprised. And yes, the Braves wanted badly for him to reconsider his retirement plans. They made it well known through the media, probably trying to charm him into staying. Anyway, if you compare Trevor Hoffman to Wagner on BBR, you’re either going to think Wagner is a HOFer or that Hoffman is not. There is no real comparison that accounts for the discrepancy in perception among the writers, obviously except for the career Saves total.

  3. Jim Doherty says:

    I am a long time Mets fan and I cannot think of a closer I felt more confident in seeing Wagner enter a game than almost any other closer they had. Getting spoiled by Familia now, though.

    • moviegoer74 says:

      Sure. Except for putting up a 16.88 ERA in the 2006 NLCS.

      • Jay says:

        As a Mets fan, that 2006 NLCS (specifically game 2 — I know sample sizes don’t get smaller than that) is what would keep him out of the HoF for me.

    • Mike says:

      I’m a lifetime Mets fan and I had no confidence in him. He was — as Joe notes — a one-pitch pitcher, who had less-than-great command of that one pitch, at least in ’06.

      I was worried every time he faced a good-hitting team. He had an awful outing against the Yanks midseason, he sat out many games against the Phils, and he was shaky in the NLDS against the Dodgers. His meltdown against the Cards was all-too predictable.

      And look it up — he wasn’t good for the ‘Stros in the late 90s in the post-season either.

      ——————————

      All that said, with a few exceptions, most “closers” have their share of awful post-season disasters. Good hitting teams expose those one (maybe two pitch) posers.

  4. Phil says:

    Think the rule of ten is why people make a choice of Hoffman over Wagner?

  5. John Q says:

    I think Billy Wagner was actually a better relief pitcher than Trevor Hoffman. I think he was a better relief pitcher than B. Sutter 7 R. Fingers for that matter. I can’t really see voting for Hoffman and not Wagner. I don’t think Wagner was every really appreciated by Phillies even though he was one of the best relievers in the N.L. I don’t think he was ever appreciated by Mets fans even though he appeared in 2 all star games as a Met. The Mets 2008 collapse was base solely on Wagner’s 2008 injury and the Mets inability to replace him.

    Here’s how he ranks lifetime among relief pitchers in WAA (wins above average):

    1-M. Rivera-43.4
    2-H. Wilhelm-26.3
    3-R. Gossage-24.2
    4-B. Wagner-20.1
    5-T. Hoffman-18.8
    6-J. Hiller-18.6
    7-J. Nathan-17.9
    8-L. Smith-17.3
    9-J. Pappelbon-16.7
    10-K-Rod-16.0

    • moviegoer74 says:

      Wagner was, on the whole, pretty good for the Mets. But not great, and definitely not as great as he had been before coming to NY. His WHIP in 2006 and 2007 was over 1.1, after 4 straight years of WHIPs below 1 for Houston and Philadelphia, 5 straight of 1.02 or better. His Ks and BBs were basically the same, he just gave up more hits while pitching for the Mets. But his FIP was up as well, so it appears not to have been due to the Mets’ D or anything like that. He just wasn’t as good for the Mets in 2006 and 2007 as he’d been previously (and would be afterwards).
      Also in 2006, he blew a save at Shea in only his second appearance (giving up a HR to Ryan Zimmerman). I’ve always wondered if that colored fans’ appreciation…that he didn’t get a good run of games in before his first bad outing. Then, on May 20, following 7 brilliant innings from Pedro Martinez (check out Pedro’s 2006 numbers through May sometime…vintage), Wagner blew a 4-0 lead at home to the Yankees. It was now not 2 full months into his Mets tenure and he’d already blown 3 saves plus a 4-run lead to the Yankees. Then of course, there was the 2006 NLCS in which he was terrible in Game 2 and Game 6 (though they won Game 6 in spite of him).

      • moviegoer74 says:

        To continue… he also blew a crucial save in Florida during the great Mets collapse of 2007.

        Then in 2008 he was back to his dominant, pre-Mets form, until he got hurt. And, after a 2007 collapse mostly fueled by a lack of starting pitching, in 2008 the Mets collapsed again, this time due to their bullpen without Wagner. (I recall a stat from 2008 that, if the games ended after 6 innings, the Mets would’ve had the best record in MLB).

        • jpdg says:

          Yeah I know for certain that the Mets had blown more saves than any other team in history that year. They tried Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez at closer after Wagner went down and both were disasters. The Mets bullpen was such a dumpster fire that they signed Luis Ayala, a really solid reliever in the years leading up to 2008 but was released by a dreadful Nats team on the strength of his 5.77 ERA. And Ayala, with that 5.77 ERA was more or less immediately inserted into the closer role. He’d pitch to a 5.50 ERA and look finished as a big league relief pitcher until he received his career on 2011 with, of course, the Yankees.

        • John Q says:

          Right, the 2007 collapse was based on their weak starting pitching that finally caught up with them. 2007 was also a very old team that finally caught up with them. I think there was something like 20 players on that team 33 or older and 5 guys over 40: Franco, Glavine, El Duque, S. Alomar, M. Alou, J. Conine, C. Delgado, S. Green, Easly, Valentin, LoDuca, Defelice, Wagner, Sele, Pedro, Chan Ho Park, Newhan, M. Anderson, Ledee, Scheonewess,

          2008 was just a very top loaded team: Santana, Wright, Beltran and Reyes with little else. They didn’t have any corner outfielders. I think they had 10 different left fielders that year. They didn’t have a second basemen, they didn’t have a catcher. M. Palfry was good and Wagner was solid but after he went down is just an absolute mess trying to find his replacement. Then in typical Minaya fashion, he went crazy over compensated for his previous season’s weakness so for 2009 he went crazy for relievers in the off season and signed K-Rod and gave up a # 1 pick. And then he traded away 5-6 guys to get an injured J.J. Putz.

  6. Wes Tovich says:

    Billy Wags was an awesome, HOF level closer. Put him in. Put Hoffman. Stop whining about closers getting elected or whatever. They’re there, they’re not going anywheres, they are valuable, etc etc. Someone as good as this guy and Trevor, you elect.

    • Mort says:

      Maybe you shouldn’t be so sure closers are ‘not going anywhere.’ Throughout history, teams have always changed the way they use pitching staffs, and some enlightened managers are already figuring out that the time to use your best relief pitcher may be the highest leverage situation, regardless of which inning. Maybe Wags’ contribution would have been greater if he’d come in more often in the sixth inning with the bases loaded rather than the ninth inning when the game was already pretty much iced. Of course, there’s resistance to that innovation because if a guy doesn’t get his ‘saves’ it impacts his future salary. But that’s an inefficiency some smart person could exploit.

  7. jpdg says:

    The Hoffman/Wagner argument is just weird. To borrow from a comment I left in the Lee Smith piece with an added touch:

    ERA/FIP/xFIP
    Wagner – 2.31/2.73/2.76
    Hoffman – 2.87/3.08/3.79
    Rivera – 2.11/3.05/3.09

    ERA-/FIP- (lower is better)
    Wagner – 54/63
    Hoffman – 71/73
    Rivers – 49/62

    K%/BB%/K-BB%
    Wagner – 33.2/8.3/24.9
    Hoffman – 25.8/7.0/18.8
    Rivera – 23.0/5.6/17.4

    Innings
    Wagner – 903
    Hoffman – 1,089
    Rivera – 1,283.2

    Saves
    Wagner – 422
    Hoffman – 601
    Rivera – 652

    Wagner in the regular season was, at worst, Rivera’s equal. Obviously, Rivera being the greatest post season relief pitcher in history and by extension, the greatest reliever in history, gets the edge over Wagner. But I don’t see how Hoffman belongs up there with either of them. Hoffman had more saves and more (mostly bad at the end) innings than Wagner and K/BB numbers were as good as Rivera’s. That’s about it. Both were significantly better across the board. And it’s not like Hoffman has a robust post season resume to prop up his case. It really makes no sense.

    • invitro says:

      “Wagner in the regular season was, at worst, Rivera’s equal.” — Are you saying this solely because of FIP? You know that Rivera smashes Wagner out of the ballpark in WPA, right?

      • jpdg says:

        No not solely. Rivera pitched more innings and has slight edges in ERA and ERA-. I feel that Wagner’s substantial edges strikeout rate and K/BB bridges that gap.

        As for WPA, I’m not a huge fan. For old school fireman? Yes, but I don’t think it’s a great tool for modern closers.

        • Pete R says:

          I would be interested to know why you think that WPA doesn’t work when we’re comparing these pitchers. It takes into account the difficulty of different saves (1,2 or 3 run lead?), and takes into account failures as well. Unlike many other statistics, WPA does not treat similar events as equal: a strikeout to end a one-run game is worth more than a strikeout in a three-run game.

          The point of FIP is to remove differences between their fielders. But Wagner, Rivera and Hoffman each had a career BABIP of .265 or .266, suggesting that any difference between their defenses can be ignored.

          Then Wagner had more strikeouts, walks and homeruns than the others. WPA (and ERA+) put that all together.

  8. mark G says:

    I never learned much about Wagner simply because he played nearly all in the NL and I’m an AL guy, so this was a treat. The bit about him developing his off-arm is news to me, and Joe’s observation about how there likely have been others who never gave their off arms a chance, in all sorts of sports was special. Also Wagner’s line about Favre was on point.

    • Rob Smith says:

      That comment came because the Braves FO put on the full court press to try and get him to come back. Their house men in the play by play booth bandied it about daily suggesting that Wags would eventually change his mind. The media relentlessly asked him about it and you can only imagine what was going on with local sports talk radio. Eventually the Favre comment was his final semi-exasperated attempt to let everyone know that he was serious about retiring and wasn’t some dopey athlete who was just increasing his contract leverage.

  9. birtelcom says:

    781 pitchers have begun their careers from 1962 on and accumulated at least 750 career IP. Of those guys, the lowest OPS by batters faced by a pitcher over the pitcher’s career::
    .555 Mariano Rivera
    .558 Billy Wagner
    .564 Clyton Kershaw
    .600 J.R. Richard
    .601 Tom Henke
    .606 Nolan Ryan and Andy Messersmith
    .609 Trevor Hoffman
    .613 Pedro Martinez and Joe Nathan

    Kevin Jarvis is 781st and last on this list. He pitched twelve seasons in the majors, for ten different franchises, and also in Japan. Batters during Kevin’s career had an .864 OPS batting against him.

    • PhilM says:

      Kevin Jarvis has arguably the worst pitching career in MLB history. John Coleman (1883-1890; 66 ERA+, 23-72 record, 1.52 WHIP, -4.4 WAR) is undoubtedly the worst pitcher of all time, but scouting and advanced metrics were a little cruder back then.

    • KHAZAD says:

      Anytime you make a list like this there is always one guy you think is a misprint.
      A bunch of dominant one inning relievers? Check. JR Richard, a dominant starter whose career ended suddenly (no declining years)? Check. A couple of singular starters who were dominant like Pedro and Nolan? Check.

      Then Andy Messersmith. Don’t get me wrong, I actually remember Andy as a very good pitcher with a career cut short by injury, but I never expected to find him on a list like this.

      • birtelcom says:

        I’ve been working on a project tracking the “best starting pitcher in baseball” over the years, using Bill James’ rating system for starting pitchers. Messersmith shows up as the “best starter in baseball” for a brief period in 1976, in between periods that year when Tom Seaver and Catfish Hunter held the title. He really was a terrific pitcher in the mid-70s (top 3 in NL pitching WAR from 1973 to 1976 were Seaver, Niekro and Messersmith), and because his career ended early after injuries (and the big labor breakthrough for which he is famous), his excellent rate stats had less chance to decline with age, so his ERA and other rate stats look extremely good.

        min. 2,000 IP in the lively ball era, lowest ERAs:
        Hoyt Wilhelm 2.52
        Whitey Ford 2.75
        Sandy Koufax 2.76
        Andy Messersmith, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer 2.86

  10. Mort says:

    I still don’t believe ‘closer’ is a real position, any more than ‘pinch hitter’ is. The position is ‘pitcher.’ (I can’t think of another position in sports defined by WHEN the guy does his thing.) The only reason we talk about closers as Hall of Fame candidates is that we know their contribution is miniscule compared to starting pitchers and yet we like the idea of closers anyway, beyond all reason.

    And that’s all because of that silly ‘save’ statistic which doesn’t really measure anything except how many years the guy worked the ninth inning. (I mean, really, holding a three-run lead is an accomplishment to put on your HOF resume? The proper reward for that is a paycheck, nothing more.)

    Or, if we really want to be inclusive, we should have a more general category of ‘defensive replacement.’ Give a guy a save every time he comes in to play right field or shortstop in the late innings. (Watch the numbers mount up! Suddenly, wow, the guy is invaluable!)

    • invitro says:

      “we know their contribution is miniscule compared to starting pitchers” — Can you be clear on how you’re defining “miniscule”? Because I think your statement is abundantly false for standard definitions of “miniscule” — something like under 10%.

    • Rob Smith says:

      That’s a little extreme. Most of us know that having a guy who can keep a lead in the 9th inning is valuable. We’ve all watched teams that struggled to close out games. And winning close games is a big factor in a successful season. We should only really be arguing about the relative value against other valuable positions. Throwing out 9th inning defensive players, even just to try to make a point, is just too far afield

  11. KHAZAD says:

    I don’t really know what to do about relievers. To be honest, I would not vote for either of the two this year, but that is mostly because of the glut of talent. I think both fall outside the top ten this year.

    I really don’t know if Wagner belongs when all is said and done. I do know he was a memorable force of nature, a singular player that I will always remember. Listed at 5’10”, (I think that is a slight exaggeration) throwing left handed, he is one of the best relievers of his era, and other than Rivera, you can’t really make show me another one from that era who is superior to him. When thinking of his era, you also must remember that he pitched during the most offensive era in baseball – the heart of the steroid era, and of course the postage stamp strike zone of the late 90s and early 2000s. It makes his percentage based numbers that much more impressive.

    He was not good in the post season, and while I understand those who grade him down for that, the people that really get graded up are the ones that have a ton of post season games. Wagner threw 11 post season innings spaced out over 16 years. Rivera threw 141 post season innings and had more innings before he was a closer than Wagner had in his career. Don’t get me wrong, Rivera was masterful in the post season, but his post season legacy had a chance simply because he was a Yankee at the right time, with more post season games on a dominant team. If Rivera had 11 post season innings and gave up one run, would we be talking about his post season legacy? If Wagner had been a Yankee at that time, would his numbers over 141 innings look more like his career numbers?

    In 5 years, people will be talking about Ortiz’ post season legacy, but he was really just hitting like David Ortiz, which is pretty damned good. He had the good fortune to be able to do it over 369 PAs and have a couple of World Series titles in a major city. We won’t be giving any credit for Carlos Beltran, who was otherworldly in less PAs without a title.

    I would rather concentrate on the regular season when evaluating these players. While there are a very few (like Rivera) who were not only lucky enough to be on a great team in an era where we play alot of games, but were also especially dominant, for most it is more a result of circumstance than any extra skill in the post season.

  12. Nathan says:

    I’m not much of a closers-in-the-Hall guy, but I like Wagner. He was unhittable for me in the first online stratomatic season I played (2001, I think), and I became a real-life fan of his afterward.

  13. Sonny says:

    “Brett Favre (bleeped) it up for everybody.”

    I absolutely love that line.

  14. Crout says:

    He was the first and only pitcher I ever saw who hit 100mph. It was with the Phillies and he’s had a special place in my heart ever since.

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