A former first round draft pick of the Houston Astros (1993, No. 12 overall), Billy Wagner pitched 16 seasons in the major leagues, defying odds, lighting up radar guns, and putting together one of the finest careers a relief pitcher ever has.
Only a handful of relievers have been inducted into Cooperstown; Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, and, just last year, Trevor Hoffman. Another legendary closer will join their ranks this year in former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
The only question that remains is whether he’ll be the first player to be inducted unanimously, but that’s another discussion for another day. We’re here to shine a light on Wagner’s resume, though it really shouldn’t need any.
Over the course of the 5’10” lefty’s career (853 appearances, all in relief), he owned a 2.31 earned-run average, a 2.73 fielding independent pitching rating, with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.0 walks per nine, a sparkling 0.998 WHIP, and an elite 187 ERA+.
Pitching for the Astros, Mets, Phillies, Braves, and Red Sox, Wagner converted 422 career saves, two less than the all-time left-handed saves leader, longtime Mets closer John Franco (424).
His 24.1 fWAR and 27.7 bWAR put him among some lofty company, though since only six relievers have been inducted into the Hall, the average career bWAR among them is 38.1, leaving the Virginia native’s 27.7 looking a bit undeserving — until you look at 2017 inductee Trevor Hoffman’s career stats.
The longtime San Diego Padres closer had a terrific 18-year career for the Friars, Brewers, and Marlins early on. Hoffman retired in 2010 with the most saves all-time (601), a 2.87 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 1.058 WHIP, 9.4 strikeouts and 2.5 walks per nine innings, a 141 ERA+ rating, and 28.0 bWAR (26.1 fWAR).
Apart from the substantial disparity in saves between the two, Wagner’s stats are clearly more impressive than Hoffman’s. The Hall of Fame likes to take into account a player’s best seven-year stretch when considering enshrinement. I tried to gauge that for both players and proved Wagner’s case even further.
I estimated Hoffman’s high-water mark as 1996 through 2002, all with San Diego. Over that time, the right-hander racked up 296 saves in 402 appearances (501.2 innings) with a 2.49 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 598 strikeouts, 141 walks, 0.997 WHIP, and a 161 ERA+ rating. Solid if not outstanding numbers, no doubt.
From 2001 through 2007, Billy Wagner mirrored a number of Hoffman’s impressive marks. Though he accumulated fewer saves (251) in more appearances (468; 490.1 innings), the rest of Wagner’s line is an absolute thing of beauty: 2.22 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 592 strikeouts, 134 walks, 0.961 WHIP, and 199 ERA+.
Though the 75 percent of votes to get in (he clocked in at 10.5 percent in 2016, 10.2 in 2017, and 11.1 in 2018) may not ever come, Billy Wagner most certainly deserves serious consideration for enshrinement into Cooperstown. Time will tell, but here’s hoping he gets a fair shake.