Our third best season in this post was crafted by Billy Wagner. When discussing closers the other day, my friend said that Wagner is the most underrated closing pitcher in MLB history. That might not be saying much as the save was not an official statistic until the 1969 season. Regardless, the original Sandman was a tremendous asset for the Houston Astros.
"“Billy Wagner was unique, but beyond being unique, he was really, really good. He was a strikeout machine, capable of blowing his pitches past just about anyone in any situation. His fastball was a legend, and his slider was enough to keep hitters off-balance, at the least.” – Bryan Grosnick"
“Billy the Kid” was his nickname. Rightly so. Standing 5’10”, a figure many call generous, was tiny for a closer. Another interesting fact is that Wagner threw left-handed. But Wagner was not born left-handed. He broke his right arm playing football at his grandparents house. With a strong desire to play, he taught himself how to use his left arm. He even broke his right arm immediately after the cast came off the first time.
The Astros selected Wagner out of college in the 1993 draft with their first pick, the 12th overall selection. Wagner quickly accelerated up the Baseball America prospect rankings: #78 pre-1994, #17 pre-1995 and #14 pre-1996. On September 13, 1995 Billy made his MLB debut. His only appearance of the season was a fly out to center field.
It took until his fourth full season for Wagner to have a truly breakthrough year. In 1999 Wagner was recognized as an all-star reliever as well as finishing 4th and 16th in the Cy Young and MVP voting processes. His stats:
- 1.57 ERA
- 1.65 FIP
- 0.777 WHIP
- 39 saves/42 opportunities (92.9%)
- 55 games finished
- 74 2/3 innings pitched
- 5 home runs allowed (0.6 HR/9)
- 4.2 H/9
- 124 strikeouts to 23 walks (5.39 K/BB)
As you can tell, Wagner certainly impressed in that 1999 season. His only appearance in the playoffs was a perfect inning against the Atlanta Braves.
Wagner retired with the aforementioned team following the 2010 season. His career is one of the greatest by an MLB closing pitcher. A seven-time all-star, Billy posted a remarkable 2.31 ERA with 422 saves throughout his career. I hope to see him voted into Cooperstown.
Next: 2005: Brad Lidge