There just weren’t many closers like Billy Wagner.
Sure, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman are two names that everyone throws around from the late 1990’s through the 2000’s in terms of top closers. Rivera and his cut fastball are considered legendary. Hoffman and the use of his change-up is incredible to look back upon. Both pitchers will be enshrined in Cooperstown sooner or later.
However, other closers had stretches of dominance that rivaled Rivera and Hoffman. Billy Wagner can be counted as one of those other closers and probably should be in the conversation for induction into Cooperstown.
When you think of closers, the first statistic that is referred to instantly is saves. Whether it is justified or not, the concept of saves being an important indicator of a “closers” value is recently less emphasized throughout baseball. But the fact that Wagner accumulated so many has to retain some value. After all, the left-handed reliever finished fifth in saves (422), which is also the second-most for any left-handed reliever behind only John Franco. He is also atop the Houston Astros all-time saves list with 225. And while saves can be deemphasized, those type of numbers just don’t merely disappear.
There is a lot more to Wagner than saves, though. In fact, from the time he debuts from 1995 to the point of his retirement after the 2010 season, the 5’10” reliever utilized some of the best stuff ever to come out of a left-handed reliever. Between his dangerous fastball-slider combination, Wagner routinely made the difficult seem easy. He struck out batters at an unusually high clip for a reliever by utilizing a fastball anywhere from 93 to 100 MPH in his prime that set up his mid 80’s slider. Here is an example of a famous Wagner strike out using his slider while he was a member of the Atlanta Braves during a 2010 game against the then-Florida Marlins:
And those kinds of results showed up in the numbers. Of the four pitchers currently ahead of Wagner on the all-time save list, none surpasses Wagner in strikeouts. In fact, Trevor Hoffman is the closest to Wagner in terms of K% (33.2% compared to 25.8%). 1,196 strikeouts in under 1,000 innings of work just proves that his stuff was just filthy!
If we must examine the numbers, then we need look past saves and strikeouts to appreciate truly Wagner’s career. Advanced statistics are a more useful indicator we can examine to measure his success. For example, the former Astro comes in sixth in all-time WAR for a reliever (25.8), trailing only Rivera, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Hoffman, Rollie Fingers, and Lee Smith.
What is amazing is that Wagner is the only pitcher of that same group who hasn’t top 1,000 innings pitched for his career. And when accounting for league and park adjustments, which is reflected in ERA- and FIP-, Wagner is only second to Rivera in terms of ERA- (54) and FIP- (63). Wagner was truly unique when considering his level of success along with his pitching style. There are very few left-handers, even more so for relievers, that had the type of stuff he did in his prime.
He led some of the best bullpens in Astros history and served as a mentor for future closers Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel. Even after he departed the Astros organization, he led or helped lead the bullpen for the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, and Braves.
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However, there are only five “relievers” who have been voted into the Hall of Fame: Dennis Eckersley, Fingers, Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Hoyt Wilhelm. It also doesn’t help Wagner’s case that Lee Smith, one of the all-time saves leaders, isn’t in the Hall of Fame. There is clearly a high standard that relievers need to meet to be allowed induction into Cooperstown. Of course there is currently plenty of debate whether a specialist, such as a reliever or a designated hitter, belong in the Hall of Fame considering the limited scope of their work.
With that said, Hoffman may become the sixth as he is in his first year of eligibility, and Rivera figures to be a first-ballot inductee once his time comes. Both are considered to be Wagner’s contemporaries as they all pitched in roughly the same time period. Each is well-known for their longevity and incredible accomplishments, but the pair overshadowed Wagner at various points during his heyday. He didn’t have quite a dominant stretch like Rivera’s and Hoffman at times received more attention for his long career while using only a change-up as his primary weapon. And to his detriment, there wasn’t a game-changing or series-altering moment from Wagner that does enough to truly set him apart from the two.
Below is an interview with Billy Wagner
Wagner was dominant, even if he was just quietly dominant. All that said, Wagner was one of the best relievers of his generation. On an inning-by-inning basis, it appears that the left-hander only came second to Rivera. And while he didn’t have the benefit of pitching in a major baseball market for a portion of his career, his numbers are just too good to ignore. And while he may not get in this year, the odds are that the former Astro closer will one day find his way to the Hall of Fame.
**Statistics provided by Fangraphs**