Quite simply, a former Astros closer had a sensational career in a time when hitters were the talk of the town.
Former Astros closer, Billy Wagner, in many ways was the best reliever in baseball not named Mariano Rivera. Unfortunately, “The Kid” didn’t always receive the national attention he deserved throughout his playing career.
That lack of national attention though doesn’t take away from his incredible career that spanned from Houston to Philadelphia to New York to Boston to Atlanta. It is arguably a journey worthy of Hall of Fame enshrinement.
While many will argue for and against his candidacy for the Hall with a wide array of reasons, I would like to present five statistics that demonstrates the kind of pitcher Wagner was in his career.
More from Climbing Tal's Hill
- Just how much better is the Houston Astros playoff rotation than the rest?
- Houston Astros: A Lineup Change to Spark Offense
- Astros prospect Hunter Brown throws 6 shutout innings in debut
- Always faithful Astros World Series champion Josh Reddick defends the title
- Michael Conforto declines Astros’ 2-year, $30 million offer
To start this analysis off, I first had to determine the criteria that my query would base itself on. I wanted to ignore saves as this isn’t a reliable indicator of a pitcher’s prowess. Like the win-loss record, too much emphasis is placed on the save. I wanted to capture Wagner’s effectiveness as a pitcher that included a measurement towards contributions of wins along with strikeouts.
So, here is the criteria I came up with, right or wrong as it may be: out of all pitchers (active and inactive) whose role was relief in 80% of their games and at least 900 innings pitched. This criteria fits well since Wagner pitched in 903 innings for his 16-year playing career.
Statistic One – Career K%
First off, Wagner had the highest K % (33.2%) of any pitcher that fit into the mentioned criteria above. Sure, he only pitched 903 innings. Rivera nearly had 1,300 innings pitched. Trevor Hoffman was just shy of 1,100 innings pitched. But the fact that he leads in the category has to count for something. For a time, there was no pitcher that teams feared more than Wagner in late innings.
Statistic Two – ERA+
While we could depend on a regular ERA comparison, ERA+ provides a snapshot into how good Wagner was with the ballpark factor adjusted. In fact, Wagner came in second on the list with an 187 ERA+. The former Astro only trails Rivera (205 ERA+) in this category for his career. Oh, in case you were wondering, Francisco Rodriguez comes in a distant third with a 154 ERA+.
Statistic Three – Adjusted Pitching Wins
Per Baseball Reference, Adjusted Pitching Wins “estimates a pitcher’s total contributions to a team’s win with his arm.” Once again, we find Wagner rank highly in this particular measurement amongst relief pitchers. “The Kid” is ranked third in Adjusted Pitching Wins (19.73 PtchW), trailing only Rivera (32.47 PtchW) and Hoyt Wilhelm (29.47 PtchW). That is impressive company as one is in enshrined in Cooperstown while the other is basically a shoe-in once he is eligible.
Statistic Four – Fielding Independent Pitching
We all know that FIP measures how effective a particular pitcher was, per Baseball Reference, “at preventing home runs, walks, hit-by-pitch, and causing strikeouts.” To no surprise, we see that Wagner was high on this list as well. In fact, he ranks first with a 2.73 FIP for his career. Rivera was a close second at 2.76 FIP. And the legendary Lee Smith was third at 2.93 FIP.
Sure, the innings pitched argument comes into play as both Rivera and Smith were just shy of 1,300 innings pitched for their major league career. But you can’t simply ignore Wagner at the top. Like I stated with his career K%, it has to count for something.
Statistic Five – Strikeouts Per Nine Innings
Surprisingly, the three pitchers that rank the highest in this category from the criteria I used all pitched less than 1,000 innings for their careers. The best of the trio is, you guessed right, Wagner.
In fact, Wagner’s 11.92 SO9 perhaps remains one of the most impressive statistics he has ever posted. For comparison sake, Octavio Dotel (10.82 SO9) and Rodriguez (10.59 SO9) were second and third on the list. Just let that sink in for a while.
The issue at hand remains to be seen if the former Astros closer will eventually make the Hall of Fame.
His numbers are as good as it gets, despite the argument of total innings pitched. At his best, Wagner was one of the best closers in baseball in a time when Rivera dominated any conversation regarding the role.
Actually, the guys on Talking Stros just had Wagner on an early December show. I recommend that you go check it out.
Wagner did have a trio of interesting comments, to me at least, regarding the Hall of Fame and if he would get in at some point.
- “It is not about numbers.”
- “They either like you or they don’t”.
- “If it was numbers game, Lee Smith would be in.”
The former Astro seems to have a valid point regarding the numbers. After all, if it was just about the numbers then a lot of the players on the ballot should be in Cooperstown today. That sounds like the case for Smith, whom Wagner mentions in his interview.
In regards to relief pitchers, there seems to be debates going on trying to quantify how valuable hurlers like Wagner, Smith, and Hoffman were in their day. Unfortunately, it seems like any relief pitcher not named Rivera is already behind the eight-ball. Like Wagner said in his interview with the Talking Stros, “They either like you or they don’t”.
**Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference**