Assessing former Astros closer Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame case

HOUSTON - JUNE 28: Closing pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the MLB interleague game at Minute Maid Park on June 28, 2003 in Houston, Texas. The Astros won 2-0. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - JUNE 28: Closing pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the MLB interleague game at Minute Maid Park on June 28, 2003 in Houston, Texas. The Astros won 2-0. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /
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With both of the original Killer B’s now in Cooperstown, another key piece of some great Astros teams hopes to join them.

Billy Wagner, one of the game’s best closers, is again on the ballot for Hall of Fame induction. If inducted, he could be the third player with an Astros cap on his plaque.

Wagner is now in his third year on the ballot. In 2016, he received 10.5 percent of the vote, then slipped to 10.2 percent in 2017. This, of course, begs the question as to whether Wagner is truly a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player.

Making the Case

During his illustrious career, Wagner posted 422 saves, ranking sixth all-time in that category. He also posted a 2.31 ERA, a mark superior to Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley (3.50), Rollie Fingers (2.90), Goose Gossage (3.01) and Bruce Sutter (2.83).

Admittedly, those four guys pitched in a different era for relievers. So how does Wagner stack up against the top relievers from the same era?

Former all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman is on the ballot as well. Hoffman’s 601 saves clearly surpass Wagner’s total, but that’s about the only stat where Hoffman is better. Wagner has the better ERA (2.31 to 2.87) and better WHIP (0.998 to 1.058), and has more total strikeouts (1196 to 1133) despite pitching 186 fewer innings.

Yet it’s the saves total that has Hoffman on the verge of being inducted, despite Wagner being the more dominant pitcher overall. It’s not difficult to make the case that Wagner was the better player, while Hoffman had more longevity.

Wagner’s numbers even stack up well against future inductee Mariano Rivera. Rivera has the edge in ERA (2.21 to 2.31) but Wagner bests him in WHIP (0.998 to 1.000) and total strikeouts (1196 to 1173) despite pitching 380 fewer innings. It’s important to note that Wagner retired after a stellar age-38 season. Perhaps if he had pitched a couple more years, he would be getting more consideration.

What’s Keeping Him Out

For one, it’s his low saves total compared to Hoffman and Rivera. There’s also a belief among some voters that the save stat is overrated. Some may simply not vote for a closer who falls short of the Rivera level of excellence. But more than that, it’s the Hall of Fame voting system that is hurting Wagner’s chances.

With such a stacked ballot, the Hall’s ridiculous 10-player limit forces many voters to leave off players who might otherwise receive a vote. There are 12 players on the 2018 ballot who received more votes in 2017 than did Wagner, and that doesn’t even factor in the new additions.

The Hall’s hypocritical attempts to shut out suspected steroid users are harming non-users just as much. Wagner is a prime example, as the voting system hurts both his vote total and his overall consideration.

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In the end, despite his excellent resume, Wagner seems like a long shot to be enshrined in Cooperstown. For now, success is receiving at least 5 percent of the vote each year to stay on the ballot.

***Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference***

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