(Photo: Houston Chronicle)

In the history of the Hall of Fame, 67 Major League pitchers have had the honor (alive or posthumously) of being inducted into the Hall. Of those 67, just five made their mark as a relief pitcher, all of them in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

The 2018 Hall of Fame ballot contains two premier relief pitchers from the 1990’s-2000’s, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. For each, this will be their third appearance on the BBWAA ballot. This piece will focus on Wagner and how we calibrate the importance of his singular dominance on the mound with his relatively small career workload. Wagner pitched 903 innings in his career, which would make him the first pitcher ever inducted into the Hall having pitched less than 1,000 innings.

Cooperstown Cred: Billy Wagner

3rd year on the ballot (received 10% of the vote in 2017)

  • 422 career saves (6th most all-time)
  • Career: 2.31 ERA (2nd best in last 100 years to Mariano Rivera) (min 750 IP)
  • Career: 187 adjusted ERA+ (2nd best in all MLB history to Rivera)
  • 4 seasons with ERA under 2.00
  • Career: 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings (best in MLB history)
  • Career: 0.998 WHIP (walks + hits per 9 innings) (2nd best in MLB history to Addie Joss)
  • 7-time All-Star

Let’s take a look at how Wagner stacks up with the best closers of his generation (Hoffman and Mariano Rivera) and how all three match up with all relief pitchers in history who have tossed at least 750 innings out of the pen.

All-Time ranks among all RP with minimum 750 IP
CareerBilly WagnerRankTrevor HoffmanRankMariano RiveraRank
Saves422660126521
ERA2.3122.87162.211
WHIP0.99811.05831.0002
SO/9 IP11.919.4118.221
BAA.1871.2118.2117
Courtesy: Baseball Reference

Wagner’s career ERA of 2.31 is the second best (to Rivera) in the history of baseball for any pitcher who has tossed at least 750 innings. His .187 BAA (batting average against) and 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings are the best ever. Admittedly, those two numbers lose a little luster when I reveal who is 2nd best all-time for BAA and SO/9: it’s Armando Benitez. Before you fully exhale your sigh, you should know that Wagner’s career ERA was nearly a full run lower than Armando’s so the bridesmaid in those categories is not in Wagner’s league.

As a pitcher, your job is to prevent runs. In order to prevent runs, it’s useful to not give up a lot of hits. In any situation but especially if you’re pitching with runners on base, striking out the batter can be a helpful thing as well. So, it’s fair to ask, if we have a pitcher who (among those with at least 750 innings pitched) is the second best in the last 100 years at run prevention (ERA), the best ever at striking out batters (K per 9 IP), and the best ever at keeping batters from getting hits (BAA), you might think that would be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

If you thought that, you would be wrong.

In two years on the BBWAA, Billy Wagner received 10.5% and then 10.2% of the vote in an election that requires 75% to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. At the same time, Trevor Hoffman received 74% of the vote and is almost certain to get a phone call next January to find out he’s going to have a plaque with his name on it in Cooperstown.

With the assumption that Rivera, in 2019, will be a near-unanimous first ballot of Hall of Famer, it would appear that, based on this chart, there’s one reason and one reason only why Hoffman is on the doorstep of Cooperstown induction while Wagner is mired in the 10% range of the vote. It’s the total career number of saves, pure and simple. Hoffman is in range of the great Rivera while Wagner is in 6th, behind Lee Smith, John Franco and Francisco Rodriguez.

Is that fair to Wags? Does Hoffman deserve a plaque in Cooperstown over Wagner simply because he piled up more appearances and total saves, even though (based on hit and run prevention), Wagner was the superior pitcher?

 

Billy Wagner, despite being just 5’10” tall, was a beast on the mound, striking out batters at a rate that would be the envy of the greatest strikeout artists of all-time  Despite his slight frame, Billy the Kid was able to hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun (the New York Post’s Joel Sherman has called him the “mini-me” of 6’10” Randy Johnson).

Wagner’s rookie season was with the Houston Astros in 1996. The 12th pick of the 1993 draft, the highly touted Wagner was a strictly a starting pitcher in his brief minor league career but, when he was called up to the big league club in June, the Astros needed help in the bullpen so that’s where he went. Wagner never started a game in the major leagues.

Wagner was solid in his first three major league seasons and broke out in 1999, when he added a curveball to his pitching arsenal. At the same time, his notorious control problems started to diminish. In that ’99 campaign, he saved 39 games while posting a 1.57 ERA, striking out a ridiculous 124 batters in 74.2 innings. He made his first All-Star team and finished fourth in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting. After what was his second best season (2003, in which saved a career-high 44 games while sporting a 1.78 ERA), Wagner was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for three young pitchers, none of who would amount to much in the majors.

With Wagner as their closer, the Astros made the post-season four times but were bounced in the first-round Division Series every time. Wagner didn’t do especially well in those October appearances (he gave up 5 runs in 4.2 innings spread out over 5 appearances) but he had only one save opportunity in the team’s 14 LDS games.  It was the Astros batters (notably Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell) that came up short. As a team, the ‘Stros hit just .167 in 1997, .182 in 1998, .220 in 1999 and .200 in 2001.

Starting over in 2004 with a new team, Wagner battled injuries in his first season in the City of Brotherly Love, followed by another spectacular season (in 2005) in which he made his fourth All-Star team while posting what was then a career best 1.51 ERA.

Photo Courtesy: “In Mets We Trust”

2005 was Wagner’s free agent year and he parlayed his terrific campaign into a four-year, $42 million contract with the Phillies’ N.L. East rivals, the New York Mets. At the time, it was the biggest free agent contract ever for a relief pitcher. The 2006 Metropolitans were loaded, featuring a core of Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes with veterans Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez anchoring their rotation. Wagner had another excellent season, saving 40 games with a 2.24 ERA. The Mets were the N.L. East champions and breezed through the NLDS, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in three games, with Wagner saving Games 1 and 2 and finishing off Game 3, which the Mets won 9-5 (thus not a save situation).

In the NLCS, the 97-win Mets were heavy favorites to defeat the 82-win St. Louis Cardinals. The Mets won the first game 2-0, behind 7 innings of shutout ball by Glavine and a scoreless 9th inning for Wagner. Unfortunately, Game 2 will forever be one of the signature moments in Wagner’s career, and not in a good way. He entered the game in the top of the 9th inning with the score tied at 6 and, after battling through a 3-2 count, yielded a solo home run to So Taguchi. Wagner gave up 3 more hits and 2 more runs in the inning and the Mets lost 9-6.

New York ultimately lost that series in 7 games, with Beltran famously striking out with the bases loaded and the tying run on 2nd base in a 3-1 Game 7 loss. It’s the closest Billy Wagner would ever get to the World Series.

Wagner had two more excellent seasons with the Mets before being forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his golden left elbow in September 2008. He worked hard to get back on the diamond and returned the following August, pitching two games for the Mets (who were out of contention) before getting traded to the Boston Red Sox. In Boston, Wagner served as Jonathan Papelbon’s set-up man. Wagner got to play October baseball again with the BoSox but they were swept in three games by the L.A. Angels.

In December, Wagner signed a one-year contract with the team he rooted for when he was a kid, the Atlanta Braves. He decided early in the spring that 2010 would be his final campaign and he went out in style, making his 7th All-Star team, saving 37 games, posting a career-best 1.43 ERA, and striking out 104 batters in 69.1 innings. Thanks in part to Wagner’s superlative swan song, the Braves made the playoffs for the first time since 2005, losing in the NLDS to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Besides being perennial All-Stars, elite closers and retiring at the same time, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman also share a bond that represents a blemish on their Cooperstown resumes. Both pitchers lack the October success and World titles that are prominent in the careers of Hall of Fame stoppers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley. In addition, Hoffman and Wagner both blew save opportunities in the All-Star Game (Hoffman in 2006, Wagner in 2008).

Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought about the value of relief pitchers. The first school is that relievers are inherently overrated because of vastly lower workloads compared to starting pitchers. The second school of thought is that top relievers are invaluable because they generally pitch in the most critical situations and that value is heightened in October. Without post-season glory, both Hoffman and Wagner must rest their Cooperstown cases strictly on their regular season performances.

 

Wagner retired at the age of 39 despite the fact that he was still at the top of his game. He retired because he wanted to spend more time with his family but, in doing so, may have severely hampered his Cooperstown chances by not piling up the raw save totals.

The list below shows the all-time saves leaders through their age 38 seasons (defined as your age at midnight on June 30th of that year). Wagner turned 39 on July 25th, 2010.

"Age season" determined by player's age on June 30th
Career SavesThrough Age 38 SeasonAge 39 Season and LaterCareer Total
Mariano Rivera482170652
Trevor Hoffman482119601
Lee Smith4735478
Francisco Rodriguez4370437
Billy Wagner4220422
Courtesy: Baseball Reference

Rivera’s 170 saves after his 38th birthday are the most ever and Hoffman’s 119 are 3rd best.

(In 2nd place on the 39 and over list is Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched until 16 days shy of his 50th birthday and accumulated 144 of his 228 saves between his age 39 and age 49 seasons. Fourth on the list is Dennis Eckersley: he saved 115 games after his 38th birthday).

 

There are two big factors that weigh against Billy Wagner as a potential Hall of Famer. First, his 903 career innings pitched would be the fewest for any pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown (the fewest currently is 1,042 innings, pitched by Bruce Sutter, a controversial candidate who needed 13 tries on the ballot to get into the Hall). The second beef against Billy the Kid is that he was just a one-inning wonder, that his raw save total of 422 is less impressive than, for instance, Sutter’s 300, Gossage’s 310 or Fingers’ 341 because the closers of the 1970’s and ’80’s often came into games with runners on base and tossed multiple innings when called on to put out fires.

These are both legitimate arguments but wouldn’t the same then also apply to the already inducted Eckersley and the soon-to-be inducted Hoffman?

Well, let’s take a look at that by examining how all of the Hall of Fame closers stack up with Wagner, Hoffman, Rivera and Lee Smith with respect to how they did when entering with runners on base. Smith is not a Hall of Famer and is no longer on the writers’ ballot but he was on the ballot when I originally researched this information and it remains interesting because he’s in the “almost” category of Hall of Fame candidates, having earned as much as 50% of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot.

IR = inherited runners 

IS%  = percentage of inherited runners who scored

Courtesy Baseball Reference
CareerSVBSvSV%IRIS%
Mariano Rivera6528089.1%36729%
Trevor Hoffman6017688.8%34620%
Lee Smith47810382%51028%
Billy Wagner4226986%16628%
Dennis Eckersley3907185%34926%
Rollie Fingers34110976%78229%
Rich Gossage31011274%83233%
Bruce Sutter30010175%44531%
Hoyt Wilhelm2287476%71035%

As I discussed in the piece Trevor Hoffman: Closing in on Cooperstown, his success in putting out fires, while perhaps not widely known by the BBWAA writers, is a major feather in his cap.

The other thing we can see in this chart is that the “one-inning wonder” rap on Wagner is legitimate. 166 inherited runners is less than half of those faced by Rivera, Hoffman and Eckersley and dramatically less than the other the Hall of Fame stoppers.

As we saw in the chart above, the currently enshrined Hall of Fame closers were true “firemen,” often coming into games with runners on base, which makes the odds of preserving the team’s lead significantly more difficult. In the last 25 years, the significant majority of any closer’s save opportunities come in a “clean 9th inning” (or extra innings for road teams).  In a research project I conducted in the fall of 2015, I downloaded (from the indispensable Baseball Reference) all of the career game logs for top relief pitchers in the history of the game and then sorted by the inning that each entered, as long as they had a lead of 3 runs of less (the requirement for a one-inning save).

"Clean" inning defined as the relief pitcher entering with nobody out, nobody on base.
CareerSaves in clean 9th or extra inningsOverall Career Saves% of career SV in clean 9th or extra inn.
Mariano Rivera47965273%
Trevor Hoffman47960180%
Billy Wagner36142286%
Lee Smith23947850%
Dennis Eckersley22239057%
Bruce Sutter6630022%
Goose Gossage5131016%
Rollie Fingers5034115%

It was Oakland A’s manager Tony La Russa who popularized the “9th-inning only” closer concept with Eckersley; the idea took root throughout the game and continues to this day. But it took a couple of years for Eck’s “9th only” role to take root. In 1988, his breakout campaign with 45 saves, only 18 were in “clean” 9th or extra innings.

As we can see, the modern closers on the list here (Rivera, Hoffman and Wagner) all had a disproportionate share of their closing opportunities in the clean innings, especially as compared to the firemen of yesteryear (Fingers, Gossage, Sutter).

Because it’s highly relevant to Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame case, I’m repeating another section from my piece about Hoffman.

I am not trying to issue a blanket condemnation on the value of the 9th inning closer. A 3-out save is necessarily an “easy” save. If the closer is protecting a one-run lead, there’s nothing easy about it.  In 2016, if a closer entered the game in the top of the 9th with a one-run lead, the odds of victory for the team were about 85%; if entering the game in the bottom of the 9th with a one-run lead, the odds of team victory were about 80% (the precise probabilities are dependent on the ballparks). So, if your team has an 15%-to-20% chance at blowing the game, that’s a good spot for your closer.

However, when a closer is summoned to protect a 2-run or 3-run 9th inning lead, that starts to creep into the category of an “easy” save.

  • One-run lead has a 80%-to-85% chance of victory
  • Two-run lead has a 91%-to-94% chance of victory
  • Three-run lead has a 96%-to-97% chance at victory

The truth is you don’t have to be a Hall of Fame caliber relief pitcher to protect a two or three run lead when entering the game with only three outs to get and no runners on base.

So, what percentage of saves were truly “easy” for the eight relief pitchers we’ve looked at? Concurrently, how many “tougher” saves did each earn in their career (for simplicity, defining “tougher saves” as every save that isn’t a 3-out save with a two or three run lead).

"Easy Saves" defined as entering 9th or extra inn. with 2 or 3 run lead, no outs, no runners on. "Tougher Saves" defined as all other situations.
CareerTotal Career SavesTotal Career "Easy" Saves"Easy" Save Success Rate% of Career Saves labeled "Easy"Total Career "Tougher" Saves"Tougher" Save Success Rate
Rollie Fingers3412593%7%31675%
Goose Gossage3103091%10%28072%
Bruce Sutter3004191%14%25973%
Lee Smith47814894%31%33078%
Dennis Eckersley39014394%37%24780%
Mariano Rivera65231697%48%33683%
Trevor Hoffman60130794%51%29484%
Billy Wagner42223295%55%19077%

Whether the BBWAA voters have realized it specifically as delineated in this table or if it’s just instinct, this table explains why Wagner received just 10.5% of the vote last year. His 6th best 422 career saves don’t look so impressive when you realize that he only saved 190 games in which he didn’t have a cozy 2-to-3-run 9th inning lead. His performance was dominant but he just wasn’t used enough in super high leverage situations. And, as we’ve discussed, by retiring while he was still pitching at peak performance, he forfeited the opportunity to pad his numbers get close to Hoffman’s 601 career saves. Hoffman is behind Rivera on the career saves list; Wagner is behind John Franco and Francisco Rodriguez. That’s a big difference.

Now, I still think that Billy the Kid deserves a longer look by the voters. I worried last year that he wouldn’t even get 5% of the vote (and thus would get booted off future ballots) and I still worry about that happening to him in the near future. He deserves to have a longer presence on the ballot and get the kind of 9-year look that Gossage had.

Let me explain: as highlighted earlier, Wagner’s dominant peripheral numbers (ERA, ERA+, Batting Average Against, strikeouts/9 innings and Walk+Hits per 9 innings) are among the best in the history of the game. That’s meaningful, to be sure, but the question that remains unanswered is how meaningful.

Regarding Wagner’s fantastic run-prevention numbers, the question I have on my mind is whether those numbers will still look quite so uniquely extraordinary five to six years from now. In this new era of one-inning closers, we’re seeing more dominant relief pitchers posting microscopic ERA’s, BAA’s and prolific strikeout rates. Three of the current crop of dominant closers (Craig KimbrelAroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen) all have numbers similar to and in many cases better than Wagner’s. Kimbrel and Chapman are 29 years old (Jansen just turned 30) and have only pitched around 450 innings so it remains to be seen whether any of them will remain productive and approach the 903 innings that Wagner tossed. Another 5-to-6 years of perspective is warranted to see whether Wagner deserves to be in Cooperstown.

Wagner is the all-time leader for batting average against and strikeouts per nine inning if you use a minimum standard of 750 innings. 750 innings is the arbitrary number that I chose. If you look at pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched, Wagner’s ranks in these categories look equally as good.

However, if you cut the minimum innings in half (to 375 IP), the ranks change. Take a look at the career ranks for strikeouts per 9 innings, batting average against, walks + hits per 9 innings and ERA+ for today’s top closers along with Wagner, Rivera and Hoffman.

Minimum 50% career games as relief pitcher
RkCareer: min 375 IPSO/9RkCareer: min 375 IPBAA
1Aroldis Chapman14.91Craig Kimbrel.155
2Craig Kimbrel14.82Aroldis Chapman.161
3Kenley Jansen14.03Kenley Jansen.171
7Billy Wagner11.94Billy Wagner.187
46Trevor Hoffman9.4T27Trevor Hoffman.211
71Mariano Rivera8.2T27Mariano Rivera.211
RkCareer: min 375 IPERA+RkCareer: min 375 IPWHIP
1Craig Kimbrel2221Kenley Jansen0.872
2Mariano Rivera2052Koji Uehara0.890
3Billy Wagner1873Craig Kimbrel0.910
T4Aroldis Chapman1835Billy Wagner0.998
T4Kenley Jansen1836Mariano RIvera1.000
31Trevor Hoffman1417Aroldis Chapman1.009
12Trevor Hoffman1.058
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Now, let’s remember that Kimbrel, Chapman and Jansen are all 29 or 30 years old so there’s plenty of time for their numbers to drop as they age. On the other side, they also have the opportunity to pile up the raw totals, including saves.

In addition, there other up-and-coming one-inning closers who are putting up remarkable numbers.

Just in the last 4 years (2014-2017):

  • Wade Davis has a 1.45 ERA (289 ERA+) with a .169 batting average against (BAA).
  • Zach Britton has a 1.61 ERA (259 ERA+) (in 2016, his ERA was 0.54 and he was 47-for-47 in saves)
  • Andrew Miller has a 1.72 ERA (249 ERA+) with a .153 BAA 14.5 strikeouts per nine IP (SO/9)

In the last six years, from 2012-2017, among relief pitchers with at least 200 innings:

  • Three relievers have an ERA+ better than Wagner’s career mark of 187.
  • Six relievers have given up an opponent’s batting average less than Wagner’s career mark of .187
  • Ten relievers have more strikeouts per nine innings than Wagner’s career mark of 11.9
  • Nine relievers have a better WHIP better than Wagner’s career mark of 0.998

The point here is that, as truly dominant as Wagner was during his career, multiple one-inning closers today are putting up those kinds of numbers year after year. This is why I wouldn’t vote for Wagner on this year’s ballot, certainly not above Hoffman and also because there are so many other terrific candidates who were starting pitchers or position players.

More time and perspective is needed. However, I do hope that at least 5% of the voters continue to choose to vote for him so that he gets that long-term chance. If, six to seven years from now, he still is the all-time leader in BAA and K/9 with the 750 inning standard and he is still 2nd best to Rivera in ERA+, now you’ve got a really solid case.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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