Embrace the Chaos: Billy Wagner

Turning our attention to the pitchers, this entry of Embrace the Chaos looks at longtime closer Billy Wagner. One of the most dominant firemen bridging two generations of baseball, Billy the Kid’s Hall of Fame case is clouded by the two, popularly preeminent closers in front of him. Somehow that’s considered a bad thing. As we’ll see, only one of the two actually is.

If the lowest common denominator argument against Billy Wagner‘s induction into the Hall of Fame is that he was neither Trevor Hoffman nor Mariano Rivera, then we really shouldn’t have these conversations in the first place. Indeed, we shouldn’t have a Hall of Fame.

The prevailing theme throughout these posts is that most Hall of Fame voting demonstrates a myopic and short-sighted approach. Not only do we penalize some players for not being other, usually more preferred players, we marginalize a player’s impact from historical context wholesale. So no, Wagner wasn’t Hoffman or Rivera, but he also wasn’t Eric Gagne, Huston Street, Keith Foulke or any number of greater or lesser flameouts who clearly weren’t Hall-caliber.

Billy Wagner: 16 seasons, 853 games, 903 innings pitched. 422 saves, 2.31 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 0.998 WHIP. 1196 strikeouts against 300 walks while only yielding 262 runs and 82 dingers. Four strikeouts to every walk, a K/9 ration approaching 12 to 1, ERA+ of 187, approaching twice the garden variety pitcher. (Note: pitcher, not closer.) The only reason he isn’t second all-time is because he didn’t reach a threshold of innings pitched (1000). With two lost seasons to injury, and the level of consistency he displayed throughout his career, it’s not unfair to set this aside.

Rivera holds the all-time adjusted ERA mark at 205. Hoffman? 141. Wait, what?

Yep, those of us (read: Brewers fans) who saw Hoffman limp to the finish line and get to 600 saves saw something something testament to grit and determination. It definitely wasn’t pretty. Wagner, on the other hand, was dominant to the end generally without the elevated profile that his two peers enjoyed. Wagner enjoyed time on mostly good Houston Astros teams, survived two seasons in Philadelphia, then worked in Mo’s shadow with the Mets. And it wouldn’t be unfair to say that, based on raw figures alone, Wagner was better than Hoffman. (Further, it does not denigrate Hoffman to say this. When in the company of immortals, what difference does it make?)

So why is he polling a paltry under 17% after four rounds of Hall of Fame voting?

The postseason numbers are one factor. To be sure, there were more October meltdowns than successes, but Hoffman was there fewer times than Wagner and also had his fair share of postseason issues. Rivera, well, Rivera’s postseason resume is an embarrassment of riches. Nobody did what Rivera did, so how can anyone really compare? (When in the company of immortals…)

Nine-year peaks:

Player A: 1996-2004 – 661.1 IP, 336 saves, 1.022 WHIP, 2.12 ERA/2.70 FIP, 597 K, 167 BB, 29 HR

Player B: 1994-2002 – 611 IP, 347 saves, 1.016 WHIP, 2.62 ERA/2.81 FIP, 718 K, 175 BB, 55 HR

Player C: 1997-2005 – 578 IP, 275 saves, 0.982 WHIP, 2.40 ERA/2.65 FIP, 773 K, 187 BB, 53 HR.

Literally the only reason Wagner’s peak (C) isn’t equivalent to or better than (B) Hoffman’s or doesn’t strongly rival Rivera’s career (A) is because Wagner’s 2000 was curtailed to injury. Otherwise, he was every bit the elite closer Hoffman and Rivera were. And, again, losing two seasons to injury likely cost him hitting that magic arbitrary 1000 IP figure.

470 words spent on re-establishing his impact relative to contemporaries. Now, let’s look at the list of pitchers who did what Billy Wagner did from age 25 to 33:

  1. Billy Wagner.
  2. Goose Gossage.
  3. That’s the list. Really.

Gossage, who was a vocal critic of the Hall of Fame voting process until he was finally elected in 2008 and immediately became just another curmudgeon with a plaque and a sportcoat, was a different closer from a different time, but it does merit mentioning that it took almost 255 more innings to collect 20 more strikeouts from age 25-33. Gossage also gave up 100 more walks and 60 more runs with roughly an equivalent adjusted ERA.

If we’re looking at the overall evolution of the closer from Hoyt Wilhelm to Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Gossage, Lee Smith, Dennis Eckersley and eventually through to Rivera and Hoffman and present day, then we necessarily have to include Billy Wagner as part of the conversation. The BBWAA also has a responsibility to finally dispatch once and for all the struggle the they’ve had with electing closers (and the DH, for that matter, but that gets us off topic.)

Thankfully, the IBWAA is a little more forward thinking. But, regardless of the particular voting bloc, there can’t really be a question as to Wagner’s case for the Hall of Fame, can there? Look at what he did for winning and pennant-contending clubs, then what he did relative to his peers, and then against an evolutionary progression of the role he held for 16 years and it’s obvious this is a Hall of Fame-worthy candidate and his candidacy should reflect Hoffman’s more than Smith’s.

Billy the Kid belongs in Cooperstown.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Stats courtesy Baseball Reference.

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