top of page
0C7C396F-158E-4A61-8F9A-B0B6F603D7A4.png

Is Billy Wagner a Hall of Famer?

Billy Wagner pitching for the New York Mets; CC by License 2.0

Billy Wagner was one of the most dominant relief pitchers of the 2000s and is one of the best closers in the history of the game. Patrolling the mound in Houston for the Astros most of his career, he was a nightmare to opposing hitters, regardless of which side of the plate they hit from. A true power pitcher, Wagner racked up 1,196 strikeouts in only 903 innings pitched. In a time period in baseball where the balls were flying out of the park, Billy Wagner’s dominance stands out significantly.

In his seven years on the ballot, Billy Wagner has received, in order, 10.5%, 10.2%, 11.1%, 16.7%, 31.7%, 46.4%, and then 51.0% of votes. With a threshold of 75% to get into the Hall of Fame, if he keeps this trend up, he should just barely make it in before his eligibility runs out. However, nothing is guaranteed. There are only 7 relief pitchers/closers in the Hall of Fame right now: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and of course, the first-ever unanimous nominee, Mariano Rivera. Does Billy Wagner deserve to be in the same club as these legends of the game?

The main thing keeping Billy Wagner out of Cooperstown is his number of innings pitched, which would be the lowest in the Hall of Fame by a wide margin. He sits at 903 innings pitched. The current lowest in the Hall of Fame is Bruce Sutter at 1042, over 100 more than Wagner. He also would have the fewest seasons played at only 16, which makes sense given his few innings. Rollie Fingers pitched a significantly higher number of innings with only one more year played, but the eras in which each player pitched must also be taken into context. we also must look at the eras each pitcher played. In the ’70s, when Mr. Fingers played, relief pitchers commonly went multiple innings, and pitchers did not throw nearly as hard. Pitchers like Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and yes, Billy Wagner, played in the Steroid Era, when it was either shove or get shoved. They threw hard, but could not throw too long. Hoffman had 2 more years of play than Wagner did, but even with 2 more years, Wagner still probably would not have reached Hoffman’s innings pitched threshold, as the most innings Billy pitched in a season was 86. It is obviously a glaring issue, as he has been kept out of the Hall for his seven years on the ballot. However, Billy Wagner’s consistent dominance throughout his career should be ignored. Let’s compare him to some of the other Hall of Fame relief pitchers. First off, a recent inductee, Trevor Hoffman:


Stats

Billy Wagner

(903 IP)

Trevor Hoffman

(1089.1 IP)

ERA

2.31

2.87

WHIP

.998

1.058

BAA

.187

.211

ERA+

187

141

WPA

29.1

34.2

K/9

11.9

9.4

WAR

27.8

28.0

JAWS

23.7

23.7

For those who do not know, JAWS stands for “Jaffe WAR Score System” and it is a “stat that measures a player's Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players in his position who are already enshrined”. To calculate it, you take a player’s career WAR averaged with his 7-year peak WAR. The higher your JAWS, the better. This is a great stat to help show off players who struggled with longevity but were still dominant. WPA is a cumulative stat, meaning it gets bigger the longer you play, and it quantifies the percent change in a team's chances of winning from one event to the next. It does so by measuring the importance of a given plate appearance in the context of the game. For instance: a homer in a one-run game is worth more than a homer in a blowout. If we look at the Trevor Hoffman/Billy Wagner comparison, the only 2 stats in which Hoffman is superior are the two cumulative stats, which is not shocking to anyone, as longevity is Wagner’s main problem. It should also be noted how close the pitchers are in those cumulative stats despite Hoffman’s IP significantly eclipsing Wagner’s. However, the stats in which Wagner beats Hoffman, he does so by a pretty sizeable margin. It is also important to note that they played at pretty much the same time, making Billy’s non-cumulative stats much more impressive than Trevor’s. Finally, we can look at their JAWS, and see that they are exactly even. But if you need more convincing, let’s look at a player with many more innings pitched, Lee Smith:


Stats

Billy Wagner

(903 IP)

Lee Smith

(1289.1 IP)

ERA

2.31

3.03

WHIP

.998

1.256

BAA

.187

.211

ERA+

187

132

WPA

29.1

21.3

K/9

11.9

8.7

WAR

27.8

28.9

JAWS

23.7

24.9


When Smith was retiring, Wagner was just entering the league. Once again, we see Smith wins in only 2 stats, this time being WAR and JAWS. Smith’s WAR, is only 1.1 higher than Wagner’s despite Smith playing two more seasons. With Wagner averaging 2.2 WAR per year, if he matched Smith’s tenure, his WAR would likely exceed Smith’s. And while Lee beats Billy in JAWS, they are still quite comparable, only differing by 1.2. Like with Hoffman, in the rest of the stats, Wagner wins quite handily. Most notably, Billy Wagner wins in WPA, a cumulative stat, even with nearly 400 fewer innings pitched. That is quite impressive. Finally, let’s look at one last pitcher, subjectively considered the worst reliever in the Hall of Fame: Bruce Sutter:



Stats

Billy Wagner

(903 IP)

Bruce Sutter

(1042 IP)

ERA

2.31

2.83

WHIP

.998

1.140

BAA

.187

.220

ERA+

187

136

WPA

29.1

18.2

K/9

11.9

7.4

WAR

27.8

24.1

JAWS

23.7

24.2

Both of Billy Wagner’s cumulative stats are better than Sutter’s, which is impressive enough with over 100 fewer innings pitched. Wagner also wins handily in every other stat except JAWS, but, once again, it is less than a difference of 1. Also, it is worth noting that Wagner has a better K/9 and BAA than Mariano Rivera.

Is Billy Wagner THE best reliever of all time? Not at all. Mariano Rivera will win 10/10 times. Is Billy Wagner the best lefty reliever of all time, along with being in general one of the best relievers of all time? The argument is there for sure. Even though Wagner does not have the tenure that the rest of these guys have, I think his dominance in his time in the league is enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be the first lefty reliever in the Hall of Fame, and I see it happening as early as the next vote.


Sources:

Baseball Reference

Cooperstown Cred

Fangraphs

bottom of page