HOUSTON -- For a man who made a career walking a high wire by closing out games in the ninth inning, it’s only fitting that former Astros closer Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame candidacy could come down to the end.
Wagner, in his eighth year on the ballot, saw his chances of reaching the National Baseball Hall of Fame increase exponentially Tuesday when his name appeared on 68.1 percent of the ballots in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The only player to reach the 75 percent needed to gain election was Scott Rolen, who got 76.3 percent and will join Fred McGriff at the 2023 induction ceremony in July in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I’m happy that I got this far, and blessed,” Wagner said. “I have no complaints. Of course, I would love to get in. It’s the pinnacle of any professional’s career, but nothing’s been easy this far, so why should [this be]?"
Players can remain on the ballot for 10 years, which means Wagner has two more years to get the votes needed to reach 75 percent. Considering he made a huge jump from the 51 percent he received on last year’s ballot, he’s gained enough momentum that he should at least come close next year.
Wagner was on the baseball field Tuesday coaching his high school team at the Miller School of Albemarle in Charlottesville, Va., and had his phone in his pocket in case he got the Hall of Fame call. Instead, a reporter informed him that he'd fallen short, but it wasn’t all bad news.
“That’s always a positive, and that’s what you can hope for if you’re not going to get in,” he said. “That was as good as you’d want if you’re not going to get in.”
Wagner’s support has increased from 10.5 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent in '17, 11.1 percent in '18, 16.7 percent in '19, 31.7 percent in '20 and 46.4 percent in '21. Rolen and Larry Walker (2020 class) are the only players elected by the BBWAA who received less than 12 percent of the vote in any election during their candidacy since Bob Lemon, who was elected in 1976 and received 11.9 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in '64.
Former Astros outfielder Carlos Beltrán, who hit eight home runs in the playoffs as a 27-year-old for Houston in 2004 before returning to help them win the World Series in '17 at age 40, received 46.5 percent of the votes in his first time on the ballot. In his final year on the ballot, former Astros second baseman Jeff Kent also received 46.5 percent. His Hall of Fame case will now be decided by the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee, which considers players whose primary contribution to the game came since 1980. Its next scheduled vote is in the fall of 2025 ('26 class).
Andy Pettitte, who pitched for the Astros from 2004-06, received 17 percent in his fifth year on the ballot, and Bobby Abreu, who played his first 74 Major League games with the Astros in 1996-97, had 15.4 percent in his fourth year.
Wagner was one of the most dominant closers of his generation, with an explosive 100 mph fastball generated from a 5-foot-10 frame. He saved 422 games -- sixth most all-time -- and posted a career 2.31 ERA while being named to seven All-Star teams. His 11.92 strikeouts per nine innings and .187 opponents’ batting average are the best career totals of any pitcher in AL/NL history with at least 900 innings.
A first-round Draft pick out of Ferrum College in 1993, Wagner came up through the Astros' system as a starting pitcher before making the transition to reliever after getting called up to Houston in '95. He saved a club-record 225 games in his nine years with Houston (1995-2003), making three All-Star teams and finishing fourth for the 1999 National League Cy Young Award.
Wagner went on to save another 197 games for the Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves and became an All-Star four more times. He finished two saves shy of John Franco’s record for saves by a lefty.