Wagner misses HOF cut, but gains ground

Southpaw garners 51 percent of vote in seventh year on ballot

January 26th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Billy Wagner’s Cooperstown bid is entering its final few election cycles without a resolution. Wagner received 51.0 percent of the vote in his seventh year on the ballot, according to the results that the Hall of Fame released Tuesday. That puts him in a similar situation to last year, when he received 46.4 percent of the vote: on the outside looking in, albeit with a realistic chance to make additional noise in future years.

For Wagner’s backers, the results have been disappointing. On a per-rate basis, the left-hander was one of the most accomplished closers of all time, saving 422 games with a 2.31 ERA over a 16-year career for the Astros, Mets and three other teams. But Wagner has been unable to garner anything close to the 75 percent backing required for election on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual ballot.

Several other members of this year’s Hall of Fame ballot had Mets ties -- most notably Jeff Kent, who spent parts of five seasons in Flushing early in his career, hitting 67 home runs as a Met before blossoming into an NL MVP in San Francisco. In his ninth year of eligibility, Kent amassed 32.7 percent of the vote -- a reasonable total for the five-time All-Star second baseman, and up significantly from the type of support he received last decade, but not enough to think he’ll make up the difference next year in his final try on the ballot.

Gary Sheffield, who received 40.6 percent of the vote in his eighth year on the ballot, stands a somewhat better chance of making it to Cooperstown. His Mets ties aren’t as strong, however; Sheffield played the final 100 games of his career for the team, hitting his 500th homer as a Met before retiring.

Bobby Abreu, who also wrapped up his playing days with the Mets after a long career elsewhere, received 8.6 percent of the vote in his third year of eligibility. Known for his patience and consistency more than his top-level achievements, Abreu is a long shot to make the Hall.

The same can’t be said of Wagner, who has benefited from modern voters’ increasing reliance on analytics. Wagner’s career rate of 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in MLB history among pitchers with at least 750 innings, despite strikeouts being less common during Wagner’s prime than they are now. Wagner also fanned more batters than both Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, two of the most prominent closers in the Hall. 

He does possess a relatively low saves total (422) compared to those of Rivera (652) and Hoffman (601), as well as a low innings total (903), both of which have hurt his candidacy. But voters’ opinions on Wagner have nonetheless been shifting for years.

Those who support him tend to shape their arguments around how he compares to Rivera, Hoffman and others in Cooperstown. In addition to the aforementioned strikeout statistics, Wagner owns a significantly better ERA and league-adjusted ERA+ than Hoffman. Among relievers with at least 750 innings, he is second in baseball history in those categories behind only Rivera. Wagner’s detractors cite his 10.03 career postseason ERA as reason enough to keep him out of the Hall, but that mark came in only 11 2/3 innings -- far too small of a sample to be meaningful.

Because Wagner spent more than half his career in Houston and would be overwhelmingly likely to enter Cooperstown with an Astros cap on his plaque, his prospective induction is not a central Mets issue. Still, it would be notable for a franchise that has only seen 14 players reach Cooperstown. (Gil Hodges, who spent time as both a player and manager with the Mets, will become the 15th this summer.) Only six Hall of Famers -- Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza, Gary Carter, Tom Glavine, Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martínez -- spent at least four seasons in Flushing. Wagner, who recorded 101 of his 422 career saves with the Mets from 2006-09 (plus his only three postseason saves), could become the seventh.

If that happens through a BBWAA vote -- the traditional “front door” into the Hall -- it will have to occur by 2025, when Wagner’s time on the ballot will expire. Working in his favor is the fact that the jammed ballots of recent years have become less clogged, opening a larger window for borderline candidates such as Wagner. Evolving attitudes should also continue to help him, as younger, more analytically inclined baseball writers gain prominence in the election process.

Whether it all culminates in a Hall of Fame induction for Wagner remains to be seen, but he at least has a chance entering his final years of eligibility.