5 reasons Billy Wagner should be in Hall of Fame

January 22nd, 2024

is in his ninth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. He has two chances left, and he's getting close. Here's his case for getting into Cooperstown.

Wagner was one of the most dominant closers ever. The flamethrowing left-hander notched 422 saves in his 16-year career with the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves. He racked up 1,196 strikeouts. He had a 2.31 ERA. He was a seven-time All-Star and the NL Reliever of the Year in 1999, and he helped lead his teams to the postseason seven times.

The BBWAA voters seem to be coming around on Wagner, too -- he's made big gains on the ballot in recent years, up to a career-best 68.1% share of the vote last year. Wagner only needs a little more to reach the 75% threshold needed to make the Hall of Fame. He's trending toward election in his final years of eligibility.

Here are five reasons why Wagner would be a deserving Hall of Famer.

1) He stacks up to the other Hall of Fame relievers

There are eight relievers in the Hall of Fame: Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. How can we compare Wagner's Hall of Fame credentials to theirs?

One way is to use their reliever JAWS score -- a number that combines a relief pitcher's total career Wins Above Replacement, his seven-year peak WAR, his Win Probability Added and his performance in different leverage situations. It's an all-in-one number to compare relievers throughout baseball history and establish a Hall of Fame benchmark.

Wagner measures up to the Hall of Famers. He's the sixth-best closer of all time by reliever JAWS, and the only five relievers better than him are already in Cooperstown: Rivera, Eckersley, Wilhelm, Gossage and Hoffman. Wagner's reliever JAWS score is easily higher than Smith's, Fingers' and Sutter's.

In other words, Wagner was as valuable as a Hall of Fame reliever … so why shouldn't he be one?

2) Only Mo kept runs off the board better

Wagner's career ERA was 2.31. His career ERA+ was 187 -- that means he was 87% better than a league-average pitcher.

Of all pitchers in the Live Ball Era -- not just relievers -- only Rivera, the greatest closer in history, was better than Wagner in those categories. Mo had a 2.21 ERA and 205 ERA+.

Lowest ERA, Live Ball Era
Min. 750 innings pitched

  1. Mariano Rivera: 2.21
  2. Billy Wagner: 2.31
  3. Craig Kimbrel: 2.40
  4. Clayton Kershaw: 2.48
  5. (tie) Hoyt Wilhelm / Kenley Jansen: 2.52

By ERA+ in particular, he dwarfs every Hall of Fame reliever but Rivera. ERA+ compares a pitcher to league average -- 100 is average, so Wagner's 205 mark means he was over twice as good as that. Of the Hall of Famers, Wilhelm (147) is next after Wagner, and they go all the way down to Eckersley (116).

Whether you just look at Wagner's normal ERA, or adjust it to see how much better he was than the rest of the league when he was pitching, he was one of the very best relievers ever.

3) His rate stats are some of the best ever

Wagner struck out hitters at one of the highest rates in history, and he allowed hits and baserunners less often than nearly any other pitcher.

Wagner struck out a third of all the batters he faced in his career and fanned almost 12 batters per nine innings. No one who's pitched as many innings as Wagner has a higher strikeout rate or K/9.

Highest K/9 of all time
Min. 900 innings pitched
1. Billy Wagner: 11.9
2. (tie) Blake Snell / Chris Sale: 11.1
4. (tie) Robbie Ray / Jacob deGrom: 11.0

Highest K% of all time
Min. 900 innings pitched
1. Billy Wagner: 33.2%
2. Jacob deGrom: 30.8%
3. Chris Sale: 30.5%
4. Blake Snell: 29.7%
5. Max Scherzer: 29.4%

Notice that all those other pitchers are still active. Wagner is surrounded on the K% and K/9 leaderboards by present-day pitchers, who get to pitch in the highest-strikeout era of baseball history.

There's also Wagner's .187 career batting average allowed and 0.998 career whip. Going by the same innings-pitched baseline, his batting average is the lowest allowed by any pitcher ever, and his WHIP is third-lowest behind just deGrom and Addie Joss, who pitched in the Deadball Era.

4) He has the saves, and the K's

It's not like Wagner's counting stats are lacking. He's one of only eight members of the 400-save club, and one of only 14 pitchers with 1,000 or more strikeouts as a reliever.

400-save club members

  • Mariano Rivera: 652 saves
  • Trevor Hoffman: 601 saves
  • Lee Smith: 478 saves
  • Francisco Rodríguez: 437 saves
  • John Franco: 424 saves
  • Billy Wagner: 422 saves
  • Kenley Jansen: 420
  • Craig Kimbrel: 417

Wagner's 422 saves rank sixth all-time. His 1,196 strikeouts as a reliever rank fourth all-time and are a record for lefty relievers (only Wilhelm, Gossage and Smith are ahead of him).

And there's only one closer in MLB history with both more saves and more K's than Wagner. That's Smith, with 478 saves and 1,225 K's as a reliever, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.

5) He was one of the greatest archetypal closers

Wagner debuted in the 1990s, after Dennis Eckersley had ushered in the era of the ninth-inning closer. And starting in the mid-'90s, year after year, there was Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner.

Wagner recorded nine 30-save seasons. Since Eckersley's first year as a true closer in 1988, only Rivera (15) and Hoffman (14) have had more. Among current closers, only Jansen, Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman (eight each) are approaching Wagner.

Wagner also recorded four 100-strikeout seasons, a rarity for a ninth-inning closer. Since 1988, only Dellin Betances (five) has more. Wagner's 10 seasons with at least 75 K's as a reliever are tied for second-most of any closer since 1988 behind Jansen (11).

The strikeouts were Wagner's biggest edge over his contemporaries in the Hall of Fame. Rivera only had one 100-K season and four 75-K seasons. Hoffman had two 100-K seasons and five 75-K seasons.