5 reasons Billy Wagner should be in Hall of Fame

January 22nd, 2023

is in his eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. 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 51% share of the vote last year. With three years of eligibility remaining, Wagner is trending toward election.

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

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? 

Let's use their reliever JAWS score -- a number that combines those relievers' total career Wins Above Replacement, their seven-year peak WAR, their Win Probability Added and their performance in different leverage situations. It's essentially an all-in-one number to compare relievers throughout baseball history and establish a general 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. That's Rivera, Eckersley, Wilhelm, Gossage and Hoffman. And Wagner's reliever JAWS score is well 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?

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. Kenley Jansen: 2.46
4. Clayton Kershaw: 2.48
5. (tie) Hoyt Wilhelm / Jacob deGrom: 2.52

And by ERA+, he dwarfs every Hall of Fame reliever but Rivera -- Wilhelm (147) is next after Wagner, 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.

His rate stats are some of the best ever

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

He struck out a third of all the batters he faced in his career and fanned almost 12 batters per nine innings. The only pitcher better than Wagner in either category, among those who threw a similar number of innings and faced a similar of batters, is Kenley Jansen.

Highest K/9 of all time
Min. 750 innings pitched
1. Kenley Jansen: 13.0
2. Billy Wagner: 11.9
3. Chris Sale: 11.1
4. (tie) Blake Snell / Robbie Ray: 11.0

Highest K% of all time
Min. 3,000 batters faced
1. Kenley Jansen: 36.4%
2. Billy Wagner: 33.2%
3. David Robertson: 32.1%
4. Jacob deGrom: 30.8%
5. Chris Sale: 30.6%

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.

Then there's Wagner's .187 career batting average allowed and 0.998 career whip. By the same innings-pitched baseline, his batting average is the second-lowest of all time behind Jansen, and his WHIP is tied for third-lowest (with deGrom) behind Jansen and Addie Joss, who pitched in the Deadball Era.

He has the saves, and the K's

It's not like Wagner's counting stats are lacking. He's one of only six members of the 400-save club, and one of only 13 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

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. 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.

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, Craig 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 the 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.