Wagner sees name on HOF ballot for 1st time
Flamethrowing closer, who started his career with the Astros, tallied 422 saves
HOUSTON -- Nearly twenty years ago, the Houston Astros decided Billy Wagner, their first pick in the 1993 Draft, would better suit their needs on the Major League level as a closer. It was a decision that would play favorably a couple of years later when the Astros strung together three consecutive division titles with teams anchored by balanced lineups, a strong rotation and a flame-throwing left-handed reliever who took almost no time to establish himself as one of the game's elite closers.
On Monday, Wagner officially became a candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, appearing on the ballot for the first time. Wagner retired after the 2010 season, and now, five years later, it's time to dissect how his numbers compare to other great closers, and whether his 15-year career merits election to the Hall of Fame.
"I want to be very humble about what I'm hoping for," Wagner said in a phone interview with MLB.com. "But I feel my numbers speak for themselves as far as the Hall of Fame goes. I see myself as one of the guys that was among the best in my era. I think I should be highly considered."
And he will be. Wagner logged 422 saves in his career, fifth-most all time and second-most among left-handed relievers. His 2.31 ERA over 903 innings is the second-lowest in the modern era for pitchers with at least 903 innings, second to only Mariano Rivera (2.31), who will undoubtedly be a first-ballot selection when he's eligible in 2018.
Wagner also had 1,196 strikeouts and an 11.92 strikeouts per nine innings ratio, the best rate of any pitcher with at least 900 innings since 1900.
If Hall of Fame balloting is based on voting for the best players of that player's particular era, Wagner should see plenty of support during the voting period, which ends Dec. 21. Results will be announced Jan. 6 on MLB Network.
"I don't think there's a secret that anybody who plays this game and has the opportunity to be in this situation I'm in wouldn't be excited to be in there with so many great players," Wagner said. "But I don't want people to think that's something that engulfs me."
Wagner understands how difficult it is to be elected, mentioning Tim Raines, Lee Smith and John Franco as three players that he feels should be in the Hall of Fame and are not. He also understands that first-ballot election is saved for the ultra elite among the pool of sure Hall of Famers. In that respect, closer Trevor Hoffman likely has a better chance to be elected this year than Wagner.
But Wagner's candidacy is likely to get plenty of attention both leading up to this year's announcement and in future elections. He was an All-Star seven times and played on seven teams that made the postseason -- four with the Astros, and one each with the Mets, Red Sox and Braves. He only played past the Division Series one time, however, in 2006, when the Mets lost to the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
Where does he rank among the game's great closers? Wagner's 2.31 ERA is lower than those compiled by Hoffman, Smith and Franco, and his strikeout total is higher than Rivera, Hoffman and Franco.
One drawback could be his innings total. No pitcher has ever been elected to the Hall having thrown fewer than 1,000.
Though he's one of only five closers in history to log more than 400 saves, Wagner doesn't view saves as the defining stat. He points to the "big" numbers -- ERA, strikeouts, opponents' batting average, WHIP -- as better indicators of how much a pitcher truly controls the game. Wagner compiled a 1.00 WHIP in his career, and opponents batted .187 against him.
"One pitch can change the game and momentum of a series in a heartbeat," Wagner said. "But if you look at longevity, plus getting your teams to the playoffs, I think those numbers make a difference. It always helps when your playoff numbers are great and I think that will always stand out, but I don't think that should be the deciding factor for the bulk of your work. You can't get 600 saves if you never had 600 opportunities. You can only achieve what you're allowed to achieve."
Now a high school baseball coach at the Miller School in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va., Wagner is grateful to be on the Hall of Fame ballot but hopes he'll be more remembered for his team-first attitude during his long Major League career.
"To be on the ballot is a great honor, and to get into the Hall of Fame would be an even greater honor," he said. "But like I tell these kids that watch me coach them, I'm much more than just an individual saying that I deserve this. I'm trying to do other things, help other people.
"It's easy to sit there and say, 'Look at me, look at me.' I never did that, my whole career. So it's hard to go out there and say, 'I deserve this.'"
Based on his body of work, he can expect a healthy number of voters to do that for him.