Roundtable: Is Wagner a Hall of Famer?

December 6th, 2021

Several Hall of Fame candidates have gained momentum during their time on the ballot, including Billy Wagner, whose case has been gaining steam lately. A group of reporters gathered to examine the former closer’s candidacy in his seventh year on the ballot, and to debate his chances to eventually be elected before his eligibility ends in three years.

Alyson Footer, moderator/editor: The Billy Wagner case has become considerably more interesting from one year to the next. He jumped 14.7 percent in vote totals in ’21 from ’20, and now sits at 46.4 percent as we await the results on Jan. 25. The knock on Wagner in the past has been that he did not log enough innings to be considered HOF-worthy. Is this as simple as voters caring less about that particular stat?

Bill Ladson, reporter: It's more than that. When I scroll down his player page, Wagner was subpar during the postseason. He had a 10.03 ERA in 10 postseason games. For that reason, I don’t think he is a Hall of Famer. Wagner went as far as the National League Championship Series with the Mets. Even in that series, Wagner wasn’t very good.

Brian McTaggart, Astros beat reporter: I think a few things have hurt Billy the Kid. He was eligible during a time when the ballot was crowded and was down the early vote totals while the ballot cleared out. He pitched during an era where there were two clear-cut HOF closers in Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, so he was never considered the best of his era. And, yes, the fact he didn't reach 500 saves and didn't pitch as many innings didn't help, but I think people are starting to take a closer look at how he stacked up against his peers.

Mark Bowman, Braves beat reporter: But Tags, I think Billy was better than Hoffman and more comparable to Rivera than many might think.

McTaggart: Agree. Compared to HOF closers, Wagner has the best opponents’ batting average, strikeouts per nine innings, second-best WHIP, ERA+ and ERA behind Rivera, and is fourth in saves, third in save percentage and second in opponents’ OPS and FIP.

Ladson: I don't look at the minuscule stats like innings pitched, though Goose Gossage is my all-time favorite closer. To me, he was the standard.

Anthony DiComo, Mets beat reporter: I don't think it's voters not caring about the innings, I think it's a realization that Wagner was positively elite within that low innings total of 903. Among pitchers since 1900 with at least 900 career innings, he ranks 16th in ERA behind guys like Walter Johnson and Cy Young. His strikeout rate is first overall, above even the inflated rates of more modern pitchers. His WHIP is second behind Addie Joss. When you view what Wagner did within the scope of only relievers, the rate stats look even better.

Bowman, Braves beat reporter: You'll see me repeatedly compare Wagner's stats to Trevor Hoffman's because it's a crime that Hoffman easily got in the Hall of Fame and Billy didn't really start getting strong consideration until the last couple years. Hoffman basically averaged 60 innings per season and Wagner was closer to 56 innings per season. We're talking about four appearances per season. Wagner was one of the game's elite relievers for 15-plus seasons. The size of his impressive sample is plenty large enough to warrant Cooperstown consideration.

Ladson: I thought Billy Wagner made a mistake when he retired after the 2010 season. He still had game. His last year with the Braves was awesome. He had a 1.43 ERA and saved 37 games. I would have loved to see him play a few more seasons, but family came first, which I understand is why he ended his career.

DiComo: You're right about that, Bill. One of Wagner's best seasons ever came at age 38. If he had managed to pitch another year or two at an elite level, he might have gone from borderline to "in" pretty quickly. But I agree with Mark here as well. When you stack Wagner's numbers up to Trevor Hoffman, he compares favorably on everything outside of innings and saves. (And Hoffman's innings total was far from gaudy.) The Hoffman comp is Wagner's best argument for the Hall, in my opinion.

Ladson: I agree with you, Mark. I thought Hoffman stuck around too long. He never scared me based on the eye test.

Bowman: From 1995 (rookie seasons for Wagner and Rivera) through 2010 (Wagner’s final season), Rivera led all relievers with 34.8 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. Wagner ranked second with 24 and Hoffman ranked third with 23.9.

Footer: Let's dive a little deeper into Tags' point earlier. For pitchers with at least 800 innings, Wagner’s strikeout rate -- 11.9 per nine innings, or 33.2 percent of all batters he faced -- is the best in history, by a lot. That should count for something? Everything?

McTaggart: Yes, especially in the era he was pitching -- when hitters were crushing baseballs. It was hard to blow baseballs by some of the game's top sluggers of that era.

DiComo: Definitely, especially when you consider that so many of the guys directly below Wagner on that strikeout-rate list are active pitchers. Wagner didn't have the benefit of pitching in an era when the strikeout rate was at an all-time high. He was simply just pumping upper-90s gas at a time when it was unheard of.

Bowman: Yeah, while it doesn't matter how you get the outs, the longevity of the dominance shown by this strikeout rate certainly means something.

Ladson: Perhaps, but he didn't win anything. Winning a World Series counts in my book. A lot of people feel the same way about Dusty Baker as a manager. Wagner never came close.

Wagner’s regular-season stats were impressive in 16 years in the big leagues. With 422 saves and a 2.31 ERA, I go, "Whoa!" His best season was in 1999 with the Astros, striking out 124 batters in 74 2/3 innings with 39 saves. It was like watching Bugs Bunny. It was, "1-2-3 strikes, you’re out." You know the rest.

Footer: There seems to be a bias against closers anyway, which is why so many start off at a disadvantage when they first appear on the ballot. There are voters who just don't view one-inning pitchers as Hall-worthy, unless they're superhuman, like Rivera, for example. I remember Billy saying to us years ago when he was still pitching in Houston, "If we're that useless, go ahead and take us off your teams and let me know how many games you win."

It does seem that when teams tried to mix and match late in games during that era, it didn't go so well.

McTaggart: I think there's a definite bias against closers, which is why I think closers have needed to post gaudy saves numbers for the most part to get the attention of voters. That's probably not fair.

Footer: If it's a real, live position in baseball, then voters need to vote based on that. Just like the DH. It's a position. They shouldn't be penalized because they only play "half" the time. Or one-ninth of the time, for closers.

Bowman: As we look at all of these numbers, why does it feel like voters are still putting too much weight on the save totals? We lessened the significance of the "win" stat more than a decade ago. Who cares that Hoffman and Rivera garnered more save opportunities than Wagner? It's like penalizing an MVP candidate for not tallying enough RBI opportunities.

Hoffman and Rivera both had an 89 percent success rate, while Wagner's was 86 percent. We're talking maybe one more blown save per season.

Ladson: So winning championships like Rivera and Gossage shouldn't matter?

Bowman: Does Jason Motte get HOF consideration because he closed out a World Series? Should I now start referring to Will Smith as a Hall of Fame candidate? Helping a team win a championship, pitching clutch in October is important. But when evaluating Hall of Fame credentials, don't you have to look at more than what is simply done in the postseason?

Hoffman totaled 177 more saves than Wagner. But Wagner had a better ERA (2.31 vs. 2.87), a higher strikeout rate (33.2 percent vs. 25.8 percent) and lower OPS against (.558 vs. .609). Seriously, how does one guy get in on the third ballot and we're still arguing the credentials of the more impressive and worthy candidate?

McTaggart: You can't hold the Astros not winning against Wagner. They didn't win in the late 1990s because they couldn't hit Braves/Padres pitching, though he did give up a huge homer to Chipper Jones in the 2001 playoffs.

DiComo: Regarding the closer bias, I don't think it's my job to tell voters whether they should be voting for closers or not. The point is simply, IF you're going to vote for closers like Hoffman or even Mariano Rivera, then it's a bit inconsistent not to vote for Wagner as well. The only real justification there is saves, which are an *ahem* arbitrary statistic.

McTaggart: I wonder if playing in Houston during the late 1990s/early 2000s hurt him? There were so many star players on that team, including HOFers in Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, in addition to Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, a year with Jeff Kent, two months with Randy Johnson, etc. In clubhouses full of star players, he seemed to be in the shadows, which could hurt his national perception. To be honest, I didn't realize where he stacked up against some of his peers until he was on the ballot for a few years and people were wondering why his vote totals were so low.

Footer: Same, Tags.

Ladson: Forget that I saw Wagner through the eye test. I looked at Wagner’s bWAR (27.7) and he is ahead of Rollie Fingers (25.6) and Bruce Sutter (24.1) -- Hall of Famers. But Fingers and Sutter were more than just one-inning pitchers, and they were great postseason players. All the other closers in the Hall of Fame -- Dennis Eckersley (62.1), Rivera (56.3), Hoyt Wilhelm (46.8), Gossage (41.2), Lee Smith (28.9) and Trevor Hoffman (28.0) -- are far better.

Footer: This is Wagner's seventh year on the ballot. He's gaining momentum. Using your best unscientific formula, do you think he'll continue to jump in voting enough to get to 75 in a few years?

DiComo: I do think he'll get there, probably on or close to his last year on the ballot. He's trending better than Larry Walker at this point, and Walker has kind of become the poster child for how quickly voting attitudes can adjust. (Wagner's support in his sixth year on the ballot was roughly triple what Walker received at that same point.) Why? Partially because Wagner's Hall of Fame case is more analytical than most. Every year that goes by, the BBWAA voter pool gets younger and, by extension, more analytical as well. So I think Wagner will make it in the end.

McTaggart: Wagner appears to be on a HOF arc when it comes to voting totals, and the longer he's on the ballot, the more people are going to talk about him and point out his eye-popping numbers, which bodes well for his chances, too. Still being at 46.4 percent on the seventh year means there's a long way to go to get to 75 percent, and it might be too much to swing that many voters in just a couple of years.

Ladson: As of right now, no. Let me see how voting turns out this year. I might change my mind.

McTaggart: I don't think it's unreasonable for him not to make it. It is the Hall of Fame because the standards are very high. Perhaps, if we're having this much debate about a player, maybe he's a not a HOFer. True HOFers should be "yes" without a thought.

Bowman: Yeah, the fact Wags' vote total has risen from 16.7 to 46.4 percent over the past two years is very encouraging. It will be very interesting to see if he gets closer to the 60 percent total this year. With a lot of significant names coming off the ballot after this year, I do believe Wagner will be elected within the next few years.