Monday December 21st, 2015

Billy Wagner was the ultimate underdog. Undersized and coming from a broken home and an impoverished rural background, he channeled his frustrations into throwing incredibly hard—with his left hand, despite being a natural righty, for he broke his right arm twice as a child. Scouts overlooked him because he wasn't anywhere close to six feet tall, but they couldn’t disregard his dominance of collegiate hitters using a mid-90s fastball. The Astros made him a first-round pick, and once he was converted to a relief role, his velocity went even higher.

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Thanks to outstanding lower-body strength, coordination and extraordinary range of motion, the 5'10" Wagner was able to reach 100 mph with consistency—159 times in 2003, according to The Bill James Handbook—during the first part of his career. With an arsenal complemented by a high-80s slider learned from teammate Brad Lidge, he kept blowing the ball by hitters into his late 30s to such an extent that he owns the record for the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with at least 800 innings. He was still dominant when he walked away from the game following the 2010 season, fresh off a career-best ERA.

Lacking the longevity of fellow 2016 Hall of Fame ballot newcomer Trevor Hoffman, Wagner never set any saves records or even led his league once, and his innings total is well below those of every enshrined reliever. Hoffman's status as the former all-time leader in that category makes him a likely inductee, if not in 2016 then sometime in the next few years. Wagner will be a tougher sell to voters, particularly on a crowded ballot, but his advantages over Hoffman—and virtually every other reliever in history when it comes to rate stats—provide a compelling reason to study his career more closely. He's got hurdles to surmount if he's ever going to get a plaque in Cooperstown, but given how far he's come, who wants to bet against Billy Wags?

pitcher career peak jaws w l s era era+
Billy Wagner 28.1 19.9 24.0 47 40 422 2.31 187
Avg. HOF RP 40.6 28.2 34.4          

Wagner was born in Marion, Va., in 1971, into circumstances—as documented in a Sept. 20, 1999 Sports Illustrated profile by Michael Bamberger—that were hardly idyllic. Father William "Hotsey" Wagner, an all-county pitcher, married his 16-year-old bride, Yvonne Hall, on the day he graduated high school. Billy was born 13 months after they wed; two weeks later, Hotsey left for Saigon, where he spent nine months monitoring the urinalyses of U.S. soldiers about to return home from the Vietnam War. Once he returned, the marriage teetered on the brink and then collapsed in 1976. Billy and his younger sister bounced around in the care of his divorced (and remarried, and re-divorced) parents and both sets of grandparents. Poverty was a constant, food stamps were an embarrassment, "[a] few crackers with peanut butter and a glass of water” was a typical breakfast.

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While playing football at age seven, a friend fell on Wagner's right (throwing) arm and broke it; six weeks later, just after the cast was removed, it happened again. During this time, Wagner learned to throw lefthanded, turning his baseball glove inside out and channeling his anger at the instability and grim surroundings into throwing a ball at the side of his maternal grandparents' house, so hard that pieces of aluminum siding fell off. Finally, just before he turned 15, he went to live with Jack and Sally Lamie, his uncle and aunt, in Tannersville, 19 miles away. By that point, Billy had fallen a year behind in school due to his unstable home situation, but once coaches and administrators at Tazewell High School (the closest high school, an hour away) agreed that his throwing was a danger to his middle-school peers, they "socially promoted" him into high school.

Though he grew to just 5'5", 135 pounds in high school, Wagner starred as both a centerfielder and pitcher whose fastball could reach 86 mph. As a senior in 1990, he hit .451, stole 23 bases and struck out 116 in 46 innings with a 1.52 ERA. Scouts were put off by his size, so he followed cousin Jeff Lamie to Ferrum College, a Division III school, with the intention of playing football—until the coach saw him throw a baseball. At Ferrum, he grew to 5'9", gained 40 pounds and boosted his velocity to 93 mph. As a sophomore in 1992, he allowed nine hits in 51 innings and set an NCAA record with 19.1 strikeouts per nine. He dominated in the collegiate Cape Cod League that summer; in the league's All-Star game, he struck out the side without allowing a foul ball. The Astros chose him with the 12th pick in the 1993 draft.

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By now 5'10" and 170 pounds, Wagner began his professional career as a starter. He battled control issues but struck out more than a batter per inning at every stop and made Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list in 1994 (78th), '95 (17th) and '96 (14th). Splitting the 1995 season between Double A Jackson and Triple A Tucson, he posted a 2.89 ERA in a pair of hitter-friendly leagues, with 9.7 strikeouts per nine in 146 1/3 innings. All the more impressive was that his performance came amid tragedy, as his wife's father—who had emerged as a father figure in Wagner's life—and stepmother were brutally murdered in May, just days after Wagner had been added to the Astros' 40-man roster in anticipation of a callup later that season.

Wagner finally got the call when rosters expanded and made his major league debut on Sept. 13, 1995 in Shea Stadium; mustering a fastball near 100 mph, he retired the Mets' Rico Brogna on a fly ball before being lifted for a pinch-hitter by Astros manager Terry Collins. After making 12 starts for Tucson in 1996, Wagner joined the Astros' bullpen in early June. Just after the All-Star break, the fire-balling–24-year-old southpaw supplanted the injured Todd Jones as the team's closer. He converted nine saves in 13 chances, finishing the year with 2.44 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine (but 5.2 walks) in 51 2/3 innings. The Astros carried a 2 1/2-game division lead into September, but a 4–16 tailspin to start the month cost them the division and ultimately cost Collins his job.

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Under new manager Larry Dierker and powered by the "Killer B's"—Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio (not to mention 2016 Hall of Fame ballot-mates Brad Ausmus and Mike Hampton)—the Astros made the playoff in each of the next three seasons, and Wagner emerged as one of the game's most dominant closers. He saved 23 games with a 2.85 ERA in 1997 and struck out 14.4 per nine, the highest rate of any pitcher with at least 50 innings in baseball history. Despite missing more than three weeks in 1998 after taking a Kelly Stinnett line drive off his head, he topped that strikeout rate in each of the next two seasons and trimmed both his walk rate and ERA. In 1999, he whiffed 14.9 per nine and walked 2.8 en route to a 1.57 ERA with 39 saves in 74 2/3 innings. Not only did Wagner make his first All-Star team, but he also tied teammate Jose Lima for fourth in a particularly Houston-heavy Cy Young vote; ex-Astro Randy Johnson won, and Hampton finished second. Wagner's 3.8 WAR led all National League relievers and nearly topped the 4.0 he had accumulated in the previous three seasons.

It was that September when Bamberger caught up with "the Astros' smaller-than-life closer" who "would tip the scales at his listed weight of 180 pounds only after a third helping of grits," exploring his difficult past in an attempt to find out, "Where does he get his heat?"

He throws fastball after fastball, one four-seamer after another, all in the A to A-plus range. The movement on his pitches is wicked. Batters speak of heaters that start at their heads and finish at the knees, on the outside corner of the plate. On Wagner you can guess fastball. (He throws only occasional sliders and changeups.) What you can't do is hit it.

…It is true that Wagner has superb mechanics, which is amazing when you consider that he is a natural righthander.… It is also true that he drives off the rubber as well as any pitcher since Tom Seaver; his legs are thick and heavy for a man of his otherwise ordinary physique. It is true that he has a remarkable ability to throw first-pitch strikes. But those facts alone do not begin to answer the question.

In February 1999, Wagner had signed a three-year, $10.1 million extension, covering his arbitration years. For as strong as his 1999 was, his 2000 was a near-total loss: Wagner struggled with his control, walking 5.9 per nine and getting lit up for a 6.18 ERA in 27 2/3 innings before admitting he had been throwing in pain and undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and remove scar tissue. With their bullpen a garbage fire, the Astros sank to 72–90, but both Wagner and the team rebounded in 2001. Wagner made his second All-Star team, saved 39 games, whiffed 11.3 per nine and finished with 2.4 WAR, and the Astros won 93 games and their fourth NL Central title in five years. Alas, they were again ousted in the first round by the Braves, who had done so in 1997 and '99 as well.

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Via both WAR and ERA, Wagner's performance continued to improve in 2002 and '03. In the latter season, his third All-Star campaign, he set career highs with 86 innings and 44 saves en route to a 1.78 ERA, 11.0 strikeouts per nine and 3.3 WAR, the last of which tied John Smoltz for second among NL relievers. On June 13, 2003, Wagner helped to make baseball history when he closed out a combined no-hitter of six pitchers against the Yankees in the Bronx—the first time New York had been no-hit since 1958. Two pitches into the second inning, starter Roy Oswalt had to depart due to a groin injury; Peter Muro, Kirk Saarloos, Lidge and Octavio Dotel carried the baton to Wagner, who struck out Jorge Posada and Bubba Trammell, then covered first base on Hideki Matsui’s game-ending groundout.

After missing the playoffs in 2002, the Astros battled with the Cubs for the NL Central title in '03. The race went down to the wire: Houston led by 1 1/2 games with nine to play, but a 3–6 record the rest of the way did them in. While Wagner took one of those losses, it was only the second time over his final 36 appearances that he allowed a run. After the season, he criticized owner Drayton McLane for the team's failure to increase payroll to augment their rotation. "It's going to be a tape job," he said after the team's final game, looking to next season. "It's not like we're going out there and getting any marquee pitchers. It's just going to be nip and tuck and try to compete."

Wagner would be proven quite wrong, but he had already punched his ticket out of town. Owed $8 million for 2004 with a $9 million option for '05, he was traded to the Phillies on Nov. 3 for a trio of pitchers (Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth) who combined to deliver -3.5 WAR as Astros. Their sorry production, however, was more than offset by Houston's signing of a pair of marquee free-agent pitchers, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens; those moves helped the Astros reach the NLCS in 2004 and then the World Series in '05. "I just wish he'd done this when we were a game out last season," said Wagner of McLane’s spending.

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Though he joined a team that was beginning to assemble the roster that would dominate the NL East from 2007 to '11, Wagner's two years in Philadelphia were less than fulfilling. While he pitched well in both seasons, groin and rotator cuff strains cost him 2 1/2 months in 2004, limiting him to 48 1/3 innings; the Phillies matched their previous season total of 86 wins, respectable but far enough outside the playoff picture to cost manager Larry Bowa his job. Wagner rebounded with another All-Star season in 2005 featuring a career-best 1.51 ERA, 38 saves in 41 attempts and 2.7 WAR, but his mouth continued to make bigger headlines. In early July, amid a 4–12 skid, he criticized the team's intensity, saying that the Phillies quit when they fell behind and that "we ain’t got a chance to get there right now,” in reference to the postseason. While the Phillies finished with 88 wins under new manager Charlie Manuel, they fell one game short of the wild card and two short of the division title. Wagner spent the last third of the season in silence after receiving no support in a players-only meeting, then blasted his ex-teammates from afar after he departed. Years later, he lamented, "I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.… I began to turn into someone I didn't want to be."

After that unhappy season, the 34-year-old Wagner reached free agency for the first time and landed a four-year, $43 million deal with the Mets. His arrival sparked an inter-borough controversy: His entry song, Metallica's "Enter Sandman," was already in use by the Yankees' Mariano Rivera—though Wagner’s 1996 adoption predated Rivera by three years. The song got a workout in Queens: Wagner saved 40 of the Mets' 97 wins as they claimed their first NL East title in 20 years. Accompanied by a typically low 2.24 ERA, Wagner's save total ranked second in the league, the highest he would ever finish, and his 11.7 strikeouts per nine was his highest mark since 1999. He notched the first three saves of his postseason career as the Mets downed the Dodgers and won the NLCS opener against the Cardinals, but he took the loss in Game 2 by allowing three ninth-inning runs, then allowed two runs while protecting a 4–0 ninth-inning lead in Game 6. In Game 7, manager Willie Randolph left setup man Aaron Heilman in for his second inning of work in the ninth inning of a tie game; Wagner could only watch as Heilman served up a decisive two-run homer to Yadier Molina.

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That was as close as Wagner ever got to a World Series. Though he pitched very well for most of 2007, saving 26 of his first 27 chances with a 1.28 ERA, he posted a 6.91 ERA from Aug. 21 onward, a span of 14 appearances. That Mets team gained infamy for blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to go, losing out on a playoff spot on the season's final day, but Wagner's only blown save in that span came in a New York win. The team wound up outside the playoff picture on the final day in 2008 as well, in part because Wagner suffered a forearm strain on Aug. 2 and wound up needing Tommy John surgery; an already-thin bullpen failed to pick up the slack, finishing the second half with a 5.02 ERA.

When the Mets signed Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million deal that winter, the handwriting was on the wall for the rehabbing Wagner. After making two appearances for the team, on Aug. 20 and 24, he waved his no-trade clause and was dealt to the Red Sox, who in turn promised not to pick up his $8 million option for 2010, granting Wagner complete freedom in choosing where to pitch the following season. He was strong in 15 appearances for Boston, striking out 22 in just 13 2/3 innings for a team that won the wild card but was swept out of the first round by the Angels.

In December 2009, Wagner signed a one-year, $7 million deal with Atlanta, and at 38, he pitched as well as ever, posting a career-low 1.43 ERA and striking out 13.5 per nine (his highest rate since 1999) in 69 1/3 innings en route to 2.4 WAR for yet another wild-card team that made a first-round exit. On June 25 against the Tigers, he struck out the side on 10 pitches and also became the fifth pitcher to reach 400 saves in his career. Despite triggering a vesting option for 2011, Wagner followed through with a decision announced in May: He would retire at season's end to spend more time with his family. No pitcher has ever walked away from his career following a season of at least 50 innings with a lower ERA or a higher strikeout rate.

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Wagner holds some other distinctions as well. Among pitchers with at least 800 innings, his strikeout rate—whether expressed as 11.9 per nine or as 33.2% of all batters faced—is the best in history by a comfortable margin. Dotel's 10.9 per nine and Rodriguez's 29.2% are the next-closest marks, and with fewer than 350 innings under their belts, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel have years to go before they can overtake him. At the 800-inning level, Wagner's .187 opponent batting average is the lowest in history, 13 points lower than the next 20th- or 21st-century pitcher, Herb Score, and Wagner's 0.998 WHIP just edges Rivera's 1.000 for first all-time. Meanwhile, Rivera is the only post-1920 pitcher with a lower ERA (2.21) or higher ERA+ (205) than Wagner's 2.31 and 187. Among that same group, Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax are the only pitchers with a FIP lower than Wagner's 2.73. Oh, and Wagner's 422 saves are fifth on the all-time list behind Rivera (652), Hoffman (601), ballot holdover Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424).

Is that a Hall of Fame career? As I laid out in connection to the cases of Smith and Hoffman, with just five relievers in the Hall, it's difficult to say, particularly given the role’s evolution over the past half-century. Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage were all multi-inning firemen who racked up higher innings totals than the ballot's current trio. Bruce Sutter worked multiple innings as well, though generally only when his team had a lead narrow enough to produce a save opportunity. Dennis Eckersley, who spent the first half of his career as a starter, became the model for the one-inning closer we know today. Even excluding Eckersley’s 3,285 2/3 innings, the other four averaged 1,702 innings, whereas Wagner threw only 903, well below even Hoffman’s 1,089 1/3. While Wagner has more saves than any of the enshrined pitchers, 87% of them were one-inning saves, while only 9% were longer than an inning. As noted in my Hoffman writeup, the majority of the saves of Wilhelm, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter were longer than an inning, as were 27% of Eckersley's.

While one can certainly make the case that, based on rate stats, Wagner was more dominant than any of them, his shortfall of innings presents a problem when translating to a value measure such as WAR. That said, he was so much more dominant than Hoffman that the two are tied at 24.0 JAWS, with Hoffman’s slight edge in career WAR (28.4 to 28.1) offset by Wagner’s slight edge in peak (19.9 to 19.6). Either way, both are significantly below the standards at the position even if I exclude Eckersley. The other four pitchers averaged 35.0 career WAR, 25.7 peak WAR and 30.4 JAWS; as with Hoffman, there's no way to justify Wagner's inclusion in Cooperstown on the basis of those metrics.

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That doesn't mean that it's game over for either closer, though. While the version of WAR used in JAWS features an adjustment for leverage—the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that a reliever has at the end of the ballgame than a starter does earlier—to help account for the degree of difficulty, it’s not the only way to measure reliever value. Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context-sensitive measure that accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score and base-out situation. For a reliever, a single-season WPA scales similarly to a single-season WAR, which is to say that it’s rare that one is worth more than three wins in a single year, by either measure. Wagner ranks a respectable eighth in WPA at 29.0, trailing Rivera (56.6), Hoffman (34.1) and three enshrined relievers (Gossage is third at 32.5, Wilhelm is fourth at 31.1, Eckersley is sixth at 30.8), but well ahead of Sutter (25th at 18.2) and Fingers (27th at 16.2). The average for the enshrined five is 25.8; Wagner is 3.2 wins above that.

Another way to view reliever value along these lines is to adjust WPA using a pitcher’s average leverage index (aLI) for a stat variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins (referred to as WPA/LI). Here Wagner ranks fifth all-time (note the discontinuity of rankings outside the top 10):

Rank player wpa/LI ip
1 Mariano Rivera 33.7 1,283 2/3
2 Hoyt Wilhelm 27.4 2,254 1/3
3 Dennis Eckersley 25.8 3,285 2/3
4 Trevor Hoffman 19.5 1,089 1/3
5 Billy Wagner 18.0 903
6 Joe Nathan 15.6 917
7 Rollie Fingers 15.2 1,701 1/3
8 Rich Gossage 15.0 1,809 1/3
9 Tom Gordon 14.7 2,108
10 Kent Tekulve 14.2 1,436 2/3
14 Lee Smith 12.9 1,289 1/3
17 Bruce Sutter 11.9 1,042

The average Hall of Fame reliever (this time including Eckersley) weighs in at 19.0, so Wagner is a bit shy, but not remarkably so. As with Hoffman, those measures provide a much stronger basis for voting for Wagner than JAWS, particularly when taken alongside his other accomplishments and overlooking his unsightly 10.03 ERA in 11 2/3 postseason innings for teams that were generally in the midst of being steamrolled.

Since JAWS is what guides my process, I'm not ready to bump a deserving candidate off my (virtual) ballot when I've already got more than 10 competing for 10 spaces, but I am willing to keep an open mind about Wagner, and I'd be disappointed if he falls off the ballot for failing to reach the 5.0% minimum. He's not out of the woods yet, having received 12.5% of the vote from among the 80 ballots tracked; with 450 ballots expected, he'll need 23 votes to stay, of which he has 10. Hoffman, meanwhile, is polling at 65.0%, making his eventual election a near-certainty, but a 2016 induction is a longer shot.

Wagner’s no lock, but the fact that he compares favorably to Hoffman in just about every category besides saves—with significant advantages in ERA and strikeout rate—should give his candidacy some legs. He’ll have at least a couple years between Hoffman’s election and that of Rivera (2019) as the ballot’s ranking reliever, and his dominance in categories that an increasingly sophisticated electorate is taking note of should keep Cooperstown's gates open for awhile.

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