[As usual, this is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]
Hall of Fame voting continues on throughout the holidays, and so does our coverage of this year’s ballot. Last time, we covered Jeff Kent, a two-year veteran of the mid-2000s Astros who may finally have a change to break through the ballot backlog in his seventh time around. This time, we’ll be covering a longer-tenured Houston star with a similar chance to see his vote total rise, but two years ahead of Kent’s timetable.
Of course, there’s another big reason to be more excited for Billy Wagner’s chances this winter, and that’s who has been elected over the last two years. Specifically, Trevor Hoffman was elected to the Hall on his third ballot back in 2018, while Mariano Rivera went in unanimously on his first ballot last year while Lee Smith joined him on the stage after his first year on the Veterans Committee ballot.
That means that there are now eight closers in Cooperstown, an even more rapid expansion than when three were added between 2004 and 2008 (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Rich Gossage). With Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith out of the way, Wagner now sits alone as the clear best closer on the Hall of Fame ballot, with the only other options this year being likely one-and-done candidates José Valverde, J.J. Putz, and Heath Bell. Traditionally, being the best at a certain role has helped candidates pick up votes more quickly, which is a good sign for Billy going forward.
Of course, not only is he the best on the ballot this year, but there aren’t really many challengers to that title coming up over the next two years: next year will add Rafael Soriano and Kevin Gregg (among others), while the year after that will add Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon, who are at least both more interesting than Valverde or Soriano, but still not on Wagner’s level. Which lead me to a bigger question: is Billy Wagner now the best closer not in the Hall of Fame?
That’s a tricky question, for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being how you choose to evaluate relievers. If you go by saves, Wagner is third among pitchers who haven’t been inducted into Cooperstown, with 422. Ahead of him are Francisco Rodriguez (who won’t reach the ballot until 2023) with 437, and John Franco (who got 4.6% in 2011 and fell off the ballot) with 424.
There’s a bit of a gap between those three and the next relievers on the list (Eckersley at 390, followed by Nathan at 377), so it’s not like there are a ton of closers to account for here, but the question remains: is there a reason to separate Wagner out from the pitchers ahead of him in save totals? And I would say there pretty clearly is, going off their career stats:
Franco: 2.89 ERA, 138 ERA+, 1.333 WHIP
K-Rod: 2.86 ERA, 148 ERA+, 1.155 WHIP
Wagner: 2.31 ERA, 187 ERA+, 0.998 WHIP
The only other pitcher with a sub-1.000 WHIP (in 900+ innings) is Addie Joss, at 0.968. The only other pitcher in the Live-ball Era with an ERA lower than Wagner’s is Mariano Rivera, at 2.21. If you prefer FIP, he laps Franco and Rodriguez there as well, with a 2.73 mark that only trails Sandy Koufax (2.69) in the live-ball era, in part because he has the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with 900 or more innings ever (33.2%).
If you prefer stats based on value, it’s not like Wagner fares poorly there, either. By Win Probability Added, he’s fifth all-time among relievers behind Rivera, Hoffman, Gossage, and Nathan. And while there are some issues with using Wins Above Replacement for relievers, it’s still worth noting that Fangraphs’ version of WAR also has him sixth all-time among relievers, behind five Hall of Famers (Rivera, Gossage, Fingers, Hoffman, and Smith).
The larger point is, Billy Wagner has the type of stats that fairly often put him in the company of Hall of Famers, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to call him the best relief pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. If you induct Billy Wagner into Cooperstown, there aren’t two or three other closers with similar stats that make you say “well, why Wagner but not that guy?”, there’s just Billy. There aren’t even any active closers on pace for numbers like his, either; maybe Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen work their way into the conversation one day, but they’re all probably a decade away from hanging it up if things go well, let alone hitting the Hall ballot.
Of course, Wagner has arguments for his case outside of his stats as well. He was a seven-time All Star, which stacks up well with the other Hall closers. That’s as many times as Smith, Hoffman, or Fingers, and more times than Sutter, Eckersley, or Wilhelm. Or, of course, there’s his story, which is the stuff of baseball legend: Wagner was a natural right-hander who learned to throw left-handed after injuries as a kid, and wound up one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the Majors.
The biggest knock on his case is his innings pitched, with only 903.0 to his name. On the one hand, I understand that. Given how many good players are on the ballot, I don’t know if I would be able to find a spot for him on my ballot as long as the rules still limit voters to ten names. But I also don’t think it’s at all disqualifying. The Hall has a long history with short-career, high-peak players like Ralph Kiner or Dizzy Dean. I think Wagner is the closer’s version of that career; his high peak more than makes up for the 100-something inning gap between him and, say, Trevor Hoffman or Bruce Sutter.
As I mentioned at the start, this might finally be Billy Wagner’s year to start building momentum. After jumping up to 16.7% of the vote last year, a new personal best, he’s sitting at 28.8% through the first 66 revealed votes. That’s certainly going to drop some going forward, but he’s still picked up twelve new voters already. That’s a good sign, and gives you a sense of just how crowded Billy’s first four ballots were. And with the next few ballots looking even less crowded, it gives you a sense of what he might be able to pull off going forward; 2020 could be a turning point for his candidacy.