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Starting Nine: Is this the year Billy Wagner gets the HOF call?

Breaking down the closer’s chances in his eighth year on the ballot

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Billy Wagner has the most strikeouts of any left-handed relief pitcher in history with 1,196.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In less than a week, we’ll know whether anyone else will be taking the stage with Fred McGriff as part of the 2023 Baseball Hall of Fame Class — and more specifically, if any other former Atlanta Braves will be joining him.

The Starting Nine has zeroed in on the cases of ex-Braves who are back on the Baseball Writers Association Ballot, and their chances to hear their names called Jan. 24. We started with Andruw Jones, then looked at the candidacy of Gary Sheffield.

Now, it’s Billy Wagner’s turn. Here’s the case for and the case against the closer, whose 16-year career took him from the Houston Astros to Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, and finally, Atlanta.

1. Voting trends, and a little help from his friends

In his eighth year on the ballot, Wagner is at 72.9 percent through 158 public ballots and another eight anonymous/unverified ballots per @NotMrTibbs’ tracker. That’s 41.9 percent of the estimated 396 ballots and Wagner would need to appear on 76.5 percent of those remaining ballots to be elected (176 votes).

He’s made a considerable climb since sitting at 10.5 percent in his debut year of 2016, 10.2 percent a year later, and then 11.1 in 2018. Coincidentally, that climb has come with two of his contemporaries being inducted in Trevor Hoffman (2018) and Mariano Rivera (2019).

The year after Hoffman was voted in — in his third season — which was when Rivera made it as a first ballot electee, Wagner jumped to 16.7, then he was up to 31.7 in 2020 and 46.4 in 2021, before reaching 51.0 percent last year.

If Wagner doesn’t get in this year, he’s at least going to make it incredibly interesting over his last two tries on the writers’ ballot. While he makes his own distinct case, the spotlight created by two other closers can’t hurt the increased interest in Wagner over these past three voting cycles.

2. His place among his peers

There are eight relievers currently in the Hall: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Hoyt Wilhem.

Wagner ranks sixth among them in fWAR (24.0), trailing Rivera (38.6), Gossage (28.6), Hoffman (25.9), Fingers (25.9) and Hoffman (25.9). He’s also sixth on the all-time saves list with 422, trailing Rivera (652), Hoffman (601), Smith (478), Francisco Rodriguez (437) and John Franco (424).

Rivera and Hoffman’s totals are a world away from Wagner but consider the number of innings he threw in comparison to the rest of the 400-saves club. Wagner got to his in 903 innings, 342 2/3 less than Franco, who had two more saves; he threw 73 less than Rodriguez, who has him by 15 saves; and Wagner has 386 1/3 fewer innings than Smith, who has 56 more saves. Wagner was basically saving a game every 2 1/3 innings worth of work, and had he done that for the amount of innings Smith threw, that’s 193 more saves.

The counting numbers don’t always tell Wagner’s story, but the work rate is another factor that shows the counting numbers shouldn’t be the end all, be all of Wagner’s candidacy. All that being said, Wagner’s 903 innings would be the fewest of any player in Cooperstown, but what he did in those innings should be the determining factor.

3. The greatest lefty reliever in history?

A case can be made.

Wagner has the most strikeouts of any lefty relief pitcher with 1,196 and is one of two with more than 1,000 Ks to pitch less than 1,000 innings, joined by Aroldis Chapman (1,109). Wagner also has the lowest ERA (2.31), half a run better than Chapman (2.48), and the best fWAR (24.0).

Franco may have two more saves, but Wagner had nine seasons of 30 or more saves to Franco’s eight, and Wagner had four campaigns with 39 or more, which was the maximum Franco had in his career. Wagner also had two of 40-plus, including 44 in 2003 in an All-Star season with the Astros.

For what it’s worth, Franco didn’t even last a year on the ballot, getting 4.6 percent of the vote in 2011, falling below the five percent to remain on the ballot.

4. A strikeout rate that tops them all

Among pitcher with at least 800 innings pitched, no one has a higher strikeout rate than Wagner’s 11.9. Only four pitchers are even 11.0, with Chris Sale at 11.1 and Robbie Ray and Blake Snell both at 11.0.

The next-closest starter on that list is Rodriguez with 10.5 per nine (11th) and Wagner is 2.5 per nine better than Hoffman and 3.7 per nine ahead of Rivera.

Within that 800-innings-plus group, Wagner has the best WHIP (0.998), and is the only pitcher under 1.000. He also ranks second in ERA+ (187) to Rivera (205), along with his ERA (2.31 to Rivera’s 2.31).

Wagner also has the second-best strikeout rate (33.2 percent) ever with a minimum of 3,000 batters faced. He trails just Kenley Jansen (36.4 percent) in that department, and every other player in the top five — David Robertson at 32.1 percent, Jacob deGrom at 30.8 percent and Sale at 30.6 percent — are active.

5. King of the ninth

In the final save of his career — Oct. 3, 2010 — Wagner entered the game in the top of the eighth inning against the Phillies, striking out four. The Ks may have been vintage Wagner, but the innings weren’t. He had just 36 saves or four outs or more and four with six or more outs.

By comparison among those already int the HOF, Rollie Fingers had 201 saves of three or more outs, Goose Gossage racked up 193, Smith had 169 and River totaled 119. Hoffman is the only closer anywhere near Wagner’s limited number with 55. Wagner also has fewer saves of six or more outs — led by Fingers’ 135 — among those already enshrined.

On the flip side, Wagner has the third-most saves of three or fewer outs with 386, trailing Hoffman (546) and Rivera (533).

Knock Wagner as a one-inning wonder, but that only further illustrates his dominance. No player has more ninth-inning Ks (936) — followed by Craig Kimbrel (906) — and Wagner has the 10th best ERA in history (2.26) in the ninth.

6. The Hoffman comps

Hoffman got in on his third try, jumping from 67.3 percent in 2016 to one percent shy in 2017 (74 percent), before getting in with 337 votes (79.9 percent) a year later. Like Wagner, he was a seven-time All-Star, and a former Reliever of the Year.

So, what’s the difference between them? The obvious, is unlike Wagner, Hoffman retired with the saves record and became the first to 600, while Wagner stepped away 179 saves behind him.

But Hoffman did retire at four years older (42) than Wagner (38), and the final year wasn’t exactly a blaze of glory, with a 5.89 ERA. If you take their careers through age-38, Wagner had 231 more strikeouts and an ERA that as more than half a run better (2.31 to 2.71).

Across their careers, Wagner has Hoffman beat in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, FIP, strikeouts and OPS against. Longevity and the sheer number of saves are the difference, and it’s made Hoffman an almost no-brainer, while Wagner is running up against the clock to get in.

That takes us to why he’s not in the HOF, and the top reason seems clear.

7. He retired too early

In December 2009, Wagner agreed to a one-year, $7 million deal with the Braves. It included a $6.5 million option for 2011, but after inking the deal, he made it clear that 2010 season would be his last.

But Wagner saved 37 games that season, including No. 400, while posting a 1.43 ERA, and the Braves held out hope that the lefty would be back for 2011, keeping him on the 40-man roster until March 30.

Talk about going out in style. Wagner’s ERA was the lowest of his career, and he posted his best fWAR (2.0) since 2005, and it does make you wonder if he retired too early. Craig Kimbrel took over the closer role in 2011, saving 46 games and 42 a year later, and while Wagner may not have duplicated the NL Rookie of the Year’s production, had he kept playing Wagner could have flirted with becoming the third reliever with at least 500 saves. Do that, and we may not be still talking about him being on the ballot after eight years.

8. No October resume

There’s really no October glory to speak of.

Wagner had three saves, all coming in 2006 with the Mets, and in all threw just 11 2/3 innings in the postseason, allowing 13 runs (all earned) with three home runs in 14 appearances for a 10.03 ERA, striking out 13 against two walks. That includes his 2010 campaign with the Braves, where he faced two batters in the 10th inning of a 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of that series.

To put those 13 runs in 11 2/3 innings in perspective, Rivera gave up 11 runs ... in 141 postseason innings. Plenty of players have failed to come up big in October, and that small sample size shouldn’t overshadow what Wagner did in the regular season, but it’s still a blemish on the resume.

9. The clock is ticking ...

Given Wagner’s trajectory, there’s a chance he still gets in before he falls off the writer’s ballot, but should he do so, maybe he’s seen in a greater light by the Eras Committee, which was responsible for Smith’s election in 2019.

In the interim, the inclusion of K-Rod — who has more saves than Wagner and in his first year on the ballot and at a mere nine percent per @NotMrTibbs — doesn’t help. The hope is that a group that would include Wagner’s peers wouldn’t let him get lost in the shuffle. If he doesn’t get in via the writers in 2024 or 2025, the first chance he’d have at being considered by the Contemporary Era Committee would be in 2026.

But if Wagner toils with the Era Committee, his wait could be even longer. Kimbrel (394 saves) and Kenley Jansen (391) will probably both end up passing Wagner, further pushing him down the all-time list.

On the flip side, if Wagner does get in, it could basically open the flood gates to the likes of Jansen and Kimbrel. Without a resume that includes “all-time saves leader” like Hoffman and Rivera both possessed during their careers, Wagner could end up redefining what a HOF closer looks like.

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