The Curious Case of Billy Wagner

 

Approach your average baseball fan; ask them if they think Billy Wagner is a Hall of Famer. Chances are, they’ll say no and ask if you’re crazy. I’m here not to talk about whether or not he is, but to show statistically why the thought isn’t so crazy after all. To begin to illustrate my point, let’s take a look at this table:

WAR WAR7 ERA ERA+ FIP Games Saves All-Star
Player 1 28.1 19.9 2.31 187 2.73 853 422 7
Player 2 28.4 19.6 2.87 141 3.08 1035 601 7

*using bWAR from baseball-reference

Here we see two players with very similar total career value, and peak value. We also see one had a significantly better ERA and FIP, while the other amassed a significant lead in saves. Given that a save requires a pitcher to be designated for the specific role, and that more seasons as a closer inevitably lead to more career saves, many people don’t like to use saves as an important measurement of a relief pitchers accomplishments. Of course I love to see longevity and durability in a great career, as those are instrumental components of a hall of famer. Regardless of longevity, we see these two players provided similar value over their careers. Therefore I think it’s reasonable from a sabermetric standpoint that these two players should have similar chances for the Hall of Fame. However, that was not the case.

Last year Player 1 took home 10.5% of the hall of fame vote. At the same time, his contemporary Player 2 received 67.3% of the vote. Player 1 is our main subject of the day, Billy Wagner. Player 2 is the former all-time saves record holder, Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman received that percentage in his first year eligible and requiring only 75% of the vote to be inducted, history would have us believe he will eventually make it in. This year is a tough class, with many voters submitting full 10 player ballots, so he may not crack it just yet. It’s also possible he may fizzle out and never make in the future due to a prevalent feeling that even the top modern relievers don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. However, if I was a gambling man, I would certainly bet on him making it in as it stands now.

Similarly to how I started this piece saying I’m not here to say whether Billy Wagner is a Hall of Famer or not, I’m not here to tear down Trevor Hoffman. I only want to show how those that consider Hoffman worthy should also take a hard look at Billy Wagner.

When it comes to writer-picked honors such as the MVP or the Hall of Fame, there are many factors at hand as to why one player might be favored over the other. Often, it’s the postseason. Some writers think an MVP award must go to a player on a postseason team. Many voters feel strong post-season numbers and World Series victories add a lot to a Hall of Fame resume. Both Wagner and Hoffman reached the post-season multiple times and neither of them ever won the ultimate prize. Neither of them had over 13 innings in the post-season so those stats are fairly meaningless although for what it’s worth Hoffman was significantly better than Wagner. So post-season success isn’t a factor, how about awards? Both pitchers made it to the All-Star Game seven times. Neither one ever won a Cy Young, but it’s worth noting that Hoffman was closer with two 2nd place finishes and he also received consideration 4 times as opposed to Wagner’s 2 times. Given the similarity of their careers, this could signal that perhaps Hoffman was favored by the media while they were playing and often innately thought of in a higher matter.

Moving back to the hard numbers, one small detail seems to me as a possible glaring reason why Wagner’s career dominance was so quickly forgotten. When people reference the lowest career ERA, K/9, FIP, and many other stats, the cutoff is often set at 1000 innings pitched. Wagner retired with 903 innings and as a result, he is left out in the all-time rankings comparing his rates with those of starting pitchers and relievers alike. Lower the standards to 900 innings, and he has the highest K/9 of any pitcher in history at 11.92. Second place is over a full strikeout behind him with a rate of 10.82.  Of course this could seem like cherry-picking, but in this case my point is that he’s the best career strikeout reliever in history, and this proves exactly that. He’s also 2nd in ERA for pitchers with 900+ innings, only behind Mariano Rivera who seems to be an inevitable lock for the Hall of Fame. His FIP is also the highest of any reliever (slightly ahead of Rivera), and overall third behind Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax. To address further cherry-picking, you can lower the innings to 600 and nothing happens to these rankings aside from Tom Henke sliding ahead of Wager in FIP by .01. Bringing back in Hoffman for comparison, at 600 innings he isn’t in the top 30 for FIP or K/9 (this is still including starting pitchers and relievers).

Over 600 career saves is extremely impressive, and throughout a full career Trevor Hoffman is definitely one of the top all-time closers in my opinion. I still feel it is extremely important to look past the nice career totals and really analyze who is the best to determine who belongs in the Hall. Honestly, I’m not even sure where I’d draw the line when it comes to relievers in the Hall of Fame. I do know however, that if Trevor Hoffman is inducted, Billy Wagner should be as well. At the very least he should be given more consideration than he is now.

**Coincidentally it appears I’m not the only one wondering about why Wagner is getting so little consideration. Adam Tabakin wrote an article I found after I was basically finished with this one. We both even used the Player 1/Player 2 comparison that it seems baseball fans love so much. However, we do touch on some different things though, so I encourage you to read both. Here’s his http://calltothepen.com/2017/01/03/billy-wagner-forgotten-relief-ace/

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