Brave Hall of Fame Profiles: Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner was ridiculously good. Probably much better than casual baseball fans realize. In fact, if you go to FanGraphs, pull up the career pitching leaderboards, set the innings limit to 900, and then sort by K/9, you’ll find Billy Wagner’s name at the top. Of all the pitchers who’ve thrown at least 900 innings in their career, no one in the history of baseball struck out more hitters per nine innings than Billy Wagner. Not Randy Johnson, not Max Scherzer, not Jacob deGrom, not any pitcher you can think of. And not only is Wagner number one at 11.92 K/9, he’s number one by a mile. Chris Sale is number two at 11.07. That 0.85 gap between 1st and 2nd is the same gap that exist between 2nd and 12th. Billy Wagner was one of the greatest strike-out pitchers in the history of the sport.

If I was making a Hall of Fame case for Wagner, that’s where I would start. A pitcher’s number one job is to get outs and the most certain way to get an out is to not include the defense at all, and just strike the batter out yourself. And he was one of the best in history at doing that. There are other reasons to, of course. He had a 14-year career, was a 7-time all star, finished with a career 2.31 ERA, etc. But he was a strikeout machine.

The problem for Wagner is that he is currently up for Hall of Fame consideration, and not enough voters seem to agree with my assessment. At least not yet. This is Wagner’s 8th season on the ballot. In the previous 7, his HOF vote totals have looked like this:

  • 2016 – 10.5%
  • 2017 – 10.2%
  • 2018 – 11.1%
  • 2019 – 16.7%
  • 2020 – 31.7%
  • 2021 – 46.4%
  • 2022 – 51.1%
  • 2023 – ?

The good news for Wagner is he is trending upwards. The 2023 voting results get announced Tuesday, January 24th, so we’ll be able to see if he’s maintained that upward trajectory. A player needs 75% of the vote to be elected, and while he’s never come close to that number, he seemingly wins over more and more voters every year.

One reason is, the voting demographic skews younger and younger each year of voting. As newer writers get introduced to the voting block, more modern ideas of baseball show up in the results. One of those being the importance of strikeouts. Newer writers have spent the last 20 years or so covering a game where strikeouts mean everything to a pitcher and the team’s employing them. And pitchers who excel at generating swings and misses have found their value going up and up and up, way more so than pitchers from any era before. This, of course, is great news for Wagner. What he was great at is more valued today than it was when he played, or even immediately after he retired. So as more modern writers get to participate in voting, the better he should do.

There’s also less of a logjam of Hall-of-Fame worthy players on the ballot than there was even 5 years ago. With voters having a 10 player limit on their ballots, how many great players are on the ballot can severely impact guys who maybe are more on the bubble. Wagner being a reliever, even a great one, puts him in that group.

And there are reasons older voters have been hesitant voting in Wagner. While he did rack up 422 saves in his career, which is good for 6th all-time, it’s well back of the 652 saves Mariano Rivera accumulated, or the 601 saves Trevor Hoffman finished with, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Wagner’s 422 saves would be the fewest by a “career closer” ever enshrined into the Hall. And because he spent his entire career as a reliever, Wagner only totaled 903 innings pitched in his career. They were mostly 903 dominant innings, but such a small number has given voters pause in the past. And relievers are a complicated group to begin with. How to properly compare one-inning specialist to six or seven inning starters has been a tough task for plenty of voters over the years. There are some who just don’t think relievers belong, or at least only the truly elite ones do.

Wagner only spent one year with the Braves, his last season in 2010. And he was still electric. Averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball, which even by today’s standards is serious velocity, Wagner struck out 13.50 batters per nine innings in 2010, posted a 1.43 ERA, a 2.10 FIP and finished the season with 37 saves. He threw 69 innings, struck out 104 and walked 22. He was his normal dominant self, even at 38.

Wagner’s steady climb up the voting totals could mean big things in his last 3 years of eligibility on the ballot. Normally players who are close get a bump from voters when they know it’s a player’s last year on the ballot. So if Wagner can get closer and closer to that 75% number before his last year, he might have shot.

But whether he ultimately gets enshrined or not, fans need to know Billy Wagner was nasty. Even if the bar to clear is you have to be one of the greatest relievers to ever play, Wagner still passes in my book. We’ll see if voters agree.

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