Polo Grounds

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Billy Wagner and the Hall of Fame

Shortly after the Hall of Fame class of 2015 was announced, I wrote a post (which can be found here) about my reactions to the voting, as well as some looking ahead to the class of 2016. I opined that Ken Griffey jr and Trevor Hoffman would be getting my votes in 2016, but that none of the other new candidates looked to be Hall of Famers. I have since examined more closely the career of Jim Edmonds, and although he has an extremely legitimate case, I think he falls just short of HOF consideration. However, there is another player reaching the ballot for the first time in 2016 who I think merits a closer look, and that is former flame throwing left-hander Billy Wagner.

Wagner retired in 2010 following a 16 year career that saw him amass 422 saves, 1196 K's (in 903 innings) a 2.31 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. Is it Hall worthy? Let's examine.

Instead of doing my traditional For/Against/Verdict argument, I want to take a different approach with Wagner, since relievers cannot be addressed in the same manner as position players or starting pitchers. When evaluating an outfielder or a catcher, one can more or less evaluate them against their peers at that position, and come up with a pretty well informed opinion. However, relievers have been used in such a variety of ways and have only been used in the traditional, 9th inning, save focused manner for a few decades, and the Hall of Fame has not yet gotten to vote on very many of these types of players. So comparing Billy Wagner to guys like Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and even Lee Smith doesn't seem very fair, since they were used drastically differently than Wagner was. Just as an example, Rollie Fingers threw 1700 career innings, nearly double what Wagner threw, even though they threw about the same number of years (17 for Fingers and 16 for Wagner) and Fingers only made 37 starts in his career. This means that Fingers' strikeout numbers are likely to be higher (they are) and his ERA and WHIP will also be higher. So my point is that Wagner having a lower ERA/WHIP than Fingers does not mean as much when you consider the drastic difference in innings pitched.

Wagner can only truly be evaluated as compared to his true peers, which are other ninth inning specialists. Since none of them are in the Hall of Fame yet, it becomes tricky to determine where the line is for what constitutes a HOF career or not. Mariano Rivera will very clearly go into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, with over 90% of the vote. But no one is disputing that Rivera is the best reliever of his era, and quite likely of all time. Wagner should not be unfairly judged against the greatest of all time. Trevor Hoffman, Wagner's ballot partner, threw slightly more innings than Wagner, while recording 601 saves (over 150 more than Wagner) and 1133 strikeouts. While Hoffman dominates the save category, the rest of their stats tell a different tale:

Wagner:   903 G        2.31 ERA   0.99 WHIP   1196 K's   11.9 K/9   187 ERA+   27.7 WAR
Hoffman:  1089 G      2.87 ERA   1.06 WHIP   1133 K's    9.4 K/9    141 ERA+   28.0 WAR

So outside of a drastic difference in total number of Saves (Hoffman certainly played on more successful teams, which may have played a part) it looks like Wagner was a more dominant 9th inning presence. But there are more 9th inning relievers than just Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. When looking at the top ten all time in Saves, Rivera and Hoffman are one and two, Lee Smith comes in third, John Franco is fourth, Wagner is fifth, and 6-10 are Eckersley, Joe Nathan, Jeff Reardon, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival.

Eckersley, Reardon and Lee Smith did not play the true 9th inning stopper role, so they will not be used for this comparison (Smith did toward the end of his career, but early on he was much more of a fireman type pitcher).

Wagner compares favorably to all of these guys:

Wagner:   903 G        2.31 ERA   0.99 WHIP   1196 K's   11.9 K/9   187 ERA+   27.7 WAR
Franco:   1119 G       2.89 ERA   1.33 WHIP    975 K's     7.0 K/9    138 ERA+   23.7 WAR
Nathan*:  777 G        2.89 ERA   1.12 WHIP    967 K's     9.5 K/9    150 ERA+   26.1 WAR
K-Rod*:  821 G        2.69 ERA   1.15 WHIP   1029 K's   10.8 K/9   157 ERA+   23.3 WAR
Percival:  703 G         3.17 ERA   1.11 WHIP    781 K's     9.9 K/9    146 ERA+   17.2 WAR

* Active

It's pretty apparent when looking at these statistics that Wagner is superior to these guys - he finishes in first in every single category. There are other statistics that could be used of course, but a closer's primary goals are to keep runners from scoring, keep them off the bases in general, and to strike people out. So these seemed to be the most important stats to measure a closer's effectiveness (outside of saves of course, where Wagner finishes second, two behind John Franco).

What does this mean for the Hall of Fame? Hard to say really. John Franco appeared on the ballot in 2011 and received 4.6% of the vote, not quite enough to remain on the ballot for future years. Percival appeared on last years ballot and earned 0.7% of the vote. Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez are still active, although both appear to be at the end of their line (Nathan says he wants to pitch next year after recovering from elbow surgery, but we will see if he gets picked up). Neither of them have been discussed as Hall of Famers with any regularity.

So if Rivera and Hoffman are Hall of Famers, and this group of pitchers are not, where does that leave Wagner? His stats are closest to Hoffman's, but his save totals are closer to Franco's.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the 9th inning stopper has become such a big, important piece of the baseball echelon that the best of the best should be rewarded with a plaque in Cooperstown. Only saying two players at this position are Hall worthy is doing a disservice to the position in general (similar to the Hall's steadfast refusal to allow Edgar Martinez, the most prominent DH of all time, into the Hall). At this point in the history of the 9th inning closer, Billy Wagner is the third best of all time, and has an argument for being second. That, along with his simply dominant statistics, should be enough to merit Hall of Fame consideration.

I don't think the voters will see it that way, however. I think his support will be similar to that gained by John Franco a few years ago, and he may not be long for the Hall of Fame ballot, which is a shame. I hope I am wrong.

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