Is the case closed for Billy Wagner?

A look at Billy Wagner’s MLB Hall of Fame resume…and why voters are so predisposed against it

Let’s begin by stipulating the obvious: Mariano Rivera is a MLB Hall of Famer. That statement will be ratified when the 2019 vote is announced in a couple of weeks. As of the most recent revelation at Ryan Thibodaux’s @notmrtibbs, Rivera has been named on literally every ballot turned in to date.

This isn’t about him. It’s about the difference between him and another reliever on the ballot, Billy Wagner.

Wagner will not be elected to the MLB Hall of Fame with Rivera…not even close. At the moment, in his fourth year as a candidate, he’s hovering around 15 percent. That’s way short of the 75 percent minimum for enshrinement.

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Wagner saved 422 games across 16 seasons spent mostly with the Astros, Phillies and Mets. He was known for a blow-em-away fastball that counted up nearly 1,200 strikeouts, better than 1 per inning. Yet if you ask voters today why they’re not enamored with Wagner’s candidacy, the most likely immediate reaction would be “he just didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer to me.”

The search for a more objective explanation requires a deep dive into the numbers, but even the career regular season data doesn’t necessarily clarify why Wagner is so consistently shunned by the same people who unanimously endorse Rivera.

The table below lists 10 performance measurements that could be considered relevant to relievers. They are listed in an order of priority, although the order obviously would be debatable. The table compares the career records for both Rivera and Wagner  with the average career records of the three Hall of Famers who have been elected primarily or exclusively for their work as closers, those being Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman. (Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage and Hoyt Wilhelm have also been enshrined, but each had significant experience as either a starter or multi-inning reliever that could color their numbers.)

For Rivera or Wagner, a bold number indicates a performance better than the average of the HOF closers. An italicized number indicates a performance below the established HOF closer standard.

           Category   HOF closer average        Rivera                   Wagner

  • Saves                    459.6                           652                         422
  • ERA+                    136.2                            205                         187
  • WHIP                    1.151                            1.000                     0.998
  • IP                           1,140.1                        1,283.2                  903
  • Hits/9                   7.5                                 7.0                          6.0
  • ERA                       2.91                               2.21                       2.31
  • JAWS                    22.9                               42.5                        23.7
  • Strikeouts/9       8.5                                  8.2                          11.9
  • ASG selections   6.7                                 13                            7
  • Walks/9               2.9                                 2.0                          3.0

The table illustrates the basis for the potentially unanimous love for Rivera. He exceeds the established HOF standard for closers in all but one of the chosen categories, his only miss being a narrow one in the 8th priority category, strikeouts per 9 innings. It is also worth noting that some of his advantages are extraordinary; he has 42 percent more saves than the average HOF closer, a 50 percent better ERA+, and an 86 percent better JAWS.

To nobody’s surprise, Wagner’s record is not as glossy as Rivera’s. But compared with the norms established by Sutter, Hoffman and Smith, it comprises a strong argument for his induction. Wagner’s career record is better than that of the average HOF closer in seven of the 10 categories, and is really seriously short in only one, his workload.  He retired with 903 innings against the 1,140 innings average of the inductees.

It’s hard to ascribe the 60 percent difference between Wagner’s 15 percent and the 75 percent induction minimum to that one significant shortfall, especially when Wagner leads the current HOF closers in seven of the 10 categories. And that forces a look elsewhere, that elsewhere being to post-season performance. That appears to be the statistical source of the ennui with which voters are approaching Wagner’s candidacy.

To gauge the validity of that judgment, let’s reprise the tabular exercise above, this time using only post-season performance. Because neither ERA+ nor JAWS are calculated on a post-season basis, and because All Star appearances are irrelevant, those categories will be dropped. The remaining seven should still be enlightening.

           Category   HOF closer average         Rivera                   Wagner

  • Saves                    2.7                                  42                           3
  • WHIP                    1.319                             0.76                       1.97
  • IP                           10.03                             141                         11.2
  • Hits/9                   9.1                                  7.0                          10.0
  • ERA                       4.97                                0.7                          10.03
  • Strikeouts/9       8.93                               7.0                            10.0
  • Walks/9               2.5                                  1.3                           1.5

Wagner’s critics frequently pan his post-season record, which is most easily condemned by a glance at his 1.97 WHIP and his 10.03 ERA. As the data illustrates, that – plus his regular season workload — is really the whole case against his induction. Taking his post-season record in its entirety, he was superior to the current corps of MLB Hall of Fame closers in four of the seven categories, including saves and workload.

It is, of course, possible to construct an argument that post-season appearances carry a disproportionate weight in the induction decision due to their importance. The problem with that logic is that neither Smith, Hoffman nor Sutter were especially dominant in their post-season appearances. Their group 4.97 post-season ERA, 1.319 WHIP and 9.1 hits per  9 innings would be considered unremarkable when viewed against any three post-season pitchers chosen at random throughout history.

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Hoffman was the best of them, accounting for half of the trio’s eight saves in 13 of their collective 31 innings. He had a 1.23 WHIP in his 1996, 1998, 2005 and 2006 appearances. Sutter pitched only in the 1982 post-season, saving three games across 12 innings for the Cardinals with a 0.75 WHIP.  In 5.1 post-season innings of work for the 1984 Cubs and 1988 Red Sox, Smith saved only one game and posted an 8.44 ERA with a 1.875 WHIP.

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