Throughout his career, Billy Wagner was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball. He was a flame-throwing lefty who dominated opposing hitters, generating tons of strikeouts. However, he has received very little support for the Hall of Fame during his time on the ballot. Considering his dominance, it’s hard to fathom why Wagner has received such little support.
The Case For Wagner
When Wagner was healthy, he was easily the most dominant left-handed reliever in baseball. His 422 saves rank second all-time for a left-handed pitcher, trailing only John Franco’s 424. Even more impressively, Wagner did that in only 16 seasons, compared to Franco needing 21 seasons. Additionally, his career 2.31 ERA is second all-time for pitchers with at least 900 innings pitched. He only trails Mariano Rivera in that category. In addition, Wagner never recorded a full season with a strikeout rate below 10.0 K/9. His 11.9 K/9 is the highest strikeout rate for any pitcher with at least 800 innings pitched. Overall, Wagner struck out a whopping 33.2-percent of opposing hitters for his career.
Wagner’s career accolades include seven All-Star Game selections. Additionally, he won the Rolaids Relief Man Award in 1999. Wagner also never seemed to lose the zip on his fastball, even as he got older. Following Tommy John Surgery in 2008, Wagner only pitched in 15.2 innings in 2009. However, he signed with the Atlanta Braves and finished his career with one of his strongest seasons. During that year (his age-38 season), Wagner had a 1.43 ERA, 0.865 WHIP, and 104 strikeouts in 69.1 innings pitched (13.5 K/9). Additionally, he was still hitting triple-digits regularly with his fastball.
The Case Against Wagner and the Hall of Fame
Despite Wagner’s stellar regular season numbers, his postseason numbers were far from that. In 11.2 innings pitched, Wagner owned a disastrous 10.03 ERA across eight postseason series. Most notably, in 1998, Wagner served up a game-tying two-run-homer to Padres‘ catcher Jim Leyritz in game 2 of the NLDS. That was Wagner’s lone appearance in the Astros’ four-game defeat at the hands of San Diego. In 2006 with the Mets, Wagner was charged with the loss in game 2 of the NLCS. In that game, he allowed a go-ahead homer to light-hitting outfielder So Taguchi. This was looked at as a turning point in the series. The Mets lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
While he was dominant, Wagner only pitched in 16 seasons. Additionally, he had three seasons where he pitched in fewer than 30 innings.
Wagner had multiple instances where his postgame interviews got him in hot water. In 2005, he made comments where he criticized his teammates’ performance and said that the Phillies had no shot of ever making the playoffs. This led to his teammates confronting him and Pat Burrell even calling Wagner a “rat”. This was one of the reasons why Wagner elected to leave the Phillies following the 2005 season.
In 2008, Wagner unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against his teammates after a loss. Specifically, he called out Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran for not being available to the media for postgame interviews. During that tirade, Wagner also called out the Mets’ coaching staff. Wagner even admitted in an MLB Network interview on November 30, 2017, that his portrayal in the media has cost him Hall of Fame votes.
Is Wagner Worthy of the Call?
While he only played for 16 seasons, Wagner had an outstanding career. He has cemented himself as the most dominant left-handed reliever in baseball history. His numbers show that when he was healthy, he was better than Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. While he may have scuffled with teammates, Wagner should be in the Hall of Fame. He’s already seen an increase in support this year, and he deserves to keep getting more.
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