added 2/16/2010 by Bob Hulsey
I've speculated before about other former Astros and their chances to make the Hall of Fame but, while updating the player pages, I came across another name that might not immediately make you think of Cooperstown but who could nonetheless have a compelling argument for induction.
When it comes to reliever Billy Wagner, there is both more and less than meets the eye. The diminutive southpaw gets your attention with his 100-mph fastball. He has dazzled opponents and seemed unhittable at times.
Wagner is, admittedly, a one-trick pony. But it is some trick. From time to time, he'll mix in a curveball for show but every batter who steps in knows they're getting the gas and still most batters can't touch him.
There are good arguments to talk Wagner and the Hall but there are also negative arguments against it. First, let's discuss the case for Wagner:
- He enters the season sixth on the all-time career saves standings with 385, five less than Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley who he should pass in 2010. When you talk about closers, that's the number that is usually mentioned first.
- He has struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings, one of the top strikeout rates of all time.
- Wagner has converted 83.7% of his save opportunities over his career while holding a career ERA of 2.39. His Adjusted ERA+ is an eye-popping 182, meaning he is among the most effective pitchers in baseball history. His career WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is a very impressive 1.009.
- He's a six-time All-Star and one-time winner of the NL Rolaids Relief Man Award (1999).
- He's also one of the few closers to toss a no-hitter, albeit just the ninth inning of a 2003 gem he shared with five other Astros against the New York Yankees. Still, the ninth inning is where most of the drama - and nerves - are in an event like that.
Now, about the negatives:
As pitching has evolved where starters rarely finish and closers are rarely used for anything else, it is going to become harder to evaluate them against the all-time greats. Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson could be the last of a dying breed of 300-win pitchers. For now, there is no magic number that ensures a closer for induction.
- While Wagner is sixth on the career saves list, none of the top four are in the Hall. Trevor Hoffman (591 saves) and Mariano Rivera (526) are still active. Lee Smith (478) has failed in his first eight times on the Hall ballot and seems mired around 50% of the vote. John Franco (424) gets his first chance next winter. It's unlikely Wagner would get in before the four closers ahead of him on the all-time list.
- There isn't much support among Hall voters that closers deserve induction. Beyond Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, there are no true closers in the Hall. Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm became closers in mid-career. There may be a bloc of voters who just won't give relievers their due.
- Wagner has never led his league in saves, never been close to a Cy Young Award or MVP Award and has a dreadful 10.32 ERA in postseason play. He has been touched for runs in six of the seven postseason series in which he has played. He has yet to appear in a World Series. In other words, there are no defining moments on a big stage to enhance his candidacy.
One could think of Wagner as the Nolan Ryan of closers - another pitcher slightly above .500 in winning percentage (Wagner is 40-38) who seemed to never reach the big stage but was so dominating in what he did that many regard him as one of the best ever.
The Hall may have to find other metrics for pitchers than the traditional benchmarks of wins and ERAs to compare today's hurlers against those of bygone eras. Where that leaves Wagner is yet to be determined but I'd suggest his chances of getting in would be less than 50%. At age 38, he has a chance to embellish his record but I don't see any improvement that would better his chances for induction.
That's not to say, however, that he has no chance. Billy Wagner's name will be an interesting one to watch five years after his retirement. He might just be at the podium in Cooperstown some day although it will surely take several years to get there.