Billy Wagner was an elite closer for nearly 15 straight years. With an overpowering fastball and a wipeout slider, Wagner consistently shut down hitters all the way up to retirement. But compared to his contemporaries in Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, Wagner has struggled to get any support on the Hall Of Fame Ballot, never exceeding more than 20% of the vote. Wagner is one of the best closers of all time. It is a travesty he hasn’t been elected yet. And I’ll tell you why.
If Wagner is elected to the Hall of Fame, he would have the lowest innings total of any pitcher not named Satchel Paige. Wagner has 139 less innings than Bruce Sutter, the pitcher with the next lowest innings count. But even with that innings disadvantage, compared to other Hall of Fame relievers, Wagner has the sixth best WAR, the third most saves, and the fourth most strikeouts. If his low innings count makes his ERA or strikeout percentage less impressive, it should make the fact that he was able to compile traditional counting stats in a short amount of time that much more impressive. Plus, with the evolution of the closer position, it is unfair to compare Wagner’s inning count to the multi inning firemen of Gossage or Fingers.
Wagner’s rate stats show just how dominant he was. Compared to relievers with at least 500 career innings, his ERA+ of 187 is third all time, his FIP- is fifth all time, his WHIP is tied for fourth all time and his strikeout percentage is tied for fourth all time. He was dominant in pretty much every meaningful stat for pitchers; he is right near the top. It makes no sense that anyone that dominant should be excluded from the Hall.
One other thing keeping Wagner from the Hall was that he never had that one absolutely dominant year. He never led the league in saves, ERA, or strikeouts. Wagner’s best single season ERA+ (293 in 2005), is tied for just the 20th best single season ERA+. But he had so much consistency. He had four seasons with an ERA+ over 200. The only reliever with a greater number of such seasons? Mariano Rivera. Wagner’s peak may not have been the same as his peers, but his pure consistency is unmatched
Whether is be his innings count, or relatively minor peak, there are arguments to be made for keeping Wagner out of the Hall of Fame. But those arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. When you’re in the top 5 for every meaningful stat for your position, there is no reason you should not be in the Hall of Fame. Wagner is one of the best closers of all time and he deserves a spot in Cooperstown.