by Max Brill
Let me start by offering a comparison of three relief pitchers:
A quick note on ERA+: it’s a metric that takes a pitcher’s total contribution on the mound and attempts to encompass it in one go by normalizing the pitcher’s ERA for park effects and era the pitcher played in.
We can clearly see from the above chart that Player A had the best ERA+ and K/BB of the bunch, though Player C is not too far off in K/BB. Player C has the best FIP (an ERA estimator that normalizes balls in play to their respective league averages in an attempt to take good/bad luck out of the equation) and the highest strikeout numbers by a wide margin. ERA is close between Player A and Player C, though Player A has a solid lead. Player B doesn’t have the lead in any of the categories, but you’ll understand why I put him on the list when I reveal who the three guys are. For reference, here’s the same chart with innings pitched included:
So now you see why I included Player B: he has nearly 200 more innings pitched than Player C, who was far more dominant in a shorter tenure. Have any guesses as to which player is which? Maybe this will help:
In case you still haven’t figured it out, Player A is surefire future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, Player B is Trevor Hoffman, who will likely get elected this year, and Player C is Billy Wagner, the subject of this article who received a relatively paltry 10.2% of the Hall of Fame ballot in 2017.
The inclusion of Mariano in the player comparison is slightly unfair seeing as Mariano has the best ERA+ of any pitcher with 1000 innings pitched. He’s also the best relief pitcher to ever walk the planet, and I’m not saying that Wagner was better, but the fact that he can hang with Mariano in some of the important categories for relief pitchers speaks volumes to how good of a pitcher he was. Wagner, though he had a higher walk rate than Mariano, actually had a lower career WHIP. He did throw almost 400 fewer innings, so it remains to be seen whether that mark actually would have held had he pitched later into his career, but still, career WHIP is career WHIP, and Wagner’s is below 1. That makes Wagner’s WHIP the lowest of any player since 1900 with at least 900 innings pitched.
Wagner also had a (barely, but still) lower FIP than that of Mariano, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio nearly equal. Wagner’s 2.31 ERA isn’t too far off from Mariano’s 2.21 either. I’m not here to try to convince you that Wagner is the greatest relief pitcher to play baseball, I think that title belongs to Mo, but hopefully, I can at least convince you that Wagner deserves far more consideration than he is getting.
The most common comparison Wagner gets is to Trevor Hoffman, Player B in the comparison above, and for some reason, people remember Hoffman as being better. My guess as to the reason for this is that since Wagner and Hoffman played from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, there is a larger focus on saves in their career. Saves were widely regarded as the metric upon which relievers should be judged until very recently, which, unfortunately, is likely the reason that Hoffman is getting more HOF votes than Wagner. I wrote about my thoughts on saves as a statistic on my own blog (which I strongly encourage you to read, if you haven’t already), and I think that if saves had never existed, Wagner would actually be getting more Hall of Fame consideration that Hoffman. That is not to say that we should disregard saves entirely, but I think Wagner’s ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/9, and strikeout-to-walk ratio being noticeably better than Hoffman’s speaks volumes to how good each pitcher was over the course of their careers.
I probably will not be able to convince people who think there should be no relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame that Wagner should be in, but I would just urge those people to consider the fact that there already are relievers in the Hall of Fame, so keeping out relievers who were even better than the ones presently in the Hall is nonsensical. I am talking specifically about people who choose to keep Wagner out despite letting Bruce Sutter (who was quite good) in. Sutter pitched almost 150 innings more than Wagner, but had a worse ERA, WHIP, FIP, K/9, K/BB, and also had fewer saves. Again, I do not think saves should weight extremely heavily into a voter’s consideration, but the fact that Wagner is better than Sutter in all the important categories but also in saves demonstrates that Wagner was clearly the better pitcher. If Sutter is in, Wagner has to be in. If Hoffman is in, Wagner has to be in. And I know I talked about Wagner and Hoffman earlier, but let me indulge you a little more.
I will concede that Hoffman pitched more innings that Wagner, not only because it is a fact, but also because innings pitched should definitely factor into the Hall of Fame discussion. However, the effectiveness of those innings should also be factored into the Hall of Fame conversation. Along those lines, Hoffman may have a greater quantity of IP, but Wagner has a greater quality. Take, for example, this tweet from the #BillyWagnerHOF twitter account:
Player A is Trevor Hoffman. Player B is Billy Wagner. Hoffman threw more innings in his career, but Wagner’s innings were very clearly more effective from the numbers above.
Still don’t believe me? How’s this: if Trevor Hoffman came back to Major League Baseball and struck out every single batter he faced for 162 consecutive innings, he would still have a lower career K% than Billy Wagner. And if you want to make the other argument, that Billy Wagner should be the one who has to return to pitch more innings because he has 186.1 fewer innings pitched in his career, so be it. If Wagner returned to baseball and threw 186.1 more innings (to tie Hoffman’s career IP mark), he could pitch to a 5.54 ERA, 1.350 WHIP, and strikeout zero batters (zero batters in 186.1 innings!), and he would still have a better ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate than Hoffman.
Let’s go back to that fancy ERA+ statistic I mentioned earlier. ERA+ is a metric that has a baseline of 100, so each point over 100 indicates that a pitcher was 1% above league average for that season. It is meant to take ballpark factors, scoring environment, and most other things that are out of a pitcher’s control and normalize them to this one scale. Trevor Hoffman’s career ERA+ of 141 was bested by Wagner in 10 seasons where Wagner pitched at least 50 innings. Hoffman had only two seasons where he pitched at least 50 innings and had an ERA+ over 200; Wagner had four.
I think the only way one could see Hoffman as a better pitcher by looking at the numbers is if one only looks at saves and walk rate. Hoffman had almost 200 more saves than Wagner and had a much lower walk rate, but that doesn’t make him a better pitcher, and certainly does not make him more Hall of Fame worthy. I’m not saying that Hoffman should not be in, but I’m saying that he should not be getting more than five times as many votes as Wagner is.
Let me zoom out from the Hoffman-versus-Wagner comparison for a second and give you a view of the bigger picture. Wagner is the all-time leader in strikeouts through a pitcher’s first 1,000 innings despite only pitching 903 innings in his career. He also the all-time leader in strikeout rate (by 4%!) and has the best ever WHIP by any pitcher with 900 innings after 1900. I’m also fairly certain he is one of the few pitchers, if not the only one, to play his entire career using his non-dominant hand. According to this 2010 article, Wagner did not grow up a lefty but learned how to throw left-handed because he had his right arm broken twice as a child. After the first break, he figured it would be best to wait out the injury and resume throwing with his right hand once his arm healed, but then the arm broke again. He decided after the second break to learn how to throw lefty, and the rest is history.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that Wagner deserves a spot in Cooperstown. If you’re reading this post and have a Hall of Fame ballot that you’re going to send to Cooperstown at some point in the near future, and you’re also part of the 74% of people that voted for Hoffman but not the 10.2% of people that voted for Wagner, I’m strongly urging you to vote for both in this election.
Even if Wagner does not get in this year (he won’t), he’ll see a bump in votes once Hoffman gets in and people finally come to their senses about how much better Wagner was than Hoffman.
I’ll leave you with another fun statistic from the #BillyWagnerHOF twitter account: