I recently came across this profile of Billy Wagner by Steve Henson of Yahoo! Sports. The article discusses Wagner's career goals, both short- and long-term. Apparently, Wagner's 3 main motivations are 1) getting to the World Series for the first time, 2) passing John Franco as the all-time lefty save leader, and 3) making the Hall of Fame.
I think that Wagner has a decent shot of completing goals #1 and #2 this year or next (as we Braves fans are all too aware, goal #1 requires a good deal of luck, but it's certainly possible). When I read about goal #3, however, I was very doubtful. I've never considered Wagner to be a HOFer. More of a hall-of-very-good kind of guy, not unlike the man he's chasing, John Franco. Perhaps Wagner was being unrealistic.
The article, however, made me curious, so I did some research to evaluate Wagner's chances. Before I get to my results, let's play the old "blind comparison" game. Look at the stats of the following 8 decorated relievers. How would you rank them?
(A bit about the metrics: ERA+ adjusts a pitcher's ERA according to the league average for a given year, taking ballpark effects into account; 100 is average, and 130 is 30% above average. FIP [Fielding Independent Pitching] measures a pitcher's effectiveness based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed; it is scaled to look like ERA. AVG is batting average against. LOB% is the percentage of baserunners who do not score. WAR is Sean Smith's historical Wins Above Replacement, which is less accurate than FanGraphs' WAR but the best method for comparing career achievements before FanGraphs' data took effect in 2002.)
Looking at the stats above, it seems pretty clear that Closers G and H were the most dominant overall. Closer H ranks first in AVG against, WHIP, K/9, and LOB%. Closer G is first in ERA+, FIP, and WAR. They tied for first in K/BB. So who are Closers G and H? Well, G is none other than Mariano Rivera, and H is Billy Wagner. I'm not saying that Wagner has been as good as Rivera--he hasn't--but it's closer than most people would imagine (aside from WAR, anyway). Since everyone seems to regard Rivera as a surefire HOFer, that says something about Wagner's dominance.
Speaking of HOFers, Closers A, B, and C are in the Hall: Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter, respectively. Each of these guys was fairly dominant, but for the most part Wagner is more dominant than any of them. The only advantage these guys have over Wagner is IP. That is not a negligible advantage, but it is one that Wagner can mitigate merely by pitching more. If Wagner gets up around 1000 career innings (about 3 more healthy years) without his rate stats going down too much, it will be very hard to argue that he is inferior to Gossage, Fingers, or Sutter.
Closers D and E are Lee Smith and John Franco, two of the guys ahead of Wagner on the all-time saves list. Again, the only real advantage these guys have over Wagner is IP. (Although I will say that Smith's career looks much better than I thought it would. My memory of him is a workmanlike, OK closer, but then my memory basically starts around 1989 or 1990, so I missed many of his best years. I wouldn't have said this before, but I think Smith might be deserving of a spot in Cooperstown.) Wagner's numbers will likely end up being a good bit better than Smith's, and light years ahead of Franco's.
Finally, Closer F is Trevor Hoffman, a guy who seems pretty likely to make the HOF. His numbers are very similar to Wagner's, but again, slightly below in most categories. Wagner could easily catch Hoffman in WAR--though not in saves, since Hoffman will end up with more than 600. If these two come up on the ballot at the same time, I imagine that voters will go more for Hoffman, based on the saves record, but Wagner is probably slightly more deserving overall.
If you need a bit more evidence, consider this. Among all pitchers in MLB history with at least 600 IP, Wagner ranks:
- 1st in K/9
- 1st in AVG against (tied with Troy Percival, of all people)
- 1st in LOB%
- 3rd in WHIP (behind HOFers Addie Joss and Ed Walsh)
- 4th in K/BB (behind 19th-century player Tommy Bond, plus Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez; tied with Rivera)
- 2nd in ERA+ (behind Rivera)
- 30th in unadjusted ERA (behind Rivera and a bunch of dead-ball-era guys)
Wagner has also held the league to a .563 OPS over his career--worse than Rey Ordonez's career mark. According to ERA+, his ERA has been 82% better than the league average; in fact, his ERA has been at least 40% better than the league average in every year but one.
Any one of these numbers you might be able to say is not that important. After all, the #2 guy on the K/9 list is Octavio Dotel, so clearly no one stat tells the whole story. But putting them all together, I don't know how you can deny Wagner's dominance. Multiply that dominance by 15+ years, and you've got yourself a Hall-of-Famer, at least in my mind. Unless you are against the very idea of relievers in the HOF, or unless you set the bar extremely high, it sure seems like you'd have to say Wagner deserves to be in the Hall, or will deserve it with a few more seasons under his belt. (Whether he actually gets in is of course a different story.)
I'm sorry I doubted you, Billy.