Billy Wagner was once a sworn enemy of the Atlanta Braves. Having played for both the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, Wagner amassed 29 saves in 58.1 innings with a 2.47 ERA against the Braves, including 75 strikeouts to just 16 walks, 4 of which were intentional. Now a member of the Braves' bullpen, the lefty is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. He is on pace for a career high ERA+ of 333 and career low ERA of 1.23. Wagner is just one save away from 400, and although 385 have come while on other teams, Billy's perception in Atlanta is now altered forever.
Once Wagner signed with Atlanta, he announced that he always wanted to play for Bobby Cox and that the Braves were actually his favorite team growing up. He even went so far as to mention that his grandfather would call him up after he saved games against the Braves to take him down a notch. His own grandfather wanted the Braves to win more than to see his grandson shut them down, which speaks volumes about the passion his family has for the Braves.
Wagner was born in Tannersville, Virginia, so much like many of the Braves and almost all of the team's fans, he is a southern boy at heart. Wagner was naturally right-handed, but as a child he broke his arm twice and learned to throw lefty by throwing baseballs against a barn wall. How a 5"10, naturally right-handed pitcher can throw a baseball 100 mph lefty is beyond me -- it is simply unfathomable. Billy saw that he could throw well and worked on his arm strength, and he began to pitch from the left side even after his right arm healed. At Tazewell High School he was the 1990 Baseball Player of the Year. At Ferrum College he set single season NCAA records for strikeouts per nine and hits per nine. In 1994 he lead the minor leagues in strike outs. This was all done as a starter, but when Wagner made his debut in the Majors with the Astros, he was converted to a reliever. With Wagner's flame throwing ability and gamer mindset, he had the perfect makeup and qualities to be an elite closer.
The former first round draft pick saved nine games in his first full season with Houston, where he truly made his mark. Wagner saved 225 games for the Astros over the course of eight seasons. He made three All-Star games and in 1999 he won the National League Rolaids Relief award. In that same season, he finished 5th in Cy Young balloting and 16th in MVP voting. Wagner's overall ERA with the Astros was a miniscule 2.53 over 504.1 innings pitched -- truly phenomenal numbers.
At the age of 32, Wagner left the Astros to head to Philadelphia. He closed games for the Phillies for two seasons before signing with the Mets. In his five seasons between both NL East teams, he actually threw the ball better than he did with the Astros. In those five years, Wagner saved 160 games in 313.2 innings with a 2.18 ERA . In 2008, Wagner suffered an elbow injury and needed Tommy John surgery, ending his season and most of the next. At age 36, it would have been easy for Wagner to hang it up, but he wanted to go out on his own terms. He came back the following year, threw two innings and was traded from the Mets to the Boston Red Sox, where he threw 13.2 innings with a 1.98 ERA.
Wagner has always been able to throw the ball exceptionally well, but what sets him apart is his bulldog mentality. Wagner's mentality never changed from on the field to the clubhouse. He was often known as a leader of his team, and was never one to back down from reporter's questions. In an age of generic responses to the media, whether good or bad, Wagner has spoken truthfully about how he feels about his team and his teammates. In Philadelphia it got him run out of town when he said that his team had "no chance" to make the playoffs, and in New York he made public note of how it irritated him when his teammates didn't take accountability for their play. Wagner's integrity and grit have never been in question and although some have problems with his way of operating with the media, it is quite refreshing to see that there are actually some athletes who speak their true feelings when asked difficult questions.
His honesty and leadership qualities are evident with the Braves this year in his tutelage of young reliever Craig Kimbrel. He has been working with him diligently and when asked questions about his progress, he speaks honestly. He understands some of the comparisons but has spoken out about how he never got into trouble with walks as Kimbrel has. Yesterday he said, "I keep listening to Don (Sutton) and them on the radio telling it’s the vintage Wagner but I don’t remember doing all that." These are statements that could be looked at as negative in a Bobby Cox clubhouse, but his truthful comments should lead to Kimbrel pushing himself that much harder to become the dominant reliever he can be.
While Kimbrel may be the future, Wagner is the present. He is on pace to make the All-Star team for his seventh time and should get to save No. 400 sometime this week. Personally, I haven't felt as confident with an Atlanta closer in the ninth inning since John Smoltz was closing games. Wagner's success late in games has been a huge reason for the Braves' success as well as the overall dominance of the bullpen. The Braves are currently third in bullpen ERA and second in strikeouts from relievers. He has solidified the back-end of the bullpen and he is the perfect mentor for young flamethrowers like Kimbrel or fellow lefty Jonny Venters. With a dominant bullpen, great starting staff, and very effective offense, the Braves may have what it takes to get Wagner a World Series ring as he heads towards retirement.
Looking over Wagner's career, he has a shot to make the Hall-of-Fame, and with John Franco sitting at 424 saves, he has an shot to have the most saves for any lefty in baseball history as well. If Wagner were to pass Franco, with no lefty closers currently on pace to get nearly as many saves, he would hold on to the record for the foreseeable future. Wagner has had a historic career and when you consider that he has done it with his non-dominant hand, it makes his success that much more impressive. The first of Wagner's 399 saves did not come in an Atlanta Braves uniform, nor did the majority, but his 400th and his last certainly will.