Despite being a 7-time All-Star who has pitched in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, Billy Wagner sure does seem underappreciated. Here's a guy who's probably the second-most-dominant reliever of his era (behind Mariano Rivera but ahead of Trevor Hoffman), and you just don't hear that many news stories about him. He just posted a 1.43 ERA for a playoff team, yet he doesn't have nearly the rock-star cachet that some other closers have (maybe a beard would help?). He's retiring, but where are the fawning retrospectives, the "see you in Cooperstown, Wags" stories?
Well, I can't speak for the rest of Blogsylvania, but one such fawning retrospective is right here.
Let's start with the most obvious aspect of Wagner's brilliance: strikeouts. A metric crapton of them: 104 in only 69.1 IP. Wagner struck out more batters than 7 starters who qualified for the ERA title (at least 162 IP): Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad, Mark Buehrle, Doug Fister, Kyle Kendrick, Rick Porcello, and Brad Bergesen. He had more Ks than Buehrle despite pitching fewer than 1/3 the innings. Among pitchers with at least 30 IP, only the amazing Carlos Marmol (with a ridiculous 15.99 K/9, easily the highest of all time) struck out batters at a higher rate than Wagner (13.5 K/9).
That 13.5 K/9 rate is the 12th-highest single-season strikeout rate (among pitchers with 30+ IP) of all time. Wagner is also 3rd, 6th, and 7th on that list, by the way. Wagner's 4 such seasons are far and away the most all-time (Rob Dibble did it twice; no one else has done it more than once).
In 2010, Billy Wagner held opposing hitters to a .159 / .238 / .255 batting line. That's an insane .493 OPS against (5th best in MLB). That's downright pitcher-like. In fact, ten pitchers had a better OPS this year when they had to hit (minimum 50 PA).
If you prefer new-fangled stats like WAR and FIP, you can just as easily appreciate Wagner's phenomenal season. FanGraphs placed him at 2.2 WAR (tied for 4th in MLB among relievers), while Baseball-Reference accorded him 2.7 WAR (tied for 7th). His 2.10 FIP was 5th-best, and his 2.34 xFIP was second only to the Rockies' Rafael Betancourt.
No matter how you measure it, Billy Wagner was one of the 5 or so best relievers in baseball in 2010. If this is truly the last we see of him, that is one hell of a way to go out. I know a lot of people are mystified that a guy who can clearly still dominate is walking away, but I sympathize with his reasoning. He's made plenty of money and wants to spend more time with his family. Plus, he gets to avoid the ignominious ending that so many baseball players face when they hang on until the bitter end* (the tune of "Hell's Bells" runs through my head as I type this, for some reason). If this is what he wants, then good for him.
* The list of relievers who have ended their careers with a great season is not a long one. There was the submariner Steve Olin, who died in a boating accident after putting up a 2.34 ERA, 3.0 WAR season in 1992. There was the bespectacled Tom Henke, who walked away after a dominant 1.82 ERA, 2.8 WAR season in 1995. And there was Robb Nen in 2002, who posted a 2.20 ERA, 2.7 WAR season, then blew his arm out while leading the Giants to the World Series. That's pretty much the entire list.
If there is one sad aspect to the way Wagner's career ended, it's that he didn't go down throwing, but rather while trying to field a bunt. Had Wagner not injured himself on that play, the Braves may well have beaten the Giants in the Division Series. They certainly would have had a much better shot at holding that 9th-inning lead in Game 3 if Wagner had been available. Oh well… no career ends perfectly.
I just hope that the Hall of Fame voters take the time to really appreciate Wagner's career when the time comes. You can make an argument that no relievers (but Mariano) deserve to be in the Hall, but if you're going to broaden the criteria even a little, Wagner ranks right with just about anyone else.
See you in Cooperstown, Wags! (Hopefully.)