When Billy Wagner joined the Braves for the 2010 season on a one year, $7 million deal, it was pretty clear from early in the season that that was going to be Wagner’s final season in the major leagues. Despite a vesting option in his deal for the 2011 season, Wagner announced early in the season that he was going to retire at season’s end to spend more time with his family. With the end of that season (which sadly ended with a bit of a whimper as Wagner was hurt in the NLDS) marked the end of a fantastic MLB career that, for many, is Hall of Fame worthy.
Wagner has a little something for everyone with his Hall of Fame candidacy. For the traditionally-minded observer, he pitched for a long time (1995-2010), had seven All-Star Game appearances, and is one of six relievers in baseball history to record 400 saves. For the more analytically-minded, his career rates of 2.73 FIP, 11.92 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, and 27.7 rWAR are quite impressive and his hits per nine innings (5.99) is the best in baseball history amongst pitchers that threw more than 800 innings. In short, while he falls short of the absolute kings of relievers like Mariano Rivera, he is pretty clearly one of the top 10 relievers to ever play the game.
So why, now in his seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot, has Wagner failed to eclipse 50% in the HOF vote? There are a couple factors likely in play here. One, there is certainly a group of voters that can be classified as “small Hall” voters that only want the absolute best of the best inducted. Some of those voters continue to vote for a small class that includes Clemens, Bonds, etc., others essentially refuse to vote for anyone from that era because of the specter of steroids despite Wagner never being implicated, and others that just don’t see relievers as having the impact during their careers to warrant induction (I am certain that some voters hold more than one of those reasons). There are other reasons like the lack of sustained success in big markets and the lack of a World Series title that are probable factors as well.
Ultimately, what is the biggest issue is that there is no clear way to evaluate relievers in the context of Hall of Fame voting. Lee Smith was one of the most feared relievers of his time who had all of the counting stats one could want, but he ranks just 13th on the JAWS leaderboard amongst relievers and had to be selected by the Today’s Game committed to get inducted. Meanwhile Rollie Fingers, who ranks below both Smith and Wagner on JAWS as well as in career WAR, was voted in relatively quickly. Everyone seems to agree on which relievers were the greatest, but there seems to be much less clarity, particularly amongst Hall of Fame voters, as to whether they are Hall of Fame voting.
As of this moment, Wagner currently boasts a 48.5% on public ballots for this year’s HOF voting and it seems likely that that is around where he will likely end up at the end of this year’s vote. He ranks sixth on JAWS leaderboard for relievers and compares very favorably to No. 5 on the list (Trevor Hoffman) who was inducted into the Hall in both counting stats and more advanced metrics. The question now becomes if Billy Wagner, one of the best relievers to ever play the game, isn’t Hall of Fame worthy...then who is?