My favorite hitter versus pitcher matchup happened on September 24th 2003. Billy Wagner versus Barry Bonds. It was a 2-1 game in the Astros favor heading into the top of the ninth. The Astros were in contention for a playoff spot and were attempting to stay one game behind the Cubs for the division lead. The game had a playoff atmosphere to it, and in steps Barry Bonds pinch hitting for Giants pitcher Felix Rodriguez.
This was a stop what you are doing moment and buckle up. It wasn't necessarily a David verse Goliath moment, because David was zinging three digit fastballs by hitters, but it certainly could of been viewed that way. I remember the crowd standing and cheering the Astros playoff hopes hanging in the balance. Bonds didn't have a chance, Wagner unleashed four fastballs, all in triple digits. It was a match-up of power verse power.
Unfortunately in the off-season Wagner, who had spent nine seasons with the Astros, was traded to the Phillies for Ezequial Astacio, Taylor Buchholz, and Brandon Duckworth. Coincidentally this setup my second favorite hitter verse pitcher match-up involving Wagner and Craig Biggio, but that recollection is for another time.
He spent two seasons with the Phillies, then signed with the Mets. He played in New York for four years before being traded in August of last year to the Red Sox. He signed with the Braves last offseason, announcing this would be his final year, and here we are.
After Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, assuming both make it Billy Wagner could be the next Astro to enter Cooperstown with an Astro cap in the Hall of Fame.
Bagwell is as close a player to being a lock, that isn't. His shortened career and playing in the steroid era doesn't help his case. However if Bagwell is still sitting on the ballot, when Biggio's name rolls around I don't know how a writer can check Biggio but not Bagwell. So yes I do believe Bagwell will make it eventually, it just may take a few tries.
That leads us to Wagner who spent nine seasons with the Astros to begin his career, which is more years than with any other team combined. Over his career he racked up the following numbers:
According to Baseball Reference he had a 29.7 Wins Above Replacement player (WAR) value, which is 6th all time among relievers who pitcher 80% of their games in relief. Among relievers who never started a game he's second behind only Trevor Hoffman. He's accomplished this in anywhere from 186 to double his innings total less than those ahead of him.
As for All-Star appearances and awards he went to the All-Star game seven times, made two appearances in the Cy Young voting, and won the 1999 NL Rolaids Relief Award.
He's fifth all-time in saves and only two saves behind John Franco, another left handed reliever who will be on Hall of Fame ballot this year for the first time. It will be very interesting to see how Franco fares in this years balloting, and may indicate what we can expect when it's Wagner's name on the ballot.
All hope is not lost however if Franco doesn't get a tremendous amount of support. Wagner does have the flashier numbers, and has done more with less. Regardless with the way voting currently is, it may take several years on the ballot before Wagner or any other reliever get's any kind of support.
The only lock I foresee among relievers is Mariano Riveria who has been absolutely dominant in both the regular season and postseason. Currently the only relievers in the Hall of Fame have won the Cy Young award. However that may change with Riveria who does not have a Cy Young in his illustrious career. He was close in 2005 finishing second in the voting to Bartolo Colon. It'll be tough for Riveria to get one now with his age and pitching in a league with the likes of Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, David Price, etc.. Regardless not having one won't keep Riveria out of the hall, but it should help open the possibility for other relievers who don't have that criteria.
Taking a look at how Billy Wagner compares to those in the hall of fame, those on the ballot and those currently active with at least 300 saves. *I have left Dennis Eckersley off because he is a special case. he started 361 games and is most likely a better comparison for John Smoltz's Hall of Fame candidacy.
The only thing lacking in Wagner's numbers are innings pitched, and if he had decided to continue playing his numbers would be even more impressive.
If Bruce Sutter is the bar, all these guys on the list should fair well in voting. There is a catch however. He didn't get elected until his thirteenth year on the ballet. That's eighteen years after throwing his last pitch, and he has a Cy Young.
While the writers have in the past shied away from electing relievers to Hall of Fame there's no denying that this is a new era in baseball in which relievers play a huge part. There won't be many who make it first ballot, but in the following years as more and more relievers end up on the ballot we should see more making it to Cooperstown. Wagner falls into the same category as Jeff Bagwell, great numbers but falls short on longevity. But like Bagwell I think it's only a matter of time before Wagner takes his place among the many greats in the Hall of Fame.