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My “Pitch” For Billy Wagner for TCB’s March Madness

Billy Wagner #13

I’m sure you’ll take a read of Bill’s case for Lance Berkman, and while I love Berkman, he simply falls short in this category. That may come as a surprise to some as Berkman was a lovable face of the Astros and a dominant player in his prime. So why do I give it to Wagner? It’s simple. Berkman was an amazing player, and it was truly a shame that he didn’t even get 5% of the vote to stay on the Hall of Fame Ballot. You know who did? Billy Wagner.

(Here is Wagner as part of the 6-man No hitter against the Yankees)

While Berkman was phenomenal, Billy Wagner is the best Left Handed Closer in the history of baseball. While Franco edges in him save count by a grand total of 2 (in 5 more years), they’re not in the same league. Here are the stats of the top 3 Lefty Closers ever.

Billy Wagner - 47-40, 422 Saves, 2.31 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.998 WHIP - 187 ERA+

John Franco - 90-87, 424 Saves, 2.89 ERA, 7.0 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1.333 WHIP - 138 ERA+

Randy Myers - 44-63, 347 Saves, 3.19 ERA, 9.0 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 1.304 WHIP - 123 ERA+

Take a second to think about that. Wagner is light years ahead of the competition. His ERA+ shows he significantly outperformed any of the competition, and as everyone on TCB knows - a WHIP under 1 immediately qualifies you as elite. And that’s for his CAREER.

But taking a step further, Wagner is not just the best Left Handed Closer of all time, his stats actually show him as one of the best closers ever, regardless of handedness. I have to give it to Mariano as the best Closer of all time, but other than just the pure save count, look at these totals.

Wagner - 47-40, 422 Saves, 2.31 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.998 WHIP - 187 ERA+

Rivera - 82-60, 652 Saves, 2.21 ERA, 8.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.000 WHIP - 205 ERA+

Hoffman - 61-75, 601 Saves, 2.87 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.058 WHIP - 141 ERA+

Lee Smith - 71-92, 478 Saves, 3.03 ERA, 8.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.256 WHIP - 132 ERA+

Francisco Rodriguez - 52-53, 437 SV, 2.86 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1.155 WHIP, 148 ERA+

If you take a look at these numbers, there’s an argument to be made that Billy Wagner was not just the best Left Handed closer of all time, but potentially the second best person ever to play the position. Let that sink in. You can argue that Berkman was great, but he’s not in the discussion of being the greatest ever at any position. Wagner was a true flame thrower, channeling his inner Nolan Ryan - despite the lack of physical gifts, he regularly threw 100+ mph, throwing it more than 150 times in 2003 alone (The video below says the second highest that year.... was 12).

With an 800 inning threshold, using ERA+ Mariano’s 205 ranks #1 ever in all of baseball. Know who comes in at #2? That’s right - Billy Wagner has the second best ERA plus of any pitcher ever to exist in baseball. He holds the record for having the highest K/9 and highest strikeout percentage of any pitcher ever . His WHIP? It’s the second best of all-time behind Addie Joss. His batting average against? At .187 is the lowest in the history of baseball (.012 lower than the next contender). Only players with better FIP? Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax.

Hoffman is an interesting comparison to Wagner - earning essentially the same WAR with 5 more years. While Hoffman hung on long after his dominance ended (how many 5.89 ERA closers do you know?), his rate stats even at a similar number of innings/saves don’t come close - 2.76 ERA, 146 ERA+ when he was at 436 saves. For Wagner to have gotten to Hoffman’s numbers he would have needed to throw 186.1 innings of 5.55 ERA baseball!

Beyond the Box Score had this to say “So yes, Wagner’s career was “only” 900 innings. They were, however, arguably the 900 most dominant innings ever thrown by any pitcher ever.”

Alan Ashby said that Billy Wagner had the best fastball of anyone he ever caught, and that includes some names like JR Richard, Nolan Ryan, etc. Even better? Ask Nolan Ryan who had the best fastball:

(Wagner’s Fastball was rated as the 4th best pitch of ALL TIME by pitch value)

As for legacy, Wagner hit 31% on the Hall of Fame Voting this past year (Berkman got just 5 of the 425 Votes and fell off the ballot - which was a complete snub). Wagner if elected would be another Astros star cast into the Hall of Fame, etching another Astro into the history books.

But there’s more. Wagner has an extremely good back story as well. He came up in a very poor area, in a broken family. Living off food stamps, Wagner described his typical breakfast as “few crackers with peanut butter and a glass of water”. Wagner is a righty, but due to breaking his arm actually learned to pitch with his left hand. While he was learning, he simply turned his glove inside out and continued to play. He was scoffed at due to his diminutive 5’10 stature causing many to dismiss him despite his pitching arsenal. But that just fueled his fire. He was deeply competitive, similar to the reason why people love Bregman, Wagner was that person who was unwilling to be outworked. Wagner fell behind a year in school due to the terrible home life situation, but was put on the High School baseball team as his velocity was considered a danger to his middle-school peers.

Wagner’s life turned around as it got harder and harder to ignore his outstanding results, struggling with control a bit as a starter but dominating with strikeouts. Wagner’s life seemed to get on track falling in love with Sarah Quesenberry. Her father become a defacto father figure in his life and everything seemed to be on track.

Just days after being added to the 40-man roster for the Astros, his wife’s parents were brutally murdered.

Through all of this, Wagner became a true family man. In his last season, Wagner went 7-2, with a 1.43 ERA, 37 SV, 13.5 K/9, and a remarkable 275 ERA plus earning him his seventh All-Star selection. According to fangraph’s: “No pitcher has ever walked away from his career following a season of at least 50 innings with a lower ERA or a higher strikeout rate.”

Sabr did an article on Wagner and here’s what they had to say about him post retirement: “After he retired Wagner went back home to be a full-time dad with his wife and their four children, Jeremy, William, Kason, and Olivia. In addition to working on their farm and taking care of the alpacas, Wagner started coaching at his sons’ school, Miller School, near Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2012 Wagner coached the Junior Varsity baseball team to a 10-2 record and became the head coach of the varsity squad in 2013. His team’s second baseman was his son Will. When asked about his approach to coaching Wagner said, “Only time will tell, but my philosophy of coaching is a little different. I’m not a win-at-all costs coach. I’m a fundamental coach.”

Wagner also continues to be the face of his charity, Second Chance Learning Center, which he began in 2005. The purpose of Second Chance is to provide assistance to at-risk youths with counseling and other help. Wagner wanted to give back to his community and kids like himself. His college roommate Erik Robinson is the director. So on the field and off Wagner has always played bigger than his size.”

This competition is all about Fan Favorite, and Wagner doesn’t have the same name brand recognition as the Bagwells or Biggios of the world, but that may be a mistake. Here is a player who was not only one of the best to ever play his position, but one that overcame extraordinary odds, defied convention, and even pushed the ownership group about not signing any big name free agents (Pettitte and Clemens were signed months after - in what many believed was a reaction to Wagner’s statements). He did all of this while staying a family man, retiring at the top of his game to help his kids have the opportunity to grow up with a family like he never had.

It’s clear you need to Vote Wagner!

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