This article was first published in its original form on Dec. 16, 2018
Former Mets closer Billy Wagner received just 17.9 percent of 425 possible votes one year ago when he again missed out on being elected to the Hall of Fame, and his name is back on the ballot again this year.
Sadly, Wagner has consistently fallen short of the 75-percent threshold needed for an induction. He received just 10.7 percent in 2017.
In 16 seasons, Wagner pitched for the Astros, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox, and Braves, for whom he collected 422 saves with a 2.31 ERA and 0.99 WHIP with 1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings. The opposition hit just .187 against him, while striking out 33 percent of the time, both of which are the most all-time among pitchers who have thrown at least 800 innings during their careers.
It seems every winter multiple teams are desperate to add a closer or 'back-end reliever.' The position is clearly valued by the industry, yet only six closers have ever been elected to the Hall of Fame. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera will became the seventh when results were announced last January and became the first player ever to receive 100 percent of the vote.
Wagner pitched four seasons with the Mets, with whom he signed a four-year, $42 million contract after the 2005 season. He appeared in 183 games and picked up 101 saves with a 2.37 ERA (2.87 FIP).
In September 2008, at 38 years old, Wagner learned he needed Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow, which would keep him off the mound for at least 12 months. He considered retiring, but instead had surgery so he could fulfill his contract with the Mets. In late August, 2009, the fourth-place Mets traded Wagner to the Wild Card leading Red Sox, for whom he made 15 relief appearances down the stretch.
"I really enjoyed being there, I loved all that New York gave to me," Wagner told the Daily News in 2009, speaking about his time with the Mets. "There's no animosity, there's no, 'You should have kept me.' I'm totally happy with the situation, and how they helped me."
As a free agent, Wagner signed a one-year deal with the Braves before retiring in 2010. He now lives with his wife and four children in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he's a high school baseball coach.
With all he accomplished, why does Wagner he keep getting overlooked for the Hall?
Did he get enough saves?
Sure, but who cares...
Wagner's totals, including his career 24.1 WAR are lower than all six current closers in the Hall of Fame, but they are similar to Padres legend Trevor Hoffman, who in 2018 was voted into the Hall.
Hoffman's all-time saves record of 601 likely got him in to the Hall of Fame without anyone having to even look at his other career totals, let alone his peripheral statistics. The reality, though, is that Hoffman's final ERA (2.87), FIP (3.08), WHIP (1.058 WHIP) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.4) are all worse than Wagner. Yet, despite finishing his career with 2 more WAR than Wagner, Hoffman received 290 more votes than him during last year's vote.
In the end, the gap in total saves clearly elevated Hoffman's status in a way it didn't impact Wagner. The thing is, as most people under 50 years old will tell you, saves are stupid. They are essentially meaningless when determining high-leverage situations and the stressful moments of the back half of a baseball game.
Was he consistently dominant?
More times than not I disagree with how the BBWAA votes during the Hall of Fame process. However, the one area I do agree is how they tend to judge players mostly on a candidate's prime seasons, as opposed to looking at the totality of his career.
Hoffman was most dominant from 1996 to 2002, during which he went to four All-Star games and received multiple votes for Cy Young and MVP. Wagner was also most dominant across eight seasons (1999-2006), before and after which he was more consistent than Hoffman.
In Hoffman's seven most-dominant years, he picked up 296 saves with a 2.49 ERA, 2.66 FIP and a 0.99 WHIP, all of which netted him 15.4 WAR. Much like their overall careers, Wagner's seven-season totals are all better than Hoffman outside of saves (262) and total WAR (14.1).
How did he leave the game?
Admirably and brilliantly.
The prime of their careers is what is most important, but the way they each ended their careers is worth noting. In his final season, Hoffman left San Diego to join the Brewers, but he struggled, ending with a 5.89 ERA pitching in only 50 games and not always as a closer.
Meanwhile, Wagner returned from his career-threatening Tommy John surgery to pitch one final season, during which he had a career-best 1.43 ERA in 69 innings. He picked up his final 37 saves, made the All-Star team and struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings. He then passed up earning $6.5 million by declining his player option so he could end his career on a high note and finally spend time with family.
Did he get along with voters?
Wagner was soft spoken, emotional and brutally honest. He hated to lose and it impacted his mood after games. He was also rough around the edges, opinionated and sometimes surly. That said, he always delivered colorful, detailed quotes and unique insights about the clubhouse.
He also commanded a lot of respect from reporters, writers and storytellers because of his incredible backstory. Wagner was born in Marion, VA, a small town of 6,000 people in the Shenandoah Mountains. His parents divorced when he was a child, after which he moved in and out of homes, hunted for meals and lived on food stamps and welfare. He was right-handed, but -- while in a cast after breaking his arm twice -- he taught himself to throw lefty.
May 08, 2010; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Atlanta Braves pitcher Billy Wagner (13) delivers to the plate in the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Braves defeated the Phillies 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
By the time he was in high school, MLB scouts started hearing of his 85-mph fastball. However, at just 5' 3," 130 pounds, and pitching in a town in the far reaches of Virginia, no one would travel to see him in person. In 1990, he borrowed money from family, scrapped together financial aid and got himself in to Ferrum College, a Division III school with a baseball program. Wagner filed for the MLB draft after his junior year of college and selected by the Astros in the first round.
I don't get a vote for the Hall of Fame, despite writing professionally about the Mets for the past 16 years. So, whether Billy gets in or not is not my call. However, Hall or no Hall, I'll forever remember him as a self-made success story, a true underdog with incredible talent, and one of my favorite pitchers to ever watch in a Mets uniform. That said, he has made it clear it's important to him to be in Cooperstown, so I hope he makes it -- if for no other reason that it will make for the perfect end to an amazing 48-year-old story...
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!