October 14, 2009

"The Ballad of Billy the Kid"

“I don’t plan on talking to nobody,” Billy Wagner told reporters when asked where he might end up next season. “I’ve got nothing else to (accomplish).”

Wagner has mouthed off before, so whether or not this is just another in a long line of quotable quotes or how he truly feels is a good question.

Unfortunately…only one person can answer that.

Whether or not he makes it to Cooperstown is another story.

Whenever “Billy the Kid” decides to finally call it quits, it’ll be five years and up to what will then be a group of close to 600 writers (currently, the BBWAA has 539 members) that make that decision for him.

With 385 saves, Wagner sits sixth on the all-time saves list. Just five saves ahead of him is Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.

And while closers haven’t always gotten the love they deserve from the writers, Trevor Hoffman (591 career saves) and Mariano Rivera (526) are no-brainers to get their ticket punched.

What can Wagner do to be a shoe-in?

“300 saves used to be the milestone mark when closers were two or three inning guys,” former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery told The Hall of Very Good, “but 400 will be the new mark as most good closers will reach the 40 save per year mark even on mediocre teams.”

But what of Lee Smith and John Franco and their 478 and 424 saves?

“I think Smith should be considered for the Hall as well as Franco,” Montgomery added. “If Wagner returns and surpasses the 400 mark he should be considered also.”

But is Wagner going to return? That’s the big question! And if he doesn’t, will his 385 saves be enough to get him to Cooperstown?

To answer that, you have to go much deeper than just the number of saves he has amassed.

His career ERA of 2.39 is out of this world! Only once, during an injury plagued 2000 season, did Wagner’s ERA jump above 2.85. By comparison, Eckersley has a career ERA of just that (2.85) out of the pen…while Hoffman hovers around in the same neighborhood at 2.73.

Wagner’s 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings is as sick as his career ERA. To say that the 5’10” lefty doesn’t bring the heat would be like saying Quentin Tarantino’s latest “Inglourious Basterds” lacked violence. 1092 punchouts in just over 830 innings pitched is amazing.

In 1999, Wagner was the National League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year after closing out 39 games and holding opponents to a diminutive .135 batting average. He’s a six time All-Star, appeared in the post-season six times (with three different teams) and in 2003, even closed out a no-hitter.

So why can’t Billy Wagner seem to get over the hump and be included in the same conversation as the other greats at his position?

Attitude.

That’s right, the same thing that managers crave from their closers is the same thing that might keep Wagner from becoming a baseball immortal.

Following the 2003 season, the Astros traded Wagner to the Phillies for Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth. Something tells me that the Astros weren't looking for lightning in a bottle with the three bodies they got. I'm more inclined to believe they were looking to unload a problem child.

But back to that trade and before you give me some half-hearted “what’s a duck worth”, I’ll tell you this…in the two years following the deal, the trio of Astacio, Buchholz and Duckworth played in 76 games and combined for a 6.42 ERA with Houston.

In that same time, Wagner appeared in 120 games, collected 59 saves and had an ERA of 1.86 with Philadelphia. Unfortunately, repeated criticism of his teammates helped make Wagner’s stint in the City of Brotherly Love a short one.

Philadelphia’s National League East rival Mets were the next stop for Wagner. By many accounts, it was a combination of a 2008 season ending injury and a bad attitude that led New York to sign Francisco Rodriguez and, eventually, place Wagner on waivers.

"I don't want to end my career as a set-up man," Wagner said while the Mets looked for potential suitors. "I'd like to have that option (to close)."

Apparently, Boston missed that memo and once Wagner agreed to it, they picked him up and used him as just that…a set-up man for their closer Jonathan Papelbon. Red Sox fans know how that ballad ended Sunday afternoon.

So what’s next for the flame throwing lefty?

He can enter the free agent market this off season and see if there is a team out there willing to take their chances with a 38 year-old closer.

Or, he can retire now, 15 saves short of 400 (his last one coming on July 29, 2008) and seemingly enter Cooperstown at second place on the all-time list of saves by a lefty.

That being said…the BBWAA has been tough on those with what appear to be Hall of Fame numbers, but a piss poor attitude.

Only time will tell.


***Recently The Hall asked "who is the game's best closer"...67% of you responded Mariano Rivera, 10% said Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley, 5% said Goose Gossage, 3% answered Rollie Fingers while no one said Bruce Sutter.***


BallHype: hype it up!

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