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January 23, 2011

Billy Wagner Files Retirement Papers...Cooperstown Next?

Following a 2009 season where he saw himself, for the first time, not a closer, Billy Wagner dropped the following quote…“I don’t plan on talking to nobody, I’ve got nothing else to (accomplish).”

Close to two months later…he inked a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves and had, arguably, one of the best seasons of his 16-year career.

This past Thursday, the 39-year-old lefty officially filed his retirement papers…but will we see him as part of the Hall of Fame class of 2016?

“300 saves used to be the milestone mark when closers were two or three inning guys,” former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery once 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.”

With 422 saves, Wagner sits fifth on the all-time saves list, and while closers haven’t always gotten the love they deserve from the writers, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman (who, coincidentally, will also be on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2016) are looked as no-brainers to get their ticket punched.

Conversely, the game’s all-time saves leader among lefties, John Franco, fourth all-time with 424 saves, recently received just 4.6% of the vote earlier this month. Lee Smith and his 478 saves has hovered between 36.6% and 47.3% during his nine year run on the ballot.

What can Wagner do to be a shoe-in?

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

His career ERA of 2.31 is pretty spectacular!

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 2.87.

Wagner’s 11.9 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 this weekend’s Bears-Packers match up lacks importance.

1196 punch outs (the most ever by a left-handed reliever) in only 903 innings 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 seven-time All-Star, appeared in the post-season seven times (with four 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?


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 they promptly picked up Wagner and used him as just that…a set-up man for their closer Jonathan Papelbon.

After announcing it would be his last season in the bigs, 2010 found “Billy the Kid” back in a familiar role…closing games for the Atlanta Braves. And with a career-best 1.43 ERA, 37 saves (in 44 chances) and 104 strikeouts in just 69 innings, the Braves found themselves a lefty who, apparently, had just crawled out of Doc Brown’s Delorian.

But then, true to his word…Wagner walked.

"(2010) has been nothing but great for me," Wagner said following his final game… Game 2 of the National League Division Series. "I thank God I got to retire as a Brave. It's the greatest honor I could ever have.”

So now we wait.

We wait to see how the BBWAA will treat the closer that was once deemed too small by many collegiate coaches.

We wait to see if, with the recent inductions of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, the writers have indeed changed their collective mind on closers.

Most importantly, we wait to see if the BBWAA will continue to be tough on those with what appear to be Hall of Fame numbers, but a piss poor attitude.

Only time will tell.

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