Terry Collins, Larry Dierker, Jimy Williams, Larry Bowa, Charlie Manuel, Willie Randolph, Jerry Manuel, Terry Francona and Bobby Cox were among the MLB managers to summon relief pitcher Billy Wagner from the bullpen to get crucial outs in the late innings of a tight game over the course of the left-hander’s 16-season big-league career.
Wagner could get the ultimate call Tuesday as the former Tazewell High School and Ferrum College star is on the cusp of being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“I had the Hall of Fame [officials] call me and they told me they’d like me to stay by the phone on Tuesday,” Wagner said last week in a telephone interview. “They can’t tell me if I am going to be in or not be in, but I am not very good at waiting. We’ve got baseball practice [at The Miller School in Charlottesville, Virginia] so I probably won’t be standing by the phone. If I do make it, I’ll probably miss the call. It’s not possible for me just to sit at home and not do anything and wait for something that may or may not be happening.”
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As of 5 p.m. Monday, Wagner was on 73.4 percent of the 186 ballots that had been publically disclosed. A player needs 75 percent to earn enshrinement.
Wagner threw his final pitch in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Braves, capping a career in which he went 47-40 with 422 saves and a 2.31 ERA with five teams and was a seven-time All-Star.
He appeared on just 10.2 percent of the ballots the first year he was eligible for the Hall in 2016, but that number has climbed substantially. He got 51 percent of the votes last season and the total will go up in 2023 in what is his eighth year on the ballot.
A greater appreciation has emerged for the work Wagner did.
“Today the role of relievers is changing again,” said Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant, who voted for Wagner. “Teams are getting away from the formal closer and just using their best reliever whenever they want to use him. Now it’s come a day when you consider relief pitchers based on effectiveness and not how many saves they had. That approach started to work in Billy’s favor.
“Myself and other voters said hey, we’re not just going to go by the number of saves, but how effective he was and I think that makes Billy Wagner a serious candidate.”
As the game of baseball becomes more reliant on analytics, Wagner’s stats are hard to top. There are the 1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings of work.
“If you look at his statistics, they are eye-popping,” said C. Trent Rosecrans, the longtime Cincinnati Reds beat writer who checked the box beside Wagner’s name. “It’s really the strikeout rate. He struck out batters and he limited damage. The one thing a pitcher can control is striking out batters and he did that. That was immensely helpful for his teams.”
Opponents were mostly overpowered by Wagner.
He struck out 33.2 percent of all the batters he faced in the majors.
“His strikeout rate is highest among all pitchers with at least 800 innings,” said author/voter Michael Silverman. “His .187 batting average against is also the lowest in history for a pitcher with at least 800 innings. Those are two pretty big and impressive statistical numbers.”
Go ahead, dig deeper statheads.
“An ERA+ of 187 is pretty ridiculous,” said Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. “He would be a slam dunk Hall of Famer with that number over a greater number of innings. As it is, I still eventually decided that he pitched enough innings.”
Did Wagner keep a close eye on his stats during his playing days?
“To me, you kind of knew when you were going good and not going good,” Wagner said. “There’s something to the numbers. If you are running out there with an ERA of four, you’re not very dominating and hitters are pretty comfortable and not that worried about facing you. When you walk out there and have a low ERA, high strikeouts and they know what you’re about, they know they’ve got to buckle up. Numbers do play a part.”
The case against Wagner is that he didn’t pitch enough innings. No pitcher with less than 1,000 innings is in Cooperstown.
“If I don’t get in the Hall of Fame because of 93 innings and that’s truly what the cause is, I’m totally fine with that,” Wagner said. “No closers in the Hall of Fame have the numbers like me. I can’t control the saves.”
His postseason numbers – a 10.13 ERA – may also hurt his cause, but Wagner points out that’s a small sample size of 11 2/3 innings.
Having pitched in the same era as fellow and much more highly-touted closers Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman also doesn’t help. However, Wagner’s regular-season numbers are similar – and in some categories better – than those guys who are already have plaques in Cooperstown.
“When you look at an era and take a chunk of time and who were the best players,” said Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star, a first-time voter. “There’s a good 10 to 12-year period where Billy Wagner was the best closer, or at least one of the best. I know his career overlapped Mariano Rivera. If that’s your bar, the bar’s set too high. He was great.”
Wagner also bounced back time and time again.
While pitching for the Houston Astros in 1998, a line drive off the bat of Kelly Stinnett of the Arizona Diamondbacks struck Wagner in the head and he landed on the disabled list for several weeks.
An arm injury cost him the final 3 ½ months of the 2000 season and Tommy John Surgery made him miss the end of the 2007 season and most of the 2008 campaign.
Each time, he returned stronger.
“I think what stands out the most for me is how quickly Wagner came back from Tommy John Surgery,” said Tara Sullivan of the Boston Globe. “It was just so impressive and spoke to everything that made him a Hall of Famer – hard work, talent, determination.”
Wagner’s incredible story has been told time and time again.
He came from a broken home and was raised by loving relatives.
It’s true he was a natural right-hander who became a southpaw after breaking his arm twice as a youngster.
That left arm threw pitches in the triple digits and made him an all-time great.
He hasn’t forgotten his country roots either.
When asked after a particular rough stretch of appearances during his days with the New York Mets if he would be able to overcome the struggles, Wagner replied: “Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?”
Before talking to a reporter on the phone last week he had just gotten done preventing a coyote from attacking one of his dogs on his expansive farm in Crozet, Virginia.
Billy is still Billy and will always be Billy regardless if he gets elected to the Hall of Fame or not.
“I’m at the point now where it’s trending in the right way,” Wagner said. “It’s exciting. … On paper I did what needed to do when I played.”
A couple of guys who once played in the Appalachian League and a Knoxville, Tennessee, native project to be the top vote-getters along with Wagner when the results are revealed today at 6 p.m.
Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones are both Appy League alums – Rolen played for the Martinsville Phillies in 1993 and Jones suited up for the Danville Braves in 1994 – while Todd Helton played both football and baseball at the University of Tennessee after starring at Central High School in Knoxville.
Wagner will have two more years remaining on the ballot if he doesn’t make it in 2023. At this point, a Hall call seems inevitable.
Even if the president of the museum in Cooperstown, Josh Rawitch, has to leave a voicemail.
“I think he’s overdue to be in the Hall of Fame,” Amore said. “I think he could have been inducted a few years ago, but the steroid guys on the ballot kind of changed the math. He was obviously as effective, with the exception of Mariano Rivera probably, on a batter-to-batter, inning-to-inning, game-to-game basis as any pitcher of his time.”