Baseball Hall of Fame: Billy Wagner inching closer and, yes, he belongs

Houston Astros closer Billy Wagner in 2001. Mandatory Credit: Ronald Martinez /Allsport
Houston Astros closer Billy Wagner in 2001. Mandatory Credit: Ronald Martinez /Allsport /

Ranked sixth on the all-time saves list is a Virginian who, among several fellow players, have made big strides in the Baseball Hall of Fame voting over the past few years.

While Tuesday’s balloting concluded with zero players selected for induction in 2021, it did feature big boosts for the likes of Scott Rolen (+17.6 percent), Todd Helton (+15.7 percent) and Andruw Jones (+15.5 percent).

Another former player who made significant gains toward the required 75 percent of votes was 16-year veteran Billy Wagner.

His 14.7 percent jump nearly matched his leap of a year prior, when his voting skyrocketed from 16.7 percent to 31.7 percent — 15 points in total.

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Billy Wagner belongs in Baseball Hall of Fame

Wagner’s career spanned parts of three decades in the majors. He debuted in 1995 with the Houston Astros and stayed there through 2003, just missing out on the Astros’ first trip to the World Series in 2005.

Wagner headed northeast to the Philadelphia Phillies, but only stayed for a pair of seasons before again moving northeast, this time to the New York Mets. The Mets retained Wagner’s services for nearly four seasons before the Boston Red Sox claimed him off waivers in the middle of 2009. He was signed by the Atlanta Braves for the 2010 season.

The 2010 National League Division Series ended up featuring Wagner’s final performance, where he faced two batters before suffering a left oblique injury, and he retired after the season.

Wagner, along with eventual Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman, were the only three first-timers to remain on the ballot after their 2016 debut. His 10.5 percent mark was just enough to keep his name listed, but dropped slightly the next year before rising again; that small rise was followed by a bump of around 5 percent in 2019.

The seven-time All-Star is comfortably in sixth on the all-time saves list, two behind fifth-place John Franco, but 32 ahead of the great Dennis Eckersley. “Billy the Kid” was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019, having pitched for Ferrum College in Virginia prior to the MLB.

Wagner struck out 1,196 batters in 903 innings (an average of 1.3 per frame) while posting a 2.31 ERA — the latter statistic better than Hoffman and only slightly behind Mariano Rivera, who remains the only player unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The ranking of the three is the same with strikeouts per win, but Wagner tops Hoffman by 2.5 when it comes to Ks per nine innings — averaging 11.9. Rivera was at 8.2. In fairness, both Hoffman and Rivera both have more batters faced, games and innings, which allows for more damage to be done against them, but Wagner is still ahead of them in a number of categories.

Wagner also stacks up well against recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Lee Smith, leading Smith in ERA and strikeouts per nine innings.

Despite never making an appearance in the World Series, Wagner made 14 playoff appearances between 1997 and his final game in 2010. A 10.03 postseason ERA has been a black mark on his resume for some, allowing 13 runs in 11.2 innings.

Wagner’s Baseball Hall of Fame case has been a matter of contention for that reason as his vote counts have crept up, though. His 186 votes ended up ranking sixth on the 2021 ballot and he essentially needs to average vote gains of around 10 percent over each of the next three years to put him above the 75 percent threshold.

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With a two-year jump of nearly 30 percent between 2020 and 2021 — which, mathematically, could put him in the Hall before his final year — it’s not a long shot to say that Wagner could be putting on one of Cooperstown’s jerseys before his time on the ballot is up.