What’s keeping Billy Wagner out of the Hall of Fame?

14 Apr 1997: Pitcher Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros throws a pitch during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Astros won the game 4-2.
14 Apr 1997: Pitcher Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros throws a pitch during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Astros won the game 4-2. /

The case for Billy Wagner as a Hall of Famer is somewhat polarizing. The career regular season numbers are great, but it’s been difficult historically for any reliever to make the Hall. As of this writing, Billy Wagner has received votes on about 48% of the Hall of Fame ballots that have been made public thanks to Ryan Thibodaux. It’s Wagner’s seventh time through the process and, with only three more times on the ballot, he may never reach the 75 percent needed for inclusion in Cooperstown.

So what’s keeping Billy Wagner out of the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Hall of Famer voters are typically pretty stingy with their votes for relievers. The fact that Wagner has won over nearly half of voters says a lot about his career. There are only eight relief pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Hoyt Wilhelm. How does Wagner stack up against those eight? Quite well, actually.

If you add Wagner to that list, he ranks fourth in saves (422), second in ERA (2.31), first in WHIP (0.998), first in K/9 (11.9) by a wide margin, and second in ERA+ (187). No one is saying Billy Wagner was as good as Mariano Rivera … but was he as good as Bruce Sutter? Certainly. He was better for longer. Is he in the same league as Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith? He was better in every stat but total saves. If those guys are Hall of Famers, it’s hard to argue that Billy Wagner isn’t based on his regular season performance.

When voters look through Wagner’s record, his regular-season stats are amazing. His 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2010 seasons are jaw-droppingly good. His postseason stats, however, are also jaw-dropping and not in a good way — 14 games, 11.2 IP, 13 ER, and a 10.03 ERA over seven different postseasons. The same guy that gave up 6.0 H/9 in the regular season gave up over 16 H/9 in the postseason!

Admittedly, this is a small sample size. You could probably find an 11-inning stretch in his regular season career that was just as bad. One really bad outing could easily ruin an ERA over an 11-inning span. But looking at Wagner’s game log, there isn’t one really bad inning, it’s just a collection of poor outings. Over the 14 appearances he made in the playoffs, only five times did he pitch one inning and give up no runs. He gave up runs in eight of his 14 appearances and his teams (Houston Astros, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, and Atlanta Braves) lost seven of eight postseason series.

Wagner gave up as many runs in 11.2 innings of postseason baseball as Mariano Rivera gave up in 141 innings (and two of Rivera’s were unearned)! Think about that. Wagner is probably the closest reliever in performance to Rivera in the regular season in baseball history … and he’s more than 10 times worse than him in the playoffs.

Next. This voter had a Billy Wagner-only ballot. dark

If there’s hope for Wagner, it’s that Lee Smith still got in despite an 8.44 ERA in four postseason appearances, Larry Walker had less than 22 percent of the vote after his seventh time through, and there are only two likely first-ballot Hall of Famers that will be voted on before Wagner’s time is up (Adrian Beltre in 2024 and Ichiro in 2025). Time will tell, but, in the end, Wagner may be on the outside looking in because of less than 12 innings in October.