If we're putting closers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, then why not Billy Wagner?
Wagner in 2018 is on the BBWAA ballot for the third time
We still don't really know what to do with relief pitchers when it comes to the Hall of Fame. We've inducted a handful over the years, and Trevor Hoffman may join them as early as this year. Mariano Rivera will go in on the first ballot in 2019. At some point, the standard will become clearer as more modern closers are inducted. Right now, we've got just five primary relievers in the Hall:
- Dennis Eckersley, who's in partly because of the value he amassed as a starter.
- Bruce Sutter, who's in partly because, as the lore goes, he helped pioneer the splitter.
- Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage, who each made some starts and in general racked up relief workloads we'll likely never see again.
It's hard to find a prototype, a way forward, within those names. The modern closer in most instances is a cradle-to-grave reliever who often worked an inning at a time and whose usage was dictated by the save rule. In that sense, Hoffman and Rivera are going to be the first two almost exclusive closers to make the Hall.
A larger issue is that good-to-great starting pitchers are vastly more valuable than good-to-great closers, and that's the case even after you adjust for the fact that closers tend to work high-leverage innings. You could name-check a veritable flotilla of starters outside the Hall who contributed more than, say, Hoffman. Rivera is an outlier in some ways because he amassed so much value relative to the garden-variety modern closer. Once you throw in his legendary postseason dossier, he's a plausible Hall of Famer outside of the lowered standards for relievers.
In some ways, Fingers' election lowered the bar. For his career, he put up a WAR of 26.1, which is higher than Sutter's mark of 24.6. Sutter, though, at least had the "cultural hook" going for him with the whole splitter thing. Whatever you think of WAR -- in reality, it's a useful blunt instrument -- Fingers/Sutter territory is not typically that of a Hall of Famer. In that sense, Hoffman (28.4 WAR) fits right in. Hoffman, though, is cut from the modern closer's cloth, meaning, mostly, that he was a saves compiler who never made a start and who averaged roughly 60 innings per season. And when Hoffman goes in, perhaps as early as this year, we're forced to ask: Why not Billy Wagner? Why not the guy who reminded us that you come in under six feet and still be a fire-breathing bad-ass on the hill while also defying a few "lefties shouldn't be closers" presumptions along the way? Why not indeed ...
Above you see that Hoffman has the edge in innings and a small advantage in save percentage. As well, he has the eye-catching tally of 601 saves. That, though, is largely a function of his having 186 more save opportunities than Wagner did. (Wagner, it should be noted, still ranks sixth on the all-time saves list.) When it comes to run prevention (as measured by ERA+) and dominance (as measured by K% -- strikeouts as a percentage of batters faced), Wagner comes out way ahead. Speaking of ERA+, Wagner's incredible mark of 187 leads all Hall of Fame/Hall of Fame-eligible relievers by a comfortable margin (although Rivera, career ERA+ of 205, will seize that honor next year).
At the bottom, you see JAWS, which is Jay Jaffe's system that compares a candidate to the existing Hall standards for his position/role by blending a player's career WAR with the WAR from his peak seasons. Hoffman gets the edge over Wagner in terms of career value, but Wagner was better in terms of peak. In the end, you get an identical JAWS score. To be sure, a JAWS of 24.0 is below the bar set by those inducted relievers named above, but, again, we're not working from the same model when talking about post-Eckersley closers.
In the end, maybe you favor Hoffman over Wagner because, in essence, his managers used him more often in save situations. Wagner, though, was more dominant and much better at keeping runs off the board. In the end, you get very similar cases when it comes to overall value. In that sense, it's puzzling that Hoffman, per Ryan Thibodaux's public ballot tracker, is on pace for election in 2018 while Wagner is polling at around 10 percent (a candidate must be named on at least 75 percent of BBWAA ballots in order to make it). The only way to explain that yawning divide is that Hoffman racked up a lot of saves, and the media liked him. That's a terribly narrow way of viewing things, though.
If I had my druthers, almost every modern closer not named Mariano Rivera would be shut out of the Hall, Hoffman and Wagner included. They simply don't provide enough value. Things as they are, though, Hoffman's going in. And if he does then Wagner should. That Hoffman will be a Hall of Famer while Wagner almost certainly will not means that voters are indulging in shamefully facile appraisals of their respective careers.
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