Once a year, Mac used to write up a Keltner List for a retired Brave, as a way of debating whether he deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Two years ago, I wrote one for Kenny Lofton; last year, Sansho wrote one for Deacon White, who played for the Boston Red Stockings in the National Association and the National League, the team that is the forerunner to the modern Braves.
Here’s Mac’s standard preamble to Keltner lists: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.)
So let’s run it for Billy Wagner, whose last year in the big leagues was 2010, which means that he’ll be eligible soon.
- Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
- Was he the best player on his team?
No, but he played with two should-be Hall of Famers in their prime, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. He had the highest pitching WAR on the 2003 Houston Astros, ahead of Roy Oswalt, but it’s hard to ask a closer to be the best player on his team.
- Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
If you’re willing to consider the closer as a unique position — as opposed to just a subset of pitchers — then Wagner was one of the best players at his position for about a decade and a half. But he was never the best in baseball, because his career had the misfortune of entirely overlapping with the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera. He was either the best or the second-best closer in the National League, behind Trevor Hoffman.
Wagner was fourth in the Cy Young voting in 1999, and sixth in 2006. Hoffman was second in the Cy Young voting in 1998 and 2006, fifth in 1996, and sixth in 1999. They both made seven All-Star teams. Wagner’s career ERA+ is 187, far better than Hoffman’s 141, but Hoffman pitched 186 more innings and racked up 179 more saves, which is something that modern Hall Voters may find compelling.
Career-wise, Wagner leads Hoffman 23.6 to 23.0 in fWAR, and trails him 27.7 to 28.0 in rWAR. Hoffman leads him in career Win Probability Added, 32.98 to 28.78. In all, neither was significantly better than the other.
- Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Unclear. Billy Wagner went to the playoffs seven times, with four different teams: with the Astros in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001; with the Mets in 2006; with the Red Sox in 2009 (though he only threw 13 2/3 innings for them all year); and with the Braves in his final season, 2010. He had near misses with the 2003 Astros, the 2005 Phillies, and the 2007 Mets, each of whom finished their season either a game back in the division race or the Wild Card. So he clearly played on a lot of successful teams.
That said, it’s hard to definitively demonstrate that he was the main reason that his successful teams reached the playoffs. On the six playoff teams for which he played a full season, there was a combined record in one-run games of 154-122, a .558 won-loss record; that’s the equivalent of a 90-win season over 162 games. Not bad, but not enough to show that he had an outsize effect on their success in close games.
On the other hand, over the course of his career, he was terrific in high-leverage and in Late & Close situations. His career triple slash allowed was .187/.262/.296, a .558 OPS against; in Late & Close situations, batters hit him to the tune of .194/.270/.310 (.581 OPS), and in high-leverage situations, it was .202/.280/.318 (.598). So when the chips were down during the regular season, he was awfully good.
But for some reason, he was absolutely terrible in the playoffs. He pitched in 14 games for his seven playoff teams, and he gave up 13 earned runs and three homers in 11 2/3 innings — his entire playoff career was basically what Hunter Strickland did this year.
In all, it’s hard to give Wagner much credit for his performance down the stretch, but it’s also hard to ding him too severely for his poor playoff performance in a relatively small sample size.
- Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
One of the most remarkable things about Wagner is that, unlike Hoffman, he basically had no decline. His final year in Atlanta was one of his strongest seasons. Despite his occasional injuries — he only pitched a total of 62 2/3 innings in 2008-2009 — he was basically always effective when he was on the mound.
- Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. That’s probably Tim Raines, but in any event, there’s a long list ahead of him.
- Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
No, though the ranks of baseball closers in the Hall have been swelling over the years. He has roughly the same number of career WAR as Lee Smith, who almost certainly will not get in. Wagner did it in nearly 400 fewer innings, which is impressive, but then again, it’s hard to see the Hall of Fame inducting someone with only 903 career innings pitched. Old Hoss Radbourn threw 678 innings in 1884 alone.
- Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
No by most measures. Though he’s well above the standard for Bill James’s Hall of Fame Monitor, he falls short on Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Standards, and JAWS.
- Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
No. He didn’t introduce any new innovations to the game, nor was he especially noteworthy for anything he did off the field. He was a very good closer for a very long time, but that’s well reflected in his numbers.
- Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
It’s hard to separate him from Hoffman and Smith, closers who racked up a lot more saves and threw a lot more innings but whose ERA+ doesn’t look as impressive. He and Hoffman retired in the same year, and because Hoffman has a lot more saves, he will probably receive a few more votes. But the BBWAA will have trouble giving them more than a few perfunctory votes, knowing full well that Mariano Rivera will be eligible in a few years. Mo is the Mike Schmidt of closers; Wagner and Hoffman are Ken Boyer and Darrell Evans.
- How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
No MVP-type seasons. He received 4% of the vote share in 1999 and 1% in 2003, which doesn’t really count. His fourth-place Cy Young finish in 1999 is more impressive. By Win Probability Added, he looks a lot better: his 5.32 WPA in 1999 was not just the highest in baseball that year, it’s one of the highest marks in the last decade and a half: in many seasons, no reliever reaches a mark that high. (The last reliever in the major leagues to do so was Jim Johnson in 2012.)
- How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
Wagner went to seven All-Star Games, which is none too shabby. Twelve pitchers have played in seven All-Star games, and five have been elected to the Hall; of those, one is a reliever, Rollie Fingers. Fingers played in seven All-Star Games and got elected, though he benefited from the halo effect of the early ’70s Oakland A’s, just like Catfish Hunter: both were pretty good players who probably would never have made it into the Hall if they had played for a different team.
The other two relievers to reach seven All-Star Games? Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman.
- If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Absolutely not. That’s not his fault, it’s just a fact. On the 2010 Braves, Wagner threw 69 1/3 terrific innings. But the team’s Wild Card slot owed far more to Jason Heyward, who played 1196 1/3 defensive innings, literally 17 times more. Heyward was worth 6.4 rWAR that year, while Wagner was worth 2.4 rWAR. Very good numbers for a closer, but only with that caveat.
- What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
- Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
As far as we know, yes. He was a generally well-liked teammate, albeit outspoken.
Wagner is a member of the Hall of Very Good. It’s hard to build a Hall of Fame career from the back of the bullpen, and he didn’t. Worse players are in the Hall of Fame, like Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, but the odds are very high that he will not join their ranks. Nor should he.