Wagnerian Tragedy

When the Braves were eliminated from the NLDS, Aaron Gleeman took a look back at the remarkable career of Billy Wagner – which appears to be over – and I highly recommend it. A few additional facts:
-Wagner got better as he got older – his ERA over the last 8 seasons of his career, from age 31-38? 1.99. Among pitchers who pitched from age 31-38 and threw at least 100 innings, Wagner’s ERA is the best, followed by Mariano Rivera (2.02), Three Finger Brown (2.19), Cy Young (2.21), and Eddie Plank (2.21). By ERA+, Wagner at 218 is second to Rivera (221), followed by Randy Johnson (178), Kevin Brown (158), Lefty Grove (156) and Trevor Hoffman (152). After his return from injury in 2009, Wagner averaged 13.8 K/9, 4.9 H/9 and a 1.48 ERA in his last 85 regular season innings.
-Perspective on Wagner’s career ERA+ of 187 (i.e., 87% better than the league average, when adjusted for park effects): Rivera’s the only other pitcher with a career ERA+ of 155 or better to throw 600 or more career innings (1150 to Wagner’s 903; the only guys to throw more innings than Wagner with an ERA+ above 150 are Pedro Martinez and early 19th century pitcher Jim Devlin, and Devlin was banned from baseball for throwing games at age 28).
Wagner has thus earned his place very high on the list of the greatest of modern closers. How great? Let’s compare him to Rivera, per 162 games over the years 1996-2010 (both pitched briefly in the 1995 regular season):

Pitcher W-L SV G IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Rivera 5-3 37 64 72.1 2.03 6.78 0.42 1.97 8.31
Wagner 3-3 28 57 60.1 2.31 5.99 0.82 2.99 11.92

As Bill James once said, if you can stand next to Babe Ruth and not look ridiculous, you’re doing awfully well, and while Wagner’s performance and times lost to injury leave him a little short of Rivera, on the whole he hasn’t been that far short. (I should run the full comparison to other top modern closers when I have a few more minutes to spare). A side note: Wagner was exclusively a starter in the minors, posting solid but unspectacular numbers; Rivera, in his first pro season, in 1990 at age 20 in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League, he posted an 0.17 ERA and allowed just 17 hits in 52 innings, mostly in relief; his MLB career got a late start because the Yankees then spent the next five years trying to turn him into a starting pitcher, with mostly success in the minors but not in 10 starts at the major league level.
But of course, what separates the two men is October, and a more dramatic contrast, you could not devise. Wagner’s teams appeared in 31 postseason games over his career, Rivera (entering tonight) 148. Here’s how they stack up, projecting their postseason records to 162 game schedules, although perhaps the simplest summary is that Rivera has allowed fewer homers (2) and earned runs (11) in 137.2 career postseason innings than Wagner (3 HR, 13 ER) in 11.2 career postseason innings:

Pitcher W-L SV G IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Rivera 9-1 46 101 150.2 0.72 5.56 0.13 1.37 7.13
Wagner 5-5 16 73 61 10.03 16.20 2.31 1.54 10.03

In Rivera’s case, he’s raised his game in October to a level nobody else has ever matched, not just in quality but in carrying a workload essentially double what he does in the regular season; more than 10% of his career innings have come in the postseason. No other player in MLB history comes close to having as much of his value tied up in postseason games as Rivera, and it’s hard to express how much better it makes your team to have a guy who throws the equivalent of 150 high-leverage innings with an 0.72 ERA against playoff teams.
Wagner suffers by that comparison, but he also suffers terribly by his own standards – especially the home runs (as you can see, his K rate was just fine in the postseason and his control significantly improved) – as well as the fact that his teams made it out of the LDS just once in seven tries, only to see Wagner get tagged by a game-winning So Taguchi homer in Game Two of the 2006 NLCS, get kicked around again in Game Six and watch from the sidelines as Aaron Heilman coughed up Yadier Molina’s series-deciding homer in the ninth inning of Game Seven. Even as small as the sample size of 11.2 innings is, it hangs over the memory of Wagner’s career. Which is why, as Rivera will and should waltz into Cooperstown, Wagner will likely get only a handful of votes, as grand a career as he had.

6 thoughts on “Wagnerian Tragedy”

  1. Surprising that Rivera’s walks and strikeouts less hitters in the postseason yet gives up less hits than the regular season. BR.com doesn’t list his BABIP for the playoffs but it looks to be around .200 or so. So is Rivera just the “luckiest” pitcher ever?

  2. It’s still the Ruth comparison. No matter how good you are (and every Met and future Yankee closer will now, and later see), you are compared to Mariano. Gossage can’t hold up, and he was magnificent.
    One of the ways that Mariano is unique is that is “so called” bad seasons simply aren’t there. He goes from great to awesome to amazing to simply great to still among the two or three best. You really have to get to Walter Johnson to see that kind of career. Another thing to Mariano is, as you’ve shown, his elevation in the playoffs. Wagner getting worse is no shock. Most do, because you are playing against the best in the game or as as aware of the moment as you are. Mariano has this extraordinary ability to not really care—Cliff Lee seems to have it as well. It’s baseball, OK, time to pitch.
    It didn’t happen to Mickey or Willie, if only because reporters who vote for the HOF can be morons, but Mariano is popular, intelligent, easy for reporters to speak to, and great. Meaning he just might become the first unanimous selection. Five years after he retires at age 73.

  3. I’d make the argument for Goose over Mariano in the regular season, or at least I would have a few years ago based on him carrying heavier workloads; by now, Mariano’s prime is half again as long as Goose’s, so that largely balances it out.
    But the postseason puts it out of reach.
    If you look at seasons of 50+ innings with an ERA+ of at least 150 – which is real dominance – Rivera’s had 13 of those, the most of anybody; Hoyt Wilhelm had 12, Lefty Grove 11, Wagner & Clemens 10 each, Maddux 9, Walter & Randy Johnson and the Goose 8, and Pedro, Mathewson, John Franco, Trevor Hoffman and Roberto Hernandez 7 each. (Obviously the names you get at this point show how much easier this is as a reliever – Bob Wickman did it 6 times). If you up the standard to an ERA+ of 175, Rivera’s first with 12 seasons, and Randy Johnson’s a distant second with 7. If you go to 200, Rivera’s still got 11 seasons, Pedro and Joe Nathan are way back at 5, Wagner and Walter Johnson at 4 each.

  4. Another perspective would be that Wagner appears to be done at 38. SINCE he turned 39 Mariano is 6-6 with 77 saves, an ERA of 1.78, an ERA+ of 250, 117 Ks, 23 BBs and a WHIP of 0.86. There also appears to be no stopping him. How much longer will this freak of nature continue to pitch in the AL East for God’s sake? 5 more years? 10? 50?

  5. This is almost like the old Bill James peak vs. career lists. In one corner, we have the blazing starters, who flamed up, were brilliant almost beyond imagination, and then their bodies let them know that there are limits to homo sapiens:
    Sandy Koufax, Dizzie Dean and Pedro Martinez
    Then you have the lifers, who have one brilliant season after another, with a few that is as brilliant, maybe even better, than the flames (I won’t say flamers, sorry).
    Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Lefty Grove (he’s a hybrid isn’t he?)
    You have a couple of misfits of course:
    Dazzy Vance and Steve Carlton, who got better with age. And of course, the mutant, in Nolan Ryan (I’m not a Ryan fan. A freak of nature, but he was too much like his football twin, Dan Marino, did lots of things insanely better than anyone, but somehow, just missed being the all arounder that a team really needed).
    Flames, careerists, and now relievers. Who went from some very good seasons, Hoyt Wilhelm, to great seasons with some good ones, Gossage, Sutter and Eckersly (who benefited from being the first of his kind as wrought by LaRussa). Where do you put Mariano? His worst year is most people’s best year, he not only pitches well, except for one lousy moment in 2001, he fields his position great, he’s essentially the Death Star of baseball. You show up, you know you are done. And just when you think someone is rising up better, they find out just out hard it is, and yet Phoenix Rivera just flies through their ashes.
    I omitted likely cheaters like Clemens.

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