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):
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:
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.