Richard Justice: Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame candidacy has been an interesting debate. Now let’s induct him. He deserves it.

1998, Unknown location, USA; FILE PHOTO; Houston Astros pitcher Billy Wagner in action on the mound during the 1998 season. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Billy Wagner’s Hall of Fame candidacy has been an interesting debate. Now let’s induct him. He deserves it.

   Billy Wagner had just finished off the San Francisco Giants one summer evening and was holding court with a few of us in front of his locker when someone tapped him on the shoulder and whispered: “Barry Bonds is on the phone.”

   Well, now. Wagner had struck out Bonds on a 100-mph fastball that night. At a time when most pitchers wouldn’t dare throw Bonds a pitch in the strike zone, the Astros closer had gone right after the most feared hitter in the game.

   In fact, at one point, as Wagner pumped fastball after fastball into the strike zone, first baseman Jeff Bagwell walked a few steps toward the mound and gently reminded his closer, who was standing at home plate.

   Wagner excused himself to take the telephone call from the visitor’s clubhouse that evening. When he returned, someone asked if that really was Bonds on the phone.

   “Yeah,” Wagner said.


   “He told me I’d better not throw one 99,” Wagner said, smiling.

   Bonds couldn’t catch up with Wagner’s 100-mph heater, and he was acknowledging that. But if Wagner messed up and threw one a mere 99 mph, a fan in the right field seats would be getting a souvenir.

   What Bonds actually was telling Wagner was that he’d loved the battle, and that he appreciated how fearless Wagner was, and that, unlike all those other pitchers, this battle of best-versus-best was the way it was supposed to be.

   This anecdote is not why Billy Wagner belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. All it does is speak to Wagner’s absolute dominance, guts, and reliability. Few players have ever been more interesting to watch or to cover.

   Wagner was a happy-go-lucky sort who spoke his mind, sometimes to his own detriment. His criticism of then-Astros owner Drayton McLane got him traded to the Phillies.

   When he returned to Minute Maid as a member of the Phillies, one of his kids asked: “Daddy, why don’t we play here anymore?”

   “Because your dad couldn’t keep his mouth shut,” Wagner shot back.

   All of which means nothing. He was a slam-dunk Hall of Famer during his 16-year career, nine of those with the Astros. Even better, his personal story was one of triumph and tragedy.

   From a 1999 Sports Illustrated profile: After his parents divorced in the ‘70s, “Billy and his younger sister bounced around in the care of his divorced (and remarried, and re-divorced) parents and both sets of grandparents. Poverty was a constant, food stamps an embarrassment; `[a] few crackers with peanut butter and a glass of water.’ was a typical breakfast.”

   Later, his wife’s father—who had become a father figure—and stepmother were murdered weeks before Wagner’s 1995 major league debut.

    In 853 appearances, all in relief, Wagner compiled a microscopic 2.31 ERA and 0.998 WHIP despite pitching in baseball’s steroid era. When he retired at 38 in 2010, he was still at the top of his game: 71 appearances and a 1.43 ERA for the Atlanta Braves.

   Five years later, Wagner appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, garnering just 10.5% of the vote, far below the 75% threshold for induction.

   His vote total has increased every season, and now at 51, he appears to be closing in on the game’s ultimate honor. He was named on 51% of the ballots in the 2022 balloting, and he’s close to the magical 75% mark in this year’s projections.

   Even if he lands just below 75%t when the Baseball Writers Association of America voting is announced on Jan. 24, he’ll have two more cracks at the traditional path into the Hall. Every candidate that has gotten at least 43.13% of the BBWAA vote eventually has gotten into the Hall of Fame, other than Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, who have other issues.

   Voters have wrestled with how to handle relievers in terms of the Hall of Fame since their innings total are far below that of a Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. On the other hand, as The Athletic’s Jayson Stark has noted, the game has changed. If Designated Hitters and closers are now part of the game, the best of them should be in the Hall of Fame.

   Wagner would be just the ninth full-time reliever to get the nod. Does he deserve it? Absolutely.

    He generated such velocity because his mechanics were breathtakingly efficient and because his legs—where the power is generated—were as solid as tree trunks.

    Among pitchers with at least 800 innings, his strikeout rate—11.9 batters per nine innings—is unmatched. According to Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame analysis, “Wagner’s 0.998 WHIP is in a virtual tie with Jacob deGrom for second all-time behind dead-ball era hurler Addie Joss (0.968).”

   More from Jaffe: “(Mariano) Rivera is the only post-1920 pitcher with a lower ERA (2.21) or higher ERA+ (205) than Wagner’s 2.31 and 187.”

    His 422 career saves are sixth on the all-time list behind Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), Francisco Rodriguez (437), and John Franco (424).

   Wagner was more dominant than any of them. As Jaffe writes: “He’s no Rivera, but hardly out of place in a group that includes Hoffman, Smith, (Rollie) Fingers, and (Bruce) Sutter.”

Billy is 51 now, and maybe being forced to wait for the telephone call will make him appreciate it even more. It hasn’t been fair, but as Joe Torre once said: “It’s the Hall of Fame. It’s supposed to be hard to get into.”

Bagwell was inducted in his seventh year on the ballot (2017). He savored every moment even though he shouldn’t have had to wait so long either. Regardless, Wagner appears to be trending in the right direction. Fingers crossed that Jan. 24 brings good news.

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  • My son played high school and travel baseball for Billy and I got to know him pretty well. I watched him teach kids the lessons of baseball. He took kids that hadn’t played baseball and would teach them and make players out of them. They won two state championships while my son played for him. He has seen several players that played for him get drafted. He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve ever met.

  • Wags was the best and this is a great article

    • My father is correct, great pitcher and great article…

  • I’ll never forget Billy coming back to pitch against the seniors at Ferrum during his rehab in the fall. It was one my fondest memories batting against him and watching him workout. Having drinks later and talking about his goal to raise alpacas was hilarious and he later made it happen. Most humble stud in the game. Hope he gets in.

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