Baseball BeatAugust 29, 2005
Billy Wagner: Time to Give Him His Due
By Rich Lederer

Which active pitcher in the big leagues has the best collection of career rate stats? Pedro Martinez? Randy Johnson? Roger Clemens? Greg Maddux? Nope. Ahh, it must be a relief pitcher, ehh? Mariano Rivera? Trevor Hoffman? Eric Gagne? Wrong again.

The answer, my friends, is Billy Wagner. Yes, Billy Wagner. He is number one in hits (5.87), baserunners (9.28), and strikeouts (11.97) per nine innings, and is in a virtual tie for third with Hoffman behind Martinez and Curt Schilling in strikeouts/walks (3.84) while ranking second behind Rivera in ERA (2.44).

Having the best rate stats doesn't make Wagner the best pitcher in baseball, but it might make him the most underrated. Martinez, Johnson, Clemens, Maddux, and several other starters have been more valuable than the 34-year-old native of Virginia because they have pitched many, many more innings. Total value is determined by rate stats times volume and Wagner simply doesn't have the latter to be considered on a par with the starters. However, Billy Wags is the best of the best when it comes to measuring performance on a per at-bat or inning basis.

Without the fanfare of a Rivera, William Edward Wagner is having one of the best seasons of any reliever this year. He is 4-1 with 31 saves and a 1.65 ERA. Billy has allowed only 36 hits and 15 walks while striking out 62 batters in 60 innings.

Wagner has been hotter than a Philadelphia summer day the past six weeks. The Phillies go-to-guy hasn't allowed a run since July 19, a scoreless streak covering 16 games and 16 2/3 innings. He has given up just five hits and one walk while saving all 11 opportunities.

Far from a summer fling or one-year wonder, Wagner has been dominating opposing batters his entire career.

          IP    H    R   ER   HR   BB   SO   W   L   SV   ERA
Career   614  400  177  166   58  212  815  34  30  277  2.44

* through 8/28/05

Remarkably, the left-hander has racked up more than two Ks for every hit allowed. He struck out more than a batter per inning at every stop in the minors and majors, including over 1.5 per inning from 1997-1999. As the winner of the National League Rolaids Relief Award in 1999, he established a big-league record for strikeouts per nine innings (14.95)--a mark since topped by Gagne (14.98) in 2003, a season some believe to be the best ever by a reliever.

In addition to his strikeout prowess, it should be noted that Wagner has never allowed an on-base plus slugging average of .600 in any campaign other than his injury-shortened season in 2000. His career OPS is .557. To put that in perspective, Alberto Castillo, with the worst OPS among active players at .592, has been a more productive hitter throughout his career than the average batter vs. the four-time All-Star (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005).

Like almost all closers today, Wagner, for the most part, is now a one-inning pitcher. However, that wasn't always the case. Going back to his rookie year in 1996, Billy, in a period encompassing less than 30 days, pitched 3 1/3 innings on June 6, 2 1/3 on June 13, 3 on June 14, 2 2/3 on June 20, and 3 2/3 on July 2. On those back-to-back outings on the 13th and 14th of June, he gave up one hit and one walk while striking out six. Seven of the eight outs on the 20th of June were Ks.

Although Wagner has never started a game at the major-league level, he was used exclusively as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Wagner started all 70 games he pitched, throwing 402 innings while compiling a 3.20 ERA. In 1994, Wagner had 204 Ks in just 153 IP at Single-A Quad City. But that was nothing compared to what he did in college.

Wagner, while posting a 17-3 record in three years at Ferrum College (VA), set the Division III mark for career strikeouts with 327 in 182 1/3 IP. He still holds the single-season NCAA records for K/9 IP (19.1) and fewest H/9 IP (1.58) as well as the career record for fewest H/9 IP (2.22). Yes, you read those numbers right. He averaged more than 19 Ks and fewer than two hits per 9 IP as a sophomore in 1992.

Selected by the Houston Astros in the 1st round (12th pick) of the 1993 amateur draft, Wagner made his MLB debut on September 13, 1995. He pitched well as the setup man in 1996, giving management the confidence to trade closer Todd Jones to the Detroit Tigers in December. Wagner became the ace in 1997, a position he held until the Astros traded him to the Phillies in November 2003 in a move designed to free up salary that was later used to sign Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.

While Houston's Brad Lidge emerged as one of the most dominating closers in baseball last year, Wagner was beset by injuries which limited him to 45 appearances in his first year with Philadelphia. Healthy in 2005, the 5-foot-11, 201-pound reliever is one of the principal reasons the Phillies have the inside track on the Wild Card berth in the NL. A free agent at the end of the year, Wagner, who is making $9 million this season, reportedly turned down a two-year, $16-million contract with a club option for 2008. He is believed to be seeking a three-year, $24-million deal with a no-trade clause.

No stranger to physical pain while growing up, Wagner broke his right arm twice playing football. With his throwing arm in a cast, Billy began to toss the ball left-handed and, as they say, the rest is history. Although Wagner eats and writes with his right hand, he throws his signature 100-MPH fastball as a southpaw. He also mixes in a 86-90 MPH slider, which breaks in on RHB and down and away on LHB. Over the years, he has learned to pitch on both sides of the plate and is almost unhittable when he throws his gas up in the strike zone.

* * * * *

At a minimum, Wagner is the best left-handed relief pitcher in history.


1    John Franco                 424   
2    Randy Myers                 347   
3    Billy Wagner                277
4    Dave Righetti               252   
5    Sparky Lyle                 238

* through 8/28/05

Although John Franco and Randy Myers have more saves than Wagner, their peripheral stats don't compare to the new kid on the block.

            ERA   WHIP   BAA    K/9   BB/9   K/BB
Franco     2.89   1.33  .249    7.0    3.6   1.97
Myers      3.19   1.30  .233    9.0    4.0   2.23
Wagner     2.44   1.00  .184   12.0    3.1   3.84

* through 8/28/05

Not only does Wagner have a better career ERA than Franco and Myers, he sits atop all left-handed relievers in this department.

(SAVES >= 100)

                                 ERA       SV     
1    Billy Wagner               2.44      246   
2    Ron Perranoski             2.79      179   
3    John Hiller                2.83      125   
4    Sparky Lyle                2.88      238   
5    John Franco                2.89      424

* through 8/28/05

Forget relief pitchers. Wagner is one of the best lefties period. Don't believe me? Check out the following tables.


ERA                             DIFF   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Billy Wagner               1.78     2.52     4.31   
2    Lefty Grove                1.36     3.06     4.42   
3    Randy Johnson              1.28     3.07     4.35   
4    Lefty Gomez                1.16     3.34     4.50   
5    Barry Zito                 1.15     3.41     4.56
1    Billy Wagner               3.39     9.46    12.85   
2    Johan Santana              2.17    10.91    13.08   
3    Carl Hubbell               2.14    10.62    12.77   
4    Randy Johnson              2.08    10.88    12.95   
5    Lefty Grove                2.04    11.60    13.63
HITS/9 IP                       DIFF   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Billy Wagner               3.11     5.93     9.03   
2    Herb Score                 2.39     6.39     8.78   
3    Randy Johnson              2.15     6.98     9.13   
4    Sandy Koufax               1.95     6.79     8.74   
5    Johan Santana              1.89     7.48     9.37
STRIKEOUTS/9 IP                 DIFF   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Billy Wagner               5.48    12.26     6.78   
2    Randy Johnson              4.84    11.12     6.28   
3    Herb Score                 4.05     8.78     4.73   
4    Sandy Koufax               3.71     9.27     5.57   
5    Rube Waddell               3.39     7.04     3.65

* through 2004

But, wait a minute, Wagner might even be better than advertised. You see, he has pitched more than half of his career in home ballparks (Enron/Minute Maid and Citizen's Bank) that are considered unfriendly to pitchers.

Career Home and Road Splits:

         ERA   WHIP   BAA 
Home     2.80  1.03  .199 
Away     2.03  0.96  .168

* through 8/28/05

Another factor working against Wagner is that 54% of his games and innings pitched have been at home. His adjusted Earned Run Average (ERA+), which assumes a 50-50 home/road split, was 169 going into this season. By comparison, Pedro Martinez, the all-time leader among those with a minimum of 1000 IP, 3000 PA and 100 decisions, had a career ERA+ of 167 entering 2005. (Note: Rivera betters both with a 190.)

Based on rate stats, Wagner is unquestionably one of the best active pitchers, left-handed relievers, and southpaws in the history of the game. Playing outside New York and unable to work his magic in the World Series, the man some call Canned Heat has flown under the radar screen for nearly ten years. It is high time we begin to recognize his greatness.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]


It's been fun to watch Wagner this year, and to be honest, I didn't realize how well his stats matched up to other relievers in history. Pretty impressive. He has turned things up a notch this year, and I think it is because he added (or sharpened) a slider. Coincidentally, I wrote something today on the prospects of keeping him in Philly. Time will tell.

Great analysis, I guess part of the reason his success hasn't yieled much publicity is because of his lack of post-season appearances (esp. compared to Rivera).

One question/thought...Isn't ERA+ a little flawed when it comes to relievers? I would imagine that, much like ERA and some of the other rate states (K-rate, K/BB, BAA/OBPA), it is especially faulty when trying to make comparisons with starters.

As an aside: What is quite striking is that starters like Koufax, Johnson, and Johan are/were able to put up similar rate stats to top tier relievers, all while pitching 200+ innings

Billy Wagner is one of my favorite closers and is underrated by far. Doesnt seem like the Phils are too keen on re-signing him since they have great bullpen guys besides him. I am hoping my team, the Chicago Cubs, wake up and realize they need an automatic closer such as Wagner and sign him this off-season. He would look mighty fine in Cubby Blue!

Mariano Rivera is one of the greatest post-season pitchers in the history of baseball. It's amazing to think that he has pitched more than 100 innings in the playoffs and World Series. I mean, what can you say about a guy who has an 8-1 record, a 0.75 ERA, and 32 saves in 70 games? Rivera has earned the publicity granted him.

With respect to ERA+, I wouldn't use that as a standalone stat when it comes to relief pitchers. ERA and adjusted ERA are not the best measures when evaluating the effectiveness of relievers. My favorite stat is Win Probability Added, but I'm not aware of a historical database that provides this info. Absent WPA, I like to use more simple, understandable stats, such as BAA/OBP/SLG (OPS), WHIP (or BR/9), H/9, K/9, HR/9, K/BB, and G/F ratios. All of these stats are intuitive and can be understood while watching a game.

Re rate stats of a starter vs. a reliever, the starter has to be given the edge if the numbers are at all close. They beat relievers up and down and around when it comes to the number of batters faced, innings pitched, etc. I generally don't mix the two when comparing numbers, but I chose to do so this time because I wanted to make a point about just how good Wagner has been.