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Appreciating the historic, unhittable greatness of Billy Wagner

Oct 12, 2010, 12:49 PM EDT

Billy Wagner’s phenomenal career ending with him leaving a save situation and limping off the field before being replaced on the playoff roster due to an oblique injury is all kinds of not fair, but the diminutive flame-thrower remained a badass until the very end, agreeing to a pair of injections for the slim chance it would allow him to pitch again because he “didn’t care about the risk of long-term injury.”
My hope is that the unfortunate manner his career ended doesn’t take anything away from how spectacular he was for 15 seasons. Wagner is a seven-time All-Star who ranks fifth all time with 422 saves, but a deeper look at his career numbers reveals his true dominance.
For instance, among all the pitchers in baseball history with at least 800 career innings Wagner has the highest strikeout rate:

                     SO/9
BILLY WAGNER        11.92
Randy Johnson       10.61
Kerry Wood          10.35
Pedro Martinez      10.04
Nolan Ryan           9.55

That’s a pretty amazing list to sit atop. Not coincidentally, he’s also the all-time leader in fewest hits allowed per nine innings:

                     H/9
BILLY WAGNER        5.99
Herb Score          6.39
Nolan Ryan          6.56
Sandy Koufax        6.79
J.R. Richard        6.88

Wagner is also the all-time leader in adjusted ERA+ among all left-handed relievers with at least 800 innings:

                      ERA+
BILLY WAGNER          187
John Franco           138
John Hiller           134
Sparky Lyle           128
Jesse Orosco          126

The degree to which Wagner blows away the rest of the lefty reliever competition in ERA+ is ridiculous. To put those numbers in some context, consider that the difference between Wagner at 187 and second-place John Franco at 138 is bigger than the difference between Franco at 138 and, say, Scott Schoeneweis at 92.
And here’s how Wagner ranks in ERA+ among all relievers with 800-plus career innings:

                      ERA+
Mariano Rivera        204
BILLY WAGNER          187
Hoyt Wilhelm          147
Dan Quisenberry       147
Trevor Hoffman        141

Highest strikeout rate of all time, fewest hits per nine innings of all time, best ERA+ ever by a left-handed reliever, and second-best ERA+ among all relievers behind only Mariano Rivera. I really hope everyone who saw Wagner limp off the mound Friday night realizes they saw the end of one of the most extraordinarily dominant reliever careers in baseball history.
In his final season, at age 38, he saved 37 games with a 1.43 ERA, .159 opponents’ batting average, and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. I hope Wagner enjoys his retirement, because I know National League hitters will.

  1. Mr. Heyward - Oct 12, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    Thanks for posting this, I knew he was a badass but this sheds some light on how badassy he is/was. Not an ideal way to end a career but I’m sure in short time people will look at those career numbers and remember him by that more than anything.

  2. Aarcraft - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    Hall of Fame? Or is the third best closer of the era, behind Hoffman and Rivera, going to get left out in the cold.

  3. ultimatecardinalwarrior - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:17 PM

    I’m sure by the time he’s eligible, the stat guys will have infiltrated enough into the sportswriters that he’ll be able to make it in. Those numbers are crazy.

  4. dave mac - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Third best? Hoffman isn’t even close…

  5. dave mac - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    Third best? Hoffman isn’t even close…

  6. Conor - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    Don’t forget about his postseason brilliance: 11 2/3 innings, 21 hits, 3 HRs, 10.03 ERA, 1.971 WHIP.

  7. bmoline - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Yeah, because 11 2/3 innings is a HUGE sample size…

  8. ebraves - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    I wonder who’s hat he wears when he’s elected into the Hall…

  9. Jonny5 - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    It was the story of the Braves this season though Heyward. It’s very fitting that he goes down with everyone else.. pretty much.

  10. bofarr - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    If elected I can’t imagine it is as anything but an Astro.

  11. Infield Fly - Oct 12, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    Yeah, but he’s still pissed about the way it went down when Houston traded him. Wouldn’t surprise me if his preference would be as a Brave, though it would never actually happen.

  12. The Steve Jeltz Experiment - Oct 12, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    Has to be an Astro when he’s inducted. I say when because those numbers are otherworldly, and worthy of induction. Doesn’t mean the sportswriters won’t screw it up.

  13. Utley's hair - Oct 12, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    Based on how often a vast majority of players get to see postseason play, yes it is a sizable sample size.

  14. Aarcraft - Oct 12, 2010 at 2:46 PM

    you might be right, but Hoffman will certainly get in before him.

  15. Aarcraft - Oct 12, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    my understanding is the player doesn’t have a say anymore.

  16. Chipmaker - Oct 12, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    I remember when he was Billy the Kid back in Houston. Great days, great days.

  17. ebraves - Oct 12, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    I’m positive Andre Dawson made the choice to go with Expos. I remember there was a stink over Cubs not retiring his number because she didn’t pick cubs.

  18. Route36West - Oct 12, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    I wonder if we would have gotten this feel good post if he signed with another team this year instead of the Braves.

  19. crkreg - Oct 12, 2010 at 6:06 PM

    Those are hollow numbers and you know it. He was a loser everywhere he played. He never got the job done when it counted most, in Houston, Philly, New York, Boston, and now Atlanta. He had a chance to be a difference maker in all five places and couldn’t handle the pressure. He was a terrible teammate who cared only about himself. I hope he stays retired that way he’ll go out a loser like always.
    Good day to you Billy.

  20. Halo Fan - Oct 12, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    Officials from the Hall of Fame now make all cap selections. ebraves, you are incorrect. Dawson is on record as preferring a Cubs cap; the Hall chose otherwise.

  21. BoySpunOut - Oct 12, 2010 at 7:20 PM

    Yeah, cause you know, Gleeman is notorious on the web for his love of the Braves.

  22. schmedley - Oct 12, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    Very good player, but I hated him for all of the idiotic things that he said when he was with the Phillies. Just a negative ion who always had a complaint about someone or something. Good riddance to a bad guy!

  23. smootysmoot - Oct 13, 2010 at 2:02 AM

    @schmedley
    if u dont know the guy personally, i would keep my mouth shut. it makes u look stupid

  24. Benny Blanco - Oct 13, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    Whats makes you so certain?

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