FOX Sports MLB Analyst
A grand total of 22,858 human beings have played in Major League Baseball. Only 270 of them have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only six—Goose Gossage, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman and Rollie Fingers—were shutouts. John Smoltz, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm also pitched in heavy relief, but Smoltz and Eckersley started a ton and Wilhelm was far from a contemporary-style closer. So six is the number.
There are 27 first basemen, 26 shortstops and 79 starting pitchers. And while relief pitching has only worked in the modern sense for less than a third of baseball’s existence, the lack of bronze-plate relievers in Cooperstown is glaring. It’s a problem that won’t be solved anytime soon, a problem that will only get worse as the years go by.
On Tuesday afternoon, Billy Wagner, one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball history, was not inducted into the Hall. His 2.31 ERA and career 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 422 saves received 68.1% of the vote, just short of the 75% required for induction. While there’s still a good chance he’ll be introduced during his final two years of eligibility, his continued omission would create a fascinating looming conundrum for the game’s trio of rapidly aging generational relievers: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. That’s because Wagner is, has been, and will continue to be a case study of what it means, in the voters’ eyes, to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.
To succeed as a reliever, you have to start by failing as a starter. Most relievers (Jansen being an exception) began their careers either in high school, college or the minor leagues as a starting pitcher. Bullpen arms are misfit toys who failed at the toughest job and are then recast into a simpler role, pitched and thrown into the bullpen for short bursts of high-level action.
Relievers, as a whole, have less impact on the game. Wagner pitched just 903 innings in the big leagues. I’m pretty sure 42-year-old Nolan Ryan topped that in a month with the 1989 Texas Rangers. That’s why Wagner compiled just 27.7 bWAR in his career, one tick less than Mike Trout since 2014 through 2016. If given a choice, you’d pick any Hall of Fame player or position holder over an elite scout.
But that’s not the point.
Wagner was successful in his role; to save baseball games and put hitters in late. His 422 saves ranks sixth all-time, ahead of Fingers, Gossage and Sutter. Wagner’s career 187 ERA+ is second best in history, behind only Rivera. His 1999 season, in which he struck out 124 batters in 74 innings with a 1.57 ERA, remains one of the most untouchable single-season performances in history. In all, the diminutive lefty rode his 90s heater to seven All-Star appearances over 16 seasons, retiring in 2010 as the first pitcher since 1910 with a career WHIP under 1.000.
All in all, it’s a quietly remarkable resume, albeit without postseason success. That is, for most voters, the most important issue in his case, especially when held alongside Rivera’s extravagant record of October magnificence. Wagner pitched just 11 2/3 innings in 14 playoff outings and allowed 13 runs. Over 141 postseason innings and 96 plate appearances, Rivera allowed 11 hits.
But comparing every reliever on the ballot to Rivera is like comparing every center fielder to Willie Mays or every catcher to Johnny Bench. It is a standard far beyond the level of consecration. Just because Rivera was arguably better than Wagner doesn’t mean Wagner isn’t worthy as well.
The Virginia native struck out more batters than almost anyone in an era just before the strikeout boom. In fact, the only three pitchers with a better career K/9 are the aforementioned Chapman/Kimbrel/Jansen trio. Wagner was the omen, Arcraigley Chapbrelsen was the wrath.
Like Wagner, this trio lacks flashy raw innings totals — Jansen leads the trio with 796 — but makes up for it with absolute dominance. All have career ERAs under 2.50, career K/9 rates over 13 and at least 300 saves. Given his steep decline in effectiveness, his relative lack of career saves, and his domestic violence suspension from 2015, Chapman won’t be in it (and in my opinion doesn’t deserve it), but his presence at the polls whenever the time comes he will surely do it. provoke a strong debate among voters.
But Kimbrel and Jansen, despite their longevity, despite their peak dominance, despite their impact on their era of baseball, will likely retire with resumes similar to, or even slightly weaker than, Wagner’s. Barring a late-career renaissance, neither is likely to surpass Wagner in career innings or career WAR.
The voters, therefore, have backed themselves into a corner, put themselves in a strange place. Jansen and Kimbrel certainly feel like Hall of Fame-level closers, if not them, who? — but a Hall with them and not Wagner would feel… strange, incomplete. There are two years left for the voters to right that wrong, push Wagner into Cooperstown and save themselves a lot of trouble in a few years.
Relievers are also people, undeniable and essential characters in baseball history. To ignore his accomplishments is to ignore an important part of MLB history. Hopefully, Wagner steps in soon and Jansen and Kimbrel one day follow in his closer footsteps.
Jake Mintz, the stronger half @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and therefore leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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