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Billy Wagner and the Keltner List

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

One thing I strive for when I write about the Hall of Fame is to consider each player with a consistent, and as objective as possible, method. It's why, each year, I try out different methods to look at a player, in the hope I can shed light on different aspects on each player's case. This year I struggle a bit more than usual writing about "Hall of Fame" moments for each player. I wrote about Jeff Kent differently than normal, and I will take another break to discuss Billy Wagner, who's case gained steam after Mariano Rivera earned induction into the Hall of Fame (his support doubled from 16.7% in 2019 to 31.7% last year).

I do not shy away from the fact I struggle with relievers in the Hall of Fame, and I hope to show why today by using a different tool in Hall of Fame analysis: the Keltner List. Bill James created this list to combat a Bud Selig argument for Ken Keltner to earn induction into the Hall of Fame. The list is pretty simple, and is a fairly subjective analysis. The questions asked of each player are:

1. Was he ever considered the best player in baseball?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position?
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after he passed his prime?
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history outside the Hall of Fame?
7. Are most players with comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
8. Do the players numbers meet the Hall of Fame standards? (Can be found here)
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
10. Is he the best player eligible for the Hall of Fame at his position but not in?
11. How many MVP seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP? How many years was he close?
12. How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star Games did he make? Did most of the other players who played in this many games enter the Hall of Fame?
13. If this man was the best player on his team would it be likely that his team win the pennant?
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment or techniques?
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, asks us to consider?

Obviously this list is quite extensive. To quickly run through an example, let's say Bob Feller, to show how it works:

1. Yes. Feller was considered the best pitcher in baseball in his prime both before WWII and briefly afterwards
2. Yes. Feller was probably the best player in Cleveland from 1939-1947
3. Yes. Feller was the best pitcher in baseball in his prime, from 1938-1948
4. Yes. Feller only largely impacted the 1948 pennant race and the 1940 race
5. Debatable. Feller declined quickly in his 30s
6. He was at the time of his eligibility
7. Yes
8. Yes
9. Debatable. Feller struggled with walks his entire career, and that likely would dampen his perception in the modern era
10. He was at the time of his eligibility
11. Four ('46, '41, '40, '39)
12. Six All-Star seasons, he played in seven games. This is somewhat low for a Hall of Famer, but more common from players of his era
13. Yes
14. Feller broke the power of Minor League Baseball, and is an inspiration for baseball legends like the Field of Dreams
15. Yes, Feller volunteered for war the day after Pearl Harbor

You get the idea. Bob Feller answers in the affirmative for 13 out of the 15 potential questions, and you can debate question nine.

Which brings us back to Billy Wagner, here is how I would answer the list for Wagner.

1. Was he ever considered the best player in baseball?

Answer: No. Wagner was never the best player in baseball, and frankly I do not think Wagner was ever close

2. Was he the best player on his team?

Answer: No. Wagner was an amazing closer, but Wagner never led his team in WAR, and was frequently never close

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position?

Answer: Probably. This one is tougher to measure, but Wagner led the league in games finished twice, and WPA once. I would suspect Wagner was likely the best closer in baseball (at least really darned close) in his prime.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Answer: Yes, but not usually in a positive manner. Wagner only ever pitched past the Division Series once, and was atrocious for the Mets giving up 5 runs in 2.2 innings. His postseason resume as a whole is pretty poor.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after he passed his prime?

Answer: Yes, Wagner posted one of his best seasons at 38 and retired to spend time with his family. Wagner could have continued and chose not to, which is commendable.

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history outside the Hall of Fame?

Answer: No, and I challenge anyone to convince me otherwise. I wouldn't place him in the top 25 either

7. Are most players with comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Answer: Debatable, I lean towards no. Wagner ranks 19th in baseball history for relievers in JAWS, and a vast majority of players ahead of him are not in the Hall of Fame. Then again it was not until quite recently that relievers were even considered Hall of Famers (except for Hoyt Willhelm, who took years to enter the Hall). Then again, if you dig into some of Wagner's stats you can make an argument that Wagner stands alone. Wagner's WAR does not look great, but his 187 ERA+ is better than any other reliever in the top 25 in JAWS besides Mariano Rivera. His strikeout rate statistics are phenomenal for pitchers with at least 800 IP.

It is notable that Jay Jaffe, the creator of the measure I like to use to group players, advocates for Wagner's entry into the Hall and uses several alternative WAR stats to show Wagner ranks in the top 5-10 all time in relievers, and not 19th.

To me, the question here is debatable. At 900 innings: Wagner would represent an anomaly. The pitcher with the fewest innings currently in the Hall is Bruce Sutter at 1,042 innings, which means Wagner has about 10% fewer than him. Overall, this is a subjective call, and one I feel ambivalent about. I do agree that Wagner was more dominant than similar inductees like Smith, Sutter, & Hoffman. But I am also not convinced any of those three belong in the Hall. They all also have other attributes Wagner lacks, which we will discuss later.

8. Do the players numbers meet the Hall of Fame standards? (Can be found here)

Answer: No, although Wagner does score a 107 "A likely Hall of Famer" in the alternative Hall of Fame monitor metric.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Answer: this goes back to how you feel about question seven. I think there is strong evidence that WAR underrates, or is at least an incomplete metric, for relievers which would benefit Wagner in our analysis.

10. Is he the best player eligible for the Hall of Fame at his position but not in?

Answer: In my opinion: no. I think Bobby Shantz is an underrated reliever who belongs in the Hall of Fame and is quite overlooked, dare I say forgotten. Alternatively, there are other relievers who are at least about as good as Wagner also outside the Hall. Dan Quisenberry's case is similar to Wagner's, as is Joe Nathan's.

11. How many MVP seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP? How many years was he close?

Answer: Billy Wagner never posted an MVP season, nor do I think he was ever close.

12. How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star Games did he make? Did most of the other players who played in this many games enter the Hall of Fame?

Answer: Wagner made seven All-Star Games. I am not sure how to answer "All-Star" worthy seasons, since it's pretty easy for players to make the game this year. If we consider every year Wagner pitched a full season with an ERA under 3 he posted 13 All-Star seasons. If we go by saves, he posted 9 seasons with at least 30 saves. Overall, Wagner played in 7 All-Star Games, which is high historically for a closer. Only Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage and Hoyt Willhelm attended more. Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, & Rollie Fingers also attended 7, which places Wagner in good company on this front.

13. If this man was the best player on his team would it be likely that his team win the pennant?

Answer: I considered writing this entire article around this question, and it's why I think we've inducted too many closers into the Hall of Fame. The reality is: if Billy Wagner was the best player on your team: you're likely missing the playoffs, let alone winning the World Series. Many great teams included superior closers, but there are no great teams built around superior closers. Wagner's best season came in 2003, and he posted a 3.4 bWAR. This is a great score for a reliever, but it's not particularly impressive. That was Jose Ramirez's mediocre 2019 season, for instance. Jose Ramirez was not the best player on the 2019 Indians and that team missed the playoffs.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment or techniques?

Answer: Bluntly: no to all of them. This, to me, is also what differentiates Wagner from most of the other relievers in the Hall of Fame. Let's consider the eight relievers currently in the Hall in order of JAWS:

Dennis Eckersley. Eck leads relievers in JAWS, but much of this is an illusion. Dennis started his career as a starter, and at first he was a great one. In his first five seasons Eck averaged over 5 bWAR. He probably could have won a Cy Young Award in 1979 (he lacked the win total). He quickly declined, and spent seven more seasons vacillating between a solid to mediocre starter. Then, at 32, he became a closer in the mold of Goose Gossage. He posted several legendary seasons, and then spent his late 30s and 40s as a now traditional closer (pitching largely one inning) pioneering the role, and collected a bunch of empty saves. Eck's position in history rests on being both a great fireman closer, and a pioneer as a one inning closer.

Mariano Rivera. The best reliever in history by unanimous acclimation. Mariano holds the saves record, the record for best ERA+ minimum 1,000 IP. Mariano has a case for the best pitcher in postseason history, and proved he was capable of pitching more than the standards of a 1 inning closer allowed. Mo transcends the position.

Goose Gossage. Gossage was not as good as Mariano, but he also transcended the limits of his position to dominate the game. Gossage was also excellent in the postseason as well. More importantly, Gossage was part of a pioneering class of closers who changed how baseball viewed relief pitchers. This, in many ways, changed the game. While it would be unfair to attribute this entirely to Gossage, Gossage certainly played his part.

Hoyt Wilhelm. "Sarge" is unusual on this list because he started pitching in the 1950s, long before relievers were considered anything more than failed starters. Wilhelm is the only reliever pre-1970s who made the All-Star game more than three times. Hoyt also pitched forever, and I mean forever. He retired at 49 for Los Angeles. Wilhelm, in many ways, overcame the stigma of his position from his time period.

Lee Smith. If Eckersley pioneered the one inning closer, Smith mastered the art. Although, Smith's impact on the closer's role I suspect is overstated. He too spent the first part of his career as a fireman reliever, and then spent the remainder of his career as a successful one inning closer, who was occasionally great. He lasted longer than most of his peers and briefly held the saves record, until Hoffman and Rivera came along and smashed it.

Bruce Sutter. Sutter was also a pioneer for the reliever position, but importantly he also helped pioneer the use of the split fingered fastball. I don't know how true this is, but it's a compelling story and probably helped his Hall of Fame case.

Trevor Hoffman. Wagner sits between Sutter and Hoffman in JAWS, and I think this is about where Wagner would fall on my reliever rankings. Which, to me, is sort of the crux of my argument: there are probably a dozen relievers in baseball history who rank somewhere around Hoffman, Wagner, Smith and Sutter. But there's a difference between them that's important. Smith & Sutter we already discussed as pioneers (of various sorts), and Hoffman is different because he lasted forever and became the first pitcher to record 500, and then 600, saves. Being the first is important, and in some ways means Hoffman changed baseball history.

Rollie Fingers. Fingers, might, be the worst pitcher in this group. Then again: Fingers is basically the only one of the four to boast a superior postseason record. Fingers pitched brilliantly for three consecutive years in the World Series for Oakland, and was the MVP of the World Series in 1974. It is the postseason greatness of Fingers which, I think separates him from the pack.

Which brings us back to Wagner. Wagner was not a historically long lasting pitcher, he was not a pioneer or instrumental in changing baseball.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, asks us to consider?

Answer: I am unaware of any disqualifying behavior from Wagner.

Outlook

Look, I am not here to say Wagner is not a Hall of Famer, I really do not have an issue with Wagner entering the Hall of Fame. My issue is with the current rush of relievers earning induction into the Hall of Fame. Were any of these pitchers, even Mariano, better than Johan Santana? Or Bret Saberhagen? Or Kevin Brown? Or Dwight Gooden? There are dozens of starters who provided more value in their careers than all of these relievers. The most important event in all of these relievers' careers was being a failed starter. Which, to me, suggests there's something more special about the position than these pitchers, that being that the role is far less demanding than other roles.

As for Wagner's outstanding peripherals, I would ask this: if Wagner's peripherals were so great, why was his career so alike many other pitchers with worse peripherals? John Franco saved just as many games despite posting far worse peripherals. Same with Francisco Rodriguez. Trevor Hoffman recorded nearly 200 more saves despite being an objectively worse pitcher at striking out batters and run prevention. We also know: it does not take a great pitcher to lead the league in saves. Joe Borowski did just fine in 2007 despite posting an ERA over 5. Wagner's peripherals are commendable, unfortunately he wasted them in a role where they meant far less to his team than elsewhere.

Conclusion

In my mind, Wagner is clearly not a Hall of Famer. Closers, to me, are like punters in football: you can find them anywhere (probably poached from a different sport), and it takes a lot to transcend the position. Wagner was an excellent closer for a number of years. If you're a big reliever fan: Wagner's case is similar to several other relievers already in the Hall and thus arguably worthy of induction. I am not saying that having many relievers in the Hall is objectively wrong just that I think (in this case) the old school wisdom on relievers is the correct one: they're generally failed starters and not worth as much.

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