Billy Wagner on Hall of Fame: 'I was talked about as one of the best'

'Cooperstown Chances' examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. This week: Billy Wagner, who appears on the ballot for the first time this year.Who he is:

Billy Wagner has heard some of the arguments against his Hall of Fame case. Wagner played 16 years in the majors, racking up 422 saves, but partly due to pitcher usage rates for his era, he retired with just 903 innings. Every reliever who’s gone in the Hall of Fame has had at least 1,000 innings, though Bruce Sutter appeared in 192 fewer games than Wagner. Trevor Hoffman, who’s also new to the BBWAA ballot this year, checked out of the majors in 2010 with 1,089 1/3 innings. MORE: The most iconic moment for every team"I've heard you gotta have 1,000 innings, but I've probably got better numbers than the guys that have got 1,000 innings,” Wagner told Sporting News. “Should they be in the Hall of Fame if I've got better numbers at 900 innings than they do at 1,000 innings?" The long-time Astros closer and seven-time All Star presents one of the most interesting cases on the writers ballot this year. If one strictly rates relievers by saves, Wagner suffers as he trails Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith who might get enshrined before him and John Franco, who’s unlikely to ever get close. Many people also still haven’t warmed to the idea of enshrining relief pitchers. The deeper one digs into Wagner’s numbers, though, the more impressive he becomes. He’s already gaining momentum among the sabermetrically inclined.On a crowded ballot, there’s a chance Wagner could draw less than five percent of the vote and thus be disqualified from future ballots. He’s got a numbers-heavy case, and that doesn’t always jibe with voters. Closers benefit with Hall of Fame voters if they have the color of a Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage or Dennis Eckersley along with impressive stats. Some Hall of Fame closers have also needed time to build their cases such as Sutter who was enshrined in his 13th year on the BBWAA ballot. But the BBWAA now has just 10 years to consider players.It’s not impossible Wagner can surmount these odds and win induction with the writers, though his chances are less than what they perhaps should be. And don’t expect Wagner’s odds to improve if he’s relegated to the Expansion Era Committee down the road. No veterans group at the Hall of Fame has enshrined a closer.But Wagner’s optimistic about his chances this year."I don't know really know how voters vote and what they're comparing to what,” Wagner said. “In my decade, I was talked about as one of the best. I don't know how far that goes. I know that I had a very solid career, and I think that there's not many people that have done what I've done."Cooperstown chances: 30 percentWhy: Perhaps Jayson Stark of said it best when he posted stats for Rivera, Hoffman and Wagner in a recent piece.“Is it clear, from looking at them, which of those three relievers was the greatest of all time?” Stark wrote. “It may be to those of you who play really close attention. But the point is, they're closer than you think.”Rivera’s in a class all by himself as a relief pitcher, his 652 saves best in baseball history and his 32.7 Wins Above Average roughly twice as good as any reliever aside from Hoyt Wilhelm. But after the surprisingly underrated Wilhelm who comes in at 26.9 WAA, Wagner is third best among all relievers at 16.5 WAA.Expect at least a few writers to describe Hoffman as the National League version of Rivera during the years they pitched. That title should belong to Wagner who trounces Hoffman in WAA, ERA+, FIP, and SO/9. Sure, Hoffman has 179 more saves, but the save’s long been exposed as an overrated stat for relievers. Like the RBIs for hitters, the save’s situation-dependent and tied more to one’s team than individual ability.Wagner’s greatness is evidenced in the variety of advanced metrics that rate him favorably. Among relievers with at least 500 career innings, Wagner has the best WHIP all-time at .998 and is tied with Brad Lidge for best SO/9 at 11.92. His 187 ERA+ is second all-time to Rivera’s 205, and his 2.73 FIP trails only Tom Henke’s 2.72.Wagner might have added another 100 saves if he hadn’t quit baseball for family reasons at age 39. Wagner retired after a sublime 2010 season with the Atlanta Braves where he went 7-2 with a 1.43 ERA and 37 saves. If it’s not the best final season by a reliever, it’s right up there.Per the Play Index tool, Wagner is one of 17 relievers in baseball history with at least 1 Win Above Average in their final season. Wagner and Rivera are the only two people in this group to walk away from baseball voluntarily. The majority didn’t play again due to injuries. Two died. One was cut after refusing to shag fly balls during practice.Wagner told Sporting News he retired to spend more time with his family. He has four children, ages eight to 17 and said his son was playing travel baseball and getting ready to start high school when he walked away from the majors.“I come from southwest Virginia where we don't get everybody else to do our work," Wagner said. "We have to stay with our families and do what's necessary. I played a great number of years, and I've been very successful. I didn't need to play another year or two years to earn money or whatever. I needed to be with my family to help them start their careers."Wagner coaches his son’s varsity baseball team at the Miller School of Ablemarle in Charlottesville, Va. and is also JV coach. He doesn’t regret his decision."I think if I'd have known I was going to love coaching so much,” Wagner said, “I probably would have retired earlier."'Cooperstown Chances' examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. Series author and Sporting News contributor Graham Womack writes regularly about the Hall of Fame and other topics related to baseball history at his website,  Baseball: Past and Present  . Follow him on Twitter: @grahamdude .

About the author