- Billy the Kid
- July 25, 1971
- 5' 10"
- 180 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-13-1995 with HOU
- Allstar Selections:
- 1999 RR
When he announced his retirement after the 2010 season, Billy Wagner ranked # 5 on the all-time list for saves although he had never led the league in any season in that category.
Wagner, one of only four major leaguers out of Ferrum College, was a first-round pick in the 1993 amateur draft. In the minors, he was exclusively a starter, while in the majors he was exclusively a reliever.
His Adjusted ERA+ of 187 is higher than any player on the formal list (which requires a minimum of 1,000 innings, a total Wagner never reached), except for his contemporary Mariano Rivera. As a comparison, Pedro Martinez has an Adjusted ERA+ of 154, while Rivera was at 204 at the end of 2010.
Wagner made his first major league appearance with the Houston Astros in 1995. He only pitched a third of an inning that first season, but by the end of 1996, he had staked his claim as the Astros' closer, after saving 9 games with a 2.44 ERA in 37 outings. This would start a string of outstanding seasons, from 1997 to 2005, when he would save 20 or more game each year with an ERA no higher than 2.85. The only exception was 2000, when he was injured and limited to 19 ineffective games and went 2-4, 6.18. He came back strong in 2001, however, and even moving to the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade for Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth following the 2003 season did not slow him down. His personal best was 44 saves in his last season in Houston and he made the All-Star team four times, three times as an Astro and once as a Philly during those 11 seasons. He was also a strikeout machine during those years, three times topping 100 strikeouts, including a high of 124 in 1999 - even though he never pitched more than 86 innings. The only black mark on his record was his lack of postseason success: he failed to record a save in four different visits to the NLDS, giving up 5 runs on 8 hits in 5.2 innings as the Astros made a first-round exit all four years.
Wagner signed as a free agent with the New York Mets on November 28, 2005. He put up a number of solid seasons as the Mets' closer, even if marked with the occasional high-profile blown save. In 2006, he saved two games in the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers and got to pitch in the NLCS for the only time in his career. Things did not go as well for him in that round, though: he was charged with a loss and gave up 5 runs in 2.2 innings as the Mets bowed out to the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games. Shortly after being named to the 2008 All-Star Game, he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury in August 2008 and in early September, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the remainder of the season; it was expected that he would be out for all of 2009 as well. The Mets went into a tailspin after Wagner's injury in 2008, led by their bullpen's inability to hold on to late-inning leads, and were passed by the Phillies in the NL East, and on the season's last day by the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card.
With Wagner seemingly unavailable for 2009, the Mets went out and signed free agent closer Francisco Rodriguez and acquired former Seattle Mariners closer J.J. Putz in a trade to further bolster their bullpen. However, Wagner beat the odds by completing his rehabilitation from surgery in less than a year, going back on the mound for the Mets on August 20, with a fastball still clocked at 96 mph. The Mets had fallen well out of contention by that point, though, because of injuries to a number of key offensive players such as Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes. They decided to deal Wagner to the Boston Red Sox less than a week later, obtaining OF Chris Carter and Eddie Loria in return; speculation was that the Mets were concerned that Wagner would chose to accept salary arbitration after the season, placing the team in a financial quandary.
Wagner pitched well for the Red Sox over the last weeks of 2009, putting up a 1.98 ERA in 15 games and striking out 22 batters in 13.2 innings. He pitched twice in the ALDS, but gave up 2 runs in 1 inning against the Los Angeles Angels. After the season, he opted for free agency, as he wanted to be a closer again, something that would not have been possible in Boston given the presence of Jonathan Papelbon. The Atlanta Braves took a chance on him, and were well-rewarded, as he saved 37 games with a 1.43 ERA in 2010, stabilizing a young bullpen and leading the Braves back to the postseason. He made the All-Star team for the 6th and last time that year. He made what would turn out to be the last appearance of his career in the NLDS, giving up a hit in a third of an inning against the eventual World-Champion San Francisco Giants. After the season, he made the surprising announcement that he was retiring immediately, surprising because he had been as effective as ever in his last season.
While Wagner was clearly one of the better closers of the second half of the 1990s and of the 2000s, it will be interesting to see whether he receives much support for the Hall of Fame. He has one of the highest save totals of all-time, although the leaderboard for saves has changed rapidly over the past two decades, and his ERA+ is excellent as noted above; however, his lack of success in the postseason, the relatively small number of innings he pitched, and the fact he was overshadowed by contemporaries Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera during most of his career may play against him.
- 1996 Topps All-Star Rookie Team
- 6-time NL All-Star (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 & 2008)
- NL Rolaids Relief Award Winner (1999)
- 30 Saves Seasons: 8 (1998, 1999, 2001-2003, 2005-2007 & 2010)
- 40 Saves Seasons: 2 (2003 & 2006)
- Billy Wagner