When the Philadelphia Phillies acquired Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros ahead of the 2004 season, they were looking for a surefire closer to anchor the back-end of their bullpen. What the team got was all that and more.
In two seasons in Philadelphia, Wagner saw some of the best production of his 16-year career. He had a very solid first season with the team, posting a 2.42 ERA in 48 1/3 innings while battling a hand injury. Wagner followed that up with a 2005 season that was arguably the greatest in his Cooperstown-worthy career.
The left-hander had a 1.51 ERA, the second-best mark of his career, in 77 2/3 innings that season while leading the majors with 70 games finished. Wagner racked up 38 saves that season while striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings. His ERA+ was a staggering 293, the very best of his entire career.
Wagner left the team in free agency after 2005 and played the next four seasons with the rival New York Mets. Though some in Philadelphia may remember him more as a Met, his two-season stint in red pinstripes was an excellent one.
Following his time in New York, Wagner made stops in Boston and Atlanta before retiring after the 2010 season, continuing to pitch exceptionally well through his age-38 season. He had a 1.43 ERA with the Braves in 2010, but got injured in the postseason to end his career.
Since retiring, Wagner has appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot six times, but has not received more than 31% of the vote. His support among voters, however, does not accurately reflect how truly effective Wagner was in his career.
The lefty may not have accumulated the same number of innings or saves as recent Hall of Fame relievers Trevor Hoffman or Lee Smith, but he was as effective as any reliever outside of Mariano Rivera during his career.
Wagner had a 2.31 career ERA, and holds the sixth-most saves in major-league history at 422. His 187 career ERA+ is the second-best of any pitcher to throw 750 or more innings. Wagner’s 33.2 strikeout percentage and 11.92 strikeouts per nine are the best of any pitcher to throw at least 750 innings.
Relievers are not extremely common Hall of Fame inductees. Only eight have been inducted, leaving only the greatest of the bullpen arms to get to Cooperstown. Looking at how his numbers stack up, Wagner fits that criterion.
Wagner was not just a great reliever, but one of the most dominant pitchers of any era. He had a unique ability to overpower hitters and prevent runs at an elite level, a skill perhaps best displayed in his time in Philadelphia.
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