MLB.com Columnist

Alyson Footer

Wagner's HOF case based on more than saves

Wagner's HOF case based on more than saves

Billy Wagner has taken a slight backseat to Trevor Hoffman in this year's Hall of Fame discussion, but given what Wagner did during his 16 years in the big leagues, there is room for debate that the spotlight throughout the voting season has been focused on the wrong guy.

Maybe "wrong" is too strong a word. After all, Wagner, Hoffman and the third closer on the ballot -- Lee Smith, who's back for a 14th try -- have all done plenty to merit consideration. But when the topic of relievers comes up, Hoffman is always mentioned first, as the most likely of the three to gain entry in 2016.

This really is for one main reason: saves. Hoffman has 601 of them, second most in history and 179 ahead of Wagner's 422, fifth-highest.

While there never was a magic number for closers to guarantee entry to the Hall -- to date, only five closers have been elected -- it's been widely assumed in general circles that Hoffman's total in that lone category is enough to push him through.

And it may be. But there is an argument to be made that Wagner might just be the best closer on the ballot. It depends on the voters' criteria, which, thanks to modern-day metrics, largely debunk the importance of the more traditional stats -- especially saves.

Wagner's milestone 400th save

This isn't some outside-the-box thinking. The save, while useful, is also understood to be flawed -- and not just among numbers-minded analysts. It's pretty much a universal theory.

"The numbers that stand out to me are not just saves," Wagner said the day the ballot was announced. "It's the big numbers: ERA, strikeouts, batting average against. How do they show dominance? Those are dominant numbers. Saves are just tied along with it."

And that's one of the main reasons why Hall of Fame voting in this particular area has become so murky.

The main knock on Wagner is his innings pitched -- 903, the lowest among all elite closers in history by a significant margin. In fact, no reliever has ever been elected to the Hall with fewer than 1,000 career innings pitched.

But what made Wagner so elite is what he did while pitching those 903 innings.

He had more strikeouts than either of his two contemporaries. His 1,196 K's are just a tick better than Mariano Rivera's 1,173 (Rivera also pitched three more years than Wagner). Hoffman, who pitched four years longer than Wagner, had 1,133 strikeouts.

Wagner's career ERA is 2.31, second-lowest to only Rivera (2.21) among pitchers with that many innings from 1920 to present. Dating back to 1900, Wagner has the highest strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio (11.92) among pitchers with at least 900 innings.

Wagner's WHIP of 1.00 is tied with Eckersley for the lowest among all elite closers, including the other two on the ballot, Hoffman and Smith.

Wagner ends six-pitcher no-no

Plenty of evidence exists to support the theory that Wagner was a far more dominant closer than Hoffman, but while Wagner acknowledges that saves don't tell the whole story, they're still a big part of it. And when it comes to Hoffman, Wagner has few doubts about where he fits into history.

"It's hard to believe he isn't looked at as a shoo-in as a Hall of Famer, with 600 saves," Wagner said. "His numbers alone speak volumes. I think he has an 88, 89 save percentage. He had a different way of how he dominated a team."

Wagner has a point. While Wagner blew hitters away with a 100-mph fastball, Hoffman earned his paychecks by confusing them with a changeup that hitters could not decipher. In addition to saves, Hoffman also has longevity as an ally, something Hall voters will have to take into account as they weigh his candidacy. He pitched 18 years and lasted until age 42. That goes a long way in Hall consideration.

For Wagner, his philosophy about the importance of closers is simple: take them out of the equation and see how good your team is without them.

"There's only a few people that have demonstrated that they can go out there night in and night out and handle the stress of getting the last three outs," Wagner said. "Doing it on a nightly basis and having the longevity to prove it counts for a lot."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.