Cooperstown is for Closers
Toward a smarter standard for Hall of Fame pitchers
Billy Wagner came so close. When the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the results of this year’s Hall of Fame election last week, Wagner ended up with 74 percent of the vote — just five votes shy of the 75 percent threshold for induction. While Friend of The Lewsletter Ryan Thibodaux’s BBHOF Tracker pegged Wagner at 78 percent support from writers who revealed their ballots in advance, their more-secretive peers were characteristically stingier. It was a disappointing result — and not just because Wagner has been unusually open about the emotional toll of the pre-election uncertainty and the disappointment of falling short.
To me, Wagner is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer because on a per-pitch basis he has a credible claim as the best pitcher who ever took the mound. Of the 1,445 players in Major League history with least many innings as Wagner, his 33 percent strikeout rate and 11.9 K/9 are by far the best ever — no one else has surpassed 31 percent or 11.1, respectively. The gap between his record-low .184 batting average against and runner-up Nolan Ryan’s .200 is as large as that between Ryan and the various players tied for 19th place. His 0.998 WHIP trails only Addie Joss and Jacob deGrom’s. Limit the window of interest to the last century and his 2.31 ERA is behind only Mariano Rivera’s. His .033 FanGraphs RA9-WAR-per-inning1 is the second-highest of all time. While his 903 innings pitched are meager by Cooperstown standards, Wagner arguably represents a point of weak Pareto efficiency such that no one with a larger career workload has also sustained a significantly higher level of dominance.
What fascinates me about Wagner repeatedly getting snubbed (this was his ninth time on the ballot) is that his specific accomplishments aren’t really in dispute. Rather, the arguments against him are steeped in larger questions about the evolution of modern pitching, and how we understand value and greatness among different types of players.2 So while these conversations are still fresh in fans’ minds, I wanted to break down and respond to three specific expressions of Wagner skepticism. Bridging these gaps would help us pivot towards a clearer holistic perspective through which to consider Hall of Fame pitchers.
Note: Over the next several paragraphs we will come across an unfortunate number of players who are alleged to have committed domestic or sexual violence. I believe such conduct should be disqualifying for the Hall of Fame, but a clear majority of the BBWAA disagrees. For brevity’s sake I will focus here on the factors that most of the electorate considers germane rather than rehashing the argument every time it is relevant, and flag the relevant candidates with footnotes.
Relievers aren’t good enough to be Hall of Famers
The most common dismissals of Wagner’s candidacy are effectively blanket rejections of modern relief pitchers. Relievers, the line goes, are definitionally worse than starters. Otherwise they would be starters. What’s more, pitching an inning at a time is considerably easier than pacing oneself for most of the game — or even than throwing a couple innings per appearance, which sets the great firemen of yore above contemporary three-out closers. The industry accordingly values elite relievers comparably to mid-rotation starters, not frontline aces.
All the above is fair, and I agree that the bar for excellence should be set much higher in the bullpen than the rotation. Yet the “failed starter” meme is a facile lens through which to analyze great relievers.3 We don’t ignore second basemen’s accomplishments because they are “failed shortstops,” or keep corner outfielders out of the Hall because they weren’t good enough to play center. We know that only a tiny fraction of erstwhile starting pitchers could sustain a run of dominance like Wagner’s out of the bullpen — because many have tried, and so few have succeeded.4 When Ichiro debuts on the ballot next year, will anyone deny him unanimity because it’s easier to play outfield than catcher?
It’s also true that MLB teams see relievers as more fungible than starters, and that reduced workloads in the bullpen mean less on-field impact. Yet the former is partly a function of the volatility of reliever performance, and thus the wrong perspective for retrospective analysis of a 16-year career. Relievers often receive Cy Young and MVP votes even if their counting stats don’t measure up to the other candidates. Wagner’s relatively low number of innings is also mitigated by how important they were. His 1.81 career Leverage Index (the seventh-highest on record) means the typical batter he faced was almost twice as significant to the outcome of a game than the average at-bat. And even if that doesn’t close the gap between Wagner’s numbers and the typical WAR standard for Cooperstown, speaking as someone who believes deeply (and even worked in) baseball analytics, I ask: So what? As we strive to preserve the story of the game, can’t we be humble enough to acknowledge that some manifestations of greatness elude our typical frameworks?
A more-reasonable cousin of this argument posits that there is a place for modern one-inning closers in Cooperstown, but that Wagner does not meet the bar that Rivera (or Trevor Hoffman, who retired with the career saves record but whose rate stats were below Wagner’s level) surpassed. However, in practice this feels less like a real standard than a loophole through which exceptions can sneak in. For no other group of players must every candidate be compared to the consensus greatest at the position of all time. (“Sorry Mr. Kershaw, you don’t measure up to Walter Johnson.”) Where could such a line plausibly be drawn if Wagner is beneath it?
Wagner’s singular greatness is fleeting
The cherry on top of Wagner’s numbers is that they were even more impressive in his day than they seem now. Take his 33 percent strikeout rate, which to me is the easiest shorthand for his specific dominance. That would be great today, when the most-recent league strikeout rate was 23 percent. But over the course of Wagner’s career, the MLB seasonal averages ranged from just 16 to 18 percent. One wonders just how gaudy his numbers would be if he were pitching today, against batters who are increasingly willing to accept strikeouts as the cost of hitting for power.
They might look something like Craig Kimbrel’s. Fourteen years into his career, Kimbrel trails Wagner by nearly 150 innings — but only four strikeouts. His 39 percent strikeout rate, 14.2 K/9, and .165 BAA all blow Wagner’s out of the water, and are tops among pitchers with at as much bulk. As skeptics of Wagner’s case will tell you, if 35-year-old Kimbrel pitch three more seasons while suffering significant performance decline, he could match Wagner’s career workload while erasing many of his superlatives.
Even closer to Wagner’s perch is Kenley Jansen, who is within 100 innings of Wagner’s total and has him beat in the same categories: 36 percent strikeout rate, 12.8 K/9, .181 BAA. With two more healthy years Jansen could exceed Wagner’s bulk and would be a lock to maintain his lead in at least the strikeout metrics. Then there’s Aroldis Chapman, who may not be able to close the 200-plus inning gap between him and Wagner, but who owns an eye-popping 40 percent strikeout rate, 14.8 K/9, and .164 BAA.5 If we accept the premise that quality of performance is as important as quantity such that Wagner is a viable Hall of Famer, couldn’t you say Chapman is even better?
This argument has merit, but I’d posit that it leads to the opposite conclusion: we should induct them all.
Last summer, Sam Miller (whose own Substack you should absolutely subscribe to) wrote an essay that’s been stuck in my head ever since, on the arbitrary ways we consider athletic feats in terms of firsts and lasts. In that spirit, Billy Wagner can say that for some prolongued period of time he was arguably the most-dominant pitcher the sport had ever seen. The same may someday apply to Kimbrel and Chapman, or perhaps it already does. Shouldn’t the Hall honor anyone who has ever worn such a crown?
Still, even that standard feels unreasonably onerous. More MLB players are relief pitchers than any other position. Surely there is room in Cooperstown for a handful of the best closers of each generation? That means Jansen. It means Francisco Rodríguez, who got just 8 percent of the vote in his second ballot this year, deserves some momentum.6 It means Josh Hader and Edwin Díaz are probably on Hall of Fame paths. It means I’m looking at Jonathan Papelbon, who received just 1 percent of the vote in 2022 before falling off the ballot, and wondering if he got a fair shake.
The balance has already shifted too far towards relievers
The BBWAA has elected 20 players to Cooperstown over the last nine ballots. Just two were starting pitchers: Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina. That is jarringly little representation for the most-important position on the field. To add insult to injury, that’s the same as the number of relievers elected in that time (Rivera and Hoffman). As many Hall watchers have observed, being more inclusive of relievers than starters doesn’t pass the sniff test.
Contemporary starting pitchers face an uphill climb on the road to Cooperstown. The balance of the sport zagged sharply towards offense in the Steroid Era — league ERA rose by over a full run between 1992 and 2000 — and has remained at an elevated level more or less ever since. This should inspire voters to adjust their standards of greatness for the modern era, but in practice it has meant the bar is static and barely anyone measures up to it.
Compounding the issue are starters’ diminishing workloads. Over the course of my lifetime, MLB teams have learned that having your starter pitch at near-full effort, pulling them when their velocity flags, and turning it over to the bullpen before their pitch count gets high is a better run-prevention strategy than asking one pitcher to pace themselves over eight or nine innings. Logan Webb’s league-leading 216 innings in 2023 wouldn’t have cracked the Top 30 as recently as 1996. Fewer innings mean not just limited opportunities to accumulate counting stats like wins and strikeouts but also lower upside in modern metrics like WAR.
If Wagner is elected in next year and first-time-eligible CC Sabathia is not (I think he’ll get in eventually but it could take time), the BBWAA will find themselves having elected more relievers than starters in the preceding decade. For as much as I believe in appreciating bullpen arms, over the course of a given few-year span I’d say we should be inducting at least twice as many starters as relievers. In a world where Kevin Brown got just 2 percent of the vote, it seems gauche to start Just Asking Questions about Dellin Betances.
But this isn’t reason not to be more open-minded about relief aces. Rather, I see it as a call to be much more inclusive of starters.
Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte, who each got under 15 percent of the vote this year, should get waved in as quickly as possible. The corrective Era Committee should reconsider recent ballot drop-offs Johan Santana7 and Tim Hudson in short order. I wonder if Bartolo Colón and Tim Lincecum, both one-and-dones from the last few years, should have gotten longer looks. As Cole Hamels and Félix Hernández hit the ballot over the next couple years, voters ought to look for reasons to check their names, not to snub them; perhaps Jon Lester and Stephen Strasburg should get real consideration too. I don’t know where the line should be drawn, but an honest reckoning with the imbalance of recent ballots will lead you to realize the bar should be lower than you think.
Next year will be Wagner’s 10th and final year on the ballot. He will almost certainly get into the Hall — candidates often get last-minute boosts for their last shot, and no one has come as close as he has without later being inducted. Based on writers’ revealed ballots and public statements, there are at least five voters who either checked his box in one of the prior two elections or said they would have supported him if not for the 10-pick limit. If he wins them all over next year, that alone gets him to the requisite 75 percent.
Between the apparent inevitability of Wagner giving an induction speech next summer and the fact that we are almost as far away as possible from the next Cooperstown election (to be held a year from last week), this may be a strange time for a deep dive into the anti-reliever arguments. But the doubts that have hampered Wagner’s candidacy for too long aren’t going away once he’s off the ballot. It behooves baseball to take stock of how the Hall of Fame ought to look, and how we must reorient our perspectives in order to get there.
I’ve long believed we should look for reasons to put players in the Hall of Fame, not keep them out. That means respecting the best players at the most-common position in the big leagues, setting the bar higher for easier roles without making it effectively impossible to reach, and judging today’s starters in terms of how the game is, not how it used to be. If we want to preserve the story of modern baseball, that’s my pitch.
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This was a cool tool for illustrating my point, but please do not use it for serious analysis.
This essay by Cooperstown Cred’s Chris Bodig is the best articulation of the anti-Wagner case that I’ve come across.
Especially for Wagner, who didn’t actually fail as a starter: He notched a 3.20 ERA over 70 minor-league starts, then was moved to the bullpen as soon as he got to the big leagues.
Here’s a stat I just looked up that will come in handy for next year’s election: John Smoltz, who was not merely a decent starting pitcher but an ace and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, spent four years in the midst of his illustrious career as Atlanta’s closer. An all-time great starter, free to air it in short stints, finished with a 2.41 career ERA out of the bullpen — 10 points higher than “failed starter” Wagner’s.
Chapman was suspended in 2016 for an alleged incident in which he choked his girlfriend and fired a handgun during a domestic dispute.