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2007 Bullpen Preview: Billy Wagner

Mike SteffanosTuesday, February 6, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

Billy Wagner was taken in the first round of the 1993 draft by the Houston Astros out of Ferrum College in Virginia. He settled in as the Astros' closer midway through the 1996 season, and quickly became one of the game's top firemen. In November of 2003, he was traded to Philadelphia for pitchers Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. After two successful seasons closing games with the Phillies, Wagner signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Mets last winter that includes a club option for the fifth year.

Despite being on the small side, particularly for a power pitcher, Wagner has proven to be surprisingly durable over the course of his major league career. The exceptions were the 2000 season, where he went down in late June with an injury to a tendon in his pitching elbow; and 2004 when he missed a month early on with a groin injury and another month later in the season with a strained rotator cuff. The Mets hope that this durability continues, since he'll turn 38 in 2009, the final guaranteed year of the contract.

Wagner saved 40 games with the Mets in 2006, and his numbers for the year look pretty good. Still, he endured a couple of slumps during the season and did not pitch very well in the playoffs. Moreover, there is a sense among many Mets fans that he was somewhat of a disappointment in his first year with the club. Although Wagner only had 5 blown saves on the year, he seldom made a save look easy and often allowed runners to reach base before preserving a win.

Here are the major league numbers for Billy Wagner over the last six seasons:

Billy Wagner
Year - Team G IP H/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA AVG OBP SLG SV-Opp
2001 - Astros 64 62.2 6.3 11.4 2.9 0.7 2.73 .198 .278 .324 39-41
2002 - Astros 70 75.0 6.1 10.6 2.6 0.8 2.52 .196 .261 .308 35-41
2003 - Astros 78 86.0 5.4 11.0 2.4 0.8 1.78 .169 .234 .266 44-47
2004 - Phillies 45 48.1 5.8 11.0 1.1 0.9 2.42 .181 .218 .304 21-25
2005 - Phillies 75 77.2 5.2 10.0 2.3 0.7 1.51 .165 .229 .265 38-41
2006 - Mets 70 72.1 7.3 11.7 2.6 0.9 2.24 .219 .285 .315 40-45
Career Totals 654 702.2 6.0 12.0 3.0 0.9 2.38 .187 .264 .297 324-374

A glance at Wagner's Hits per 9 innings and AVG/OBP/SLG against do show a decline in 2006 over previous seasons, but the numbers were still quite good, and certainly a huge upgrade over Braden Looper's numbers from the previous year. Furthermore, after blowing a pair of saves in April and experiencing a spectacular meltdown against the Yankees in May, Wagner settled down quite nicely. After letting one slip away in spectacular fashion against the Marlins on August 1, Wagner successfully converted his last 18 save attempts for the season. Yet it was during this streak in August and September that Wagner began to allow quite an uncharacteristically large amount of baserunner. A look at his month-to-month stats for the season show big jumps in H/9 in August and September. The National League hit .319 against Wagner in the final month and slugged .447 -- decidedly un-Wagner-like numbers.

Billy Wagner By Month 2006
Month G IP H/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA AVG OBP SLG SV-Opp
April 12 13.0 5.5 10.4 3.5 1.4 0.69 .170 .278 .298 7-9
May 12 13.0 7.6 13.8 4.8 0.7 4.85 .220 .328 .280 4-5
June 10 10.2 5.1 9.3 4.2 0.0 1.69 .176 .282 .176 4-5
July 12 12.1 5.8 11.7 0.7 0.7 1.46 .178 .196 .289 7-7
August 13 12.1 8.0 13.1 1.5 1.5 2.19 .234 .280 .362 10-11
September 11 11.0 12.3 11.5 0.8 0.8 2.45 .319 .333 .447 8-8
Season 70 72.1 7.3 11.7 2.6 0.9 2.24 .219 .285 .315 40-45

My most vivid recollection of the last two months of the season was constantly sweating the wins that Wagner was trying to secure. I checked the game logs for the year to see if my perception was accurate. In 11 games in September, Wagner pitched clean 1-2-3 ninth innings only twice. In four other games he only allowed a single baserunner, which left 5 games where he allowed multiple baserunners. In 13 August appearances he had 4 clean innings, five times he allowed a single baserunner, and 4 times allowed more than one. Wagner was sold to Mets fans as the guy who would take the worry out of the end of the game, and that simply wasn't the case for most of the year -- including the playoffs, where he allowed runs in his last two appearances against St. Louis, the dismal game 2 loss and a horribly nail-biting ninth inning in game 6.

Perhaps it's unfair to judge a closer on anything other than the bottom line. In that regard, Wagner's first season in New York was pretty darned good. I don't think even his harshest critics would characterize Wagner's 2006 as a flop. Still, there were some rough patches in the road along the way. I'm not sure I'll ever feel completely relaxed with Wagner in a close game, but I honestly can't name many relievers who would inspire more confidence. If you get passed the myth of invincibility that Wagner failed to live up to you are still left with one of the top closers in the game. In fairness, it's noteworthy that Wagner's weakest months came when the Mets were taking a leisurely victory lap around the weak National League.

I'm not sure exactly what to expect from Billy Wagner in 2007. On the one hand, he will turn 36 in late July, but on the other, he has the benefit of a year in New York under his belt. On some days, the fastball doesn't make it out of the low 90s, and the slider doesn't bite as hard as it used to. On other days, he can still look untouchable. I still think he could benefit from coming up with a changeup to complement the fastball and slider and give the hitters a different look. When his slider isn't effective, he has some trouble putting good hitters away. Still, I could imagine how well it would go over the first time he got beat throwing his third-best pitch.

Wagner's numbers are still impressive, and he still can bring it with the best of them. If he could stay healthy, I expect solid work and 30+ saves. I'll probably continue to watch most of his outings with my hands over my eyes, but as long as he continues to pile up the saves, I'll forgive him for the failing of not being quite the lights-out closer that he was billed as when he signed.

2007 Bullpen Previews:
Jon Adkins
Adam Bostick
Ambiorix Burgos
Marcos Carvajal
Pedro Feliciano
Aaron Heilman
Guillermo Mota
Clint Nageotte
Juan Padilla
Chan Ho Park
Duaner Sanchez
Steve Schmoll
Scott Schoeneweis
Aaron Sele
Joe Smith
Jorge Sosa
Billy Wagner (This Article)
Other Candidates
Four Other Names for You

2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (15)

A few thoughts on Wagner:

The 1999 season, when the Astros looked like world beaters, the team the Mets would have to get by if they were to get to the games against that other league; Piazza settled two games with home runs against Wagner, and I wrote, somewhere, something like: boy, is Mike building a resume against Billy Wagner! About now Wagner would walk into the Lady's room rather than run into Piazza in a hotel lobby.

Turns out I didn't know the guy; I was attributing the heart of Armando Benitez to Wagner, and it's not fair. We've all seen Wagner get lit up; none of us have ever seen him lose heart.

With all the pitchers in the Mets bullpen, I think the Mets would be smart to ease up on Wagner's burden toward the end of the season. Maybe we could avoid a repeat of those end of year numbers.

Oh, and finally: I wanted to harken back to the Mets first trip to Philly, when several of those delightful Philly fans held signs that called Wagner a rat. "I was impressed that they could spell rat," he said. How unlike most players in that situation, no? I LOVE a candid reply now and then.

For the most part Wags was effective enough to earn the saves. I too, noticed throughout the course of the season that he would allow base runners and turn the inning into a heart pounding affair. Still in all, 40 saves is great and the guy goes out there and gives it all with each pitch. I would like to see him throw the slider earlier in the count and then use his fast ball up and down , in and out. He's better than Benitez and will make you forget Looper. I think givng a healthy Sanchez some 9th inning work will ease some of the load on Wags and leave some in the tank for a smoother September/October. We appreciate the rotation/bullpen break downs Mike, they were very good and full of information. Thanks and good luck with the new home, I hope you enjoy it to the fullest. Peace!

Wagner's 2006 was definitely disappointing. He was brought to New York to dominate, and he did not. I do not know whether to attribute his erratic throwing to his age or his early season injury problems. In the past, when Wagner has come back from injury, he has had a difficult time producing good results. He has also never thrown well while hurt. In 2000, he pitched hurt and was terrible. When he came back in '01, everyone thought he was done. He seemed very hittable in the early part of the year. The overall numbers did not reflect it, but he looked quite beatable. Then, he rounded into form, and continued to get better and better for the next three years. This cycle happened again in '04 when he went down. It took him some time to develop back into the dominant bullpen force. My theory concerning last year was that his early season injury problems never allowed him to get fully conditioned. By the time he should have been in top form, he was pressing because his location had been suffering. My hope is that this year will see a fully healthy Wagner return to his thoroughly dominant form. Or...he could just be getting old. Here's hoping we get to see a couple years of untouchable Wagner.

I'm thinking along with John. Billy had that tendon issue, and it may have lingered for a while, and may have thrown his grip off a bit. Hopefully, he is fully healed.
I for one think he is a very good closer, and is a guy who is going to help this team win a lot of games this year. Is he going to blow some saves, sure, all relievers (even others who use the same theme song) do so.

Love the previews. Keep them coming.

Mike - fyi - I have a new address for my blog

Thanks Mike.

You are turning into a hell of a researcher. In the last 10-15 yrs wagner was pre-empted by Looper, Benitez, Anthony Young & John Franco. I'd love to see that comparison with Wagner!

NONE...NONE of the above was lights out. I agree with LJP. Wagner cannot sit dead red, he needs to set up his fastball. Or better yet, the luxury we have in pitchers should allow us to use Sanchez or Mota in the 9th.

dd - He does have guts, that's for sure. I do agree that it wouldn't hurt to cut down on the innings somewhat, but he's also a guy who needs regular work to stay sharp. If the NL stays a race all year, which seems likely, this might be a moot point anyway.
LJP - He's definitely going to have to change his pitching patterns as he loses some velocity. Thanks for the good wishes on the house.
John - I disagree with you somewhat on Wagner pitching hurt. You don't pitch over 700 innings as a closer without being able to pitch in pain. Like most athletes, Wagner probably can't remember back to a time when he wasn't experiencing pain when he competes. That problem with the tendon in his throwing hand is probably chronic now. I hear you on the return to dominance. I'd like to hold onto the few black hairs I have left.
Ed - As mentioned above, I do think the tendon is probably a chronic issue. I've made the change to your link.

Ed - You snuck in there while I was answering the others. Man, I forgot Young closed games. I think it would take quite a decline or an injury for Wagner to lose the closer role this year. I think a year in NYC will help him, and most of us have now lowered our expectations to reasonable levels. I think he'll do fine this year.

I think he would wait untill I was on my second mothfull of tums to start getting guys out. I agree with you Mike about our expectations. I for one expected a 1 2 3 inning when he came in. Now I know better and give him alittle slack, before I am throwing things at the tv. But in my heart I still would like more 3 up 3 down innings. Its 5 degrees outside but I am starting to smell the hot dogs and hear the crowd. Lets go Mets.

Al - I agree with you on the easy innings. I'll cut him slack on not being perfect if he'll meet me halfway and have some easy saves. Are you listening, Billy?

You know Mike, you may have hit a nerve. Omar's nerve at that. Given the $$$ amount splashed on Wags, we should expect more. But then again, at mid year the OTHER name splashed around as being on Omar's list and potentially part of that Oswald trade (hmmm) was Brad Lidge. Closers were a sore spot last yr. MANY have crashed violently in recent years. Dotel, Lidge, Kolb among them. Because of it Todd Jones still finds work.

We have never had really good closers. The best we had was when Franco (& Dotel )could complement Benitez. but even then we came close but short.

oh, and dd: If Piazza owned Wagner, Brian Jordan and the Jones boys had hormone peak when Benitez entered a game.

I totally disagree with John that Wagner was disappointing. He gave us a better season than anyone could have hoped for. After signing a deal at age 35 he posted the second best save total in his career. His strikeout rate was the highest since 1999 and if 94 strikeouts in 72 innings while allowing only 21 walks isn't dominating, I dont know what is. We didn't sign Wagner to come in and be Mariano Rivera, there is only one Rivera, We signed Wagner with the hope that he would be better than Looper or Benitez, and he certainly was. If you want a person to be dominating you certainly don't target someone who is in the final lap of his career. Wagner is still among the top 5 closers in baseball and top 2 or 3 in the NL. He is not nearly as dominant as his younger years, but he was the best available closer at the time and I'm glad we got him rather than the Braves or Phillies.

Ed - I'm not sure what we should have expected more. The bottom line is 40 saves in 45 chances. I just wish he would give me agida a little less often. Then again, I think back on Benitez and I still get a headache.
Joe - agreed.

Many of Wags' stats went the wrong way after going from Houston to Philly, then Philly to NY. His next year in each town got better. Hmmmm.... I'll admit I'm not the stat-head I should be, but something looks pretty good here for him, the Mets, and us.

Outside of Mariano Rivera and perhaps Trevor Hoffman, who really is completely lights out as a closer? Their breed seems to enjoy making things interesting. Wagner is about the bottom line. He drives you crazy with his slider. He puts runners on. He makes you lose a few hairs during the 9th inning. But he gets the job done. Plain and simple, he is what this team needed - a reliable closer who's last pitch ends with his shaking LoDuca's hand and notching another W for the Amazins.

How soon we forget our closer woes of past. Wagner is the best closer this team has had since Randy Myers. And I have no problems with Willie handing him the ball in the 9th. As Ed stated earlier, it sure beats seeing Braden Looper, Armando Benitez and John Franco trot in from right field.

Joe - I think the stats you have cited don't paint a complete picture. A high strikeout rate does not necessarily equate to a strong year. The truth in those numbers is he was probably forced to try to strike more batters out because he had put more on base. He allowed 9.9 baserunners/IP for the year. Still very good numbers, but that's up from 7.5, 7.9, 7.8, 8.7, and 9.2 in the five preceding years. The only year in which he came anywhere close to that number was 2001, the year following his major surgery.

Look, I am not saying he was horrible. He wasn't. He was a great improvement over Looper and everyone who came before him. But I have watched him throw for a long time, and prior to last year, I don't recall ever seeing him as shaky as he was in 2006. The point to having Billy Wagner was that he did NOT make you sit on the edge of your seat or put runners on base before getting out of the inning. That's the John Franco method of saving games. I think for the most part we are all on the same page. We want to feel safe in the 9th. Well, more times than not last year, I did not feel secure in the 9th. That is the definition of a disappointing year for an elite closer in my eyes. Remember, Benitez had some years there in which his overall numbers were fantastic. He just had those high profile meltdowns that we all remember.

I think the biggest thing I took issue with in these posts, though, is the comment: "If you want a person to be dominating you certainly don't target someone who is in the final lap of his career." If you think that a player is in the final lap of his career, you do not give him 10.5 million dollars a year to close games. Of COURSE he is not Mariano Rivera. But he was paid to be the closest thing on the market TO Mariano Rivera. He was paid to give the security that none of us have really felt to this point when he steps on the mound. Do I have hopes of a more consistently successful year from Billy Wagner in 2007? Yes. I believe he will be better. I just don't see how people can make comments about how he made them nervous in every game and then not call last year a disappointment.

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