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:
|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|
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|
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:
Chan Ho Park
Billy Wagner (This Article)
Four Other Names for You
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up