Here's what could be the difference in Houston Astros HOF candidacy

Billy Wagner's numbers speak volumes. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

Down to four weeks until the doors swing open for Astros’ spring training in West Palm Beach. The on time start to things this year has Astros’ pitchers and catchers reporting Thursday, February 16, with everyone else due Tuesday, February 21. All together now: Yay!!!

The Astros will convene at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches complex with very few pressing questions. Who will job share behind the plate with Martin Maldonado? Yainer Diaz and Korey Lee will battle for that. Will a left-handed hitting center fielder surface to complement Chas McCormick? The Astros really have no legit contender for the job unless you like the idea of Kyle Tucker sliding over to center a little bit. Will the Astros carry a left-handed reliever? Blake Taylor is the only in house candidate. Still unsigned free agent lefty Andrew Chafin would be a quality addition but Jim Crane is probably thinking why give two years 16 mil or so to Chafin when the Astros had the best bullpen in the big leagues in 2022 and have every major contributor (Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek, and Bryan Abreu) back. On the subject of the Astros and left-handed relievers…

Cooperstown calling?

The Baseball Writers Association Hall of Fame Class of 2023 is named on Tuesday. This will be a big year to see if Billy Wagner gets the jump needed to position him for a good shot at election in the two years he has left on the ballot after this one. 75 percent “yes” votes are needed for election. After starting off with a paltry 10.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot (for the Class of 2016), Wagner actually got a smaller percentage of votes (10.2 percent) the following year. However,“Wags” has gained sizable ground over the last five years, going from 11.1 percent to 16.7, then a sizable leap to 31.7, then 46.4, then last year edging above the 50-50 mark at 51 percent. In the meantime Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera were relievers elected to the Hall. Both obviously had greater careers than Wagner. With Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Curt Schilling no longer eligible for the BBWAA vote, Wagner had the third-highest vote percentage of players back on the ballot this year, behind Scott Rolen and Todd Helton. Rolen probably makes it Tuesday. Helton and Wagner probably not.

Wagner has some numbers that make him a very strong candidate. He is sixth on Major League Baseball’s career saves list with 422. The top three (Rivera, Hoffman, and Lee Smith) are all in the Hall. However, number four man Francisco Rodriguez is unlikely to come anywhere close in his first year on the ballot, and number five man John Franco (the only lefty with more saves than Wagner) didn’t even get five percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, so was then dropped. Wagner’s career 2.31 earned average is stellar. In only one season of his career did Wagner have an ERA higher than 2.85 and in only one season did hitters combine for a batting average of even .220 against him. Both occurred in 2000 when Wagner was pitching with an unraveling elbow that needed season ending surgery. After returning in 2001 Wagner’s ERA over the remainder of his career was 2.13. Mariano Rivera’s career ERA was 2.21. Career OPS against: Rivera .555, Wagner .558. Wagner’s career WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning) is a hair lower than Rivera’s, .998 vs. 1.000.

One notable negative for Wagner is his low total of only 903 innings pitched in his career. Of the guys enshrined in Cooperstown primarily because of their work out of the bullpen, only Dennis Eckersley threw fewer relief innings, but he also had nearly 2500 innings as a starter. Among straight relievers, the late Bruce Sutter is next fewest above Wagner in innings pitched with 1042. One could argue that it's a small sample size and it shouldn’t impact a HOF vote. But if someone is splitting hairs: Wagner was bad in the postseason. A 10.03 earned run average over 14 appearances.

Wagner isn't the only former Astro on the ballot

It’s a notable ballot year for two other former Astros, both short-timer Astros. Carlos Beltran is in his first year of eligibility. Purely on the playing merits, Beltran is the only first year guy with a compelling Hall case. It will be interesting to see how many voters hold his notable role in the Astros’ cheating scandal against him. Jeff Kent is in his 10th and final year of eligibility. Kent has no chance, having gotten only 33 percent of necessary votes a year ago.

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