The 2022 Hall of Fame ballot consists of several controversial candidates. Whether because of steroids, off-the-field issues, or post-career actions, this ballot is as interesting yet frustrating as they come. However, there are three relievers on the hall of fame ballot who come with little to no baggage. They are Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, and Jonathan Papelbon. Wagner retired in 2010 and this is his seventh year on the ballot. Papelbon and Nathan are on the ballot for the first time this year. Relievers are fickle and the fact that all three have made it this far means they had incredible careers.
Despite Wagner having never received more than 46.4% of the ballot, his candidacy has gained steam in recent years due to the evolution of relief pitching. Nathan and Papelbon fit into that mold of modern-day relievers, also reflecting the evolution of relievers. While it is entirely possible that the latter two may not receive the 5% necessary to remain on the ballot, they do merit some consideration for induction. It’s time to rank the three relievers and discuss how likely it is each will end up in Cooperstown.
3) Jonathan Papelbon
Here is one disclaimer: WAR figures are not and should not be considered for relievers on the hall of fame ballot, especially more modern ones such as these pitchers. Gone are the days of relievers putting up 40+ WAR or 1,000+ innings pitched in their careers. With that said, Papelbon’s biggest detractor is longevity. He only played in the bigs for 12 years, finishing with 725 2/3 innings pitched. He spent seven seasons with the Boston Red Sox. Papelbon’s most famous years were in Boston as he was a four-time all-star and 2007 World Series winner. He was absolutely clutch in the postseason as he put up a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings. In addition, he saved three of the four games for Boston in the 2007 World Series. Papelbon never pitched more than 70 1/3 innings in a single season but also posted an ERA above 3.00 only twice in 12 years.
While he does not have the typical longevity, Papelbon is one of the game’s greatest closers. As a reliever, you can’t get much better than making six all-star teams and closing a World Series. In 2006, Papelbon had a historic season as he saved 35 games and pitched 68 1/3 innings to the tune of a 0.92 ERA and an astonishing 517 ERA+. With 368 career saves, he ranks ninth all-time, right behind Nathan and Wagner. His 2.21 ERA ranks fourth and 2.81 FIP ranks sixth amongst relievers with 700 or more innings pitched. With a 27.5% strikeout rate that ranks sixth in history, Papelbon more closely resembled the relievers of the current generation than many before him. Lastly, his 177 ERA+ ranks right behind Wagner and Rivera as the third-highest figure among relievers in history. While he looks like a Hall of Famer based on these merits, his lack of longevity will hurt him. This is what makes him the least likely of these three relievers to end up in the Hall of Fame.
2) Joe Nathan
By Win Probability Added (WPA), Nathan’s 30.6 ranks fourth all-time amongst relievers. Papelbon’s 28.3 ranks seventh. WPA is a good statistic to look at when considering the impact of a reliever on his team. Joe Nathan bounced around the league a little bit towards the end of his career but spent his peak years with the Minnesota Twins. As failed starter-turned-reliever whose first full relief season did not come until age-28, Nathan is one of the league’s most accomplished relievers. It is also easy to picture what his career numbers might look like had he not missed two full seasons (2001 and 2010) during his career.
On pure rate stats and dominance, Papelbon’s numbers are better than Nathan’s. When comparing their numbers, Papelbon has a better ERA, FIP, ERA+, BB%, and K/BB. However, Nathan has nearly 200 more innings under his belt. Joe Nathan was an all-star at age-38 as he posted a 1.39 ERA in 64 innings. In an 11-year stretch from 2003-2013, Nathan was nothing short of an elite reliever. He put up a 2.24 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 10.7 K/9, 340 SV, and 195 ERA+. He put up those numbers despite missing all of 2010. Among relievers with 900+ innings, Nathan’s 151 ERA+ ranks third, 25.9% strikeout rate ranks fourth, and 30.6 WPA ranks fourth. Longevity is a keyword here that makes him a more likely Hall of Fame inductee than Papelbon.
1) Billy Wagner
Ultimately, the fate of Billy Wagner will determine if Nathan or Papelbon ever make it in. His candidacy has gained steam in the past few years, however. He received 10.5% of the ballot in his first year on the ballot, all the way to 46.4% in his sixth year. Quite frankly, it is a shame that Wagner is not in the Hall of Fame yet. Yes, he only pitched 903 innings in his career. Yes, he does not have 500 or more saves, or even 450 saves. However, that’s it. When the narrative around longevity gets removed from his case, Wagner looks like the second-best reliever of all time. ERA? Number two all-time right behind Rivera. FIP? First. Strikeout rate? First. ERA+? Second. WPA? Sixth. Strikeouts? Sixth. Saves? Sixth. In terms of relievers in the hall of fame, Wagner was better than most that are already in.
All told, there are not many numbers to justify Wagner’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame. While Wagner did not last into his 40s like Nathan, he made it to age-38, unlike Papelbon. In fact, Wagner had one of his finest seasons in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves. In 69 1/3 innings, he recorded 37 saves and posted a 1.43 ERA. He posted 13.5 K/9, 2.10 FIP, 0.865 WHIP, and 104 strikeouts. His dominance defied father time. In all, Wagner struck out 100 or more batters in a single season four times and saved 30 or more games nine times. Not only is Wagner the most likely of these three to gain induction, he was also the best reliever of this group.
Billy Wagner could, in many ways, change the course of baseball history. His is the first real example of the modern-day reliever who was good enough to merit consideration for the Hall of Fame. His fate will have a great impact on numerous generations of relievers down the line. With Nathan and Papelbon on the ballot this year, and Francisco Rodriguez who figures to join the ballot next year. In today’s game, there are three historically great relievers in Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman whose fate will be influenced by whatever happens to Billy Wagner. Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Billy Wagner represent the evolution of relief pitching in a major way and deserve consideration for induction.
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