One of the MLB’s all-time greats is walking away from the game.

Braves’ LHP Billy Wagner, 39, officially confirmed his retirement from Major League Baseball this week. Wagner’s MLB career came to a close prematurely when he suffered a left oblique injury in the NLDS while fielding a bunt by Giants’ SS Edgar Renteria, then re-aggravated it on the very next batter and was forced to leave the game. Wagner received two injections on October 10th, telling doctors that he wanted to try to return, and that he “didn’t care about the long-term affects.”

He tried to throw on Sunday, but was unable do so without significant pain, and was placed on the 15-Day DL—a stint that may not only end his season, but his career. The belief was that he’d return if the Braves could advance to the World Series—which, as we know, simply wasn’t in the cards. Ultimately, Wagner walks—limps, rather—into retirement from the game alongside his manager, Bobby Cox.

Wagner turns in a fantastic 1.43 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 104/22 K/BB ratio over 69 1/3 innings during the regular season, successfully shutting the door on 37-of-44 save opportunities. As his stats indicate, as well as his presence on the mound, the flamethrower could’ve remained a dominant closer for a few more seasons.

I don’t blame him for leaving, though—a 162-game schedule attacks your body, not to mention being away from home and your family/wife/kids. As of right now, RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Takashi Saito and LHP Johnny Venters will compete to assume the position for 2011, and the $7M freed up will allow the Braves to improve in other areas of their game.

Wagner had always been one of my favorite pitchers growing up, so I thought I’d take a look at what he’s accomplished in baseball. He shared a similar body frame as I did (he’s 5’10″, 180-pounds), and watching him throw smoke had me dying to become a fearless, challenging, hard-throwing closer too.

I began researching him, and the first thing that jumped at me was that he’s a *natural* right-handed pitcher, but only started throwing southpaw after breaking his arm twice in accidents. He taught himself to throw lefty by throwing thousands of balls against the wall of a barn, and then fielding the rebounds, rinse and repeat.

As I started watching the MLB as a baseball enthusiast, rather than just as a fan cheering for a team, I realized how rare a talent such as Wagner was. A dominant lefty-closer who was capable throwing a baseball 100 mph, plus a nasty slider, mixed with how hard (not the velocity—call it torque, if you will) was, and still is, a rare commodity. And it was his sheer, utter dominance that made him one of the greatest of all-time.

Among all the pitchers in baseball history with at least 800 career innings, Wagner has the highest strikeout rate. Not bad company, either:

K/9 IP

Billy Wagner: 11.92
Randy Johnson: 10.61
Kerry Wood: 10.35
Pedro Martinez: 10.04
Nolan Ryan: 9.55

Wagner is also the all-time leader in adjusted ERA+ among all lefty relievers with at least 800 innings, and ranks second in all-time adjusted ERA behind another closer who I hear is pretty good:


Billy Wagner: 187
John Franco: 138
John Hiller: 134
Sparky Lyle: 128
Jesse Orosco: 126

All-time ERA+

Mariano Rivera: 204
Billy Wagner: 187
Hoyt Wilhelm: 147
Dan Quisenberry: 147
Trevor Hoffman: 141

While many people will be critical of his postseason failures and locker-room character (particularly with the Phillies), there’s no denying what he’s accomplished on the mound. Of all the impressive stats accumulated over the years, his most impressive might be the 422 saves he leaves behind, good for (an underrated) fifth on the all-time list, just two shy of Mets’ legend John Franco.

Simply put, he’s the greatest left-handed reliever of all time. He sports the highest strikeout rate of all-time, the best adjusted ERA ever by a lefty reliever, the fewest hits per nine innings of all-time and the second-best ERA+ among all relievers behind only Mariano Rivera.

The seven-time All-Star and 1999 NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year leaves after 15 seasons, but it simply doesn’t do justice to just how badass he was. He’s the perfect combination of a lumberjack and a pirate. He eats beef jerky for breakfast. He flosses with shards of bats he’s broken. He’s essentially baseball’s version of Chuck Norris. Also, he had a wicked-awesome beard.

Wagner did not end his career the way many athletes envision themselves retiring—by limping off the field. My hope is that once the World Series hype dies down this winter, we can really begin to look at what a marvel Billy Wagner was. He remains one of the few pitchers in the history of sports to remain dominant throughout their career, and his statistics—first-ballot Hall of Fame worthy, mind you—truly speak volumes about how dominant and consistent he’s been throughout his career.

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