Former Houston Astros closer Billy Wagner was one of the most dominant relievers in Major League history.

The fireball-throwing lefty blew away hitters and was consistently at the top of all relievers during his career.

This culminated to a 16-year career with a minuscule ERA and over 400 saves.

Here is a look at Wagner’s career story and where he is today.

Humble Beginnings

Throughout his childhood, Wagner grew up bouncing between different guardians and relying on food stamps.

When he was seven, he broke his right arm and began to throw with his left.

This was despite him naturally being right-handed.

In high school, Wagner threw hard but stood at just 5-foot-5.

He was overlooked by many colleges and pro teams because of this, as they didn’t project him to improve.

However, he ended up attending Division 3 Ferrum College where he played both baseball and football.

In his collegiate career, he posted a 17-3 record and set the Division 3 record for career strikeouts with 327.

He also grew to 5-foot-10 and began to gain traction on the national baseball stage.

In the iconic Cape Cod League, Wagner was named as their outstanding pro prospect, despite being one of the few small school players there.

He was also rated as the top-rated college prospect for the 1993 MLB draft, where he was taken 12th overall by the Astros.

Wagner Rises To Majors

After being drafted, Wagner didn’t immediately light up the minor leagues.

In his first season in low-A, Wagner had a 4.08 ERA.

However, in his first full season he posted a solid 3.29 as a starting pitcher.

He followed this up with an even better season, having a 2.89 ERA between AA and AAA again as a starter.

This was enough to earn him his first appearance with the Astros, recording a single out.

In 1996, after spending some time in AAA as a starter again, Wagner was called up for bullpen support.

He thrived in this role.

In 37 appearances out of the bullpen, Wagner posted a 2.44 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 51.2 innings.

This would spell the end of any potential career for Wagner as a starting pitcher.

He became a fixture in the bullpen for the rest of his 16-year career.

Wagner Becomes One Of The Best

While names such as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have become the most well-known of the era, Wagner was just as dominant.

In 1999, he made his first All-Star team after posting an outstanding 1.57 ERA, 39 saves, and 124 strikeouts.

This also earned him a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, a standout finish for a reliever.

The next season, he would struggle and post a 6.18 ERA in just 27.2 innings.

This would end up being the only time he ever had an ERA greater than three in his career.

From 2001-2010, Wagner posted 10 straight seasons with an ERA of 2.73 or lower.

In 2003, he had arguably the most dominant year of his career.

He made 78 appearances and kept his ERA to just 1.78, striking out 105 in 86 innings.

However, this would ultimately be his final season with the Astros.

Astros Trade Wagner

After the 2003 season, the Astros elected to send Wagner to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for three pitchers.

At 32-years-old, some thought Wagner may have been past the prime of his career.

They were wrong.

Wagner joined the Phillies and had a solid 2.42 ERA in an injury-shortened 2004.

He followed this up with one of his best seasons, as he appeared in 75 games and had a 1.51 ERA with 87 strikeouts.

This earned him his fourth career All-Star appearance and boosted his value as he hit the free-agent market that winter.

He decided to sign a four-year $43 million contract with the New York Mets to become their closer.

In his first three seasons, Wagner remained his reliable self out of the bullpen.

However, he suffered a torn UCL late in the 2008 season and underwent Tommy John surgery.

He didn’t return to the Mets until the middle of the 2009 season and was then traded to the Boston Red Sox.

In just 13.2 innings with Boston, he had a great 1.98 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.

That offseason, he signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves that ended up being his last.

It ended up being arguably the best of his career.

At 38-years-old, Wagner posted a 1.43 ERA and 37 saves with a whopping 104 strikeouts in 69.1 innings

A Cooperstown Resumé

Wagner finished his career with 422 career saves, good for sixth all-time.

For pitchers that have thrown at least 800 innings, Wagner has the highest strikeout rate with 11.9 K/9.

He also has the lowest opposing batting average (.187) and hit rate (5.99 H/9).

Wagner has a Hall of Fame stat sheet but has been overlooked in the voting.

He has steadily increased since his first season on the ballot in 2016.

In that first year, he earned only 10.5% of the vote while he was up to 46.4%.

This is still far from the 75% required to make it in, so he will have some work to do before being enshrined in Cooperstown.

However, with how important relievers are becoming in the modern game, Wagner’s case only becomes stronger each year.

Where is Wagner Today?

Wagner is currently serving as the head baseball coach at The Miller School in Virginia, where he has been the coach since 2013.

The school has won two state championships in that time.

He has expressed an interest to stay in the game of baseball and has succeeded so far as a coach at the high school level.

While Cooperstown has eluded him, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was also inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.

He was also inducted into the Houston Astros Hall of Fame in 2021.

This article first appeared on The Cold Wire and was syndicated with permission.

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