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Appreciating the historic, unhittable greatness of Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner’s phenomenal career ending with him leaving a save situation and limping off the field before being replaced on the playoff roster due to an oblique injury is all kinds of not fair, but the diminutive flame-thrower remained a badass until the very end, agreeing to a pair of injections for the slim chance it would allow him to pitch again because he “didn’t care about the risk of long-term injury.” My hope is that the unfortunate manner his career ended doesn’t take anything away from how spectacular he was for 15 seasons. Wagner is a seven-time All-Star who ranks fifth all time with 422 saves, but a deeper look at his career numbers reveals his true dominance. For instance, among all the pitchers in baseball history with at least 800 career innings Wagner has the highest strikeout rate:

 SO/9 BILLY WAGNER 11.92 Randy Johnson 10.61 Kerry Wood 10.35 Pedro Martinez 10.04 Nolan Ryan 9.55

That’s a pretty amazing list to sit atop. Not coincidentally, he’s also the all-time leader in fewest hits allowed per nine innings:

 H/9 BILLY WAGNER 5.99 Herb Score 6.39 Nolan Ryan 6.56 Sandy Koufax 6.79 J.R. Richard 6.88

Wagner is also the all-time leader in adjusted ERA+ among all left-handed relievers with at least 800 innings:

 ERA+ BILLY WAGNER 187 John Franco 138 John Hiller 134 Sparky Lyle 128 Jesse Orosco 126

The degree to which Wagner blows away the rest of the lefty reliever competition in ERA+ is ridiculous. To put those numbers in some context, consider that the difference between Wagner at 187 and second-place John Franco at 138 is bigger than the difference between Franco at 138 and, say, Scott Schoeneweis at 92. And here’s how Wagner ranks in ERA+ among all relievers with 800-plus career innings:

 ERA+ Mariano Rivera 204 BILLY WAGNER 187 Hoyt Wilhelm 147 Dan Quisenberry 147 Trevor Hoffman 141

Highest strikeout rate of all time, fewest hits per nine innings of all time, best ERA+ ever by a left-handed reliever, and second-best ERA+ among all relievers behind only Mariano Rivera. I really hope everyone who saw Wagner limp off the mound Friday night realizes they saw the end of one of the most extraordinarily dominant reliever careers in baseball history. In his final season, at age 38, he saved 37 games with a 1.43 ERA, .159 opponents’ batting average, and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. I hope Wagner enjoys his retirement, because I know National League hitters will.