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Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, and a Hall of Fame standard

How does baseball memorialize a new position group?

New York Mets vs New York Yankees - June 15, 2007 Photo by Bryan Yablonsky/Getty Images

If you follow the NHL, you know that for the first time, there is a player with a real shot at challenging one of Wayne Gretzky’s numerous career records. Alex Ovechkin is 140 goals shy of the Great One’s 894, and at age 36, it’s pretty much a coin flip whether he gets to that mark or not. Should he not get to 895, I don’t think there’s any shame in that, ending up falling just short of the greatest of all time to do it.

Enter Mariano Rivera, who among relief pitchers is pretty much Wayne Gretzky. His blend of an immense peak, racking up counting stats, and a significant shift in how the game is played means things like Mo’s all time save record or his postseason accomplishments may never be challenged — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other great relievers.

So now we have Billy Wagner, currently on 48.4% of the public Hall of Fame ballots, a net gain of nine votes over where he was last year. He’s not getting into the Hall this year, and has a serious hill to climb over the next three years. He’s not as good as Mo, of course, but he’s better than Trevor Hoffman — more strikeouts, better ERA, better FIP, nearly equal in WAR despite throwing about 200 fewer innings — less the saves. At the risk of spoiling an article we have coming out next week, Wags appears on my Hall of Fame mock ballot.

His candidacy, to me, is about more than just onfield performance though. The Hall of Fame is a museum, and rightly or wrongly, it is one of the vehicles we use in order to tell larger stories about the history of the game. This is one of the reasons why I think David Ortiz is a Hall of Famer; I don’t know how you can talk about baseball in this century and not talk about the 2004 ALCS, or the way the Red Sox responded to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Wagner’s not as famous as Ortiz, and you can probably tell The Story of Baseball without a specific chapter on him, but I don’t think you can without discussing relief pitching as a strategic unit, and that’s where Wagner’s inclusion matters. Whether or not you like how much relief pitching has carved away from the starter, it’s a part of the game now, and we’re going to need some way of documenting it for the historical record.

Inducting Wagner allows us to set a real standard for what the modern relief ace can be. There are already relievers in the Hall, of course, but someone like Goose Gossage was just deployed so radically different in the 70s and 80s, compared to the targeted approach of relievers today.

You could try inducting entire units, like the 2014/15 Kansas City Royals bullpen, whose golden trio of Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Wade Davis revolutionized the way that teams leverage relief arms, especially in the playoffs, despite none of the Big Three being Hall candidates on their own. Still, the Hall has a tradition of single player inductions, and Wagner helps establish a historical standard for future induction.

It won’t be long before the great — and I mean truly great — relievers of this generation are Hall-eligible. Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, none of these guys will finish anywhere close to the standard that Mo set, but they’ve been the gold standard for relief pitching in this new era, and will have good cases for enshrinement if someone like Wagner, who is excellent but not Mo, goes in ahead of them:

Mo is the Wayne Gretzky, or the Tom Brady, of his position. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting up his cumulative value for a full career. But just because players aren’t Wayne Gretzky or Tom Brady, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve induction into the Hall of Fame, and in Wagner’s case specifically, the Hall needs to begin building a foundation for what a Hall of Fame reliever is in the modern game.

I know that there are people, and voters, who will immediately, severely discount the candidacy of Billy Wagner purely based on his position, and that’s fine. He faces an uphill battle towards induction even if you accept that the Hall needs a real standard for relievers. Still, he’s a harbinger of the ace reliever that we see popping up around baseball, and when we tell The Story of Baseball, this century will need to include a chapter on those guys.