It remains a heated debate. If Billy Wagner had stayed healthy in 2008, are the Mets the team winning the division, winning the World Series, and spending the next four months bashing their division rivals?
While it is all speculation and hypothetical, there is valid evidence to support that had Billy Wagner kept his arm intact, the Mets would have proceeded to win the NL East. That aspect of the question remains plausible.
The other parts are not. With Billy Wagner closing out games, the Mets would not have won a World Series. Not in 2008, and certainly not in 2009.
Sure, Wagner’s ERA never surpassed 2.63 in any of his three years with the Mets. Yes, he amassed 101 saves in a Mets uniform. But as Astros, Phillies, and Mets fans ultimately found out, when the stakes got high, Wagner’s performance worsened.
Let’s flash back to 2006, where the unaccountable side of Billy Wagner stood up. Up by four runs against the Yankees in the second game of the Subway Series, Wagner melted down. He gave up four runs to a Yankee lineup that didn’t exactly consist of the Bronx Bombers that day. The likes of Kelly Stinnett, Melky Cabrera, and an aging Bernie Williams delivered the most damage en route to a stunning loss.
And how did Wagner respond? He cited lack of adrenaline due to the four-run lead being a non-save situation as a reason.
Mets fans were initially angered and confused by this lack of accountability, but quickly moved on. Despite the loss, this 2006 Mets squad appeared poised to properly commemorate the 1986 championship winning ball club.
Now let’s fast forward to Game 2 of the NLCS Mets fans would rather forget.
It’s 6-6 in the top of the ninth. After defeating Chris Carpenter, who was the Cardinals' bona fide ace at this point in his career, the Mets held a 1-0 lead. Take this game, and head to St. Louis against a team that won only 83 games on the season doubting themselves.
And with 4-5-6 coming up in the bottom half of the ninth, all Wagner had to do was do what $43 million closers are asked to do: shut the game down.
Leading off the ninth came the light-hitting So Taguchi, who Wagner had yet to allow a hit off. A guy elite closers make look foolish, especially when the stakes are highest.
The rest of this matchup is well-known at this point. Taguchi smoked a Wagner fastball over the fence, and Wagner let up two more runs to put the game out of reach for his team.
Okay, so Wagner had one off inning in a seven game series. Except this inning subtly, yet heavily, impacted the outcome of game seven and ultimately, the series.
It’s the same situation as Game 2; tied 1-1 at home with the winner advancing to the World Series. Isn’t this the spot to put in your shutdown closer in? Well, due to the events of Game 2, Willie Randolph did not think so. Wagner instilled confidence into nobody as a guy that is wanted on the mound with the season in the line. So Randolph looked in a different direction.
Enter Aaron Heilman. Exit Mets World Series dreams. Due to the lack of faith in one of the league’s highest paid closers, the Mets were unable to contend for their first championship in 20 years.
Okay, now off to 2007. Another strong year in terms of statistics for Wagner, but there were multiple blown saves that severely hurt the Mets down the stretch. His ERA in August was a dastardly 6.23, and back spasms plagued him throughout September. That isn’t directly the fault of Wagner, but with one DL stint in K-Rod’s career, injuries to the closer likely won’t be an issue anymore.
In 2008, many got to see the Wagner who isn’t exactly the best teammate either. He publicly alluded to his Hispanic teammates avoiding the media with their limited English language as an excuse.
Additionally, his hypocritical side came out too. After blowing a save against the Pirates in 2008, Willie Randolph was forced to drain his bullpen, which made Oliver Perez’s start the next day an important one. Oliver struggled, and Wagner called him out in the media that same day.
During his explanation of why Perez had to pitch better when the pen needs him to, Wagner conveniently left out one tidbit: it was his fault that Perez needed a great performance. Had Wagner done what he was paid to do the night before, Perez would not have had as much pressure to perform the next day.
Even before his injury, it became increasingly evident Wagner was losing some of his skill. His location was off, and his performance was suffering. He would have been better than any of the other Mets relievers last September, but that is not saying much.
With Wagner’s injury, the signing of Francisco Rodriguez became imperative. And with the meltdown of the Mets bullpen last year, one could argue the trade for J.J. Putz was as well. Now the Mets have one of the best setup men in the league, and a closer who doesn’t only act like he wants the big stage: he means it.
Something Wagner never did.