25 Jan

on the doorstep

In his eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Billy Wagner got 68.1 percent of the vote, a very nice jump from 51 percent a year ago. It takes 75 percent to make Cooperstown. So, the left-hander is close to becoming the first player from Jackson’s Texas League era to make the Hall. Maybe next year. He is certainly deserving. Wagner, who came out of NCAA Division III Ferrum College in Virginia, was a highly regarded Houston Astros prospect when he arrived in Jackson throwing gas in 1995. The diminutive Wagner, nicknamed “Little Country” by Generals broadcaster Bill Walberg, went 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 starts for the Double-A Gens, fanning 77 batters, walking 36 and hitting four in 70 innings. He was promoted to Triple-A in midseason, made his MLB debut that September, moved to the bullpen in 1996 and took off from there. Wagner retired in 2010 with 422 saves, still No. 6 on the all-time list and more than Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. A seven-time All-Star, Wagner posted a 2.31 career ERA and averaged almost 12 strikeouts per nine innings, an eye-popping number. He didn’t have much postseason success and never won a ring, but he did help seven teams reach the playoffs. Jackson’s Texas League teams (1975-99) produced a bunch of standout closers — see Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones, Rick Aguilera — who never came close to making the Hall. Wagner, who has two years left on the BBWAA ballot, should be the one to break through.

27 Jan

it don’t come easy

Billy Wagner, the former Jackson Generals standout who ranks sixth on MLB’s all-time saves list, made progress toward the Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Wagner was named on 46.4 percent of the ballots (up from 31.7) in his sixth year on the list. The left-hander, who pitched at Smith-Wills Stadium for the Double-A Gens in 1995 (plus a couple of rehab appearances), has 422 saves, a 2.31 ERA and averaged almost 12 strikeouts per nine innings. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci notes: “Wagner ranks among the most difficult pitchers to hit. Ever. Even now, with a proliferation of strikeouts in the game.” He was a seven-time All-Star. Still, it’s a long way from 46.4 to the 75 percent needed for induction. And closers don’t seem to get a lot of love. Other former Jackson Mets/Generals standouts like Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones and Rick Aguilera never came close to making the Hall. … Ex-Gens outfielder Bobby Abreu, in his second year on the ballot, survived the cut for 2022. Players must appear on at least 5 percent of submitted ballots in order to remain on the list the following year; Abreu hit 8.7 this year. A two-time All-Star, and a strong defensive player, he batted .291 with 288 homers, 400 steals and eight 100-RBI seasons. Only a handful of players all-time have achieved 250-plus homers AND 400-plus steals. Playing in Jackson in 1994, he batted .303 with 16 homers, 73 RBIs and 12 steals. If there were a Mississippi minor league Hall of Fame, Abreu would be in it. … Mississippi State alum Jonathan Papelbon will appear on the ballot for the first time in 2022. He had an outstanding 12-year career, posting 368 saves (ninth all-time) and a 2.44 ERA while making six All-Star Games and winning a ring with the 2007 Boston Red Sox. He might be able to stay on the ballot for a couple of years, but making the Hall seems unlikely. … The only Mississippi-connected players enshrined in Cooperstown are former Negro Leagues stars Cool Papa Bell, a Starkville native, and William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and attended Alcorn State. (Columbus native Red Barber is in the broadcasters wing.) Others you could build a case for include Dave Parker, Frank White, Buddy Myer, Guy Bush and even Roy Oswalt, the former Holmes Community College star from Weir who surprisingly lasted just one year on the ballot (2019).

24 Apr

stuff of dreams

The real Lance Berkman, the former Jackson Generals star, batted .296 with 366 homers over a sweet 15-year MLB career that rated more Hall of Fame consideration than it got. The virtual Lance Berkman, now “playing” for the all-time Astros team in the computer-generated MLB Dream Bracket tournament, has been pretty darn good, too. The “Big Puma” is batting .447 with three homers and 12 RBIs through 10 games over two series (see mlb.com for all the box scores). The Astros have reached the quarterfinals with wins against the Orioles and Tigers. Roy Oswalt, the Weir High and Holmes Community College alum, is 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA in three starts for the Astros’ dream team. Oswalt spent 10 years with Houston and was arguably as good in that stretch (143-82, 3.24 ERA) than any pitcher the Astros ever trotted out. That includes Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Mike Scott, the other members of the Dream Bracket rotation. Billy Wagner, another ex-Generals standout with Hall of Fame cred, has three saves for the all-time Astros, who’ll meet the Yankees in the next round.

19 Nov

putting it to a vote

The list of first-timers on the baseball writers’ 2020 Hall of Fame ballot includes two notable names with Mississippi ties: Cliff Lee and Bobby Abreu, both of whom figure to get decent support. Neither, however, is likely to be named on 75 percent of the ballots to earn election. The real question is, will they get enough support to stay on the ballot for a second term? A player needs to appear on at least 5 percent of the ballots to do so — a bigger hurdle than you might think. Consider: Weir native and Holmes Community College product Roy Oswalt and former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the 2019 ballot, and none of them came close to making it for 2020. Both Lee, who pitched at Meridian Community College before going on to Arkansas, and ex-Generals star Abreu have some eye-catching numbers. Lee, a four-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, went 143-91 with a 3.52 ERA over 13 seasons. Abreu, a two-time All-Star, batted .291 with 288 homers, 400 steals and eight 100-RBI seasons. But it’s a very crowded field. Still on the ballot is Billy Wagner, another ex-Gens star who has lasted five years. The little left-hander, who has 422 career saves (sixth all-time), got just 16.7 percent of the votes in 2019. The only Mississippi-connected players enshrined in Cooperstown are former Negro Leagues stars Cool Papa Bell and William Foster.

25 Jan

and yet so far …

Billy Wagner gained some support in the Hall of Fame balloting this year — but just a little. The former Jackson Generals star was named on 11.1 percent of the ballots, getting 47 votes. He was named on 10.2 percent (45 votes) in 2017. The cutoff for election is 75 percent. It would appear that Wagner, who ranks sixth on the all-time saves list, isn’t going to rise to that benchmark. The little left-hander is among five former Jackson Mets or Generals to rank in the MLB top 20 in career saves. None of the others – Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones, Rick Aguilera – came close to making the Hall. With 422 saves, a 2.31 career ERA and seven All-Star Game appearances over 16 seasons, Wagner has great credentials. But tickets to Cooperstown are hard to come by, especially for closers. Trevor Hoffman, No. 2 on the all-time saves list, became just the sixth reliever to make the Hall of Fame when he was announced on Wednesday. P.S. There are no former Jackson area Double-A players — JADAPs — in the Hall of Fame, though recently retired ex-Generals outfielders Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman surely will get strong consideration when they become eligible. And there are a couple of ex-Mississippi Braves still out there building a case, including a closer: Craig Kimbrel, who is still in his prime in Boston and ranks 29th on the saves chart. Catcher Brian McCann, nearing the end of his brilliant career, should get in someday. … Worth noting: Mississippi State alum Jonathan Papelbon, ninth on the saves list and not yet officially retired, could also be a viable Hall candidate down the road.

10 Nov

strong credentials

When he arrived in Jackson in 1995, he was the personification of effectively wild. Texas League hitters didn’t want to get too comfortable against Billy Wagner, who threw in the upper 90s from the left side and might hit a batter, walk another and then strike out the next three. By the time he retired in 2010, Wagner had much better command but was no less scary to face. Wagner is on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, and he is likely to get strong consideration. He ended his big league career with 422 saves, a 2.31 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He was a seven-time All-Star and helped Houston reach the postseason in 1997, ’98, ’99 and 2001. His final season, with Atlanta, was one of his best: 1.43 ERA, 37 saves, 7-2 record for another playoff club. A first-round pick in 1993 out of NCAA Division III Ferrum (Va.) College, Wagner was a starter for the ’95 Generals and went 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in nine games before being promoted. He struck out 77 in 70 innings and walked 36. (He hit four batters and threw four wild pitches.) Wagner, Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman are three players from the Generals era (1991-99) whose numbers should garner at least some attention from Hall of Fame voters. P.S. Ed Easley, Scott Copeland, Tim Dillard, Phil Irwin, Cody Satterwhite and Julio Borbon are Mississippians on the list of minor league free agents provided today by Baseball America. Easley and Copeland made their MLB debuts this past season before getting sent back to the minors. Several 2015 Mississippi Braves are also in the free agent group, including Kevin Ahrens, Tyler Jones, Greg Ross and Mycal Jones, along with Robby Hefflinger, who didn’t play in 2015 because of health issues.