Billy Wagner is bringing more than a surgically-repaired left arm and 385 saves to Atlanta. The 38-year-old southpaw is also bringing a reputation as a media-friendly veteran willing to tell it like it is. Reportedly on the verge of signing a one-year free agent contract with the Braves, the outspoken Wagner seems fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, having pitched effectively for the Red Sox after being acquired from the Mets in late August. Wagner sat down with Baseball Prospectus on the final weekend of the 2009 season.
David Laurila: How would you describe Billy Wagner?
Billy Wagner:What you see is what you get. I’m pretty much an open book. I kind of call it as I see ’em.
DL: Are you referring to yourself as a pitcher, or how you deal with the fans and the media?
BW: The same. I am respectful when I’m shown respect, although I’m probably a little harsh, and probably a little rigid, just through time.
DL: Have you changed over time?
BW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I think I became… you know, as a person you become self-consumed over your career. You’re just trying to get that tunnel vision about your career, and as you get older, you accomplish a lot and you start to kind of loosen up a little bit and become more laid back, and kind of enjoy it.
DL: Have you found that the media rarely asks you about your craft, and mostly just looks for sound bites?
BW: Yes, that’s pretty obvious. I mean, they have a story to write and controversy is usually the name of it.
DL: John Smoltz has said that while most people have viewed him primarily as a guy with great stuff, he’s always seen himself as more of a pitcher. Are you similar in that respect?
BW: No, I think we all try to work to be pitchers, but all the gurus like to put their two cents in, and I’ve always been called a thrower, and it has worked for me, so I can’t complain. The worst thing for me is to overthink a situation, but also, there is some planning. I mean, it’s not as complicated as being a starting pitcher, because [as a starter] you have to set up a scheme to face these guys three or four times, where as a reliever, you might have to face him once. I think that kind of simplifies what I have to do.
BW: I think you know who the real good hitters are, that you have to be careful of, and the guys who aren’t scared of the game. Jeff Kent-I remember a couple of years ago, we were in LA, and he’s coming up. I have a guy on first and one out. The runner was Juan Pierre, and he stole second, so I had a man on second and one out, with Kent coming up followed by a lefty and then another righty. I knew that Jeff Kent could always hit a ball in the gap and that he was always going to make contact, so I just held up four fingers and walked him intentionally. That’s respecting all that he can do, and do you know what? Hey, I have a better opportunity against the guys behind him than I do facing him, so you pretty much make a decision knowing what a guy is capable of.
DL: Who specifically have you had trouble with?
BW: Miguel Olivo is 9-for-9 off me, and he’s something like a career .230 hitter. Miggy-he hits me well. I mean, he’s hit the ball three feet, he’s hit it 450 feet, he’s done just about everything possible. So, there are guys that you struggle with, and there are guys where you don’t have as much trouble, and it’s not that they’re not good hitters, it’s just that for whatever reason they don’t pick the ball up or see it real well against me.
DL: When someone hits you well, do you normally know why it is that they do?
BW: You know, at times you can say, “OK, I don’t locate very well against this guy, for whatever reason.” And there are other guys, like Miggy, where I don’t know why he hits me so well. I’ve thrown the kitchen sink at him and he seems to somehow get the bat on the ball and do well, so yeah, there are some guys you just can’t figure out. Other guys you know that you just beat yourself against.
DL: You had spent your entire career in the National League before coming to Boston. Was having little or no familiarity with most of the hitters you were facing a problem?
BW: No, my game plan is going to stay the same, but you do want to know tendencies. Is this guy a first ball, fastball guy who likes to turn on the first pitch? Is he looking inside? I mean, that doesn’t mean I won’t throw inside. It may mean that I’ll have to move the ball further in. I think that knowing the hitter’s tendencies is more important than just knowing what the guy can do. Let me know-is he a free swinger? Does he take? Does he just do the little things? That makes my decisions on the mound a lot easier.
DL: Do umpires ever impact what you throw?
BW: No. I mean, they miss their calls, and sometimes you get that call, so they don’t dictate how I’m going to pitch a guy.
DL: What if someone is consistently not calling a low strike on a given day?
BW: As a professional pitcher, you should be able to elevate-and to lower-your sights and make pitches. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not, but an umpire isn’t going to dictate how I attack a guy.
DL: Do individual catchers impact a pitcher’s performance?
BW: Oh, definitely. When you have good catchers, they can make mediocre-to-good pitchers great pitchers because they handle you and they get calls. They position you and they call the game in a good way. If you’re comfortable with your catcher, a lot of times you’re going to be a better pitcher.
DL: If you feel that your catcher isn’t doing a good job of framing, do you tell him that?
BW: Yeah, you talk to him. You say, “Hey, man, you have to hold that, you have to stick it a little bit.” You do talk to them, and it’s one of those things like when you have a veteran catcher who is dealing with a young pitcher, he’ll come out there and tell you to keep your shoulder in, or to not fall off the ball, or to say, “Hey, we need to make this pitch.” It’s a constant communication between the two.
DL: How important are pitching coaches?
BW: At this level, pitching coaches are there to keep you in line. Most pitching coaches up here don’t deal a lot with mechanics on the mound. That’s something they’ll do in the bullpen, but for the most part they let you compete, and they just try to keep you somewhat balanced and in that good frame of mind. When you get out there and start discussing mechanics a lot, when you’re out there pitching, a lot of times you get out of sync. Most pitching coaches come out there and just kind of give you a helpful term that you’ve used in the bullpen to get you back in your rhythm.
DL: Can the media impact a player’s performance?
BW: Oh yeah. I think that if you get a player who is very insecure and is pitching for the satisfaction of the media, that puts a lot of pressure on him to do certain things that they may not be able to do. You know, they can get out of their comfort zone and not do as well as they probably could have if they would have just relaxed and not worried about it.
DL: When Eric Wedge addressed the media after he was let go by the Indians, one of the things he said was “Most fans don’t understand how hard it is to win a big-league baseball game.” What are your thoughts on that?
BW: Yeah, definitely, because you’ve got great athletes on both sides that are competing, and sometimes it comes down to who can get the luckiest. Who gets the good bounce or who gets the good call? And it is difficult.
DL: How do you want to be remembered some day?
BW: I think that any player wants to be known as… he wants to be respected. You have your critics and stuff, but to be respected for going out there and being a competitor, and taking the ball and competing, and being a good teammate-I think those are the only things you can really want in your career.
DL: Any final thoughts? Maybe something reporters never ask, but maybe should?
BW: I don’t know. There are so many things that you think people should ask at the time, but you know, it just seems like a waste of time, because some people really don’t even worry about it, or they don’t care. Anything you’d ever want to know about me is probably on somebody’s blog or on the internet somewhere.
DL: Some players claim they don’t care what is written about them. Do you?
BW: Yeah, to some extent, because the media can portray you as a good guy or a bad guy. If you’re coming up and trying to earn your spot on a team, and the media portrays you as someone who doesn’t work hard, or somebody who is a loafer, or lazy, or not a good… you know, the fans buy into this whole thing, and then they start making it tougher and tougher for you. That’s just part of the whole player/media relationship. Like it or not, it’s a part of the game.