Conversation with Billy Wagner

Wonder what fuels those 100 mph heaters from Astros flamethrower Billy Wagner? Surprisingly, it's nervous energy.

Originally Published: June 12, 2003
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

It wasn't a save situation, but it might have been one of the most astonishing victories Billy Wagner has ever preserved when he closed out the Yankees on Wednesday night for a combined six-pitcher no-hitter in an 8-0 win at Yankee Stadium.

Wagner broke the major-league strikeouts-per-nine-innings record for relievers three years in a row, and still owns it at 15.0.

Billy Wagner
Houston's Billy Wagner has learned to harness his atomic heat.

His 2.61 career ERA stands just .02 behind Mariano Rivera for best among active pitchers with 400 or more innings.

He makes the best hitters in the game flail at his 100 mph cheese.

And still one major-league scout says that right now, Astros closer Billy Wagner is throwing the best he ever has. With a new hard slider learned from -- get this -- rookie Brad Lidge, Wagner has finally assembled two pitchers that leave batters almost helpless. "He's just about unhittable now," that scout said.

Wagner recorded his 200th career save on Sunday, breaking the Astros' team record. His 19 saves this season stand third in the majors behind Atlanta's John Smoltz and Los Angeles' Eric Gagne, and his secondary stats (48 strikeouts against seven walks and 23 hits allowed in 37 1/3 innings) put him right up with the elite.

Nonetheless, Wagner insists that he's still deathly nervous before every appearance, gagging in the bullpen and doubting his ability. I sat down with him in New York, prior to Wednesday's game, to discuss pitching, anxiousness and the best pitch he's never thrown.

Question: Not many closers, let alone pitchers, would admit to being nervous on the mound, but you've told me that you are. Why is that?

Wagner: I have a fear of failure. From where I came from, to get to this point, every game is Game 7. Every game means that much to me when I'm out there. I'm the kind of person who when he gets out there looks calm, but inside I'm about to explode. That's the type of person I am. That makes me a better pitcher. I never feel like, "I have great stuff. I'm just gonna blow this guy away." I go out there feeling like I have to prove myself every game.

Question: You ever go out there thinking, "I stink"?

Wagner: Yes. Definitely. Every time I warm up in the bullpen. Maybe the catcher doesn't react the way he has in the past -- "Do I have nothing today? I don't know how I'm gonna get these guys out." But when you walk out, cross the line, get on the mound, all of a sudden you're as good as you've ever been. I don't know when it'll kick in when I go, "Man, I'm good."

It doesn't affect me on the mound. When I'm on the mound, I'm as serious as a heart attack. I'm nervous, but I know what my job is, and I know how to do it. Being nervous is what fuels me.

Dennis Eckersley -- he was successful because he had a fear of failure. A friend of mine that played with him in Oakland (Joe Slusarski) told me about that. I was always sitting in the bullpen wondering, why am I the only one that's always nervous? Octavio Dotel's never nervous. Guys who haven't been here half as much as I've been here, and haven't done half of what I've done, they act like it's no big deal and I'm a nervous wreck. I sit in the bullpen -- I'm gagging. I sit there and think, "I can't wait to retire so I don't have to go through this every game." But you get through it and win or lose, it's fun.

Question: A scout told me that this is the best he's ever seen you throw. Is that true?

Wagner: The best I've ever pitched? Yes. I'm able to hit spots right now, and I have a slider that's pretty consistent. My strikeouts aren't as high, and I don't think they'll ever be that high again. I've been around the league, people know me and know how to handle me better. Brad Ausmus has made me a whole lot better behind the plate in terms of my understanding how to pitch and being on the same page.

Johnson
Johnson

Question: Is the slider you've developed the one that Randy Johnson tried to teach you in 1998?

Wagner: This is a little different. At that time I was a little immature and couldn't handle the concept of throwing a slider the way he or a Robb Nen do. I wasn't ready for that. This year is the first year that this slider has been more of a true slider. That's been the best pitch for me probably. I get guys swinging, guys checking their swings for a few ground balls. I don't have to throw 20 pitches to get three outs.

Brad Lidge showed it to me the first game of the season. Randy holds it up above the seams on the horseshoe a little. Lidge holds it further down in the center of the ball. My slider goes straight down, maybe a hair across. Randy's sweeps.

Question: On Sunday night, up one against the Devil Rays with two out and going for your 200th save, you started Rocco Baldelli off with -- a slider. Is this the new Billy Wagner?

Wagner: It is. What's allowed me to do that is Brad Ausmus. He's really a driving force for me. He calls a slider in any situation -- I've had games where my slider wasn't good, but he allowed me to constantly throw it.

Question: Your performance is right up there with John Smoltz and Eric Gagne. Do you compare yourself with those guys?

Wagner: I think we all have our little niche. What makes Smoltzie good is that he's a pitcher -- he was a starter, and he takes that out on the mound in the ninth inning. He's able to really pitch. He's been in so many big games that being in the ninth inning doesn't faze him. And if he needs to go two innings he doesn't mind. Whereas Gagne's just got great stuff. He has more pitches than I did when I was young. He's able to locate better. And even though he has that overpowering fastball, what makes him unhittable is that changeup.

What they've done in the last couple of years is absolutely amazing. If anything, I'm jealous. Their instant success -- here I am, it's taken me eight years to get 200 saves. They're likely to get it in three.

Gagne
Gagne

Question: Does Gagne throw harder than you?

Wagner: I don't know. All I know is when I got to the big leagues, I was one of maybe two guys who threw 100 miles an hour. Everyone made a big deal about it. Now every team has a reliever throwing 100. I'm old news. How's it gonna get any better? People throwing 110?

Question: With Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge developing the way they have as your setup men, I know you've thought about your future in Houston. You're signed through 2004 with a team option for 2005. No one expects you to be traded with the Astros in first place, but do you see yourself with this team in the long run?

Wagner: When you're high-priced, and you've got talent below you like Dotel, Lidge and Ricky Stone, it makes it easier for a team to take the chance to get rid of their closer. You've got guys with the same talent -- maybe not the same experience, but the same talent. They have the ability to do it. I don't think the organization wants to do it, but I could see them saying, "We can cut costs, maybe get better in this other area, if we trade Wags." If they did it there would never be a hard feeling for me because they've made me into what I am today.

It might not happen. I may be fortunate and play here the rest of the way and retire. But the likelihood of that is between slim and none.

Question: Do you think you'll be in a Houston uniform next Opening Day?

Wagner: I'd like to think so. I like to think so for my family's sake. We enjoy Houston and Houston's always been great to us. But I'm trade-eligible. They're able to get something for me. I don't think they'll do it in the middle of the season because then you're throwing everyone all out of whack into a situation they're not accustomed to.

Question: What's the worst pitch you've ever thrown? Can you pinpoint it?

Wagner: (Laughs.) Oh yes. It wasn't a home run pitch. It wasn't a hit. It was actually a strikeout pitch.

It was the funniest thing, the most unbelievable thing I've ever done. We're in St. Louis last year. In the beginning of the year I came in against them, we were down, I was getting an inning in, trying to hold them where they were at. They stole a lot of bases on me. They even stole home on me.

Well, we go to St. Louis later. And I'm like, "OK, guy gets on third, gotta keep an eye on him." I'm out there, and sure enough, Jim Edmonds is up and Fernando Vina's on third. Two outs. I get two strikes on Jimmy. And the next pitch, out of the corner of my eye, I see Vina dart toward home. Instead of throwing my best fastball, I'm so messed up I kind of herky-jerky lob the ball in there. I'm thinking, "Just get the ball home." It must have looked ridiculous.

But next thing you know -- boop! -- it went over the plate, all funky. Edmonds swung and missed and it ended the game.

Question: That's your long awaited changeup. Eric Gagne, watch out.

Wagner: I don't think I'll benefit off that thing too often. That was a real bad pitch.

Question: What's the best pitch you've ever thrown?

Wagner: Honestly, until I've pitched in the World Series, I can't say I've had one. I've gone out there when I had tunnel vision -- the All-Star Game in 1999, in Boston, I could've closed my eyes, could've thrown knuckleballs. It was gonna be a strike, and it was gonna be nasty. Faced two guys, struck 'em out on like six pitches. It was unbelievable. I was a nervous wreck, couldn't feel my legs. But I was just straight filthy.

But I don't think I've ever made a great pitch. For that, it's gotta be in the ultimate situation. I can't wait.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.