Kid Heat. Billy The Kid. Wags. The press and the players hunted for a nickname for the canned heat that was Billy Wagner. He threw a precision fastball that approached 100 MPH. His deceptive slider looked an awful lot like a fastball until it broke in front of the plate. Hitters looked out at the slender man glaring at them from the mound and, before he threw a pitch, they felt fear. With the exception of an injury-riddled 2000 season, he owned the ninth inning, and batters knew it.
Wagner’s brand of dominance meant striking men out. As a sophomore in college, he set an NCAA record with 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings and set the same record as a major leaguer with a ratio of 14.4 in 1999. That season he set the Astros’ high-water mark for saves in a season (39), while posting a minuscule 1.57 ERA.
But throwing with his kind of velocity took its toll. Warming up for a divisional playoff game in 1999, Wagner felt a twinge in his elbow. He rested the arm the following winter, but pitched ineffectively in 2000, missing the second half of the season as what had been diagnosed as tendinitis turned into a full-blown ligament tear. He watched helplessly as his Astros came apart that year (72-90), but Wagner returned to the pen in 2001 and rediscovered his twentieth-century form as the Astros rebounded to the top ranks of the National League.
Wagner is no stranger to physical pain. He found refuge from a difficult childhood in sports, and broke his right arm twice playing football, shattering it the second time. With his right arm in a cast, he began to throw left-handed. Today he still eats and writes with his right hand, but throws his bullets as a southpaw.