11/21/2023 12:32 PM
Article By: Daniel Curren
In the summer of 1992, a left-handed pitcher from a Division III college in Virginia came to the Cape and dominated for the Brewster Whitecaps. He came in as an underdog and left as a future first-round draft pick. 30 years later, his performance earned him a spot in the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame. One year after his induction, Billy Wagner finally got the celebration he deserved.
Wagner was inducted with the class of 2022, but missed the ceremony after coming down with an illness just days before. After a year-long wait, Wagner returned to the Cape and came face to face with his plaque at the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich.
“The Cape means so much for me because of what it allowed me to do with my future,” Wagner said. “What the league did for me was probably more than what I did for it.”
The lefty from Ferrum College pitched 44 innings with the Whitecaps in 1992. He went 3-2 with a 3.65 ERA and struck out 79 batters en route to winning the league’s Most Outstanding Pro Prospect. His overpowering velocity and deceptive breaking pitches also helped him win All-Star Game MVP for the East Division. His 16.2 strikeouts per nine innings remain a single season record in the Cape League.
Billy’s dominance caught the eye of Cape League Hall of Famer and legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons.
“A good friend of mine that was a scout called me and said ‘you gotta see this cat from Brewster, he’s unbelievable,’” Gammons recalled. “I still think he’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen on the Cape.”
Gammons gave Wagner the nickname “Billy Radar” that summer. The nickname originated through the large number of scouts that brought radar guns to watch Wagner pitch. Gammons later anecdotes that Wagner might’ve been the first pitcher to clock 100mph in the Cape League.
Wagner went on to have an outstanding 16-year career in Major League Baseball, primarily with the Houston Astros. He posted a 2.31 ERA with 1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings. His 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings are the most among all pitchers in MLB history with at least 850 innings pitched.
The success Wagner experienced on the Cape gave him a newfound confidence that he believes translated into big league dominance.
“Coming from a small school, I may have gotten a shot, but I probably don't make it in the first round,” Wagner said. “You realize that confidence and that you are good enough to play against the best of the best, so minor league ball wasn't overwhelming.”
The Cape League gave Wagner his first chance to face the kind of competition he would go on to face throughout his professional career. Hall of Fame weekend gave him a chance to reflect on what the opportunity given to him in Brewster meant to him.
“A lot of the older D1 guys who were coming from these plush places didn't really understand the Cape as much because they were looking for, you know, a lot of the bells and whistles,” Wagner said. “For me, being here just made it surreal. These guys made impacts on me that allowed me to get to the big leagues and to really excel.”
Wagner now has his eyes set on the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. In 2023, Wagner received 68.1% of the writers vote, just 6.9% shy of the 75% required for induction. The next election will take place on January 23rd, 2024.