(Photo: Over the Monster)

After six years of listening to suspicion an innuendo and falling short on the Hall of Fame ballot, the dam broke this January when Houston Astros great Jeff Bagwell was elected by the baseball writers to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Cooperstown Cred: Jeff Bagwell

Elected to the Hall of Fame in his 7th year with 86.2% of the vote

  • 449 career home runs, 1,529 career RBI
  • .297 career AVG, .408 OBP, .540 SLG, .948 OPS
  • 149 career OPS+
  • 1994 N.L. MVP (39 HR, 116 RBI, .368 AVG, 1.201 OPS)
  • 6 times in top 10 of NL MVP voting
  • 8 seasons with at least 30 HR & 100 RBI
  • Only first baseman in history with 400 HR and 200 SB
  • 1991 NL rookie of the year
  • 79.6 career WAR (4th best since 1901 for first basemen, behind Gehrig, Pujols, and Foxx).

With Bagwell joining longtime teammate Craig Biggio in Cooperstown, the two players will hold the distinction of being the third Cooperstown duo who played together for 15 years during the expansion era. Bags and Biggio played together for the Houston Astros from 1991 (Bagwell’s rookie year) until 2005 (after which he retired).

The Braves’ Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were teammates from 1988-2002, although neither spent their entire career in Atlanta as Bagwell and Biggio did in Houston. Same with Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, teammates with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1978 to 1992 (with Molitor playing his last six seasons in Toronto and Minnesota).

So Bagwell and Biggio are unique in that they played together for 15 seasons and are both one-team-only players. There are only three other such combos in MLB history (although there will be a famous fifth pair in a few years):

Hall of Fame duos (at least 15 years playing together and who both only played for one MLB team)

Mel Ott & Carl Hubbell: 1928-43 (15 years)

Mickey Mantle & Whitey Ford: 1953-67 (15 years)

Roberto Clemente & Bill Mazeroski: 1956-1972 (17 years)

Jeff Bagwell & Craig Biggio: 1991-2005 (15 years)

*Derek Jeter & Mariano Rivera: 1995-2013 (19 years) (not eligible yet)

 

Jeff Bagwell was originally selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 4th round of the 1989 draft. He was actually born in Boston but his family moved to central Connecticut when he was just one year old. Bagwell had just completed his junior year at the University of Hartford when he was drafted by the Sox. The 1990 BoSox were looking for some bullpen help during the stretch run and so, towards the end of of Bagwell’s second minor league campaign, he was traded to the Houston Astros for relief pitcher Larry Andersen. The 37-year old journeyman had become one of the top set-up men in the game, sporting a 1.73 ERA over 161.1 innings in the 1989-90 campaigns in Houston.

A quick look will tell you that Andersen contributed to the Sox’ stretch drive; he posted a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings. But, during the final two weeks of the season, blew three leads in six appearances. In all three of those blown saves he allowed the tying run(s) to score; the Sox prevailed eventually in two of those games and won the A.L. East title by two games over the Toronto Blue Jays.

Andersen was a well-known prankster and well-liked player but the joke was on the Red Sox, who did make the playoffs but were swept in four games by the Oakland A’s in the ALCS. In the meantime, the Astros parlayed their journeyman hurler into a Hall of Fame first baseman, who would be a cornerstone of the franchise for 15 years.

Bagwell, who played third base in the minors, hit just 6 home runs in 831 minor league plate appearances with the Red Sox but his power blossomed with the Astros; he finished his career with 449 taters. Hindsight can be cruel of course but, to be fair to then-General Manager Lou Gorman, Wade Boggs was entrenched in Boston at third base and they had a premier power hitter ahead of Bagwell on the minor league depth chart at first base, Mo Vaughn.

The Astros didn’t really have room for Bagwell at third base either (he was blocked there by Ken Caminiti) but, since the team traded long-time first baseman Glenn Davis in the off-season, there was an opening on the right side of the diamond. Baggy won the job in spring training and proceeded to become the NL Rookie of the Year. The guy who hit just 6 minor league home runs in two seasons hit 15 in his first MLB campaign despite calling the cavernous Astrodome his home park (he hit 9 of his 15 taters on the road). Bagwell’s power improved to 18 home runs in 1992, 20 in 1993 and then 39 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. With a league-leading 116 RBI and 1.201 OPS, Bagwell was a unanimous MVP selection in ’94.

That 1994 campaign was a beginning of a 10-year stretch where Bagwell was simply one of the best handful of position players in the sport. Here is where he ranks among all position players from 1994-2003:

JEFF BAGWELL 1994-2003RankAmong all players (min 3000 PA)
Home Runs3665thSosa, Bonds, Palmeiro, Thome
Runs Batted In11553rdSosa, Palmeiro
Runs Scored11601st
Stolen Bases16619thMost for 1st Basemen
OPS+1566thBonds, McGwire, Sheffield, M. Ramirez, E. Martinez
WAR (pos. players)60.83rdBonds, A. Rodriguez

To be 3rd in Wins Above Replacement for a 10-year period (behind only Bonds and Alex Rodriguez) is extremely impressive, not to mention the fact that there’s an 8-win gap between Bagwell and the man in 4th place (Sammy Sosa). As I’ve written many times before, I look at WAR as a conversation starter, not a conversation ender, so the question is why would Bagwell be so high on that list?

The answer is that he was a power hitter who also got on base, fielded his position well and could run. As a base-runner, his 202 career steals are the most for any first basemen since 1930. In his career, Bagwell’s “Extra Bases Taken” rate was 48%, an excellent number for a first baseman and is better than the mark of his speedier teammate Biggio. (“Extra Bases Taken” means going from first to third on a single, second to home on a single or first to third on a double).

Defensively, Baggy won just one Gold Glove (playing second fiddle to Mark Grace, J.T. Snow and, later, Todd Helton) but he was a significantly above average glove-man. He was in the top 3 in assists for N.L. first basemen 10 times in his 15-year career (leading the league 5 times). In the history of the game, his 1,704 career assists are 3rd best.

An aside here: assist totals for a first baseman can sometimes be misleading, because there’s a choice involved in a great many plays about whether to toss to the pitcher or go to the bag yourself. Bill James illuminated this in his 2001 edition of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract where he noted that Bill Buckner often led the league in assists, despite being hobbled with pain in his legs. This happened because he would toss the ball to the pitcher covering first base on plays that other first basemen would take themselves. This was not the case with Jeff Bagwell who, with his quick feet, excelled at turning the 3-6-3 double play, not an easy thing for a right-handed throwing first baseman. He ranks 12th in career double plays turned by a first baseman.

 

The one blemish in Bagwell’s career was his lack of success in post-season baseball. This was also true (even more so) for his Hall of Fame teammate Craig Biggio. Bagwell’s post-season numbers, in 33 games, come out to a .226 average with 2 home runs, 13 RBI and a .685 OPS. Compare that to his career regular season OPS of .948.

The Astros made the playoffs in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001 and won a grand total of two out of fourteen games, getting bounced in the N.L. Division Series each time. In the first eleven of those games (in consecutive years), Bagwell hit a woeful .128 with no extra base hits in 48 plate appearances. As a team, the Astros did better in 2004 (making it through the NLDS before falling in 7 games to St. Louis in the NLCS) and, of course, in 2005, the franchise did win its first pennant, ultimately falling in the World Series to the Chicago White Sox.

Due to his bum shoulder, Bagwell was limited to pinch-hitting and DH duties in the ’05 post-season. Bagwell’s congenitally arthritic shoulder forced his retirement after that 2005 season.

Anyway, if Bagwell was a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, his lack of post-season success would be a demerit. But he isn’t borderline, not at all. To put a bow on Bagwell’s Cooperstown credentials, let’s take a look at a direct career comparison with Frank Thomas, elected to the Hall of Fame three years ago, a player with a similar career and a contemporary.

Jeff BagwellFrank Thomas
Home Runs449521
RBI15291704
Runs Scored15171494
Hits23142468
Doubles488495
Stolen Bases20232
Batting Average.297.301
On-Base %.408.419
Slugging %.540.555
OPS +149156
WAR79.873.4

You can see that, on balance, The Big Hurt was a slightly better hitter overall. The reason he didn’t appear in the “ranks” with Bagwell’s peers from 1994-2003 is that Thomas had three of his peak years prior (from 1991 to 1993, when he won his first MVP). Still, if Thomas was a better hitter, Bagwell was a much better defensive player and a vastly better base runner. Add the fact that Thomas started more than half of his games as a DH, I would say that it’s a coin flip to decide who was the more valuable player.

If it’s a coin flip between Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas then Jeff Bagwell is a clearly Hall of Fame player. End of conversation, except for the “whisper” campaign that he might have been a PED user. Honestly, other than those whispers, the only reason I could see for not putting him in is that his career ended at the age of 37 due to a bum shoulder so he couldn’t amass the benchmark 500 home runs that we usually like to see from our Hall of Fame first basemen.

Aaah, but the whispers were there and it’s why it took Bagwell seven years on the ballot to get his plaque in Coopertown. What are we to make of that light-power-hitting minor league third baseman who would average 37 home runs per year over a 10 year period (1994-2003), this despite the disadvantage of playing home games at the Astrodome?

First, let’s start with the fact that Bagwell (nicknamed “BagPipes” and not for his singing ability) was a beast in the gym, making a point of working out eight hours a day to increase his strength. This is an excerpt from a piece written in 1999 by Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci:

Always an avid weightlifter, Bagwell hired a bodybuilder to train him after that ’95 season. The trainer, Herschel Johnson, suggested a program to make Bagwell stronger for baseball without adding too much bulk, which might cause a loss in flexibility. “I don’t care about that,” Bagwell retorted. “I need to get as big as I can and be as strong as I can.”

He added 20 pounds that winter through intense weightlifting and a high-protein, low-fat that (heavy on egg whites, tuna, turkey and steak). Bagwell hit 108 dingers over the next three seasons, including a career-high 43 in 1997. His off-season regimen now includes not only Johnson’s training but also creatine, the nutritional supplement, and the controversial testosterone-boosting androstenedione. “It may help your workout, but it doesn’t help you hit home runs,” he says.

 

Androstenedione. Andro. This is the supplement that was found in Mark McGwire’s locker during the great home run chase of 1998. It was legal in baseball at the time. Of course, we found out later (from his own admission) that McGwire used more than Andro to supplement his workouts. For years, the suspicion has been that Bagwell did the same. But he was never called in front of Congress. He was never mentioned in the Mitchell Report on steroids. There is no definitive link. And eye-witnesses (including one I know personally who went to the same gym) vouch for the intensity of his workouts.

When the 2017 ballot came, Verducci, along with 380 other writers, checked his name on their ballot but not without taking him to task for being what he called a “steroid apologist,” citing a quote in which Bagwell said “hand-eye coordination is something you can’t get from a bottle” and his don’t care attitude about who used and who didn’t.

If you put a gun to my head and my life depended on correctly answering the question, “did Jeff Bagwell take PEDs?” I would be, out of a desire to stay alive, compelled to say “yes” but it’s a close call with him. I really don’t know and it’s certainly possible that he never did. I can’t say it doesn’t matter but there comes a time when we have to accept that there are a great many unknowns from the PED era. There are players such as Fred McGriff who might have otherwise been inducted into the Hall of Fame but aren’t because their statistical accomplishments have been diminished by the offensive numbers put up by their peers, many of whom (known and unknown) used performance enhancers.

In my view (articulated in this piece), McGriff should also be in the Hall of Fame. However, if I had to choose between the Crime Dog and Bagwell, I would pick Bagwell. Between his on-base ability, his defensive prowess, and his skill on the base-paths, he was a superior player in multiple facets of the game.

What is unquestioned is that Bagwell was a fantastic baseball player. He deserves his plaque in Cooperstown.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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