A Case for Jeff Bagwell

The Hall of Fame vote for 2012 saw Jeff Bagwell’s support rise to 56% from its previous 41.7.  This solid number is still a far cry from the percentage of votes Baggy deserves, but at least the former Astros first baseman is scaling that mountain.  There will come a day–mark my words–that Jeff Bagwell will reach the summit of this mountain, but it hasn’t come at the appropriate time, for Baggy deserved to net the necessary 75% of the vote on his first ballot.  Not only is Jeff Bagwell one of the greatest all-round players of his day–he is also one of the greatest stars in the game’s rich history.  In numerous categories, Baggy rests well above enshrined players, not just in offensive stats but in defensive departments as well.  Everyone who followed Baggy knows of his slugging exploits but few realize just how great of a talent he was.  Unlike peers named McGwire and Thomas, Baggy did more than slug: he could run and field his position (only Eddie Murray has more career assists at first than Baggy).  Soon, Jeff Bagwell will have to pen an induction speech for Cooperstown and get to watch as Hall of Fame custodians buff his bronze likeness in the famous plaque gallery.

The greatest player in Houston Astros history, Jeff Bagwell came to Texas with little fanfare.  A native Nor’easterner, Baggy was drafted by his beloved Red Sox only to be traded while still on the farm for quality setupman Larry Andersen.  Larry served his purpose in Boston for about one-third of a season while Baggy became an All-Star with Houston.  The swatter from Beantown won the 1991 Rookie of the Year Award and a few years later gathered the National League MVP Award in 1994.  Jeff remains on the short list of players who received 100% of the MVP vote the year they won the coveted hardware.  Among career MVP shareholders, Baggy ranks 35th all-time in MVP votes.  When one peruses the all-time leader boards the name Bagwell can often be found.

Bagwell ranks 37th all-time in WAR among position players.  His career on-base percentage of .408 is the 40th best mark in the game’s history.  He is the game’s 36th greatest hitter for slugging percentage and when you combine his lofty on-base percentage and slugging average, Baggy jumps up to 22nd all-time in career OPS.  He ranks 35th in career homeruns, 28th in career walks and 46th in lifetime RBI.  His value has been greatly enhanced thanks to the application of Sabermetrics which has made statistical analysis more in-depth.  He is the eighth greatest player in baseball history in “base-out runs added” and finishes 16th in career “Win Probability Added.”  In “Base-out wins added” Jeff is the tenth greatest performer in the game’s storied history.  But all these new-fangled stats mean little to the old school fan.  What these Sabermetrics do, is, in essence, give followers of the game a different perspective on long-held stats.  It’s numbers crunching–plain and simple–that enables researchers to better determine the overall worth of a player.

Jeff Bagwell might just be the God of Sabermetrics.  Stats such as RBI, runs scored, homeruns and batting average have always been the holy grail of baseball numbers, but Bagwell, although he excels in all these departments, adds greater worth when you focus on the numbers and employ a little math.  On-base percentage has become a more valuable stat than batting average of late since many .300 hitters can’t get on base better than a career .254 hitter like Eddie Yost.  Although Yost had a weak batting average, his OBP is higher than many .300 hitters thanks to his excessive number of walks.  When one focuses on OBP, players like Yost start to gain respect.  Bagwell, unlike Yost, was a high average hitter who also posted substantial on-base percentages.  Baggy’s batting skill only added to his worth as an on-base guy.

It is in large part to Bagwell’s overall game, which is better defined by Sabermetrics, that he is viewed by those in the know as one of baseball’s greatest talents.  With high batting averages and on-base percentages, Jeff was a true offensive beast.  During his career, Baggy put together a string of six consecutive seasons (it would have been eight had he not broke his wrist) in which he both scored and drove in at least 100 runs.  At first glance, this seems like an impressive accomplishment but nothing too awe-inspiring.  But know this: recently inducted Hall of Famer Jim Rice had a three-year string and Andre Dawson, also recently inducted, never was able to put together a back-to-back season of 100 runs and 100 RBI.  Some of Jeff’s peers, like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Fred McGriff–all currently on the Hall of Fame ballot with Baggy–were incapable of duplicating this feat.  McGwire had one back-to-back season while neither McGriff nor Palmeiro were ever able to fashion back-to-back 100 runs scored and 100 RBI seasons.  As far as Hall of Fame legends are concerned, Baggy excels some names you wouldn’t expect.  Hank Aaron had five consecutive seasons, Stan Musial had four, Johnny Mize and Orlando Cepeda had just one back-to-back season while men like Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell never had back-to-back 100 runs scored and 100 RBI seasons.

With recent inductions of run producers like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson in the Hall of Fame, Jeff Bagwell’s case strengthens.  Although Baggy came into his own when Rice was done and Andre was winding down, the Astros slugger was a far superior player than the two new members of the Hall.  Jeff rests higher than both Dawson and Rice in career homeruns, runs scored, runs created and WPA (wins probability added).  Baggy’s career WPA is a healthy 59.0 which more than doubles Jim Rice’s career 25.4 and nearly doubles Dawson’s career 29.7 mark.  The following bracket lists the four important average stats: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average and on-base plus slugging.

BA: Rice .298, Bagwell .297 and Dawson .279

OBP: Bagwell .408, Rice .352 and Dawson .323

SLUG: Bagwell .540, Rice .502 and Dawson .482

OPS: Bagwell .948, Rice .854 and Dawson .806

Bagwell’s career slash line (BA, OBP, SA and OPS) is one the greatest in baseball history.  When an individual wants to judge the overall worth of a hitter, they shouldn’t focus on batting average or homeruns, but the slash line.  Those batters with impressive slash lines tend to be the game’s elite run producers because they hit for high averages, reach base often and hit for authority.  The OPS is a great indicator of a batter’s worth because it combines the player’s ability to reach base with his ability to drive the ball.  Baggy’s career OPS is higher than such unquestioned Hall of Famers as Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Eddie Mathews and Harmon Killebrew.  Even some of Baggy’s much more ballyhooed peers like Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Sheffield can’t reach his career .948 lifetime OPS.

The following exercise is the best case I can make for Jeff Bagwell and proof that the man should have been ushered into Cooperstown on his first ballot.  It will show that Baggy was a more valuable player than Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle and his two position peers who received far more ink than he did over the course of his career: Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas.  Now, the value of a player is best defined by his ability to create runs.  Only by the scoring and driving in of runs can a team win.  Without a run scored, no team will ever finish on top, for runs are the only avenue to wins.  In the runs created department, Bagwell greatly excels the previous mentioned stars.

The exercise I have conducted focuses on each players eight prime seasons.  In the case of Bagwell, Thomas and Mantle, their eight seasons came consecutively, but in the case of Big Mac, his prime seasons had a hiccup which is why I have discarded the 1993 through 1995 seasons from the exercise on McGwire’s behalf because he was injured.  This exercise adds the players runs scored and runs driven in stats and divides them by games played, thus giving us the number of runs scored per game courtesy the player.  Let us begin with Mr. Bagwell.

The eight prime years for Jeff Bagwell are the seasons of 1994 to 2001.  His average of runs manufactured per season is listed in parentheses after the years of analysis.

Bagwell: 1994 (2.00), 1995 (1.54), 1996 (1.43), 1997 (1.51), 1998 (1.60), 1999 (1.66), 2000 (1.79) and 2001 (1.59).

Mantle: 1954 (1.58), 1955 (1.50), 1956 (1.75), 1957 (1.49), 1958 (1.49), 1959 (1.24), 1960 (1.39) and 1961 (1.69)

McGwire: 1987 (1.42), 1988 (1.20), 1989 (1.18), 1990 (1.25), 1991 (0.89), 1992 (1.37), 1996 (1.67) and 1997 (1.34)

Thomas: 1991 (1.35), 1992 (1.39), 1993 (1.53), 1994 (1.83), 1995 (1.47), 1996 (1.73), 1997 (1.61) and 1998 (1.36)

All total, Bagwell has the best prime years average with a number of 1.64 runs manufactured on average per game played.  His mark exceeds Mickey Mantle, a shoo-in Hall of Famer, whose tally comes in third at 1.52–just behind Frank “Big Hurt” Thomas’ 1.53 ledger.  Mark McGwire, who justly has received limited support for the Hall of Fame, is well behind the three great offensive stars with a mark of 1.29.  So, not only was Jeff Bagwell an elite run producer of his day, he is also one of the best all-time.  The man who put the Astros on the map deserves a place in Cooperstown.

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