Over a span of fifteen seasons, Houston fans were treated to one of the greatest right sides of an infield in the history of baseball. There is no doubt that Craig Biggio and his 3,060 career hits will be in Cooperstown very soon. This article, instead, is to stress the importance of what Jeff Bagwell meant to his fans, his teammates, his organization and to his city and why the two deserve to forever be enshrined in baseball immortality forever, together.
Before we get into the statistical aspect of it, let’s take a look into the character of the individual. Bagwell has done so much to give back to the city of Houston through his foundation, which supports many child-related causes including research for pediatric cancer. He is also active with Sunshine Kids, the Children’s Miracle Network, and is a strong supporter of the Ronald McDonald House in Houston.
Bagwell was also known for playing the game hard and the right way. Jeff played in all 162 games four times in his career and had a nine-year stretch from 1996 to 2004 where he played less than 156 games only once by playing in 147 in 1998. In fact, Jeff played in at least 156 games in every single year of his career with the exception of 1993, 1994 and 1995 in which all three seasons were ended due to a broken hand, the 147 in 1998 and in the final year of injury-shortened career. He endured great pain due to an arthritic condition in his shoulder to a point to where he was barely able to throw the ball from first base to home plate. An iron man? It’s safe to say so.
Let’s start the statistical analysis from the awards standpoint – 1991 National League Rookie of the Year, 2004 Unanimous National League MVP and 1999 MVP runner-up, four time All-Star, 1994 Gold Glove Award winner and three Silver Sluggers Awards. He also boasts a .297 career average, he is 36th All-Time with 449 career home runs, and he had 1,529 career runs batted in. He had nine seasons with over 30 home runs, eight with 100 or more RBI, and nine with over 100 runs scored. In six of these years, from 1996 to 2001, he reached all three of these numbers. He also had at least 100 walks for seven straight seasons and six seasons with at least a .300 batting average. In 1997, he became the first full-time first baseman to steal 30 bases while hitting 30 home runs (43 home runs and 31 stolen bases) and duplicated this feat in 1999 with 42 home runs and 30 stolen bases. The only other infielders in Major League Baseball history with multiple 30/30 seasons are Ian Kinsler, Alfonso Soriano, and Howard Johnson.
I’ve done my own statistical analysis over his “What Could Have Been” 1994 campaign and compared it to Mike Piazza’s 1997 season, which has been regarded as one of the top ten offensive seasons in the history of baseball. Piazza’s season consisted of 152 games played, in which he batted .362 with 40 home runs, with 124 runs batted in, 104 runs scored, 201 hits, 32 doubles, a slugging percentage of .638, on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.070 and 355 total bases.
Bagwell’s 1994 season was shortened to 110 games in which he batted .368 with 39 home runs, 116 runs batted in, 104 runs scored, 147 hits, 32 doubles, a slugging percentage of .750, on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.201 and 300 total bases. You’ll notice, in only 110 games, Bagwell’s numbers fair well, or in some cases, better than Piazza’s 152 game total. I’ve projected out the numbers to 152 games, and while Bagwell’s batting average, slugging and OPS would be hard to project, his other numbers projected as follows: 54 home runs, 160 runs batted in, 143 runs scored, 203 hits, 44 doubles, and 414 total bases. Keep in mind that Bagwell traditionally played in more than 152 games, therefore these numbers could have been even slightly better. In this season, he set the record for the fewest plate appearances in a season with at least 100 runs scored and 100 runs batted in. He also became the first National Leaguer to finish first or second in batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and runs scored since Willie Mays accomplished this feat in 1955. His .750 slugging percentage that season ranks 11th all-time and the highest by a National Leaguer since Rogers Hornsby in 1925. So I pose the question, if Piazza’s 1997 campaign was one of the ten best, where would this one have ranked?
It is also worth noting that this season, as well as most of his career was played in the pitcher-friendly cavern known as the Astrodome. In almost any other park, 500 home runs would not have been a question and you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this article, being as the 500 home run plateau almost ensures induction. In another park or a career not hindered by broken hands or an arthritic shoulder, we’re possibly discussing a player in or around the 600 home run and 2,000 RBI club.
Baseball statistician Bill James, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract book, listed Bagwell as the fourth-best first baseman of all time. This is in part due to the many intangibles that Bagwell brought to the field. He was widely regarded as one of the best or smartest base runners of his era. Despite his average speed, he finished his career with 202 stolen bases. More importantly than speed, Bagwell excelled in getting secondary leads, going from first to third or scoring from second on balls hit to the outfield and just a generally high baseball IQ. He also had one of the better gloves of his time. He had a career .993 fielding percentage and though he won just one Gold Glove, this was largely in part to the fact that he was in competition with excellent glove men such as Mark Grace, J.T. Snow and Todd Helton throughout his career.
Jeff first became Hall of Fame eligible in 2011. He received 242 votes, or 41.7 percent of the total ballots cast, and in 2012 there was a slight uptick when he received 321 votes, or 56 percent. With the threshold being 75 percent and Jeff’s remarkable career on and off the field, these numbers were still disappointing to say the least. The Hall of Fame tries to portray itself as also a hall of character. Many current Hall of Famer’s have openly discussed not wanting “tainted” players into their elite group. Bagwell was widely respected across baseball by players and managers alike. Never has he had character issues. Never has he tested positive for steroids or any performance-enhancing drug for that matter. Unless those responsible for voting subscribe to the “guilty by muscles” theory, there is no reason that he should not already be in the Hall. His numbers speak volumes. In his time, he was the best all-around first baseman in the game when factoring in hitting, fielding, base running, leadership, and sportsmanship and I would welcome someone to argue the contrary.
Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were/are part of a dying breed. In the current state of free agency and big contracts, so few players spend their entire career with the same team. Bagwell and Biggio did so, and even went as far as deferring money to help to build many successful seasons in Houston. Despite five and seven years after each of their retirements, these names are and will forever be synonymous with one another. Bagwell’s career and credentials speak for themselves. My question I pose to you and the writers is how and why is one of the best first baseman in the history of the sport waiting in limbo to hear his name called? The year 2013 needs to be the year that these two make it to Cooperstown, together, and I hope that those with the ability to vote will use it responsibly and do the right thing for the game, the city of Houston, the fans, and most importantly, these two players.
Anything less would be a shame.