JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame Ballot: Craig Biggio
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year’s voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
Last year, Craig Biggio made his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot. With seven All-Star appearances, four Gold Gloves and 3,060 hits to his name — not to mention a lack of reported links to performance-enhancing drugs — he appeared to represent the safe choice among a handful of qualified but controversial candidates, including fellow first-timers Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.
Biggio wound up outpolling the 36 other candidates on the ballot, but thanks in part to a bloc of voters registering a protest over the increasing number of PED-linked candidates, he received just 68.2 percent of the vote, short of the 75 percent needed for election. It was just the third time since the BBWAA returned to annual balloting in 1966 that the voters failed to elect anyone, joining the 1971 and 1996 slates in the annals of shutouts. Biggio was just the second member of the 3,000 hit club who failed to gain first-ballot entry since the end of World War II, the other being Rafael Palmeiro, whose suspension due to a positive drug test explains his omission; Pete Rose, who was banned from the sport in 1989, never officially made it onto a ballot.
Amid an even more overstuffed 2014 slate where — spoiler alert — the number of strong candidates exceeds the maximum number of 10 spots allowed by an individual ballot, Biggio will have his work cut out to find the 39 or so votes he needs to get over the top. Fortunately, his on-field accomplishments haven’t changed, and while there’s no guarantee he’ll go in this year, precedent strongly suggests that he’ll wind up with his bronze plaque sooner or later.
|Avg HOF 2B||69.5||44.5||57.0|
|Avg HOF Md
Long Island native Craig Biggio was drafted by the Astros out of Seton Hall University in 1987, the 22nd pick in a first round that kicked off with Ken Griffey Jr. and also included Jack McDowell (fifth), Kevin Appier (ninth), Delino DeShields (12th) and Travis Fryman (30th) among the 25 major leaguers it produced. Biggio was drafted as a catcher despite his relatively small size for the position (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) and didn’t spend long in the minors — just 141 games at two levels — before making his major league debut on June 26, 1988. He went 0-for-2 with a walk and a steal, but must have called a good game, as Jim Deshaies and Larry Anderson (a name you’ll hear again this voting season) combined for a seven-hit shutout of the Giants, with Biggio gunning down Jose Uribe attempting to steal third base.
The 22-year-old Biggio didn’t hit much in his 50-game rookie season (.211/.254/.350 with three homers), but he earned Silver Slugger honors in his second year, hitting .257/.336/.402 with 13 homers and 21 steals in 24 attempts, exceptional numbers for a catcher, particularly one toiling in the hitters’ graveyard that was the Astrodome. Foreshadowing his itinerant career, position-wise, he also made five appearances in the outfield when he wasn’t catching. The next year he played 50 games in the outfield, and in 1991, when he earned All-Star honors via a .295/.358/.374 showing en route to a strong 4.4-WAR season, he took three starts at second base during the season’s final week.
That winter, the Astros decided to move Biggio to second base and install him as their leadoff hitter. He proved up to the task, playing every game in 1992, leading the league with 721 plate appearances, drawing 94 walks (53 had been his previous career high) and hitting .277/.378/.369 with 38 steals, for a 118 OPS+ in Houston’s run-parched environment. His defense at second may have been rough (Total Zone rated him at −6 runs, Fielding Runs Above Average at a less-charitable −22), but he topped 4.0 WAR for the second year in a row and earned All-Star honors again (he’s still the only player ever to do so at both positions). Aided by an improving nucleus that also included first baseman Jeff Bagwell, third baseman Ken Caminiti and centerfielder Steve Finley, the Astros vaulted from 65-97 in 1991 to 81-81 in ’92.
Biggio settled in at second base. From 1992-96, he hit .293/.390/.441 — still playing half his games in the Astrodome, mind you — made four All-Star teams and averaged 5.0 WAR per year. That set the stage for a monster 9.4-WAR campaign in 1997 (second among NL position players behind MVP Larry Walker): .309/.415/.501 with 22 homers (tying his career high to that point) for a 143 OPS+ (eighth in the league) and a league-leading 146 runs. To his 84 walks, he added a whopping 34 hit-by-pitches; always willing to take one for the team, he would eventually total 285 plunkings, the most in modern baseball history (19th century player Hughie Jennings was hit 287 times).
The Biggio/Bagwell-powered Astros went 84-78, capturing the NL Central for their first playoff berth since 1986. That was the first of three straight division titles; they would win 102 games the following year, another tremendous season in which Biggio hit .325/.403/.503 with a career-best 210 hits and a league-leading 51 doubles, and 97 in 1999, their final year in the Astrodome. Alas, they couldn’t get out of the first round.
Biggio suffered the first significant injury of his career in 2000, tearing the ACL and MCL of his left knee, ending his season on Aug. 1. Even before the injury, and with the move to the more hitter-friendly Enron Field, his decline phase had begun, hardly a surprise given that it was his age-34 season. He rebounded in 2001 to play 155 games, collect 180 hits and 20 homers and help the Astros to another first place finish (and alas, another first-round exit), but it would be all downhill from his 3.2 WAR over the remaining six years of his career.
In 2003, Houston decided to move Biggio again, this time to centerfield to accommodate the arrival of free agent second baseman Jeff Kent, another big bat for a lineup that now included leftfielder Lance Berkman and third baseman Morgan Ensberg as well. Despite Biggio’s age (37), he wasn’t a disaster in centerfield according to the defensive metrics, but the 87-win Astros fell short of the playoffs. Biggio moved again, this time to leftfield, upon the addition of one more “Killer B” in mid-2004; Carlos Beltran took over centerfield, put the team on his back and hit 23 regular season homers and eight postseason ones as the ‘Stros came within one win of the World Series, losing a seven-game NLCS to the Cardinals.
Beltran and Kent would depart as a free agents after that year, freeing Biggio to move back to second base. While he was subpar defensively, and Bagwell was reduced to a shell of his former self by a shoulder injury, the pitching-rich 2005 Astros (who had Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to front their rotation) finally reached the promised land of the World Series by winning their first pennant in franchise history. Alas, they were swept by the White Sox and Biggio went 4-for-18.
Biggio turned 40 that winter, and with 2,795 career hits, he set his sights on joining the 3,000 hit club. His performance at the plate and in the field had deteriorated, however. Over his final two seasons, he hit a combined .249/.296/.402 and that, combined with his subpar defense, left him 1.7 wins below replacement level. Even so, he collected his 3,000th hit with a single off the Rockies’ Aaron Cook on June 28, 2007; he was thrown out trying for second, but did go 5-for-6 that night. He was the 27th player to reach 3,000, the ninth to do so with one team.
Of the 28 players who have 3,000 hits, all but the banned Pete Rose, the PED-tainted Palmeiro, the still-active Derek Jeter and Biggio are in the Hall of Fame. Paul Waner, the only player to reach 3,000 between 1925 (when Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins did so) and 1958 (Stan Musial) had to wait until his fifth ballot to gain entry, but the voting rules were much different then. Relative to other first-time eligible 3,000 hit club members since Waner, and excluding Palmeiro for obvious reasons, Biggio set a new low for percentage of the vote, falling below Robin Yount (77.5 percent in 1999, sharing space on a crowded ballot with George Brett and Nolan Ryan) and Lou Brock (79.7 percent in 1985).
For all of that, the voting history shows that candidates who debut with between 60 and 74.9 percent of the vote don’t have to wait long to be elected. The seven previous first-timers who fell in that range between 1966 and 2013 gained an average of 10.3 percentage points in their second year, with only one — Phil Niekro — losing ground. Five of those seven (Roberto Alomar, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Carlton Fisk and Rollie Fingers) topped 75 percent in year two. Gaylord Perry had to wait until year three, while Niekro needed until his fifth year of eligibility to gain entry.
Perry and Niekro may provide the closest analogues to Biggio from among that group. Both won more than 300 games — the more-or-less automatic plateau for a pitcher that, like 3,000 hits, tends to guarantee election — by sticking around well into their 40s. As candidates, they may have been viewed more as compilers whose strengths were based on career length rather than peak or postseason; like Biggio, neither ever won a championship. That said, neither pitcher even made it to a World Series, as Biggio did, and while the second baseman and the knuckleballing Niekro never won an MVP or a Cy Young, the spitballing Perry did win two Cy Young awards.
On the strength of various precedents as well as his traditional merits, Biggio is likely to gain entry, if not this year then sooner rather than later. However, his case is fuzzier with regard to JAWS. He’s a bit below the standards at second base in terms of both peak and career scores, and his JAWS ranks 14th among second basemen, with non-Hall of Famers Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker and the still-active Chase Utley among those above him (the rest are enshrined); notably, first time 2014 candidate Jeff Kent ranks 17th, significantly below Biggio on both career and peak fronts.
That said, Biggio did spend some 13 percent of his career as a catcher (according to plate appearances taken while in the lineup at that position) and another nine percent in centerfield, making it more appropriate to refer to the aggregate for up-the-middle Hall of Famers (catchers, second basemen, shortstops and centerfielders), and there, he’s within a few runs of meeting the standard.
Considering that any shortfall basically owes to the gray area of his less-than-stellar defensive performances and minor discrepancies between various metrics (-64 FRAA, −70 TZ, −27 UZR, −51 DRS, with the latter pair going back only as far as 2002 and 2003, respectively), it’s hardly worth sweating decimals. Craig Biggio looks as much like a Hall of Famer this year as last year, and he deserves to go in.