JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame Ballot: Jeff Bagwell
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.
While Craig Biggio represents one of the safest choices on the Hall of Fame ballot, Jeff Bagwell, his longtime Astros teammate, is one of its more controversial holdovers. Bagwell’s case-in-a-nutshell is strong: an outstanding, durable slugger with power, patience and positive defensive value, he ranked not only as one of the best hitters of his era, but as one of the best first basemen since World War II. While his early demise as a player due to shoulder woes left his key counting stats on the lower side relative to the era’s other heavy hitters, his rate stats were phenomenal, particularly when one considers that he spent his prime toiling in the Astrodome, a notoriously difficult environment for hitters.
Yet when Bagwell first came up for election on the 2011 ballot, he received just 41.7 percent of the vote, mainly due to a whisper campaign that alleged he had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs in his career. Never mind that he had never tested positive for a banned substance, nor had he been mentioned in the Mitchell Report. For some voters, mere suspicion that he had used was enough. As the propriety of not voting for Bagwell was debated that first time around, what many a voter or interested bystander (this scribe included) failed to note was that he had admitted to using androstenedione long before it was outlawed by Major League Baseball in mid-2004 — in the pages of Sports Illustrated, no less (more on which below).
Even with that revelation in the mix, Bagwell’s share of the vote has crept upwards, to 56.0 percent in 2012 and 59.6 percent in 2013. Those gains are significant beyond the obvious increase in support; aside from Gil Hodges and any candidates still on the ballot, every player named by a simple majority of BBWAA voters has eventually gained election to the Hall of Fame, either via the writers or one of the many iterations of the Veterans Committee. Bagwell probably won’t make it in 2014, but he’s on his way.
|Avg HOF 1B||65.7||42.3||54.0|
Born in Boston and drafted by the Red Sox in the fourth round in 1989 out of the University of Hartford, Bagwell never played an inning for his hometown team. Instead, he was traded to the Astros in a 1990 deal for reliever Larry Andersen that has since become a cautionary tale. Andersen gave Boston all of 1.2 WAR via 22 stretch-drive innings, and while the Sox would eventually come up with Mo Vaughn to occupy first base, their 86-year championship drought might have been shortened had general manager Lou Gorman not traded Bagwell. Talk about a groundball through the legs.
The 22-year-old Bagwell took up residence as Houston’s first baseman on Opening Day of the following season and earned NL Rookie of the Year honors by hitting .294/.387/.437 with 15 homers and 4.8 WAR, exceptional numbers for a hitter spending half his time in the Astrodome, which in its day was one of the majors’ toughest hitting environments. Bagwell spent his first nine seasons (1991-99) in the ‘Dome, but remarkably enough showed virtually identical home/road slash lines (.303/.421/.546 in Houston, .305/.412/.544 elsewhere). His 160 OPS+ ranked fourth during that span behind Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas, while his 56.7 WAR was third behind Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.
Stuck in the same league as both Bonds and McGwire, Bagwell never led the NL in homers, but he did rank second in 1994 (39) and 1997 (43), the latter one of three 40-homer seasons he had in a four-year span. He ranked among the top 10 in OPS+ every year from 1991-99 save for 1992, when he finished 12th. He was in the top five of that category six times, leading the league in the strike-shortened 1994 season (213). His 1994 numbers were off the charts: .368/.451/.750 with 39 homers in 110 games, for a career-high 8.2 WAR, 2.0 higher than Bonds and 3.1 higher than any other NL position player. For that, he was unanimously voted the league’s MVP.
The Astros were a doormat when Bagwell joined them, but with an offense led by him and fellow “Killer B” Biggio (who debuted in 1988 and emerged as a force upon moving from catcher to second base in 1992), they soon emerged as contenders. Division realignment was kind to them; they finished first in the new NL Central four times in a five-year span from 1997-2001, though each time they lost in the first round, and in fact went 2-12 in the postseason during that span. Bagwell was of particularly little help in those series, batting just .174/.367/.174.
The move to Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park) came in 2000, when Bagwell was 32, and the hitter-friendly park helped mask his gentle decline. He was still worth an average of 4.5 WAR from 2000-04, but his OPS+ fell by about 25 points. His play took a noticeable dip in 2004, when he hit just .266/.377/.465, the first time he’d slugged below .500 since 1995, but he did hit .286/.375/.490 in the postseason as the Astros fell one win short of the World Series.
Houston would get there the next year, but Bagwell made just 123 plate appearances in 2005 due to an arthritic right shoulder that limited him to pinch-hitting after he returned from surgery in September. DHing in two games and pinch-hitting in the other two, he went just 1-for-8 in his lone World Series as the Astros were swept by the White Sox. Bagwell was just 37 at the time, but his career was over.
That early end prevented Bagwell from reaching the round-numbered plateaus (2,500 hits, 500 homers) that would enhance his Hall of Fame case, but even without them, he measures up well against the best first basemen of all-time. Thanks to positive contributions on defense (+54 runs) and the basepaths (+31 runs) as well as at the plate, his career WAR ranks sixth among all first basemen, his peak WAR fifth and his overall JAWS sixth behind Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols, Cap Anson and Roger Connor. He’s well ahead of contemporaries Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Rafael Palmeiro and McGwire, not to mention 14 enshrined first basemen (out of 18). Among first basemen since World War II, only Pujols outpaces him. To mix sporting metaphors, that’s a slam dunk; Bagwell unequivocally belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Still, some segment of voters may hold their own suspicions against him, whether or not the’ve actually noticed that information regarding his use of androstenedione was published more than 15 years ago. In a feature about McGwire’s chase in the Aug. 31, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum wrote:
Finally, it’s not as if McGwire is alone. He says at least nine or ten St. Louis Cardinals teammates use andro (as it’s known to muscleheads), and Houston Astros star Jeff Bagwell told The Houston Chronicle, two weeks before the McGwire storm erupted, that he had taken it. Logic says that at least a few other major leaguers have it in their lockers.
The storm to which McCallum referred was the one that struck just a couple of weeks earlier, once AP reporter Steve Wilstein detailed the presence of the still-legal substance in McGwire’s locker as he chased Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. A year later, Tom Verducci profiled Bagwell for SI:
“His off-season regimen now includes not only [competitive bodybuilder Herschel] 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.”
Bagwell’s admission came at a time when the drug, a steroid precursor that metabolizes into testosterone in the body, albeit rather inefficiently, was not outlawed by Major League Baseball, was legal under U.S. law and was readily available at GNC stores. Though banned in 1997 by the International Olympic Committee, which classified it as an androgenic-anabolic steroid, andro wasn’t banned by MLB until April 2004; it remained legal until June of that year, when it was added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. That placed it in the same legal class as anabolic steroids as well as hydcrocodone (Vicodin), ketamine, synthetic THC and other substances for which both accepted medical uses and the potential for abuse and dependence exist.
The timing should matter. The U.S. Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws, and the application of retroactive morality (to use Buster Olney’s term) by the very voters who underreported the story of PEDs’ encroachment on the game doesn’t seem fair, either — to say nothing of the fact that there’s no credible evidence to back the case of those who believe Bagwell used illegal PEDs. As noted above, he never tested positive, didn’t turn up in the Mitchell Report (unlike teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte) or any other investigation, and hasn’t surfaced among the names leaked in connection with the 104 positives on the 2003 survey tests (unlike ballot-mate Sammy Sosa as well as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz). That doesn’t guarantee he’s clean, but it does minimize what might reasonably held against him in the context of the other candidates on the ballot.
Given that, and his status as the game’s second-best first baseman since World War II, Jeff Bagwell belongs in Cooperstown. He probably won’t make it before his longtime teammate Biggio does given the two players’ relative vote totals, but he’ll get there just the same.