Going to Bat for Bags

The Case for Jeff Bagwell to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame

Jeff Bagwell v. All-Star Games

All-Star Games? Really? People still care about All-Star Games? Haven’t we collectively, as a society, properly slotted All-Star games, like batting average or pitcher wins, as the primitive measuring tool they are?

And comparing a 4-time all star to one of the 5 best RH hitters in the last 75 years is ignorant. — Chubbs Peterson (@TigerWoodenhand) April 29, 2015

Guess not.

Since we vowed to try and objectively address each and every concern about Jeff Bagwell’s Hall of Fame candidacy, let’s take a look at All-Star Games…

Right away, we should mention that Bagwell, who played 15 years, racking up only four All-Star appearances is notable. And potentially dubious. There are only three players currently in the Hall of Fame with fewer All-Star appearances (Bert Blyleven, Ferguson Jenkins and Robin Yount; Don Sutton would tie Bagwell with four). More distressing, other than Yount, none were first or even second ballot selections (Jenkins went in on his third ballot, Sutton fifth, Blyleven 1,784th). And frankly, given the advancement in statistical analysis, it’s likely the candidacies of Sutton (who went in on the almost singular virtue of totaling 324 wins, an archaic milestone that would no longer carry as much weight) and possibly Jenkins, not to mention Yount, might be different if they were revisited today.

So, yeah – that’s uninspiring company, to say the least. And even if you reduce the significance of All-Star appearances to the silliest of criteria, it still speaks to a fairly unanimous opinion that Bagwell was not consistently among the 2 or 3 best first basemen of his era, which makes it more difficult to promote the idea that he was actually one of the 2 or 3 best hitters of his era. Like his somewhat overblown but nonetheless legitimate playoff struggles, this might be one of the best arguments against Jeff Bagwell’s Cooperstown credentials.

But please keep five things in mind as we venture into a deeper All-Star discussion:

1. Every team in the league is required to be represented in the All-Star Game, regardless of merit, which can compromise choices, especially if you have a position (like first base in the National League during Bagwell’s era) that is stacked with worthy candidates.

2. All-Stars starters – 8 each year – are selected by the fans; and while fans actually do a better-than-you-probably-realize job of picking starters (this year’s Royal-flush shenanigans aside)– it’s still a popularity contest that can be impacted by factors that might only cursorily relate to what’s actually happening on the field (like this year’s Royal-flush shenanigans).

3. The roster has to be constructed by the guidelines of a standard baseball roster in order to play what is a standard baseball game. In other words, you can’t simply pick the 30 best players in each league but, rather, the 30 best players as dictated by positional needs. Sure, a team with 12 first basemen would probably rake – but defense is going to be a bit of an issue.

4. Active managers are tasked with picking reserves, which further adds to the selectivity of All-Star rosters as they, too, will (consciously or otherwise) invariably introduce additional biases to the proceedings, including favoring either their own players, or players they see more often, based on divisional alignment

5. All-Star rosters are constructed on the backbone of small sample sizes and have no year-to-year consistency.

Let’s examine this last point more closely because it’s important.

The Hall Of Fame was created to honor players who excel over an extended period of the time. The All-Star Game is, in many ways, the antithesis. It doesn’t consider past performance; it doesn’t recognize an entire season; it doesn’t even technically require a standard of quality, not when fans vote for starters and every team must send at least one representative.

Meaning, every season is its own unique creature and prone to unpredictable, unsustainable outliers which we’ll highlight shortly. In other words, you can’t truly draw any lengthy pattern from a series of completely random, unrelated outcomes.

Still, we get it – logging just three more career All-Star appearances than Alfredo Griffin is troubling so let’s try and find out what happened.

We’ll start here: we mentioned the small sample size (it’s actually less than a half season when rosters are finalized) and there’s a reason for that – Bagwell, for his career, was routinely better after the All-Star break*. Here are his career splits (tOPS+ measures how the player performed relative to their overall performance, with 100 being neutral):

1st Half: .291/.400/.531/.932 (tOPS+ 96)
2nd Half: .305/.417/.552/.969 (tOPS+ 104)

* Which, oh by the way, peripherally addresses another common complaint about Bagwell, that he was a regular season monster and playoff no-show. Given the Astros finished first or second in their division 11 times during Bagwell’s 15-year career, doesn’t having better second halves, when pennant races heat up, at least temper some of that?

Granted, he wasn’t *bad* in the first half – but the guy was prone to some amazingly ugly slumps and those seemed to, for whatever reason, often take place between April and June. Again, this is why sample size is important; a player, in theory, shouldn’t be punished for having a tough month. The mark of a truly great player encompasses the entirety of their career. All-Star Games measure 3 months.

In terms of each season being unique, six times Bagwell would lead all National League first basemen in WAR. Of those six seasons, he was an All-Star once. In fact, you could argue (and some have) that Bagwell was one of the more egregiously snubbed All-Stars in baseball history.

And if WAR isn’t your thing, how about this: five times, Bagwell was snubbed by a player with a lesser OPS.

In 1991, Bagwell posted an .847 OPS but John Kruk (.795) and Eddie Murray (.728) made the team. Two years later, when Bagwell placed third in OPS (.917), he was skipped over for Mark Grace (.904) and Gregg Jefferies (.901) despite the team carrying four first basemen. Honestly, 1993 was a tough year because Grace and Jefferies were certainly not unworthy (which underscores why it’s so silly to view All-Star appearances in total – there are legitimately distinctive factors from year-to-year that make it an incredibly unpredictable metric).

Strictly from a numbers perspective, Bagwell should have been an All-Star in 2000, too, when the team selected three first basemen. He had arguably his best first half as a Major Leaguer. But Mark McGwire and Todd Helton – neither of which had better careers than Bagwell – went bonkers and they were back-ups to Andres Galarraga,  who was elected a starter (despite inferior numbers) after successfully bouncing back from cancer, which cost him the entire 1999 season.

Finally, in 2001 Bagwell was victimized by the the All-Star Game mandating that every team must send at least one representative when Sean Casey made it over him with an inferior OPS (.892 to Bagwell’s .905).

And we didn’t even mention 1998 when Bagwell posted a .967 OPS and didn’t make it because McGwire and Galarraga hit 37 and 28 home runs and Bagwell only hit 19.

Obviously, this exercise is subjective; we don’t mean to imply these findings are absolute. Many of the players who did make the team were worthy.

Instead, we wanted to shine a light on why All-Star Games are a terrible measure of a player’s greatness. They’re essentially small sample sizes of disconnected seasons in which wildly unpredictable outliers can skewer the results. How does Bagwell compete with a guy bashing 37 first-half HRs, which was more than Bagwell TOTALED in nine of his 15 seasons? Or recovering from cancer? Or being the best player – who also happens to play first base – on a mediocre team that nonetheless needs a representative?

Bagwell’s lack of All-Star Games is a slight mark against him as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate and is worthy of mention. But anyone using it, and it alone, against Bagwell is purposefully being obtuse and narrow-minded. There are simply too many statistical tools available for us to lean on such a lazy measurement.

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HALL OF FAME VOTING

2017: 82.6% – BINGO!
2016: 71.6%
2015: 55.7%
2014: 54.3%
2013: 59.6%
2012: 56.0%
2011: 41.7%

BY THE NUMBERS

AVG .297
HR 449
RBI 1,529
R 1,517
H 2,314
SB 202
OB% .408
SLG .540
OPS .948
OPS+ 149
WAR 79.6

AWARDS

N.L. Rookie of the Year (1991)
N.L. Most Valuable Player (1994)
N.L. Silver Slugger Award (1994, 1997, 1999)
N.L. Gold Glove (1994)
N.L. All-Star (1994, 1996, 1997, 1999)

ALL-TIME RANKINGS

21st | .948 OPS
26th | .408 OB%
28th | 149 OPS+
28th | 1,401 BB
32nd | .540 SLG%
35th | 79.6 WAR
39th | 449 HRs
46th | 969 XBHs
47th | 1,517 R
48th | 1,529 RBI

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

(Tweet until your fingers bleed)

“There is nothing about (#JeffBagwell)’s performance that isn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame.” – Buster Olney | @Buster_ESPN

“There is little doubt that (#JeffBagwell) is deserving… unless you’re somehow unimpressed by his .408 on-base percentage and .540 slugging mark, not to mention his baserunning, defense at first base and leadership of the @astros during his 15-year career.” – Ken Rosenthal | @Ken_Rosenthal

“#JeffBagwell belongs in the HoF. Not on the 10th time on the ballot — he belongs on the podium in Cooperstown this summer.” – Peter Gammons | @pgammo

“#JeffBagwell is in that conversation as far as the best first basemen ever … there’s no way around that.” – Tim Kurkjian | @Kurkjian_ESPN

“(C)riminally undersupported… #JeffBagwell was, in a nutshell, one of the four greatest first basemen of the live-ball era.” – Jayson Stark | @jaysonst

“Does (#JeffBagwell’s) overall body of work warrant a plaque in the Hall of Fame? The answer to that question is yes.” – Jerry Cransick | @jcrasnick

“(L)et me say this as clearly as I possible can say it: #JeffBagwell, IMO, is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.” – Joe Posnanski | @JPosnanski

“I didn’t vote for (#JeffBagwell) last year but thought later that it was a mistake. Career percentages of .408 (on-base) and .540 (slugging) put him in elite class.” – Tim Cowlishaw | @TimCowlishaw

“#JeffBagwell, by any statistical measure, ranks among the most productive first basemen in major league history.” – Andrew Baggarly | @CSNBaggs

“The pride of the University of Hartford was durable, consistent and productive. (#JeffBagwell) hit for power, showed great patience, played an excellent first base and even stole 202 bases. His WAR is seventh among first basemen all time…. he’s an automatic choice.” – Peter Abraham | @PeteAbe

“There is no evidence. There is no proof. There is just suspicion. I will vote for… #JeffBagwell. Rumours shouldn’t dictate who gets a vote and who doesn’t.” – Steve Simmons | @simmonssteve

“The blackballing of… #JeffBagwell is nothing short of shameful. Thumbs up from Senator McCarthy’s ghost.” – Bob Klapisch | @BobKlap

“(#JeffBagwell) was durable, accomplished in the field, and hit for power.” – Sean McAdam | @Sean_McAdam

“#JeffBagwell should not be denied his bid to Cooperstown merely because he developed video-game arms.” – Ian O’Connor | @Ian_OConnor

“I was a little slow to come around on (#JeffBagwell), but a reader’s persistence worked; I’m now a firm believer he’s a Hall of Famer and underappreciated in his day.” – Susan Slusser | @susanslusser

“#JeffBagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame. How can anyone argue otherwise?” – Richard Justice | @richardjustice

“I’ll be proud to cast my Hall of Fame vote for #JeffBagwell.” – Jose de Jesus Ortiz | @OrtizKicks

“He’s one of the top all-time offensive first basemen, with a ridiculous 149 OPS-plus (meaning he was 49 percent better than the average National League hitter of his time).” – Ken Davidoff | @KenDavidoff

“(A)fter listening to and reading compelling commentary from highly respected baseball writers, I decided to… cast a vote for (#JeffBagwell) this time around.” – Tom Haudricourt | @Haudricourt

“I see nothing but blind accusations. Nothing but gossip in the rumor mill. So, I am now giving #JeffBagwell the vote I feel his career record deserves.” – Geoff Baker | @GeoffBakerTIMES

“(#JeffBagwell)’s incredibly well-rounded game makes him a blatantly worthy HoFer… and his exclusion from the HoF will remain a black mark against voters until they put him in.” – Jonah Keri | @jonahkeri

“His career WAR ranks 7th, his peak WAR ranks 5th and his overall JAWS ranks 6th. To mix sporting metaphors, that’s a slam dunk; #JeffBagwell unequivocally belongs in the Hall of Fame.” – Jay Jaffe | @jay_jaffe

“#JeffBagwell (is) one of the six or eight greatest first basemen who’s ever played this game.” – Rob Neyer | @robneyer

“(#JeffBagwell is) the perfect ballplayer: power, speed, on-base ability, terrific baserunner, durable, excellent defender.” – Dave Schoenfield | @dschoenfield

“Let’s hope the idiocy of not voting for #JeffBagwell based on evidence-free associations between him and PEDs ends this year.” – Joe Sheehan | @joe_sheehan

“Jeff Bagwell was one of the five to ten best first basemen ever.” – Emma Span | @emmaspan

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