Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell are incredibly similar baseball players with one notable exception: one (Thomas) is in the Hall of Fame while the other (Bagwell) is not. But the Hall of Fame is filled with “this player/why not that player” inconsistencies; it, by its lonesome, doesn’t necessarily merit a deeper examination of a snubbed candidate. So let’s expand our scope and look at how Bagwell stacks up historically.
The eight best first basemen already in the Hall of Fame are some combination of Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray and George Sisler. (No, we did not list Thomas; he wasn’t a first baseman. He was a designated hitter – see above). Let’s rank those eight, first by WAR, next by OPS+, and see how Bagwell stacks up.
(Please note: we’re not suggesting War and OPS+ are absolute – though we think they tell a more complete story than, say, batting average. Here, they’re being used as an easy shorthand to make our larger point about Bagwell’s place in history. Frankly, we could have picked a variety of different offensive categories because Bagwell rates well in virtually of all of them.)
1. Lou Gehrig 108.5
2. Jimmie Foxx 92.5
3. Jeff Bagwell 79.6
4. Johnny Mize 67.8
5. Eddie Murray 63.4
6. Willie McCovey 60.7
7. Harmon Killebrew 55.8
8. Hank Greenberg 55.1
9. George Sisler 51.1
1. Lou Gehrig 179
2. Jimmie Foxx 163
3. Hank Greenberg 158
4. Johnny Mize 158
5. Jeff Bagwell 149
6. Willie McCovey 147
7. Harmon Killebrew 143
8. Eddie Murray 129
9. George Sisler 125
Comparing Bagwell to the eight best first basemen currently in the Hall of Fame, he ranks third in WAR and fifth in OPS+. Again, this is a list of all-time, certified great first basemen. And Bagwell is 3rd and 5th.
Even if you want to expand your scope and include every first baseman ever, including those who spent their careers knee-deep in PEDs (allegedly, we mean – and don’t worry, we cover the whole PEDs issue) and/or are not yet Hall-eligible, Bagwell drops to 4th in WAR (Albert Pujols jumps into the top 2) and 8th in OPS+. In this scenario, where we broaden our scope to include all first basemen, ever: Jeff Bagwell ranks 4th and 8th all-time. Again: ALL-TIME.
And what that means is that Jeff Bagwell might very well be the second greatest National League first baseman in Major League Baseball history (Pujols is unquestionably first). If you favor Johnny Mize, which has merit, then Bagwell’s the third greatest National League first baseman ever. And when you add the best of the American League, he’s a strong candidate to inch his way into the bottom half of the top 10.
Expanding our scope even further, Bagwell ranks in the top 45 all-time – among every position player ever – in a host of offensive categories* (minimum 5,000 plate appearances):
20th all-time with a .948 OPS, ahead of Ty Cobb and Willie Mays;
25th all-time with a .408 on-base percentage, ahead of Rickey Henderson;
27th all-time with a 149 OPS+, ahead of Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey;
28th all-time with 1,401 walks, ahead of Reggie Jackson and Willie McCovey;
32nd all-time with a .540 slugging percentage, ahead of Duke Snider and Frank Robinson;
35th all-time with a 79.6 WAR , three spots ahead of Joe DiMaggio;
38th all-time with 1,788 runs created, ahead of Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Cal Ripken, Jr.;
39th all-time with 449 career home runs, ahead of Andre Dawson and Cal Ripken, Jr.;
44th all-time with 969 extra base hits, ahead of Tony Perez and Robin Yount
45th all-time with 1,529 RsBI, ahead of Mickey Mantle and Jim Rice.
45th all-time with 74 offensive WAR, ahead of Joe DiMaggio and Dave Winfield
You’ll note, each and every player not named Jeffrey Robert Bagwell in the preceding bullet points has a plaque in Cooperstown.
How is a player that ranks among the 45 greatest baseball players of all-time in a multitude of vital offensive categories (11, to be exact) who was also a plus defender and excellent base runner, not in the Hall of Fame? There is no logical explanation.
* – statistics/rankings are accurate as of November 1, 2015