Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell were born on the same day, won MVPs the same year (1994), were both incredibly similar offensive players and even went into the Hall of Fame together. We’re using the term “together” rather loosely here because, inexplicably, Thomas is in the Hall of Fame while Bagwell is not, which, as we’ll soon detail, is indefensibly silly.
(And before we get too far into this, this seems like a good place to emphatically state that we believe Frank Thomas is a no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Our comparison is not intended to denigrate his career at all; we’re only trying to expose hypocrisy and laziness. If Thomas is in the Hall of Fame, there’s no rational reason Bagwell shouldn’t be, as well. We good? Cool.)
Where were we? Ah, yes – offense. Here are their career offensive numbers:
521 HRs; 1,704 RsBI; 1,494 Rs; 10,075 PAs
OPS+ 156; WAR 73.7
449 HRs; 1,529 RsBI; 1,517 Rs; 9,431 PAs
OPS+ 149; WAR 79.6
Keep in mind that Thomas totaled 644 more plate appearances than Bagwell, which isn’t irrelevant – Thomas was still a (mostly) above-average baseball player his final two seasons (he essentially put together a single good year: 34 HRs, 125 RsBI, 90 Rs). Clocking in every day (or, in Thomas’ case, 644 more times) absolutely has significance – so we don’t want anyone to think we’re dismissing this.
But while Thomas used those additional plate appearances to total more counting stats than Bagwell (home runs, RsBI), in terms of rate stats (batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, etc.), there’s no discernible offensive difference between the two players.
Here, we’ll prove it: if Bagwell had totaled a mere 31 more hits over the course of his 15-year career – so, two more per year – he would have finished with the same batting average (.301) as Thomas. We’ll keep going (we could do this all day): if Bagwell had collected 107 more hits/walks/hit-by-pitches over the course of his 15 seasons, he would have finished with the same on-base percentage (.419) as Thomas. Let’s make sure we properly contextualize how tiny the difference is: it’s roughly 7 more hits/walks/hit-by-pitches a season over a 15-year career. And if Bagwell had totaled just 75 more bases (in other words, roughly 19 more home runs, which amounts to just over one per season), his slugging percentage would have also been the same as Thomas’ (.555). Bagwell didn’t and the Hall of Fame isn’t about potential and projection; we get that and we agree. Again, Thomas’ 644 additional plate appearances have considerable merit. But in terms of illustrating just how fundamentally close the two were offensively – it paints a much clearer picture.
And while Thomas was unquestionably one of the era’s best HITTERS (which means, by extension, so, too, was Bagwell), he was NOT one of the era’s best PLAYERS; not if base running and defense are still a part of the game (hold on, checking… they are). Thomas’ game consisted of neither. Bagwell, on the other hand, was arguably the greatest running first baseman in baseball history and a reliably good defensive first baseman.
Consider that Bagwell is the only first baseman to record 30 home runs and 30 steals in a single season (a feat he actually accomplished twice), and the only first baseman with 400 home runs and 200 steals (and one of only 12 players ever). His stolen base success rate of 72%, while not terrific, is not too far removed from Lou Brock’s success rate (75%).
Altogether, Bagwell scored 1,517 runs in 15 seasons, an average of 101 runs a year. His total ranks 63rd all-time. And between 1994 and 2003, nobody in baseball scored more runs than Bagwell, who totaled 1,160. He ranks 36th overall in Bill James’ power-speed metric (which essentially can be boiled down to players who hit a lot of home runs and stole a lot of bases), two slots behind Rickey Henderson. He is the only first baseman ranked in the top 50. He was an exceptionally efficient and smart base runner.
Advanced statistics (which are admittedly fuzzy when it comes to defense) estimate that his defense saved 54 runs over his 15-year career. In 2,111 games at first base (the 10th highest total in baseball history), Bagwell committed 129 errors while ranking 2nd in fielding assists and 26th in putouts among all first basemen. Bagwell would play 1,279 more games at first base than Thomas – while winning a Gold Glove – despite Thomas playing in 172 more games overall.
In other words, Bagwell very nearly matched Thomas swing-for-swing while playing the field – at a high level, no less – each and every night, which makes him a better PLAYER than Frank Thomas who, again, is in the Hall of Fame while Bagwell is not. We would love for someone to explain this indefensible incongruity…