Going to Bat for Bags

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

Jeff Bagwell v. Round Numbers

The early end to (Jeff Bagwell)’s career kept him from hitting 500 home runs, which almost certainly would have punched his ticket to the Hall (of Fame). – Brian McTaggert

For years, round milestone numbers drove the Hall of Fame selection process: collect 3,000 hits, bang 500 home runs or win 300 games and, “Hello, Cooperstown!” And while the aura surrounding those milestones has dimmed a bit (Pedro Martinez was elected with “only” 219 wins), there’s no question they still pack a punch when it comes to voting (look no further than Craig Biggio and his 3,060 hits). When a voter is tasked with narrowing a ballot of 30-35 eligible players – each and every year – pinpointing an easily understood milestone makes it easier.

Of the 59 Hall of Fame-eligible players who have won 300+ games, hit 500+ home runs or collected 3,000+ hits, only seven have not been enshrined and their exclusion is specifically tied to performance enhancing drugs (save Pete Rose, who is banned from baseball and thus not eligible). The other 52 have a bronze plaque.

Jeff Bagwell did not hit 500 home runs. He did not collect 3,000 hits (though he did reach base 3,843 times but, semantics). It wouldn’t shock us if some voters, looking for any excuse to not vote for Bagwell, are holding his not winning 300 games against him, too. In terms of creating Bagwell’s Hall of Fame narrative, it can be argued, rather easily, that falling short of both hitting milestones (though more specifically the 500 home runs) is hurting his candidacy.

But should it?

First things first – Bagwell hit 449 home runs in his career, which ranks 28th all-time. It’d be rather irresponsible to diminish the historic nature of Bagwell’s accomplishment just because it didn’t cross a mythical barrier. His career total is still mighty impressive and puts Bagwell in very elite company.

So why didn’t Bagwell crush 500 home runs? We think there are two viable reasons – bad luck and a home field disadvantage.

Bagwell only played 2,150 games in his career, which is the rough equivalent of 13 seasons (he was active for 15) even though, overall, Bagwell was an incredibly durable player.

Between 1991-92 and 1996-2004 –11 seasons altogether – Bagwell missed a grand total of 37 games. He played in at least 156 games ten times, 160 games six times and played a full 162 slate four times.

But Bagwell had a truly remarkable streak between 1993 and 1995: each of those three seasons ended prematurely when a pitch broke his right hand. The freak run of bad luck cost Bagwell 55 games. (The continuation of the 1994/95 player’s strike cost him 18 more games in 1995, by the way.) And then, in 2005, burdened by an arthritic shoulder that forced him to miss 127 games – and play the remaining 39 at far less than 100% health – he was done.

Round milestone numbers are made up of several components, not the least of which is longevity, which Bagwell simply didn’t have. His 2,150 games played are two less than Edgar Renteria. But when he did play, oh, boy – Bagwell was an unrepentant beast.

If you look at the 26 players who have hit 500+ home runs, half of them (13) failed to reach 500 home runs in their first 2,150 games. Here’s the list:

Player HR (2,150 G)
Barry Bonds 495
Frank Thomas 495
Ted Williams 490
Hank Aaron 489
Eddie Mathews 482
Frank Robinson 468
Willie McCovey 464
Reggie Jackson 459
Jeff Bagwell 449
Ernie Banks 448
Gary Sheffield 440
Mel Ott 415
Rafael Palmeiro 413

And keep in mind – Bagwell was still a very good player in 2004; he hit 27 home runs and posted a 116 OPS+ and 3.1 oWAR. Sure, those numbers were below the lofty standards he had previously set – but had his career not come to an abrupt end, had he been able to stick around for two-to-four more years with reasonably good health, he almost certainly sails past 500.

He didn’t, and we’re not going to pretend he did. Bagwell couldn’t stay healthy and that can absolutely be used as a mark against him. But health doesn’t invalidate talent. He didn’t miss the milestone because he wasn’t good enough – look at the elite company he’s in. No, he missed the milestone, at least in large part, because he essentially missed the rough equivalent of nearly two full seasons of games.

Perhaps a much greater culprit was likely the venue where Bagwell accumulated roughly 30% of his career at-bats: the power-suffocating Houston Astrodome.

Bagwell totaled 2,832 plate appearances in the Astrodome and hit 126 home runs. And let’s take a moment to clearly articulate that his nine years in the Dome included the entirety of his prime, ages 23 through 31.

Looking at his home run pace those nine years, had all 9,431 of his career plate appearances occurred inside the Dome, he would have totaled 420 home runs. Conversely, his road pace (215 home runs in 4,787 plate appearances) puts his total at 511.

And just to underscore the extreme pitching conditions of the Astrodome, and to illustrate that this wasn’t possibly an issue exclusive to Jeff Bagwell, a study in 1992 looked at the impact stadiums had on home runs.

According to the final results, from 1979-1991, the Astrodome yielded the fewest home runs, per game, of any stadium in baseball (.44). Further, if we assume an average stadium yielded a home run rate of 1.0, the Astrodome again ranked dead last with a rate of .63.

Additionally, the paper details a method they created to try and calculate “true” home run totals (ie an attempt to “even” the playing field so that plus/minus stadium yields didn’t skew the numbers too egregiously when evaluating power hitters).

If we plug Bagwell’s home runs into that formula (and we don’t want to spill too much nerd on you; just stay with us), pitting his Astrodome total (126) against a league average stadium, his “true” home run total is 523.

In other words, you could, incorporating these two data points, crudely estimate that the Astrodome cost Bagwell potentially 60-75 home runs during the prime of his career.

Now, to be fair, Bagwell did spend his final four full seasons in a park literally engineered specifically to take advantage of his right-handed power. But two things to note about Minute Maid Park and its ridiculously short left field fence:

  1. he was 32 during his first season so it’s not like he was there at the peak of his greatness (though he was obviously still extremely good in 2000)
  2. he wound up with just 1,812 plate appearances there; nearly half as many as his Astrodome total and just a tick below 20% for his career.

Minute Maid undoubtedly padded his total; his projected career total if every plate appearance happened there is 562. If we split the difference with his projected Astrodome-only total (420) with the Minute Maid total (562), it comes to 494 career home runs.

(Does your head hurt? Our does. Let’s take a breather…)

(Feel Better? Good. Let’s wrap it up…)

Again, all of this is pretty surface-level dissection – we’re not trying to arrive at an exact number. Instead, we simply want to give some context to his numbers and show that there were other factors keeping his total down.

Finally, it should be noted that Bagwell did manage to cross some fairly significant round numbers. In addition to being one of only 51 members of the 400+ home run club, Bagwell’s also one of only:

52 players to score 1,500+ runs
48 players to drive in 1,500+ runs
28 players to draw 1,400+ walks

And Bagwell is one of only 17 players that belongs to the 400/1,500/1,500/1,400 club. And if you expand that class to include at least 200 stolen bases, Bagwell is one of only six players to go 400/1,500/1,500/1,400/200.

More fun with round numbers: Bagwell is one of only 32 players in Major League Baseball history with 1,500 runs scored and 1,500 runs batted in. And he ranks 31st* among that group in plate appearances.

In other words, Jeff Bagwell packed quite a bit of production into what is a relatively small sample. It’s why the totality of his greatness is easier to represent in rate stats than counting stats and why it’s unfair to judge him by milestones.

* Jeff Bagwell ranks just ahead of Albert Pujols by less than 200 plate appearances. Barring an injury, Pujols will pass Bagwell during the 2015 season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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

Copyright 2016-17 Bags4HoF