After hitting 15, 18 and 20 home runs in his first three years in the league, Jeff Bagwell hit 39 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, an admittedly eye-opening 95% increase from one year to the next. He hit 21 in 1995 (in just 114 games; his full-year pace was roughly 28), then 31, 43, 34, and 42 through 1999 when the Astrodome closed.
While the one year increase stands out, it’s not historically unprecedented. In 1994, Bagwell’s fourth full Major League season, he turned 26. Babe Ruth, the season he turned 25, saw his home run total jump 86% (from 29 to 54). Hank Aaron, in his fourth full Major League season, saw a 69% increase (26 to 44) while Ken Griffey, Jr. saw a 67% increase in his fourth full season (27 to 45). Three of baseball’s most revered power hitters – and they all saw their power take a giant leap forward at roughly the same age/level of Major League experience as Jeff Bagwell.
Altogether, Bagwell’s home run totals, other than the expected drop-off in ’95 (when he was hurt and missed 30 games), landed between 31 and 47, demonstrating a steady, expected ascension over a ten-season period that included the prime of Bagwell’s career, not to mention a move to a new ball park that was, more or less, built for Bagwell. Enron/Minute Maid Park’s short porch in left field (a mere 315 feet) was routinely abused by right-handed power hitters and it unquestionably augmented Bagwell’s power.
What should stand out here, frankly, is that nothing stands out. There are no egregious outliers during the prime of Bagwell’s career. There were 19 50-homer seasons during the course of Bagwell’s career; he had none of them. And only four times did he finish among the top 10 in home runs (1994, 1997, 1999 and 2000), and never higher than third. In an era marked by historic power surges, Bagwell never topped Ruth or Aaron’s single-season home run total.
His prime was followed, incidentally, by an equally expected decline as his body began to break down when he turned 36, which is the approximate age when most *normal* human beings begin to show signs of wear and tear. A steroid user, as we’ve been told repeatedly, can hold off the inevitable decline brought on by aging – isn’t that why Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs at age 36 or Roger Clemens winning his seventh Cy Young at age 41 put both of those players under such intense scrutiny? Even admitted steroid user Ken Caminiti’s power surge (in 1996) came at the age of 33. Bagwell’s power surge began at 26, stayed remarkably consistent for nine consecutive seasons, and then was done by 35 – what is incredibly suspicious about that?
You can’t have your cake and shoot it full of steroids, too.