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Jeff Bagwell: An Unexpected Yes for Hall

Dec 20, 2010 – 4:00 PM
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Jeff Fletcher

Jeff Fletcher %BloggerTitle%

Jeff Bagwell
Over the next four days, MLB FanHouse's Hall of Fame voters will break down the particulars of select players up for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011. The results of the balloting will be made public on Jan. 5.

As a relatively new Hall of Fame voter -- this will be my fifth year with a ballot -- I still struggle with peer pressure. Yeah, I know it's wrong. Can't help it. Thing is, the pressure comes from both sides. There are my fellow baseball writers, many of whom have very high, and often vague, standards. ("If I have to do research to see if he's a Hall of Famer, he's not.") And then there are millions of people out in the web-o-sphere applying cold, hard, numerical standards.

Often, the two sides don't agree.

Which brings me to Jeff Bagwell, who seems to have set up camp right in the middle.

Applying the eyeball test to Bagwell, which is usually all I do with players before it's actually decision time, my instinct was that he was not a Hall of Famer. I don't remember at any time through Bagwell's career thinking that this was a guy who deserved to be enshrined with the likes of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. (I sometimes wish there were a wing of the Hall of Fame to separate the legends from those who "meet the statistical standards," but that's another story.)

Did anyone ever go to the ballpark just because he wanted to see Bagwell play? Did you ever read the phrase "future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell" when he was playing?

Clearly, Bagwell does not meet that no-brainer, slam-dunk status like some guys, whose names you check off without a single bit of research.

But none of that means he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame.

When I began digging into the numbers, my guess was that Bagwell would probably wind up falling short. But I dug nonetheless.

First, I like to go over the far right column of Baseball-Reference.com, where it lists a player's awards and honors. I realize that is not an entirely objective way of making an evaluation, but it does give a look back at how dominant the player was considered to be in his era. Bagwell won an MVP and the Rookie of the Year. He was in the top 10 in MVP voting six times in an eight-year period during his prime. He made the All-Star team four times in those years.

So Bagwell passes that test.

Next, the raw numbers. I don't believe in making a strict comparison between players of different eras, because the game has changed. Bagwell's career falls right in the heart of the Steroid Era. Even if you assume that Bagwell was clean, which is an assumption that I don't think you can make with anyone, his numbers still need to considered in the context of the era. As I pointed out months ago, a lot of things have changed in baseball that affected offensive production, besides steroids. Bagwell benefited from a tiny strike zone and hitter-friendly ballparks and diluted pitching. If that stuff, or even a change in the baseball, contributed to the change in the game, then it must be considered with respect to Bagwell.

So, rather than compare his numbers to all other first basemen, I'll just compare him to the other first basemen of his era.

Fortunately, Baseball-Reference makes this pretty easy. Bagwell's prime years were 1991-2004. (He played in 2005, but I'm not going to hold that last year against him because he was hurt. That wasn't the real Jeff Bagwell.) If you rank all first basemen who played at least 1,000 games over that span by their OPS+, which I use instead of normal OPS to take ballparks into account, Bagwell ranks third, just behind Mark McGwire and Jim Thome. His 149 OPS+ over those years is just barely ahead of Jason Giambi and Todd Helton.

His wins above replacement (WAR) over that time was 79.4, which was miles ahead of Rafael Palmeiro (57.9) in second. I don't care much for WAR because a big chunk of it is based on defensive metrics that are very questionable. Still, a gap that big is hard to ignore.

By two of the most all-encompassing stats, Bagwell was one of the most dominant first basemen of his era.

Finally, was his career long enough? Injuries did cut it short, or else he'd have pushed his numbers into no-brainer territory (as his contemporary, Thome, has done). Still, Bagwell had 9,431 plate appearance, which is around the middle of the pack among Hall of Famers.

A few less scientific things also help him. He was a franchise icon, having played his entire career in one place. I like that. It tells you what his team thought of him. He also was a part of a winning franchise. The Astros went to the playoffs six times with Bagwell, and they had a winning record in 12 of his 15 seasons.

All of that tells me that, yes, Jeff Bagwell is a Hall of Famer.

It's a conclusion that surprised me a little. The same thing happened last year when I looked at Barry Larkin. I also figured him for the Hall of Very Good until I really examined his career closely. I voted for Larkin, and he ended up getting just about half the vote. I figure Bagwell will be the same, which is probably appropriate for a guy who sits so neatly in the middle, failing the eyeball test but passing the numbers test.
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