Friday November 28th, 2014

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

On the surface, Jeff Bagwell's case for Cooperstown is strong. An outstanding, durable slugger with power, patience and positive value on the basepaths and in the field, he ranked not only as one of the best hitters of his era, but also as one of the best all-around first basemen since World War II. While shoulder woes cut his career short and left his key counting stats on the lower side relative to the era's other heavy hitters, his rate stats were phenomenal — particularly when one considers that he spent his prime toiling in the Astrodome, a notoriously difficult environment for hitters.

Yet when he first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2011, Bagwell emerged as one of the ballot's most controversial candidates, his resumé overshadowed by a whisper campaign that alleged he had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs in his career. Never mind that he had never tested positive for a banned substance, nor had he been mentioned in the Mitchell Report. For some voters, mere suspicion that he had used was enough. Amid the debate, many a voter or interested bystander (this scribe included) failed to note that he had admitted to using androstenedione long before it was outlawed by Major League Baseball in mid-2004.

JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Craig Biggio

Since receiving just 41.7 percent of the vote in that first go-round, Bagwell has gained significant support, though after reaching 59.6 percent in 2013, he slipped to 54.3 percent in 2014; then again, he wasn't alone, as every holdover besides former teammate Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza lost ground. His candidacy isn't in bad shape; aside from Gil Hodges, Jack Morris and any candidates still on the ballot, every player named by a simple majority of BBWAA voters in one year has eventually been elected, either via the writers or an iteration of the Veterans Committee. That said, Bagwell is unlikely to break through the traffic this year, and the sudden truncation of the eligibility period from 15 years to 10 means that after this cycle, he'll be in the second half of his stay on the ballot.

Player career peak jaws h HR SB AVG/OBp/S:G OPS+
Jeff Bagwell 79.6 48.2 63.9 2,314 449 202 .297/.408/.540 112
Avg. HOF 1B 65.9 42.4 54.2          

Though he was born in Boston and drafted by the Red Sox in the fourth round in 1989 out of the University of Hartford, Bagwell never played an inning for the Olde Towne team. Instead, he was traded to the Astros in a 1990 deal for reliever Larry Andersen that has since become a cautionary tale. Andersen gave Boston 22 brilliant stretch-drive innings (1.23 ERA, 1.2 WAR), but while the Sox would eventually come up with Mo Vaughn to occupy first base, their 86-year championship drought might have been shortened had general manager Lou Gorman not traded Bagwell. Talk about a groundball through the legs.

The 22-year-old Bagwell took up residence as Houston's first baseman on Opening Day 1991 and earned NL Rookie of the Year honors by hitting .294/.387/.437 with 15 homers and 4.8 WAR, exceptional numbers for a hitter spending half his time in the Astrodome, in its day one of the majors' toughest hitting environments. Bagwell spent his first nine seasons (1991-99) in the 'Dome, but remarkably enough showed virtually identical home/road slash lines (.303/.421/.546 in Houston, .305/.412/.544 elsewhere). His 160 OPS+ ranked fourth during that span behind Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas, while his 56.7 WAR was third behind Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.

JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: One-and-done hitters

Stuck in the same league as both Bonds and McGwire, Bagwell never led the NL in homers, but did place second in both 1994 (39) and '97 (43), the latter one of three 40-homer seasons he had in a four-year span. He ranked among the top 10 in OPS+ every year from 1991-99 save for 1992, and he was in the top five of that category six times, leading the league in the strike-shortened 1994 season (213). Those 1994 numbers were off the charts: .368/.451/.750 with 39 homers in 110 games, for a career-high 8.2 WAR, 2.0 higher than Bonds and 3.1 higher than any other NL position player. For that, he was unanimously voted the league's MVP.

The Astros were a doormat when Bagwell joined them, but with an offense led by him and fellow "Killer B" Biggio (who debuted in 1988 and emerged as a force upon moving from catcher to second base in 1992), they soon became contenders. Division realignment worked in their favor; they finished first in the new NL Central four times in a five-year span from 1997-2001, though they lost in the Division Series each time, going a combined 2-12 in postseason games. Bagwell was of particularly little help in those series, batting just .174/.367/.174.

The move to Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park) came in 2000, when Bagwell was 32, and the hitter-friendly park helped mask his gentle decline. He was still worth an average of 4.5 WAR from 2000-04, but his OPS+ fell by about 25 points. His play took a noticeable dip in 2004, when his .266/.377/.465 line marked the first time he'd slugged below .500 since 1995, but he did hit .286/.375/.490 in the postseason as the Astros fell one win short of the World Series.

Houston would get there the next year, but Bagwell made just 123 plate appearances in 2005 due to an arthritic right shoulder that limited him to pinch-hitting after he returned from surgery in September. He was the designated hitter in two World Series games and pinch-hit in the other two but went just 1-for-8 as the Astros were swept by the White Sox. That proved to be his lone Fall Classic appearance and also the last games he would play in the major leagues. Though Bagwell was just 37 at the time, his career was over — in part because the team preferred to collect a huge insurance payout on his 2006 contract than allow him to play, a situation that turned into a fiasco.

JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: One-and-done pitchers

That early end prevented Bagwell from attaining the round-numbered plateaus (2,500 hits, 500 home runs) that might enhance his Hall of Fame case, but even without them, he measures up well against the best first basemen of all-time. Thanks to positive contributions on defense (+54 runs) and the basepaths (+31 runs) as well as at the plate, his career WAR ranks sixth among all first basemen, his peak WAR fifth and his overall JAWS sixth behind Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, Cap Anson and Roger Connor. He's well ahead of last year's first-ballot honoree Frank Thomas (with whom he shares the same birth date) as well as fellow contemporaries like McGwire, Todd Helton, Rafael Palmeiro and Jim Thome, not to mention 14 enshrined first basemen (out of 18). Among first basemen since World War II, only Pujols outpaces Bagwell. To mix sporting metaphors, that's a slam dunk; Jeff Bagwell unequivocally belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Still, some segment of voters hold their own suspicions against him, whether or not they've bothered to notice that his admission of using of androstenedione was published more than 15 years ago. In a feature about McGwire's chase in the Aug. 31, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum wrote:

Finally, it's not as if McGwire is alone. He says at least nine or 10 St. Louis Cardinals teammates use andro (as it's known to muscleheads), and Houston Astros star Jeff Bagwell told The Houston Chronicle, two weeks before the McGwire storm erupted, that he had taken it. Logic says that at least a few other major leaguers have it in their lockers.

The storm to which McCallum referred was the one that struck just a couple of weeks earlier, once AP reporter Steve Wilstein detailed the presence of the still-legal substance in McGwire's locker as he chased Roger Maris' single-season home run record. A year later, Tom Verducci profiled Bagwell for SI. In addition to describing his swing as "a game of Twister breaking out in the batter's box," he detailed the slugger's training plan:

"His off-season regimen now includes not only [competitive bodybuilder Herschel] Johnson's training but also creatine, the nutritional supplement, and the controversial testosterone-boosting androstenedione. 'It may help your workout, but it doesn't help you hit home runs,' he says."

Bagwell's admission came at a time when the drug, a steroid precursor that metabolizes into testosterone in the body, albeit rather inefficiently, was not outlawed by Major League Baseball, was legal under U.S. law and was readily available at GNC stores. Though banned in 1997 by the International Olympic Committee, which classified it as an androgenic-anabolic steroid, andro wasn't banned by MLB until April 2004; it remained legal until June of that year, when it was added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. That placed it in the same legal class as anabolic steroids as well as hydcrocodone (Vicodin), ketamine, synthetic THC and other substances for which both accepted medical uses and the potential for abuse and dependence exist.

JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Burning questions

The timing should matter. The U.S. Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws, and the application of retroactive morality (to use Buster Olney's term) by the very voters who underreported the story of PEDs' encroachment on the game doesn't seem fair, either — to say nothing of the fact that there's no credible evidence to back the case of those who believe Bagwell used illegal PEDs. As noted above, he never tested positive, didn't turn up in the Mitchell Report (unlike teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte) or any other investigation, and hasn't surfaced among the names leaked in connection with the 104 positives on the 2003 survey tests (unlike ballot-mate Sammy Sosa as well as David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez). That doesn't guarantee he's clean, but it minimizes what might reasonably be held against him in the context of his fellow candidates.

Given that, and his status as the game's second-best first baseman since World War II, Bagwell belongs in Cooperstown. With Biggio on the precipice of election, the odds of the two Killer B's going in together the way the Braves' Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux did in 2014 are exceedingly small, but Bagwell will have his day soon enough.

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