Craig Biggio, a member of the 3,000 hit club, might be one of the few candidates people can agree on this year. (John BIever/SI)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
In a year where the Hall of Fame ballot's most high-profile newcomers are attached to controversy, the holdover closest to election is one of the most polarizing candidates in recent memory and large Hall-minded voters may not have room to list all of the potentially deserving honorees within their allotted 10 slots, Craig Biggio is the safe choice. A seven-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who spent the entirety of his career with a single team, his candidacy is strengthened even further by his membership in the 3,000 hit club, which historically has guaranteed election. If otherwise contentious writers can't form a consensus around what to do about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris or Jeff Bagwell, surely they can agree on Biggio, right?
Because of the ballot's breadth, the weight of the performance-enhancing drug issue, and the old stats/new stats fault line, there exists a legitimate possibility that none of the 37 candidates will receive the requisite 75 percent of the vote needed for election this year. Such a result would be a disaster for the Hall of Fame, which is after all a privately-owned museum that depends on tourist traffic for the bulk of its revenue — particularly at the time of the July induction, when tens of thousands of fans swarm to Cooperstown en masse, giving the entire local economy a boost. As worthy as the three Pre-Integration Era honorees announced last week may be, they've all been dead for nearly 75 years. Not many people are going to break out their replica Deacon White jerseys to make a pilgrimage to upstate New York simply to see Paul Hagen collect his J.G. Taylor Spink Award or the family of the late Tom Cheek accept his Ford C. Frick Award, however deserving those winners may be.
The Hall of Fame board of directors has no means of rigging the BBWAA's vote to guarantee at least one living great gains entry, and in fact, a shutout has happened as recently as 1996, when Phil Niekro topped out at 68.3 percent. Prior to that, you have to go back to 1971 to find another. Privately, the Hall board must be praying that consensus forms around someone, lest the whole regional economy dip into a recession.
The BBWAA may be sweating the potential results as well, since blank slates tend to trigger calls for reforming the voter process. For evidence of that, look no further than the frequent changes that the Veterans Committee has undergone over the past decade. When the VC voting body was radically expanded in 2001, from a less-than-popular panel of 12 men in a smoke-filled room to include all living members of the Hall proper as well as living Spink (writer) and Frick (broadcaster) awards, the voters pitched shutouts in 2003, 2005 and 2007, and change arrived again. When the retooled VC elected just one player over the next two cycles, it was revamped into its current form, dividing candidates into three chronological eras.
It's doubtful that one goose egg would be enough to pressure the Hall or the BBWAA into changing, but two in a row probably could. The issue of PEDs isn't going away, and the backlog of candidates is only going to get larger when luminaries such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent and Frank Thomas reach the 2014 ballot, making consensus even more difficult among an ever-growing pool of players.
So . . . how about that Biggio guy?
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Long Island native Craig Biggio was drafted by the Astros out of Seton Hall University in 1987, the 22nd pick in a first round that kicked off with Ken Griffey Jr. and also included Jack McDowell (fifth), Kevin Appier (ninth), Delino DeShields (12th) and Travis Fryman (30th) among the 25 major leaguers it produced. Biggio was drafted as a catcher despite his relatively small size for the position (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), and didn't spend long in the minors — just 141 games at two levels — before making his major league debut on June 26, 1988. He went 0-for-2 with a walk and a steal, but must have called a good game, as Jim Deshaies and Larry Anderson (a name you'll hear again this voting season) combined for a seven-hit shutout of the Giants, with Biggio gunning down Jose Uribe attempting to steal third base.
The 22-year-old Biggio didn't hit much in his 50-game rookie season (.211/.254/.350 with three homers), but he earned Silver Slugger honors in his second year, hitting .257/.336/.402 with 13 homers and 21 steals in 24 attempts, exceptional numbers for a catcher, particularly one toiling in the hitters' graveyard that was the Astrodome. Foreshadowing his itinerant career, position-wise, he also made five appearances in the outfield when he wasn't catching. The next year he played 50 games in the outfield, and in 1991, when he earned All-Star honors via a .295/.358/.374 showing en route to a strong 4.1-WAR season, he took three starts at second base during the season's final week.
That winter, the Astros decided to move him to second base and install him as their leadoff hitter, and Biggio proved more than up to the task. He played every game in 1992, led the league with 721 plate appearances, drew 94 walks (53 had been his previous career high) and hit .277/.378/.369 with 38 steals, for a .287 True Average in Houston's run-parched environment. His defense at second may have been rough (Total Zone rated him at −6 runs, Fielding Runs Above Average at a less-charitable −22), but he was worth 4.1 WAR for the second year in a row, and he earned All-Star honors again, still the only player ever to do so at both positions. Aided by an improving nucleus that also included first baseman Jeff Bagwell, third baseman Ken Caminiti and centerfielder Steve Finley, the Astros vaulted from 65-97 in 1991 to 81-81 in '92.
Biggio settled in at second base. From 1992-96, he hit a combined .293/.390/.441 — still playing half his games in the Astrodome, mind you — made four All-Star teams, and averaged 4.8 WAR per year. That set the stage for a monster 9.3-WAR campaign in 1997 (second among NL position players behind MVP Larry Walker): .309/.415/.501 with 22 homers (tying his career high to that point) for a .324 True Average (seventh in the league) and a league-leading 146 runs. To his 84 walks, he added a whopping 34 hit-by-pitches; always willing to take one for the team, he would eventually total 285 plunkings, the most in modern baseball history (19th century player Hughie Jennings was hit 287 times).
The Biggio/Bagwell-powered Astros went 84-78, capturing the NL Central for their first playoff berth since 1986. That was the first of three straight division titles; they would win 102 games the following year, another tremendous season in which Biggio hit .325/.403/.503 with a career-best 210 hits and a league-leading 51 doubles, and 97 in 1999, their final year in the Astrodome. Alas, they couldn't get out of the first round.
Biggio suffered the first significant injury of his career in 2000, tearing the ACL and MCL of his left knee, ending his season on August 1. Even before the injury, and with the move to the more hitter-friendly Enron Field, his decline phase had begun, hardly a surprise given that it was his age-34 season. He rebounded to play 155 games, collect 180 hits and 20 homers, and help the Astros to another first place finish (and alas, another first-round exit) in 2001, but it would be all downhill from his 3.1 WAR over the remaining six years of his career.
In 2003, the Astros decided to move Biggio again, this time to centerfield to accommodate the arrival of free agent second baseman Jeff Kent, another big bat for a lineup that now included leftfielder Lance Berkman and third baseman Morgan Ensberg as well. Despite Biggio age (37), he wasn't a mess in centerfield according to the defensive metrics, but the 87-win Astros fell short of the playoffs. Biggio moved again, this time to leftfield, upon the addition of one more "Killer B" in mid-2004; Carlos Beltran took over centerfield, put the team on his back and hit 23 regular season homers and eight postseason ones as the Astros came within one win of the World Series, losing a seven-game NLCS to the Cardinals.
Beltran and Kent would depart as a free agents after that year, freeing Biggio to move back to second base. While he was subpar defensively, and Bagwell was reduced to a shell of his former self by a shoulder injury, the pitching-rich Astros (who had Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to front their rotation) finally reached the promised land of the World Series in 2005, their first pennant in franchise history. Alas, they were swept by the White Sox and Biggio went 4-for-18.
Biggio turned 40 that winter, and with 2,795 career hits, he set his eye on joining the 3,000 hit club. His performance at the plate and in the field had deteriorated, however. Over his final two seasons, he hit a combined .249/.296/.402 and was 2.1 wins below replacement level once that was combined with subpar defense. Even so, he collected his 3,000th hit with a single off the Rockies' Aaron Cook on June 28, 2007; he was thrown out trying for second, but he did go 5-for-6 that night. He was the 27th player to reach 3,000, and the ninth to do so with one team.
That marker may be enough for Biggio to gain entry to Cooperstown without delay. Of the 28 players (including Derek Jeter) who have 3,000 hits, all but the banned Pete Rose, the PED-tainted Rafael Palmeiro, Biggio and the still-active Jeter are in the Hall of Fame. With the exception of Rose and Palmeiro, every one of the Hall-eligible players to reach 3,000 hits since the end of World War II has been elected on the first ballot. Paul Waner, the only player to reach 3,000 between 1925 (when Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins did so) and 1958 (Stan Musial) had to wait until his fifth ballot to gain entry, but the voting rules were much different then. Among the first-time eligible 3,000 hit club members since Waner, only Lou Brock (79.7 percent in 1985) and Robin Yount (77.5 percent in 1999, sharing space on a crowded ballot with George Brett and Nolan Ryan) even polled below 84.5 percent.
On the strength of that precedent as well as his other traditional merits, Biggio is likely to win election this year. However, his case is fuzzier with regards to JAWS. He's a bit below the standard at second base in terms of both peak and career scores, and his JAWS ranks 13th among second basemen, with non-Hall of Famers Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker among the dozen players above him (the rest are enshrined). That said, Biggio did spend some 13 percent of his career as a catcher (according to plate appearances taken while in the lineup at that position) and another nine percent in centerfield, making it more appropriate to refer to the aggregate for up-the-middle Hall of Famers (catchers, second basemen, shortstops and centerfielders), and there, he's within a rounding error — a run, maybe — of meeting the standard.