Craig Biggio came up agonizingly short of the Hall of Fame in 2014, but the Astros' legend is worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown.
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.
Until Rafael Palmeiro reached the ballot in 2011, every modern player with at least 3,000 hits gained first-ballot entry when he came up for election to the Hall of Fame (note that Pete Rose never officially reached the ballot due to his 1989 ban). Whether it was his positive drug test or his relatively low peak, Palmeiro provided the voters with the opportunity to withhold rubber-stamp approval from candidates simply because they had reached that particular milestone.
With that precedent broken, and with a certain block of voters wishing to make a general point about the so-called "Steroid Era" as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens arrived on the ballot, Biggio did not sail in on the first ballot when he became eligible in 2013. Despite making for a safe choice given his 3,060 career hits, seven All-Star appearances and four Gold Gloves — not to mention complete lack of drug allegations — he was left on the outside looking in. Biggio received a respectable 68.2 percent of the vote, as the writers failed to elect anyone that year for the first time since 1996, and just the third time since the BBWAA returned to annual balloting in 1966.
Amid an even more overstuffed slate on the 2014 ballot, Biggio was one of just two holdover candidates to gain votes, but while first-timers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas topped 75 percent, Biggio fell two votes short, and in this game, 74.8 percent doesn’t round up to the 75 percent needed for election. With three more potential first-ballot honorees becoming eligible this year in Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, Biggio will have to battle for ballot space once again. Fortunately, his on-field accomplishments haven't changed, and precedent strongly suggests he’ll get his bronze plaque.
|Avg. HOF 2B||69.8||44.9||57.4|
|Avg. HOF Md (C+2B+SS+CF)||65.7||42.0||53.9|
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 that day, but he 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 throwing out 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. In the first sign of his migration around the diamond that was to come, 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 4.4-WAR season, he made three starts at second base during the season's final week.
That winter, the Astros decided to move Biggio to second base and install him as their leadoff hitter. He proved up to the task, playing every game in 1992, leading the league with 721 plate appearances, drawing 94 walks (53 had been his previous career high) and hitting .277/.378/.369 with 38 steals, for a 118 OPS+ in Houston's run-parched environment. His defense at second may have been rough (Baseball-Reference.com's Total Zone rated him at -6 runs, and Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average had him at a less-charitable -22), but he topped 4.0 WAR for the second year in a row and made the All-Star team again. He's still the only player ever to do so at both positions. Aided by an improving nucleus that 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 .293/.390/.441 — still playing half his games in the Astrodome, mind you — made four All-Star teams and averaged 5.0 WAR per year. That set the stage for a monster 9.4-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 143 OPS+ (eighth in the league) and a league-leading 146 runs. He also added 84 walks and 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.
Powered by Biggio and Bagwell, the Astros went 84-78 and captured the NL Central for their first playoff berth since 1986, and their 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 in any of those seasons.
Biggio suffered the first significant injury of his career in 2000, tearing the ACL and MCL of his left knee, ending his season on Aug. 1. Even before the injury, and with the move to the more hitter-friendly Enron Field, his decline phase had begun, hardly a surprise at age 34. He rebounded in 2001 to play 155 games, collecting 180 hits and 20 homers and helping the Astros to another first-place finish (and another first-round exit), but it would be all downhill from his 3.2 WAR over the remaining six years of his career.
In 2003, Houston 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's age (37), he wasn't a disaster 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, when Carlos Beltran took over in centerfield. Beltran put the team on his back and hit 23 regular-season homers, adding eight in the postseason, as the 'Stros came within one win of the World Series, losing a seven-game NLCS to the Cardinals.
The free-agent departures of Beltran and Kent freed Biggio to return to second base in 2005. 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 Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte to front their rotation) finally reached the World Series by winning their first pennant in franchise history. Alas, they were swept by the White Sox, while Biggio went 4-for-18 in the Fall Classic.
Biggio turned 40 that winter, and with 2,795 career hits, he set his sights on joining the 3,000 hit club, but his performance at the plate and in the field had deteriorated. Over his final two seasons, he hit a combined .249/.296/.402 and that, combined with his subpar defense, left him 1.7 wins below replacement level and fueled the impression that he was sticking around merely for the sake of reaching the milestone. He finally got there with a single off Colorado's Aaron Cook on June 28, 2007; he was thrown out trying for second, but did go 5-for-6 that night. He was the 27th player to reach 3,000 hits, and the ninth to do so with one team.
Of the 28 members of that exclusive club, all but the banned Pete Rose, the PED-tainted Palmeiro, the freshly-retired Derek Jeter and Biggio are in the Hall of Fame. 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. Relative to other first-time eligible 3,000 hit club members since Waner, and excluding Palmeiro for obvious reasons, Biggio set a new low for percentage of the vote, falling below Robin Yount (77.5 percent in 1999, sharing space on a crowded ballot with fellow first-time inductees George Brett and Nolan Ryan) and Lou Brock (79.7 percent in 1985).
Modern BBWAA voting history (1966 onward) shows that candidates who debut with between 60 and 74.9 percent of the vote don't have to wait long to be elected, with five out of seven (Roberto Alomar, Yogi Berra, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk and Whitey Ford) topping 75 percent in year two and just one (Phil Niekro) losing ground. Despite last year's impressive trio of first-year candidates, Biggio came within a whisker of election. Had he received the two extra votes he needed to get in, the Hall would have had its first quartet of honorees since 1955, when Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance were elected.
In falling two votes short, Biggio joined Pie Traynor (1947) and Nellie Fox (1985) in a tie for the closest miss on a counting basis, but since the electorate has enlarged considerably in the decades since those players first appeared, his was the closest on a percentage basis. Traynor was elected the following year, and was still alive to enjoy the honor. Fox, who had died 10 years earlier at the age of 47, wasn’t elected until 1997 by the Veterans Committee.
Fortunately, Biggio is far more likely to go the Traynor route. But while his case is strong in terms of both traditional merits and precedents, it's fuzzier with regard to JAWS. He's a bit below the standards at second base in terms of both peak and career scores, and his JAWS ranks 14th among second basemen, with non-Hall of Famers Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker and the still-active Chase Utley among those above him (the rest are enshrined).
That said, it's important to remember that Biggio spent around 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). There, he's within a few runs of meeting the standard.
Considering that any shortfall basically owes to the gray area of his less-than-stellar defensive performances and minor discrepancies between various metrics (-62 Fielding Runs Above Average, -70 Total Zone, -37 Ultimate Zone Rating, -51 Defensive Runs Saved, with the latter pair going back only as far as 2002 and '03, respectively), it's hardly worth sweating decimals. Craig Biggio looks as much like a Hall of Famer this year as he did in 2013, and he deserves to go in.