- One of the best first basemen of the post-World War II era, Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame case is as solid as they come but has been unfairly plagued by unproven PED allegations and rumors. Will this be the year that voters finally give him his due?
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. 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 base paths 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 given that he spent his prime toiling in the Astrodome, a notoriously difficult environment for hitters.
When Bagwell first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2011, he emerged as one of the ballot's most controversial candidates, his resumé overshadowed by a whisper campaign that he had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs in his career. Never mind that he never tested positive for a banned substance, nor was he 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 Bagwell had admitted to using androstenedione in 1998, long before it was outlawed by Major League Baseball in mid-2004 and weeks before its discovery in Mark McGwire’s locker set off a firestorm.
After receiving a middling 41.7% of the vote in that first go-round, Bagwell spent the next four years in the 54–60% range before jumping to 71.6% last year, 15 votes short of 75%. As he enters his seventh year of eligibility, he’s on the doorstep to Cooperstown, and while he’s not guaranteed to get in this year, no candidate has ever received such a high percentage and failed to gain entry at some point. With the 2016 election of Mike Piazza—who similarly admitted to using andro back when it was legal—he’s got an important precedent on his side now as well, and in all likelihood, he’ll wind up being elected this time.
|Avg. HOF 1B||65.9||42.5||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 decided to stick with Bagwell instead of fellow prospects Scott Cooper, Phil Plantier and Vaughn. Talk about a ground ball through the legs.
Primarily a third baseman in the minors, the 22-year-old Bagwell was invited to spring training with the Astros in 1991 as a non-roster player, mainly to give third baseman Ken Caminiti a push before heading to Triple A Tucson. He impressed the Astros so much that near the end of the spring, they moved him across the diamond. He took up residence as Houston's first baseman on Opening Day 1991 and earned National League Rookie of the Year honors by hitting .294/.387/.437 with 15 homers and 4.8 WAR—exceptional numbers for a player spending half his time in the Astrodome, in its day the majors' toughest hitting environment. Bagwell spent his first nine seasons (1991–99) in the 'Dome, but remarkably enough, he showed virtually identical home/road slash lines (.303/.421/.546 in Houston, .305/.412/.544 elsewhere) for that period. His 160 OPS+ during that span ranked fourth behind Barry Bonds, McGwire and Frank Thomas, and his 56.7 WAR ranked third behind Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.
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 his three 40-homer seasons between ’97 and 2000. He ranked among the top 10 in OPS+ every year from 1991 to '99 (save for '92) and placed in the top five of that category six times, leading the league in the strike-shortened '94 season (213). Those 1994 numbers were off the charts: .368/.451/.750 with 39 homers 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, beating out Matt Williams, whose 43 homers put him on pace to challenge Roger Maris’s single-season record—though admittedly, Bagwell caught a break, as he suffered a fracture in his left hand via a hit-by-pitch in the final game before the strike. He was prone to such injuries due to his plate-crowding stance, sustaining them in 1993 and '95 as well.
About that batting stance: From his earliest days in the majors, Bagwell always had an exaggerated crouch, with his center of gravity low and legs spread wide apart. Over time, it grew more extreme, with his feet some 4 1/2 feet apart and his butt sticking out with impertinence. "It looks like he's sitting on the john," Caminiti memorably told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. In the words of ESPN's Eric Neel, Bagwell’s stance made him look like a "crotchety old man sitting on the steps of the stoop, complaining about the heat and scowling at those damn kids splashing around in the fire hydrant across the street." The stance shrunk his strike zone and seemed to minimize what Bagwell could do with his legs, but he was able to generate tremendous force via his upper body strength.
The Astros were a doormat when Bagwell joined them, but with an offense led by him and fellow "Killer B" Craig Biggio (who debuted in 1988 and emerged as a force upon moving from catcher to second base in '92), 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 to 2001, though Houston lost in the Division Series each time, going a combined 2–12 in postseason games. Bagwell was particularly hapless in those series, batting just .174/.367/.174.
Bagwell inaugurated the team's 2000 move to Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park) with a big year (.310/.424/.615 for a 152 OPS+ and a career-best 47 homers) and received a five-year, $85 million contract extension. The hitter-friendly park helped mask his gentle decline: His raw OPS of 1.039 that year was just six points lower than the year before, but his OPS+ dropped 12 points, and his WAR (which included a two-run slippage on defense) fell off by 1.8 wins, from 7.2 to 5.4. From 2000 to '04, he was still worth an average of 4.5 WAR, but his OPS+ fell by about 25 points. His play took a noticeable dip in 2004, when his .266/.377/.465 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 reaching 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. Playing as a designated hitter in two games and pinch-hitting in the other two, he went just 1-for-8 in his lone World Series as the Astros were swept by the White Sox. Though Bagwell was just 37 at the time, his career was over, in part because the Astros preferred to collect a huge insurance payout on his 2006 contract rather than allowing him to play. The situation turned into a fiasco: After having Bagwell examined by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the team sought to have him declared totally disabled so as to recoup $15.6 million of his $17 million salary. The gambit failed, and Bagwell not only reported to spring training but also got into games, though he couldn’t make the necessary throws. He began the regular season on the disabled list and never came off. Meanwhile, the insurance claim was denied, and the Astros sued the insurance company. The two sides ultimately settled in December, on the same day he officially retired.
That early end prevented Bagwell from attaining the round-numbered milestones (2,500 hits, 500 homers) 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 base paths (+31 runs) as well as at the plate, his peak WAR ranks fifth among all first basemen, and his career WAR and JAWS are both sixth behind Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, Cap Anson and Roger Connor. He's well ahead of 2014 first-ballot honoree Frank Thomas (with whom he shares the same birth date) as well as Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Todd Helton and McGwire, not to mention 15 of the 19 enshrined first basemen. Among first basemen since World War II, only Pujols outpaces him. To mix sporting metaphors, that's a slam dunk: Bagwell unequivocally belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Still, some segment of voters have held their own suspicions against him, whether or not they've bothered to notice that his admission of using of androstenedione was published more than 18 years ago. In a feature about McGwire's chase in the Aug. 31, 1998 issue of SI, Jack McCallum wrote:
Finally, it's not as if McGwire is alone. He says at least nine or ten 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 struck when AP reporter Steve Wilstein detailed the presence of the still-legal substance in McGwire's locker as he chased Maris's single-season home run record. A year later, 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.
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 the encroachment of PEDs 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 Houston 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-mates Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez, as well as David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez). That doesn't guarantee he was 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 the Hall of Fame, and election history strongly suggests he’ll get there on this ballot. Since the voters returned to annual balloting in 1966, 18 candidates have received between at least 70% but less than the 75% necessary for election. Of that group, 16 still had eligibility remaining. They gained an average of 9.9% the next year, with 15 (including Biggio in 2015) elected. The other three—Jim Bunning, who still had eligibility remaining, and Orlando Cepeda and Nellie Fox, who did not—were eventually elected by the Veterans Committee. All of which suggests that Bagwell better start preparing his induction speech, and Astros fans should plan to pack their bags for Cooperstown.