Crushing the Case Against Bagwell

Bob Levey

I am not the stereotypical fanboy. Those who disagree with the remainder of this post will most likely disbelieve that statement, but I am, and have always been, a baseball fan first and an Astros fan second. I love the Astros; they are first in my world when it comes to the sport. But if I am going to be totally honest with myself (and some of readers here at The Crawfish Boxes may hate me for this), if I were to move to Kansas City, I would quickly be a Royals fan. I just dig baseball - from my days in the YMCA league (1B/Pitcher/LF and a wicked slugger off the Tee) to the pinnacle of my triumph as a Fantasy Baseball demigod; It's the history, characters, and numbers behind the sport that drive my interest, not attachments to particular players.

That said, as an aspiring professional author, I am disgusted by the reasoning taken by some professional baseball writers (of whom I am jealous, yet angry that they waste their privileged position by spouting the ignorant drivel that I will detail below) when explaining why they have left Jeff Bagwell off their Hall of Fame ballots.

It's a topic that has been beaten almost to death in various places, but I've yet to take a real stab at it. So, I am not only going to beat it to death, but then I'm going to bring it back as a zombie and beat it again. Ordinarily, Hall of Fame voting does not interest me very much. It is fun to see enshrinement of the game's greatest players, but I've never gotten caught up in the circus of dagger-throwing that pops up annually about the subject. Frankly, I'm not usually interested. But what bothers me about Bagwell's case is that there seems to be literally no factual basis for the reasons to keep him out. I don't believe in exclusion from the Hall based on speculation, hearsay, and unfounded rumor.

Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame Case

The case for Bagwell's Hall of Fame credentials has been well-explored, and so rather than rehash old arguments, I'd like to provide links to two very excellent articles establishing the pro-Bagwell point of view. Both of these were written by nationally respected authors who have no particular ties to the Astros, and who are admitted fans of different teams.

In 2010, Joe Posnanski posted this article on his blog about the players on the ballot who were, in his mind, sure-fire Hall-of-Famers. The Bagwell section is a must-read, and this article is referenced below by another national writer who takes the opposite stance.

In my opinion, the key quote here that sums up Bagwell's legitimacy is:

"OK, let me say this as clearly as I can possibly say it: Jeff Bagwell, in my opinion, is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. His 149 OPS+ ranks 19th all-time among players with 8,000 plate appearances. He is one of only 16 players to finish a lengthy career with an on-base percentage higher than .400 (.408) and a slugging percentage higher than .500 (.540). Among those 16, only Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds stole more bases." – Joe Posnanski

If you are a non-stathead, ignore the part about OPS+ and focus on the last two sentences. Only sixteen players have ever finished their careers while getting on base and slugging as well as Bagwell. Of those, only Bonds (one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, even considering his link to PED usage) and Cobb, the very first man elected to the Hall of Fame (yes, before Babe Ruth), stole more bases. Add that to the fact that writers and sabermetricians alike have praised Bagwell's defense, and you have a pretty clear argument.

The second article that I think clarifies Bagwell's case is a bit more complex, but even more definitive. Several years back, Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus created a metric called JAWS (based on Wins Above Replacement, which values a player in actual wins for his team) that compared the career and peak years of players against careers of the men already inducted into the Hall of Fame who played the same position.

In December, Jaffe updated his metrics to discuss the 2012 class of first basemen (sorry, subscription required, but worth the price of entry) and how they stacked up against current Hall of Famers. Jaffe's metric finds that the top first basemen of all time are:

  1. Lou Gehrig
  2. Albert Pujols
  3. Jimmie Foxx
  4. Cap Anson
  5. Jeff Bagwell
  6. Johnny Mize
  7. Roger Connor
  8. Jim Thome
  9. Dick Allen
  10. George Sisler

Of those, only Pujols, Bagwell, Thome, and Allen are not already in the Hall of Fame, and Pujols and Thome also have slam-dunk cases of their own. Allen will likely be inducted by the Veteran's committee at some point.

"Bagwell ranks fifth among the first basemen in career value and JAWS, sixth in peak, and while we can stop to gawk at the fact that Pujols is a lock to surpass Gehrig atop the rankings, that's not the issue at hand. Bagwell is about 130 runs better than the average Hall of Fame first baseman with the bat, and another 50 with the glove. Unequivocally, he belongs in Cooperstown." – Jay Jaffe

Whether using conventional stats or advanced sabermetrics, rational people who take only Bagwell's amazing career into consideration realize that keeping Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame is just silly in the historical context of Major League Baseball.

The Ridiculous Case Against Jeff Bagwell

As far as one can tell, the only reason voters have not inducted Bagwell yet has to do with unsourced, unfounded, and unproven claims that he used PED's. The reasoning seems to be as follows:

  1. He has big arms.
  2. He used those big arms to hit lots of home runs.
  3. He hit those home runs during the "Steroid Era" of baseball.
  4. He was teammates with Ken Caminiti.
  5. He just looks like he used PED's.

Somehow, the five statements above have been enough to link Bagwell to PED's so closely that many writers of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) have conclusively decided that he does not deserve his justified spot in Cooperstown.

Wha...?

Posnanski sums it up in his article:

"Jeff Bagwell — though he never tested positive for steroids, never was implicated in any public way, was not named in the Mitchell Report or by anyone on the record as a suspected user, and is not even on this rather comprehensive list of players linked to steroids or HGH — seems to have become in some voters’ minds a player who used performance-enhancing drugs." –Joe Posnanski

Go ahead and click the link of players associated with steroids or HGH. Bagwell isn't on it, and that site thrives on cataloging the PED story in baseball.

One of the huge problems I have with some writers' case against Bagwell is that it seems to be a hypocritical double-standard. In 2010, the only Hall of Fame inductee was Roberto Alomar. In 2011, the only inductee was Barry Larkin. Both of these guys deserve their spot in Cooperstown, but that's not the point. As I wrote a year ago, there is as much evidence that Alomar used PED's as there is that Bagwell used PED's (which is to say, none, as they both played during the steroid era, had power peaks in the middle of their careers, and retired at age 36). If I may be so tasteless as to quote myself:

Home runs are not a good indicator of who are users and who aren’t. Brian Roberts used PED’s. He is not a slugger. Jeremy Giambi used PEDs. He was not a slugger. Jason Grimsley used PED’s, as did Andy Pettitte. They are not flamethrowing strikeout artists. -- Me

Even Bagwell seems to agree with my premise:

"If you played in my era and hit any home runs, you know people are going to sit there and say something. It's just the state of the game now. The one thing I don't understand is how people can talk about the era I played in and make it sound as if there weren't any great players in the 1990s and 2000s. That doesn't make any sense. Are you telling me that there were great players in the '30s, '40s and '50s, but there weren't any great players in the '90s and 2000s? I mean, come on. That's crazy." –Jeff Bagwell

I followed up on this a few days ago, using the magic of MS Excel (as I am wont to do) to prove my point. In this analysis, I looked at the careers of Bagwell, Alomar, Larkin, and Jim Thome. I chose Thome because he's another slugging 1B who should be a hall-of-famer that played during the steroid era, but I have yet to read any writer seriously claim that Thome probably used PED's. So let's call Thome our "control". I wanted to see an age curve, so I chose the age block from 23 years old to 36, since all four of these men played in the majors during those ages. The first chart shows all four players' slugging percentage at those ages, fit with a 4th-order polynomial curve so we can see the trend. Lest anyone forget, there's nothing complicated about Slugging Percentage. It's the number of total bases earned per At-Bats, expressed as a percentage.

Cp_bags_1_medium

This curve shows that while Bagwell obviously had more power than Alomar and Larkin (a fact that shouldn't shock anybody, since those guys were middle infielders), there is nothing particularly out of the ordinary in Bagwell's career trend in slugging percentage. No sustained spikes, and no climbs at the end of his career like Bonds (and Larkin, actually). In fact, Bagwell's curve fits Thome's almost exactly, which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, his power was normal. And before somebody says, "Look at Bagwell's spike in power at ages 23 and 24 compared to Thome," I will point out that 23 and 24 were Bagwell's first seasons in the majors, while Thome's first season was at age 20. In his age 20, 21, and 22 seasons, Thome slugged 0.367, 0.299, and 0.474. It wasn't until his fourth season in the majors when he slugged .523. Like Bagwell, Thome's power increased at the beginning of his career as he adjusted to major league pitching.

The next graph shows their Isolated Power, for those of you who like more advanced stats. It's like Slugging Percentage, but without singles. It's a measure of extra bases per At-Bat

Cp_bags_2_medium

Again, I challenge somebody to find anything odd about Bagwell's power trend during the course of his career. He got more power as he reached his prime, leveled off, then declined towards the end of his career. Not like Larkin, who showed an inexplicable increase of power as he reached his mid-30's. Again, this is not to imply anything about Larkin. Rather, it's to show that Bagwell's career just doesn't indicate anything out of the ordinary, other than that he was a special hitter.

Lastly, WAR for each man, showing their value in team wins over this age period, but prorated to 162 games per season to account for seasons with games missed:

Cp_bags_3_medium

Bagwell peaks around age 27, as overwhelming research has shown hitters usually do, and peters off in the 30's as he deals with injuries and slower reflexes. The only player whose career does not seem to follow the usual pattern of decline into his 30's is Larkin. Also, by this graph, it's hard to explain how Alomar is definitively a Hall of Famer and Jeff Bagwell is not. Alomar's peak season during this age period in WAR/162 does not even reach Bagwell's career average.

The Ridiculousness Gets Worse...

And yet, some people claim that there is enough "evidence" to justify not adding Bagwell to a Hall of Fame ballot. I recently got into a debate about this subject on the Baseball Prospectus' comment boards. Three particular statements by a commenter bothered me, which they would not have done if I hadn't read the same things in several places, including by BBWAA members. These statements were:

  1. Suspicion is evidence. It's "Low-Value Evidence," but that's still evidence and that should be enough to keep him out of the Hall.
  2. It is Bagwell's responsibility to prove that he did not use Performance Enhancing Drugs and he has not done that.
  3. Bagwell played with PED users, therefore it is more likely that he used as well.
The first statement about suspicion being evidence is nonsense, and there are many analogous parallels that can be drawn from other parts of life to support this. The example I used was President Obama. Bear with me here, because this will not get political, I promise. Some folks suspect that President Obama may not be a natural-born American citizen, for a variety of reasons that have not been proven but are still suspected. Regardless that some may think that disqualifies him to hold his office, a majority of the American people elected him, with the implication that they deemed the fears of his eligibility to be unproven enough to not be a concern.

In contrast to the American voters, the Electoral College, and whatever oversight committee that checks such things, some members of the BBWAA have decided that the unproven suspicions regarding Bagwell's career are enough to disqualify him from the Hall of Fame. My feeling is that if the Hall of Fame elections were run on a system that didn't empower a select group of self-proclaimed know-it-all's with such an important decision, Bagwell would have been in on his first go-round in the off-season after 2010. However, a large number of BBWAA writers have decided that while "Low-Value Evidence" (as it was described to me by my debate adversary over at BP) is not enough to disqualify a man from election to the most powerful office in the world, it is, however, enough to prevent one man from the highest honor that can be given to somebody of his chosen profession. The Hall of Fame is a far less important honor than the Presidency, and the writers are treating it as if baseball players should be held to a higher standard. For shame.

The second statement above irritates me even more, as I've read no good argument for why it is beholden on Bagwell (or anybody else) to prove their innocence when confronted only by suspicion. If a writer with a vote thinks that Bagwell is a PED user, then the burden is on the writer to prove it, not on Bagwell to disprove it. From the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution:

"No person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..."

This isn't a criminal charge, but by assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence and putting the onus on Bagwell to prove his own innocence, writers with votes are denying Bagwell the benefits, prestige, and historical context that will benefit him and his family for generations. I don't think I'm being dramatic either, as Hall-of-Famers are given more career opportunities post-baseball compared to other retired players. In legal contexts, the 5th Amendment was written to prevent just this sort of thing. Just because this isn't a legal issue (and therefore doesn't actually violate the 5th Amendment), doesn't mean that such an accusation and expectation doesn't violate the moral spirit of the rule. I think the whole concept of putting the burden on Bagwell to prove his innocence against mere suspicion is reprehensible, when his future is what's at stake, not the futures of writers hiding behind a keyboard without fear of reproach

Finally, about Bagwell's presumed guilt because he played with Ken Caminiti, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and other players connected to PED's, I don't understand how knowing somebody makes an individual more or less likely to behave like them. I don't know what Bagwell's religion might be (or lack thereof, who knows?) but I seriously doubt that close association with Craig Biggio prompts people to think Bagwell will suddenly convert to Roman Catholicism. Similarly, why should association with Caminiti automatically imply that Bagwell is a drug user? I have had friends who behaved in ways I considered immoral, and that did not make me likely to follow suit. Is everybody now a lemming, ready to follow their fellows over a cliff?

Guilt by association is not guilt, it's just a cliché. Three hundred years ago, some white men lynched some black men, and were bastards for doing so. I am white, but that does not mean that I am a murderous racist, nor does it increase the likelihood that I am. Bagwell was a home run hitter during the so-called "steroid era" of baseball. Others can claim that it increases his likelihood of having used PED's, but that can never be used to definitely say one way or the other without some tangible evidence, as each individual is just that - an individual. Just because there were more individuals who chose to use illegal PED's during that time period than others (reportedly), it does not imply one way or another whether Jeff Bagwell or any other individual is more or less likely to be one of those people.

The Nail in the Ridiculousness Coffin

All this was academic for me, and was just a passing conversation piece. Then, I read this article by Jeff Pearlman, a well-known national baseball writer, who tries to refute Posnanski's post that I linked above. It's also worth a read, but only for the sheer absurdity of 90% of it. It is highlighted by this gem that is oft-repeated by other writers:

"Have you seen the photographs of a young Jeff Bagwell, first as a prospect in the Boston system, then with the Astros as a pup? He looks, perhaps not coincidentally, like a young Jason Giambi; like a young Barry Bonds; like a young Sammy Sosa; like a young Bret Boone." – Jeff Pearlman

Here is the photo referred to in the article:

Bag1_medium

Pearlman is arguing that as a teenager, Bagwell was a skinny guy, and therefore the muscle-weight gain Bagwell added in his early twenties must be unnatural. Any man who has ever been a skinny teenager and added 50 pounds by the time he turned 30 (as I did, and I'm not overweight), knows that Pearlman's implication is ludicrous. Also, Bagwell's arms in that photo don't look all that skinny to me, for a 22-year old.

So...here's a couple pictures and rhetorical questions for Pearlman:

Do you think Jim Thome used PED's? Here's his skinny teenage picture:

Cp_bag5_medium

What about Albert Pujols? He was pretty skinny, too.

Cp_bag6_medium

If Pearlman and others are going to make wild claims like the one quoted above, then they better be consistent with every slugger who was ever once a skinny kid. Every single one.

What Does Bagwell Think?

To me, the most sad part of all of this is that it seems to have affected Bagwell. In this interview with ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, Bagwell indicates that he's sick of the whole thing and is jaded on the whole Hall of Fame idea. He wouldn't be the first baseball player to make such comments when insulted by writers who hide behind the iron walls of their computer screens and their faux-apologetic public relations departments.

The quote that hit me the hardest was this one:

"So much has gone on in the last eight or nine years, it's kind of taken some of the valor off it for me. If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, 'He took steroids,' then it's not even worth it to me. I don't know if that sounds stupid. But it's how I feel in a nutshell.'' –Jeff Bagwell

Because of the innuendos, suspicions, and unfounded accusations that have manifested themselves in the form of two years of rejection, despite a career that warrants immediate first-ballot entry to the Hall of Fame, this man, this great Astro and all-time great baseball player, is now jaded over what should be the highest honor that any player can achieve in any sport. I find this incredibly sad, particularly because it would have been prevented if only a few self-important writers had dismounted from their high horses and ceased to pre-judge a man who, as far as any of us can prove, has done nothing to be ashamed of.

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