Before I begin, let me introduce myself. I'm Curtis Leister, and I'm a new writer on the TCB staff. I'm excited to experience the upcoming season and off season with knowledgeable fans of the team I care the deepest about. My Astros fandom began in 2000 (I never saw a game in the Astrodome....you feel old now huh?) so I had a chance to see one of the best players to ever put on as Astros uniform firsthand.
2013 marks the third year Jeff Bagwell's name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. Last year, he garnered 56% of the vote (up from 41.7% of the vote in 2011), a strong showing for a guy whose numbers, though Hall-caliber, don't exactly wow all of the Hall of Fame voters . The question of Bagwell's induction is almost certainly a "when, not if" case; a 56% showing in the second year is a strong indicator of future inclusion. However, Bagwell's candidacy has been the subject of considerable debate on two fronts; first, his speculated use of PEDs, and second and more simply, his statistical record. I won't get into the PED debate in this article, though Andy of the Houston Counterplot blog defended Bagwell on SI writer Jeff Pearlman's blog earlier this week. Pearlman doesn't have a HOF vote, but he nonetheless has repeatedly implicated Bagwell (and Biggio) for PED use.
Based on pure memory of Bagwell's time in the majors, I was initially a bit skeptical of his career statistics when compared with other players of his time. Did he produce enough compared to the likes of Sosa, McGwire, Giambi and Griffey? Were his stats really Hall worthy when compared not just to his contemporaries, but across MLB history? After delving into his statistic record, the answer was a resounding yes.
Bagwell gained a reputation as a slugger through the course of his career, and rightfully so. He racked up 2314 hits and a .297 batting average to go along with his 449 home runs. He was a pure hitter, but his power numbers are still what he will be remembered by. Advanced statistics have been very kind to Bagwell's candidacy. His career OPS stands at .948, while his adjusted OPS+ at 149. Those numbers rank 22nd and 38th respectively on the career leaderboards. The modern metrics don't stop there though; Bagwell's career WPA (win probability added to his team) is 59.31, good for 19th all time. Bagwell's presence in an Astros uniform added 59 wins over the course of his career. That's a better number than Tony Gwynn, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. What do those three all-timers have in common? All were first ballot Hall of Famers.
Career records are a great indicator of consistency of a player's career, but single season feats allow us to see just how dominant a player was in a certain season. Bagwell's 1994 strike shortened season was one of those dominant years. Bagwell posted a .368/.451/.750 line, good for a league leading OPS of 1.201 (20th best all time) and a staggering OPS+ of 213 (24th all time). And I haven't even mentioned his 39 homer runs and 116 RBI, numbers that would've been even higher had he played more than his 110 games due to the strike. Bagwell won the NL MVP that year by a unanimous margin.
Let's not forget Bagwell's Rookie of the Year campaign either. In a full slate of 156 games, he posted a .294/.387/.437 line, good for a .824 OPS. He hit 15 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Not a Pujols-esque rookie campaign, but enough for a near unanimous 1991 NL ROY award. (Side note: guess who got the only other first place vote? Former Astro Orland Merced, who played for the Pirates at the time.)
Jeff Bagwell posted some monstrous statistical seasons, but consistency was always a key to his dominance. From 1996 to 2003, he hit over 30 home runs every year and knocked in 100 runs all but once. Between those seasons (which didn't even include his MVP year) he averaged 38 home runs and 119 RBI. When faced with the "did Bagwell compare to his slugging peers in the same era?" question, those averages should rightfully answer that question. He never went over 60 home runs like McGwire or Sosa, but kept a consistent pace of production that put him among the best hitters of his era.
Unlike a lot of players on this year's ballot, there was a lot more to Bagwell's game than hitting. He finished his career with 202 stolen bases, reaching his peak in base stealing with 31 in 1997 and 30 in 1999. He's part of the fairly exclusive 400 Home Run, 200 Steals club. He's one of thirteen other players in the club, which consists of notable names like Mays, Bonds, Griffey Jr., Dawson, Winfield, Aaron, Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson. Again, what do those players have in common? All are either already Hall of Famers or deserve to be, and most got in on the first ballot.
If any of us as Astros fans, were lucky enough to watch Jeff Bagwell play, especially in his prime, I feel certain that we would call him a first ballot Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, that won't happen because this is his third year on the ballot. That future induction, however, needs to happen tomorrow. The man won two of the most coveted individual awards for single season performances by wide margins. He put together a 1994 season that should rank among the best for a hitter in history. The advanced metrics favor him, his career 76.7 rWAR is something I haven't even mentioned until now. He played sound defense, nearly hit .300 for his career, ran the base paths extraordinarily well and was a durable hitter for the best stretch of success in Astros history. I'll remember Bagwell for his unique wide batting stance, which I am guilty of emulating many a time in Little League. I'll remember those quirky pads he had on his batting gloves and that one time he stole home plate against the Pirates. But I also want to remember someday when he and hopefully Craig Biggio stood on the same stage as inductees in Cooperstown in July of 2013.