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Greg Maddux and "The Bagwell Gambit"

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Don't Believe Everything George Will Tells You

You may find this hard to believe based on my statistical laxity, but I'm actually a member of SABR.  'Course I joined more 'cause I'm interested in the history of the game than for obscure metrics, but turns out they send me all their publications--including the ones with all the funky abbreviations like WARP3 and RSAA.

Anyway, the latest issue of The Baseball Research Journal arrived in my mailbox Saturday, and ensconced within was a short feature that I think has some relevance here.

Perhaps you've heard the story.  It was most recently repeated in print by George Will within an article he wrote for Newsweek in April 2005, but I'd heard it long before then.  

Cyril Morong--who also often writes for our SBNation brethren Beyond the Boxscore--quotes Will thusly:

Leading 8 - 0 in a regular season game against the Astros, Maddux threw what he had said he would never throw to Jeff Bagwell--a fastball in.  Bagwell did what Maddux wanted him to do:  he homered.  So two weeks later, when Maddux was facing Bagwell in a close game, Bagwell was looking for a fastball in, and Maddux fanned him on a changeup away.

I think the original version I'd heard had the second AB in one of the many Braves-Astros playoff games, but no matter:  Morong, by detailing each and every one of the seven home runs that Bagwell has hit against Maddux, systematically disproves the story.  

For example, on May 28, 1995, in the eighth inning, with the Braves up 2 - 0, Maddux gives up a solo shot, and in fact his only hit, to Bags.  The Braves win 3 - 1.  But next meeting--June 3, 1995--Bagwell, instead of getting snookered, got Maddux  again, homering off the future Hall-of-Famer, and the 'Stros won 2 - 1:  the Bagwell jack, if you will, making all the difference. The other five episodes go similarly, if not quite so dramatically:  at no point does Maddux give up the meaningless home run then follow it with the game-critical strikeout.  

I dunno, that makes me happy.  I've never disliked Maddux--too much--even when he was getting all those outside strike calls, 'cause I understood the guy was a craftsman.  But Bags wasn't nobody's bitch, you know what I'm saying?


Morong also mentions in passing Baggy's numbers against Maddux overall, disproving the absurd background context they're trying to get you to buy that Maddux owned Bagwell, that Bagwell always "did what Maddux wanted him to do."  Turns out, Jeff has a .959 OPS against Maddux while carrying a .949 against everyone else.

Morong does some statistical pirouettes with Maddux' numbers and goes on to conclude that not only didn't Maddux set up Bags, he didn't make a habit of setting up anybody else either during his career.  And there I'm less sure that Morong's made his point. Seems to me the most studied of modern pitchers made more than a few batters look the fool over the years.

But I'm glad to see it proven that Bagwell wasn't one of them.