In the interest of broadening the already expansive coverage of the Crawfish Boxes and striding headlong into the fascinating pages of Astros history, this writer will endeavor to examine a series of the greatest seasons in Astros history - individual performances, team performances, and various record setting performances, with the occasional oddity and rare accomplishments thrown in.
The first installment of this new series will, fittingly, focus on one of the most dominant individual seasons any Astro has turned in in the 50+ year history of the franchise: Jeff Bagwell's eye-popping 1994 season.
The Greatest Seasons In Astros History: Jeff Bagwell, 1994
Jeff Bagwell is a name which is practically synonymous with baseball in Houston. His diminutive, crouched stature at the plate belied a giant, universe-encompassing presence on the diamond for any Astros fan lucky enough to have watched him play throughout his career. His continued absence from the Hall Of Fame is a constant source of consternation for Astros fans. According to Jay Jaffe's Hall Of Fame worthiness metric, JAWS, Jeff Bagwell is sixth all time in WAR among first basemen - trailing only Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, Cap Anson, and Roger Connor. Every single player directly ahead of him on the list are obviously in the Hall Of Fame with the obviously temporary exception of the still-active Albert Pujols, who will deservedly be enshrined in the first year he's eligible. What some don't seem to notice or care about is that Jeff Bagwell's JAWS score is better than sixteen Hall Of Fame first basemen. That sixteen player list includes some of the greatest legends the sport has ever seen, including Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, Hank Greenberg, and Harmon Killebrew. Frank Thomas is one player to whom Jeff Bagwell is consistently compared, but Bagwell accumulated more WAR over a shorter (injury-shortened) career by virtue of being a very similar caliber hitter while also fielding his position better than just about anyone else of his generation - not to mention being one of the most underrated base runners of his generation. He was an all around elite baseball player in literally every facet of the game as measured historically against his peers at first base. But this isn't as much an argument about the place he obviously should already hold in Cooperstown, or even an article bemoaning the absurdity of the obvious reason he doesn't yet hold that position - the asinine witch hunt the BBWAA has undertaken against slugging baseball players of the 90s and 2000s, even in cases like Bagwell's where there's literally never been a shred of evidence to actually physically support any evidence of wrongdoing.
No, this article is instead intended to highlight the historical significance of the Herculean effort turned in by Bagwell in 1994, the greatest season of his career.
The first game of the season that year was on Monday, April 4th, in the Astrodome against the Montreal Expos. Two future Astros were in the lineup for the Expos - Moises Alou and Sean Berry. Jeff Fassero started the game for the Expos, and was promptly staked to a 3-0 lead. The Astros would later tie the game on a two run home run by Bagwell, his first of 39 in the short season. They'd go on to win the game in a wild twelfth inning walkoff. Jeff Bagwell went 3-6 in the game with three RBIs, and just like that the historic season was underway with a bang. Bagwell would post a .360/.406/.640 slash line for the month of April, slugging six home runs and totaling 12 extra base hits and nine walks to eighteen strikeouts.
Bagwell would go on to post the weakest month of his season in May with a .301/.415/.570 slash line with another six home runs before exploding in June, posting a still-standing Astros franchise record for home runs in a month with 13 to accompany his otherworldly .394/.455/.899 slash line. Lost in those diamond-glittering stats are eleven doubles for the month, and ten walks to just twelve strikeouts. He posted a flatly absurd 1.325 OPS for the month.
Then came July, when he challenged his own freshly minted club record with a further 11 home runs and walked 20 more times. He also walked 20 times in the month of May. He only played in 9 games in August before a pitch fractured a bone in his hand and ended his season days before the worst strike in recent Major League history began.
All told, it was the greatest season of his career not only because of his gaudy dominance - he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in the strike-shortened season, becoming the first (and, so far, only) Houston Astros player to win an MVP award - but also because of how well the season itself represents the overall arc of his injury-shortened career, which ended after his 15th season in 2005 due to a degenerative shoulder condition which robbed him of his renowned cannon arm first and ultimately made it impossible for him to even lift a bat, much less swing it.
But there's more to this season that you may not have realized before, even if you lived through that year as an Astros fan and watched every game, as this writer did. Here are some facts - and deeper in depth statistics - about his season and its historical significance that you may not have realized.
In 1994, Jeff Bagwell:
- Never went more than 12 games without hitting a home run
- Never went more than 5 games without an RBI
- Had an 18 game hitting streak
- Had a 34 game on base streak
- Had 30 hits which put the Astros ahead
- Drove himself in 39 times, but also drove Craig Biggio in 36 times and drove in Steve Finley 25 times
- In 479 plate appearances, drove in 116 runs - the average major league player that season in 479 plate appearances drove in 57 runs, or less than half as many as Bagwell did
- Had five different multi-home run games, including a 3 home run game on June 24th.
- Played a game in Right Field, going 1-2 with a solo home run and a walk
- Posted a slash line of .460/.514/.990 with a ridiculous 1.504 OPS when leading off an inning, hitting 14 home runs, nine doubles and a triples in said scenario
- Absolutely feasted on pitchers in the middle innings of the game in his second and third at bats, hitting .422/.500/.933 (1.433 OPS) with 18 home runs, 13 doubles and one triple in innings 4-6 of baseball games that season
- In a nearly identical number of at bats (201 at bats at home, 199 at bats away) posted excellent numbers both home and away. He actually was even better at home in the cavernous Astrodome than he was on the road, setting a single season record for individual home runs in the Astrodome that was never broken with 23
- Managed to steal 15 bases in 110 games
- Maintained a pace that projected to 47 doubles, 57 home runs, 170 RBI, 22 stolen bases, 95 walks, 216 hits, and a final slash line of .368/.451/.750 (1.201 OPS) over the course of a 162 game/650 plate appearance season
In an effort to provide greater depths of analysis, let's take a look at some of the more SABR-based metrics for Bagwell in the 1994 season.
- Bagwell's 213 OPS+ in 1994 is tied for the 24th best individual season of all time with Tip O'Neill, a deadball era slugger who also posted a 213 OPS+ in 1887. However, if you removed Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth from that list, Bagwell's 1994 season would be tied for 8th all time on the remaining list. Other notable names from the list, once Bonds/Williams/Ruth are removed? Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Mark McGwire, and Lou Gehrig - NONE of whom had more than one season in their legendary careers which outpaced Bagwell's 1994 season. McGwire only just beat out Bagwell's best season - by hitting 70 home runs in his legendary 1998 campaign. Even then, McGwire's OPS+ was 216 - just three points better than Bagwell's. Similarly, the only individual season Lou Gehrig posted that was better than Bagwell's 1994 season from an OPS+ standpoint was the 1927 season - the infamous Murderer's Row Yankees. Mickey Mantle, too, only had one season in which he posted a better OPS+ than Bagwell in 1994 - it came in 1957, when a 25 year old Mantle posted a .365/.512/.665 (1.177 OPS) slash line with 34 home runs and a whopping 146 walks to just 75 strikeouts.
- Bagwell posted identical 13.6 K% and 13.6 BB% in 1994
- Bagwell posted a nearly unheard of .383 ISO in 1994, which easily led all of baseball and was the 16th best single season mark of its kind in baseball history, per baseball-almanac. Eight of the 15 better marks belong to either Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth, with four more belonging to Mark McGwire.
- Bagwell had a .488 wOBA in 1994, .038 points better than the closest NL challenger (Kevin Mitchell) and trailing only Frank Thomas for the best in baseball
- Bagwell posted a 205 wRC+ in 1994, which led all of the NL by 30 points (Kevin Mitchell of the Reds was second with a 175 wRC+) and tied Frank Thomas for the best in baseball
- Bagwell posted 7.8 WAR in 1994, per fangraphs, which led all of baseball by a considerable margin
- Bagwell posted a .750 SLG%, which led all of baseball that year and ranked as the 11th best slugging percentage mark of any player in any season in the history of the sport. Of the ten seasons in which hitters eclipsed Bagwell's .750 SLG% mark, seven of the seasons belonged to Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. Here's a list of players who never, not once, eclipsed a .750 SLG% for a season: Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols, etc. Lou Gehrig's solitary season with a better-than .750 OPS was (again) in 1927, and Rogers Hornsby and Mark McGwire each surpassed .750 SLG%s exactly once each in their careers.
- Bagwell posted the 25th best AB/HR ratio for a season in history with 10.26 AB/HR
- Bagwell's 1.2009 OPS in 1994 was the 20th best mark of its kind in baseball history. Thirteen of the nineteen OPS marks higher than Bagwell's belong to Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Barry Bonds.