"You know, as far as me, it is something that would be great, and obviously the pinnacle of any player personally to achieve is to get in the Hall of Fame, but I really wasn't thinking about myself at the time. It's in the back of my mind and in the back of the minds of my family and the fans in Houston. If my time comes, it will come. I will embrace that moment and I'll be excited. If not, like you've heard me say before, my life still goes on."
- Jeff Bagwell, from this Brian McTaggart article
Well, it looks like Jeff Bagwell's life will go on, and the excitement will have to wait for yet another brutal year.
As for me? I'm pretty upset. And I bet, if you're an Astros fan also, that you're pretty upset, too.
After all, injuries shortened his career considerably - a trait his career shares with Hall Of Famer Kirby Puckett - and those injuries precluded him from acquiring some of the counting stats that many Hall Of Fame voters still value...but Jeff Bagwell was clearly one of the top five or ten first basemen to ever play the sport, and his continued exclusion from Cooperstown is a travesty of colossal proportions.
Astros fans know the drill here - we talk about the fact that he amassed an astonishing 79.6 wins above replacement (WAR) in just fifteen MLB seasons - including several near the end where his degenerative shoulder sapped him of much of his hitting ability and all of his throwing ability. His WAR total is good for fourth all time among first basemen, trailing only Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and Jimmie Foxx. Rafael Palmeiro - who'd be a shoo-in Hall Of Famer even considering his ties to steroids at the end of his career in a just world, in my opinion - and Jim Thome (a surefire future Hall Of Famer) trail him in career WAR. Frank Thomas, a first-ballot Hall Of Famer to whom Bagwell is most often compared, trails him in career WAR despite playing in 172 more games in his eighteen year career than Bagwell played in his fifteen year career. Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, and Willie McCovey all trail him in WAR, yet are each a) in the 500 home run club, and b) are all three in the Hall Of Fame. Jeff Bagwell averaged 7.0 WAR per season from 1994 through 1999. His 149 OPS+ ranks 21st all time among all hitters with at least 8,000 plate appearances - and is twelfth best among right handed batters.
Bagwell was not just an incredible hitter in his career (posting a .297/.408/.540 slash line) but was one of the (if not the) best defensive first basemen in baseball. Few Astros fans who watched him field a bunt on a suicide crash ten or so feet from home plate and gun down lead runners are surprised by this assertion. By the numbers, he posted 35 Total Zone in runs above average in his career (per fangraphs) and a .993 career fielding percentage.
His base running ability is also seemingly forgotten by many who didn't watch the slugger play day in and day out during his career. Bagwell stole 202 bases in his career - the most by a first baseman since the 1920s - and owns the only two seasons in baseball history of a first baseman hitting thirty home runs and stealing thirty bases. As has been noted by other writers, Bagwell owns a 31.2 base running runs ranking (per Baseball-Reference) which is first all-time at the position. He wasn't just fast for a slugger, he had an uncanny ability to read a pitcher's movement, and his routes on the base paths were among the most efficient in the sport.
In short, Jeff Bagwell excelled in every single facet of the sport.
But Astros fans already knew this.
So, why wasn't he a first ballot Hall Of Famer like Frank Thomas, who was an outstanding hitter but nowhere near the defender or base runner that Bagwell was? Moreover, why has he now been shunned for a SIXTH consecutive season by the Hall Of Fame voters at the BBWAA?
Even though he's never actually been linked to steroid use...ever? Not by Canseco, and not through the Mitchell Report or BALCO or any of the other scandals that rocked the sport over the last fifteen years?
Is it simply because he was Ken Caminiti's teammate and good friend?
Because, as an Astros fan, I find myself perplexed when a guy who admitted to PED use (Mike Piazza) is elected while Bagwell is rejected, when the only explanation for the rejection seems to be centered around steroids (ok, andro, and its use in the time frame Piazza admitted to it was only dubious, not outright banned by the MLB) that, of the two, only Piazza has ever admitted to, been proven to have used, or really even categorically been linked to.
Some Astros fans have wondered (vocally, vociferously) whether the fact that Piazza played in two of the biggest markets in the world (Los Angeles and New York) for fourteen of his sixteen major league seasons, not counting five games he played for the Marlins in 1998, might have an influence over the voters' willingness to vote for him...while Bagwell's only tie to the east coast besides being born and raised and educated there is as the piece the Red Sox traded away for reliever Larry Andersen.
I'm not sure whether the media coverage in the markets is a deciding factor in the lack of respect for Bagwell, but it seems a likely enough factor to mention. But the PED allegations, and Bagwell's having played during the so-called "steroid era" of baseball, seem to be the most damning - and are certainly the most absurd, unfounded, and unfair - to his rightful Hall Of Fame enshrinement, and it's gotten to the point where outrage is just about the only reasonable response left.
Thankfully, voices are finally being raised in the baseball establishment, too - and not just in Bagwell's defense, but in defense of baseball, and justice, and acknowledgement of the less-than-sterling history of he sport when it comes to the "morality clause" that so many, fans and baseball writers alike, point to when supporting the idea that the BBWAA does or should act as the "moral police" for the Hall Of Fame.
Buster Olney has been a prominent voice this year refuting the idea, first in an article (you can read the article here behind the ESPN paywall) and then quite adamantly on the twittersphere:
If you come up with plans to determine exactly who used what, when, how, @thefooddood, call George Mitchell; he needs you, retroactively.â Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
It's a baseball museum, @kilogrey, not a House of the Holy, and a lot of folks with human foibles have been honored there.â Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
If honoring 'character clause' 1st/foremost is following voter responsibility, @shaunnoonan, what happened with first 50 years of balloting?â Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
You get the idea. His is not the only voice, either - many, many have voiced disgust with the way the voters handle the steroid issue, and between the changing tides among the voters (finally) and the pruning of the ranks of those eligible to vote for the Hall Of Fame, Jeff Bagwell did at least see his vote totals jump to 71.6% - just fifteen votes shy of the requisite 75% necessary for enshrinement.
Here's hoping the BBWAA finally gets it right in 2017 and puts Jeff Bagwell in the Hall Of Fame with Craig Biggio - where he belongs.