Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #10: Jeff Bagwell

Did Jeff Bagwell have too little power, or too much? Some believe his numbers just weren't impressive enough; he hit "only" 449 home runs, leaving him a couple solid seasons short of 500, which itself isn't even an automatic ticket to Cooperstown anymore. Not enough power for a first baseman. Others believe his prodigious blasts mean he must have been on steroids. Too much power, very suspicious. There's nothing that really links Bagwell to any banned substance; his name wasn't on any of the lists of reported users that have been released over the years. He was strong though, which is all it takes for some to think you were up to no good. His numbers weren't good enough! On the other hand... He must have been cheating! Bagwell has been stuck between a rock and a hard place; I can't think of another player whose status has been hit so hard by both sides. I don't know how to convince anyone who thinks Bagwell was cheating, except to say you could think that of anyone. As for the people who don't think Bagwell's numbers were quite good. Look again, and maybe look just a little closer.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Bagwell was famously part of arguably the worst trade in baseball history. He'd been drafted by the Red Sox in 1989, and he did well in the minors during the next fifteen months. At the end of August in 1990, Boston was in contention for the AL East crown, and wanted to add some help to their bullpen, so they sent Bagwell to the Astros in exchange for 37-year-old reliever Larry Andersen. Andersen pitched well during the final month of the regular season, then gave up two runs in three innings while Boston was swept out of the ALCS, and with that, his time with the team was over***.

Meanwhile, Houston put Bagwell into the starting lineup on Opening Day in 1991. He went on to win the National League's Rookie of the Year Award, making the trade look like a steal for Houston, and it just got better and better for them, as Bagwell was listed on MVP ballots in 10 of the next 12 seasons, and won the award in 1994, when he had a .750 slugging percentage, the highest by any qualified player since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1927.

*** Andersen made his MLB debut in 1975, and his last appearance came nearly 20 years later, in 1994. Along the way he pitched in 699 Major League games, plus another 14 in the postseason. He was never an All-Star, but was an above-average reliever for most of his career, and from 1986 to 1990 he posted a 2.55 ERA, ranking 7th among pitchers who averaged at least 50 innings a season. Despite all that, beyond his family and friends, and people who listen to him call Phillies games, when Andersen is thought about at all these days, for many people it's as a footnote in someone else's story. That seems sad, but is it? If you wrote an autobiography, most of the people you've ever met or known wouldn't be mentioned at all. Seen in that light, meriting a stray footnote or two isn't too bad. I think my own footnotes sometimes: old friends I haven't seen in years, people I used to work with, lab partners from high school. When I think of them, I wonder if they ever think of met. I also wonder if there's anyone I've forgotten about, but who still remembers me.

Bagwell collected 2,314 hits in his career (including 488 doubles and the 449 home runs I mentioned at the top), along with 1,401 walks, posting a career batting line of .297/.408/.540. Among the more than a thousand players with 4,000+ plate appearances, Bagwell's on-base percentage ranks 36th, and his slugging percentage ranks 32nd. OPS+ and wRC+ are metrics that take a player's offense and adjust it for the context of the era and particular ballparks he played in, allowing for more reasonable comparisons of players across history. Bagwell had a career OPS+ of 149, which ranks 35th, and a wRC+ of 149, which ranks 29th.

Bagwell also ran the bases well (He and Barry Bonds are the only players ever to hit 40+ home runs and steal 30+ bases in the same season two separate times.) and defensive player. Baseball-Reference has Bagwell among the top 20 first-basemen for both base-running and fielding. Bill White and Mark Grace are the only others in the top 20 for both those categories, and neither of them was anywhere near Bagwell's class as a hitter. Hitting, running, fielding... put it all together and Bagwell ranks among the top half dozen or so first basemen ever.

The early returns from this year's Hall of Fame balloting show support for Bagwell having climbed above 75%, making him a strong bet to be voted in next month, in his seventh year on the ballot. Better late than never, but as great as Bagwell was, he shouldn't have had to wait.

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