August 18, 2010
Bobby Cox recently said that he'd put Jeff Bagwell in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot if he had a vote. The Astros' new hitting coach was certainly one of the best first basemen of his era, but is he truly Hall of Fame material?
There are 25 first basemen in the Hall, but that number requires a little adjusting. Many players who were inducted as first basemen, like Ernie Banks and Rod Carew, came to prominence at a different position. And others, like Dan Brouthers and Buck Leonard, didn't play in the modern major leagues; Brouthers played in the late 19th century, before the formation of the American League, and Leonard played in the Negro Leagues, barred from the majors by the color of his skin. Bagwell's true peers, the modern-era major league first basemen who came to fame playing that position, number only 13.*
* They are Orlando Cepeda, Frank Chance, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, George "High Pockets" Kelly, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, George Sisler and Bill Terry.
George "High Pockets" Kelly and Tony Perez are commonly considered two of the weaker Hall of Fame selections, inducted because they were key parts of dynasty teams, the 1920's New York Giants and the 1970's Big Red Machine. So they're at the low end of the totem pole, but they're also Bagwell's lifeline. It's hard for any modern player to compare favorably to Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx; High Pockets Kelly and his 148 career homers are a much easier milestone to reach.
Bagwell had the comparative misfortune of playing in an era with an overabundance of incredibly productive first basemen. On the other hand, at least two of them — Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — have been linked with performance-enhancing drugs, which may make Bagwell's career look better in retrospect. Other than Bagwell, there are eight key first basemen of the last two decades: Carlos Delgado(notes), Fred McGriff, McGwire, Palmeiro, Albert Pujols(notes), Frank Thomas(notes) and Jim Thome(notes). All eight have over 390 career homers and an OPS+ over 130.
Bagwell had a shorter career than nearly all the others, just 15 seasons, and his 2,150 games rank 11th of the 21 first basemen in our list. As a result, his counting stats are similarly middle-of-the-pack: 12th in homers, 11th in RBIs, 10th in hits, and 10th in total bases. On the other hand, he's third in stolen bases. (For what it's worth, Bagwell is one of only 12 members of the 400-200 club, along with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Andre Dawson.)
As of now, Bagwell is fifth in runs, but Jim Thome tied him on Tuesday night and will soon push him to sixth on the list. His rate stats fare better by comparison, but he still doesn't dominate: He's sixth in OBP, 10th in slugging, and eighth in OPS+. On the other hand, he looks much better by Wins Above Replacement: He is third on this list in WAR, behind only Gehrig and Foxx, though Pujols is almost certain to overtake him within the next year or so.
Even assuming that Palmeiro and McGwire are forever barred from the Hall, Bagwell would not lead in a single one of these categories. But he would be in the top half, which is an impressive achievement in a list that is more than half composed of Hall of Famers. But he lags behind Frank Thomas or Albert Pujols in nearly all the counting and rate categories, and is close to Jim Thome in many others. His WAR is the only hint that he outclasses them, though voters may give him credit for playing his entire career in the field while Thomas and Thome spent long years in the DH spot. However, voters have recently been skeptical about electing the second- or third-best player at a certain position in a given era, as can be seen by the outrageous lack of voter support that Tim Raines and Alan Trammell received, as they were overshadowed by Rickey Henderson and Ozzie Smith.
During his career, Bagwell was never the best first baseman in baseball: First it was Frank Thomas, then briefly it was Mark McGwire, and then it was Albert Pujols. All have strong cases for the Hall, and Bagwell will have to hope he isn't penalized by voters for having too many talented colleagues. Fortunately, he retired before most of his peers, so he'll have a few years' head start. So he will have to hope that he can get voted in before their names start to appear on the ballot.
What do you think? Does Jeff Bagwell belong in Cooperstown?