Is this the year Jeff Bagwell gets into Cooperstown? It wouldn’t be a bad bet, as Bagwell’s candidacy seems to have the necessary momentum to go along with his Hall of Fame-worthy statistics.
With Bagwell, a former MVP and Rookie of the Year with the Houston Astros, it’s never really been about the numbers. They’ve always been good enough for enshrinement. Rather, it’s been about getting the electorate on his side. They’ve doubted his legitimacy for the same reason they did Mike Piazza: They thought he might have used performance-enhancing drugs.
But those tides seem to be changing — both for Bagwell and for the ballot overall — and 2017, his seventh year on the ballot, seems like the time Bagwell pushes past the innuendo and becomes immortal.
Last year, 15 votes stood in the way of Bagwell joining Ken Griffey Jr. and Piazza on enshrinement day. Bagwell earned 315 votes out of 440 ballots, good for 71.6 of the necessary 75 percent. That was a big jump for Bagwell, who had earned 55.7 percent the previous year and had mostly been in that range the four ballots prior.
This year, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s indispensable ballot tracker at the time of this writing, Bagwell has already gained 14 votes that he didn’t have last year.
WHAT THE SUPPORTERS SAY
Mind if I hit you with some bullet points?
• Let’s start here: the career Wins Above Replacement for the average Hall of Fame first baseman is 65.9. Bagwell’s career WAR is 79.6.
• Let’s take it further: Five first baseman in baseball history rank higher than that, four are in the Hall of Fame and the other, Albert Pujols, is still playing but certainly will be in one day.
• Here are some Hall-of-Famer first basemen that Bagwell ranks higher than: Frank Thomas, Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey.
Yes, that’s the same Frank Thomas who was inducted with 83.7 percent of the vote in 2014, his first year on the ballot. Bagwell’s career WAR even surpasses that of Astros teammate and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. Many people thought they’d go in as a tandem, but Bagwell got left behind.
Don’t like WAR as an all-encompassing stat? Fine. Bagwell hit .297 over 15 seasons, which is good for a power hitter. He knocked 449 homers, drove in 1,529 runs with 2,314 hits. His career on-base percentage is a very good .408 and his career OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) ranks 22nd all-time.
All those numbers are good, and this makes them better: Bagwell was incredibly consistent. His peak was great, with six straight seasons in which he hit more than 30 homers and had at least 110 RBIs with a batting average above .285. But even outside of his peak, Bagwell never had a full season where his WAR dipped below 3.7.
WHAT THE SKEPTICS SAY
Not voting for Bagwell in the past has been more of a moral stance than a statistical one. Bagwell, like Piazza before him, suffered because he thrived in the steroid era and some voters had doubts about whether he was clean. Mind you, Bagwell never failed a test or was disciplined by the league. He did admit to using andro back in 1998, but MLB didn’t outlaw it until 2004.
All this put Bagwell in an odd sort of purgatory — his numbers were good enough for Cooperstown, but there was nothing of substance keeping him out except for suspicion and circumstance. If that sounds silly, then you’re getting the point.
If you pressed a Bagwell hater to find a reason to keep him out that wasn’t based on innuendo, what is there? The best is probably that he didn’t hit 500 homers, which is a benchmark for elite sluggers. His 449 home runs are still quite good, though, and while the 500-homer club is an elite one, it’s not a prereq for Cooperstown.
Had Bagwell’s career not ended in 2005 at age 37 because of shoulder problems, maybe he would have gotten to 500.
The Big League Stew writers don’t have Hall of Fame votes, but if we did, here’s where we stand on Jeff Bagwell:
YES — It’s pretty absurd that Bagwell hasn’t already been enshrined in Cooperstown. He has the traditional stats, the advanced metrics love him and passes the eye test from those who saw him play in his prime. The only reason he’s still on the ballot is due to whispers and rumors. Bagwell was a power hitter in an era where many players with pop are suspected of using steroids. Bagwell seems to be lumped in by association. He never tested positive, and was never named on the Mitchell Report, or had grand-jury testimony leaked that confirmed his usage. It’s all just speculation and hearsay at this point. That should come to an end this year, as Bagwell is trending in the right direction for enshrinement.
YES — It’s obvious that Bagwell has all the makings of a Hall of Famer statistically speaking. I look at it like this: He never failed a test or was punished by MLB for breaking the rules, therefore the BBWAA shouldn’t be holding him to some higher standard. Bagwell’s numbers and career are Cooperstown-worthy. Let him in.
YES — There are several things you can point to when wondering exactly why Bagwell hasn’t been elected yet, and they’re all pretty ridiculous. The suspected PED usage and lack of a ring are truly hollow reasons. He had a string of insanely good seasons during his career, and instead of being elected, he’s subject to the rumors that every good hitter from that era has to deal with. He deserves to be in the Hall, and with Mike Piazza, the king of whispered rumors, elected last year, hopefully the voters can finally get past that foible and do the right thing.
Yes — Bagwell was overshadowed throughout most of his career but his consistent production and remarkable durability still warrant election to the Hall of Fame. We know about the overall numbers, but often forget he posted a season with 42 homers, 35 doubles and 30 steals. His game was well rounded throughout his prime when he served as the anchor for some very good Astros teams. The only things he lacked were a championship ring and a true defining moment.
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