Former Astros slugger was an elite first baseman throughout career
By Andrew Simon
Even though seven players have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame over the past two years, many strong candidates remain on the ballot. With Baseball Writers' Association of America voters able to pick a maximum of 10 players apiece, and 75 percent of the vote required for enshrinement, several worthy candidates must travel a difficult road.
Results of this year's BBWAA vote will be revealed on MLB Network and MLB.com today at 5 p.m. CT, with coverage starting at 2. It's possible Jeff Bagwell will be among the group selected, but he will have to make a significant one-year leap.
Between his first and second years on the ballot, Bagwell jumped from 41.7 to 56.0 percent, but since then, his candidacy has hit a wall. Over the past three years, Bagwell's vote percentage has gone from 59.6 percent, to 54.3 percent, to 55.7 percent.
Injuries shortened the Astros first baseman's career to 15 seasons, forcing him to retire at age 37, and he fell a bit short of some milestones (500 home runs, 2,500 hits) that might have helped his case. He also is associated by some with an era of performance-enhancing drug use, as unfair as that may be. But going by the numbers, there is a strong case for Bagwell to join his longtime teammate Craig Biggio in Cooperstown. Here is a look at that argument:
• Lou Gehrig played his last season in 1939. Jimmie Foxx finished up six years later. Who are the best first basemen since then? While Albert Pujols has a strong claim to the No. 1 spot, Bagwell easily could slide in at No. 2 over that 70-year period.
In terms of wins above replacement (WAR), per Baseball-Reference.com, Bagwell's 79.6 total ranks fourth for first basemen -- excluding players from the 1800s -- behind Gehrig, Pujols and Foxx. Contemporaries Frank Thomas (a first-ballot selection), Jim Thome and Rafael Palmeiro all come up fairly close behind, with Hall of Famers such as Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey a little further back.
• Bagwell fits in the same spot when it comes to JAWS, a system developed by Jay Jaffe that measures a player's Hall of Fame credentials by comparing his career and peak production with others at his position. His 63.9 score compares favorably to Hall members such as Thomas (59.5), McCovey (54.6) and Murray (53.6), who all reached the 500-homer plateau.
• Bagwell's career offers both a high floor and a high ceiling. Taking out his final season, when he played only 39 games, he produced at least 3.7 WAR in each of his 14 years. Only 18 other players have as many such seasons.
Bagwell led National League position players in WAR twice, including his 1994 NL Most Valuable Player campaign, when he posted 8.2 in 110 games during a strike-shortened season. During his best six-year run, from 1994-99, he averaged 7.0 per season, ranking second in the Majors, between Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. And although he didn't debut until 1991, Bagwell finished third in the Majors in WAR (56.7) during the 1990s, plus fourth in OPS+ (160).
• How did Bagwell pile up so much value? Most obviously, he was a tremendous hitter who possessed a blend of patience, power and line-drive ability. Bagwell posted a career .297/.408/.540 line, good for a 149 OPS+ that ranks 21st all time among players with 8,000 plate appearances, including 12th among right-handed batters.
Bagwell wasn't just some one-dimensional masher. He compiled 31 Total Zone fielding runs above average, and his 31.2 Baseball-Reference baserunning runs ranks first all time among first baseman.
• Going along with that last point, Bagwell is the only player since the 1920s to steal 200 bases as a first baseman, reaching double digits 10 times. He accounts for the position's only two 30-homer, 30-steal seasons (1997 and '99), and his five 15-15 campaigns are two more than any other first baseman.
• When it comes to his offensive numbers, it should be noted that Bagwell played almost one-third of his career games, in the thick of his prime, at the Astrodome, a notoriously pitcher-friendly park. During Bagwell's nine seasons in the dome (1991-99), it ranked among the bottom three NL parks in home runs six times.
Yet Bagwell hit .303/.421/.546 in that challenging setting, with his .966 OPS ranking first -- by 123 points -- among the 62 players who collected 500 plate appearances in the stadium's history. Bagwell owns the only three 20-homer seasons there, as well as the top three seasons by OPS.
• In the 54-year history of the Astros franchise, Bagwell ranks first in WAR, home runs, RBIs, walks and OPS+. He sits in the top three in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, runs, hits, doubles and extra-base hits.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.