By In Stuff

Ballot 4: Jeff Bagwell

Jeff Bagwell

Played 15 years for one team

Four-time All-Star, MVP, hit 449 homers, Top 50 in runs created, slugging percentage and WAR. 79.6 WAR, 51.8 WAA

Pro argument: You could argue persuasively that he’s baseball’s best first baseman between Gehrig and Pujols.

Con argument: PED whispers and a shortish career have kept him out so far.

Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.

Will get elected this year?: 95% chance

Will ever get elected?: 99%

* * *

Jeff Bagwell was a fantastic base runner. That’s one of the surprising parts of his career. If you look at all the players who have hit 400 home runs, here are the ones who created the most value per game with their base running.

  1. Willie Mays
  2. Carlos Beltran
  3. Mickey Mantle
  4. Alex Rodriguez
  5. Barry Bonds
  6. Jeff Bagwell
  7. Henry Aaron
  8. Dave Winfield
  9. Frank Robinson
  10. Billy Williams

Bagwell doesn’t seem to belong on that list, right? The others were well known for their athleticism – eight of them are outfielders and A-Rod was, well, A-Rod. Bagwell is the only first baseman on the list, and it’s easy to tie him with other slugging first basemen/DHs like Frank Thomas (born on the same day) or Fred McGriff or Jim Thome. But he was different, more like an athletic third baseman — Chipper Jones or Mike Schmidt or someone like that. He stole 200 bases in his career and was a net-positive base runner in all but one full season.

Bagwell ranks as the greatest base-running first baseman ever, though Paul Goldschmidt might someday catch him.

Then, Bagwell was a different kind of a player, someone whose aura did not always match his reality. I remember the first time I saw him standing next to Craig Biggio and being shocked that they are basically the same size. Biggio always had this scrappy-little-guy thing going while Bagwell seemed a menacing giant. It wasn’t that way.

Bagwell was supposed to be a third baseman – he played third base his entire minor-league career with Boston. It was probably his inadequacy at third that prompted the Red Sox to trade him. In 1990, Bagwell made 34 errors in Class AA – “He has some work to do at third base,” Red Sox manager Joe Morgan told the press — and you could imagine the Red Sox brass having this conversation:

GM: “How bad is this guy as a third baseman?”

Scouting director: “He can’t play third.”

GM: “Is he going to hit for enough power to play first?”

Scouting director: “Doubtful.”

GM: “That’s all I need to know.”

The GM was Lou Gorman and as everyone in Boston knows he traded Bagwell in the heat of the 1990 pennant race for Houston’s 37-year-old reliever Larry Andersen. The Red Sox had apparently decided a few weeks earlier that Andersen was the one thing holding them back from a World Series championship. It’s unclear why they thought this, especially when you consider that just three months earlier Gorman had traded reliever Lee Smith away to St. Louis for near-the-end slugger Tom Brunansky.

In any case, the Astros were playing hardball with Andersen. Again, it’s unclear how the Astros even COULD play hardball with Andersen considering he was 37 and would become a free agent at the end of the season. But apparently in 1990, Larry Andersens were like tulips in 17th Century Holland, there was a mania, and the Red Sox kept offering different and more players, and the Astros kept turning down deals.

Finally, Gorman agreed to deal Bagwell, who was hitting .333 and crushing line drives everywhere. Bagwell was born in Boston, and he grew up in Middletown, Conn., the very heart of New England. He grew up idolizing Yaz. He was destined to become a gigantic hero to a whole generation of New Englanders — could you even IMAGINE that guy hitting baseballs off the Green Monster? The Red Sox traded him for a relief pitcher with one month left in the season and when they were up 6½ games in the standings.

“I admire Jeff Bagwell, and I hope he goes on to have an outstanding career,” Gorman said. “But right now my job is to help the Red Sox win a championship.”

It won’t surprise you to know that Andersen did not help the Red Sox win anything. The Red Sox were swept four straight by Oakland in the playoffs – Andersen took the loss in Game 1. He then left for San Diego.

I did like this line that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News the day after the deal:

“Three weeks ago, the Houston Astros were evidently holding out for Babe Ruth for their 37-year-old reliever. So the Red Sox gave them Lou Gehrig. Well, not quite …”

Actually … quite.

Bagwell hit – and hit with some power – basically from the moment he arrived in Houston. The Astrodome was a tough ballpark on hitters, of course, and it probably cost Bagwell a few homers in the early days. By 1994, though, he was hitting the sorts of home runs that would be out of every park including, as the old joke goes, Yellowstone. He hit 39 homers in just 110 games in 1994. He also hit .373 in the Astrodome. It was the highest batting average for any Astros player ever at the Astrodome.

Highest Astrodome batting averages (min. 150 at-bats)

  1. Jeff Bagwell, 1994: .373
  2. Jose Cruz, 1978: .353
  3. Jeff Bagwell, 1998: .347
  4. Dave Magadan, 1995: .344
  5. Craig Biggio, 1991: .343

Bagwell’s 1994 season ended before the strike – he was hit by a pitch from Andy Benes and broke his left hand. You might remember that Bagwell crowded the plate and kept his hands almost over the inside corner of the plate; he broke that hand three straight seasons when getting hit by pitches.

We all know that you can’t take the statistics at face value in the late 1990s and early 2000s – from a statistical viewpoint, they are like pitching numbers during Deadball or in the late 1960s or offensive numbers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. That said, Bagwell hit 39-plus homers six times, as many as Willie Mays, and scored 100 runs nine times, one fewer than Pete Rose.

Also: Bagwell’s 152 runs in 2000 are the most scored by a player in the last 85 years. He scored more runs in 2000 than Rickey Henderson, Rose, Derek Jeter, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Henry Aaron or Stan Musial ever scored in a season. He scored more runs in 2000 than Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa did in their biggest home run seasons.

It certainly did not hurt having Ken Caminiti, Lance Bergman, Moises Alou and Richard Hidalgo hitting behind him.

Bagwell’s power, his athleticism, his plate discipline, his base running probably make him the best eligible non-controversial player currently out of the Hall of Fame. Of course, he’s not entirely non-controversial. There have been rumors that he used PEDs as a player, rumors he has denied. He has not been connected to steroids in any public way – he never had a positive test leaked, was not mentioned in baseball’s Mitchell Report, was not even mentioned by Jose Canseco – but whispers persist.

Bagwell did speak about steroids with Mike Berardino back in 2001. I thought this was a fascinating quote about whether he ever considered taking PEDs:

“In my case, the temptation is always there. One thing I know is I can go home after my career is over and say, ‘I did it myself.’ … Now let me tell you, if I’m on the bubble, the amount of money that’s in the game, I probably would already have a needle in my butt. There’s too much money out there. If it does make you better, why wouldn’t you at least give it a shot to hang on? All you have to do is have one big year. Next thing you know you’re around for five or six more.”

And then this, on his judgment of players who do use PEDs:

“Sometimes I don’t blame them. Yeah, it might be kind of risky but they still have a family to feed. That’s the big question. You have to go with yourself and determine what’s more important to you.”


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47 Responses to Ballot 4: Jeff Bagwell

  1. Jan Rinnooi says:

    Didn’t the Astros move Bagwell to first base as a suggestion by Yogi Berra in spring training when Dr. McMullen owned the team?

  2. Phil Gaskill says:

    He broke his hand AFTER getting hit by a pitch? You mean he was so mad at the pitcher throwing at him that he went in the dugout and punched the wall?? I HATE this phrasing. So-and-so was killed after his car was hit head-on by an 18-wheeler. So-and-so-else was killed after he fell off a 12-story building. On and on. It’s not even true: he was killed WHEN the 18-wheeler front-ended him. And Bags’s hand was broken WHEN that pitch hit him, not after. Sorry for the rant: I see this phrasing every day in the news, and I wasn’t expecting it from you, Joe.

    • Yossarian says:

      Actually, Mr. Pedantic, the bone IS broken AFTER the pitch hits the hand, however minuscule the time frame between the contact and the break. Even more so with car crash, as humans take at least some time to die after an accident, be it a millionth of a second.

    • Rob Smith says:

      So the use of “After” vs. “When” used by a sports blogger, known for typos and obvious grammatical gaffes, really surprised you and elicited a rant? The things that seriously bother people never cease to amaze me.

      It takes me back to English 101 in college when I was marked town 15 points on the final exam for using a word that was “slightly less optimal”, in the words of the professor, than the desired word. I always suspected that the main purpose of that markdown was that the professor didn’t want to give ANY A’s in the class. He didn’t. My B+ was the best available. I loathed that professor.

      • invitro says:

        “My B+ was the best available. I loathed that professor.” — You loathed a professor for giving you a B+? The things that seriously bother people never cease to amaze me.

        • Robert Rittner says:

          I apologize in advance both for continuing this thread and for being pedantic. But Rob Smith did not say he loathed that professor for giving him a B+. He suggests that is the case, but actually, he has 2 separate sentences. He may have loathed that professor for reasons that had nothing to do with his grading policy.

          • invitro says:

            Maybe the professor broke his hand after hitting him with a pitch. Mr. Smith’s hand, I mean. Maybe.

        • Karyn says:

          It’s not that the guy got a B+; it’s that the professor refused to give an A at all. That’s a jerk move by the professor.

          • invitro says:

            Did you teach college? If you did, you’ll know that college kids say that all the freakin’ time. It’s probably not true. But even if it is, we talkin’ ’bout LOATHING A HUMAN BEING OVER A B+ GRADE. Lol, sorry. It’s just so silly. P.S. You really need to find a new catch phrase… that “jerk move” is getting really moldy.

          • moviegoer74 says:

            If it is true that “college kids say that all the freaking time” then one would know that without having taught college. One would know it by simply having attended college, unless your contention is that college kids say it all the freaking time to their professors but do not bitch about it to their fellow students.

            If that is your contention, I must call shenanigans. If anything, it is more likely that college students would complain to each other that certain professors never give As, than that they would actually confront said professor about it. Such is the nature of college students.

            Further, I would say virtually every college student has had a professor they loathed. Over 4 years of college you’re apt to have as many as 40 different professors. It’s inevitable you won’t like some of them. Loathing one who refuses to give As as a matter of policy is quite reasonable in that context.

            But you know all of this. You’re just being argumentative for the sake of being argumentative.

          • invitro says:

            “Further, I would say virtually every college student has had a professor they loathed. Over 4 years of college you’re apt to have as many as 40 different professors. It’s inevitable you won’t like some of them.” — I had well over 100 different professors, and while I didn’t love them all, I didn’t come close to loathing any of them. I prefer to reserve my loathing for criminals and other dastardly types. I suppose it’s a question of maturity.

        • Sonny says:

          The things that you insist on posting in reply to damn near every comment on here never cease to amaze me.

          • Mike says:

            That’s what you’re going to get hung up on? I was more impressed with the bit about having maturity, when most of his argumentative posts exhibit none of it…

            (This really isn’t directed at you. I’m not sure why, but I can’t reply to his post directly)

      • Bpdelia says:

        Especially in an article that references big hitting outfielder Lance Bergman(SP)

    • Spencer says:

      Pedants are the worst.

    • MikeN says:

      It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing.

  3. Steve says:

    Bagwell was moved to first because he hit so well in ST in 1991, and they hadn’t traded Ken Caminiti. There was talk that he would win the 3B job outright and Caminiti would be dealt. But they decided to move him to first and keep both. Turned out to be the right move. I could be remembering incorrectly, but I think if you look at ST box scores from his first spring in Houston, he was at 3B early in the spring and moved to 1B later.

  4. Ian says:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to say that there are “whispers.” A trainer flat out said he gave Bagwell steroids and said he also gave them to Clemens and Pettitte.

    • Jerry says:

      do u have a link to this?

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think it qualifies as a whisper if a trainer bragged about giving steroids to big time players in order to boost his brand. Of course, he also denied this when he was actually interviewed on the subject. This calls to mind the recent case of the Florida anti aging clinic owner bragging about having given PEDs to Peyton Manning. Once scrutiny was given, he backed off that claim really fast. So yeah. Some alleged allegation of bragging by a personal trainer hardly is in the same vein as an admission, failed drug test, inclusion in the Mitchell report or some substantive claim such as the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds.

      The usual things cited about Bagwell are his lack of power in the minor leagues and the suspicious size gain in a short period of time. This implies, to some/many, that he may have used steroids. The other thing mentioned, sometimes, is that Ken Caminiti was a teammate and friend. Although my understanding there is that Caminiti didn’t start using steroids until he was in San Diego. So a lot of rumor, no real evidence. Personally I discount players performance if they actually used steroids or there is some real evidence of usage. However, whisper campaigns are totally unfair. I don’t mind that Bagwell has had to wait a few years while voters sorted out this issue, but no real hard evidence has emerged.

    • Nutmeg says:

      Jeff was a great athlete in high school, but very skinny. He started working out with a classmate who was a body builder and magically became very strong and large. Folks who went to school with them had no doubt that they were using PEDs. For some reason, people imagine ballplayers making it to the majors and then using PEDs. Many started using way before their first contract.

  5. Chipmaker says:

    Andersen was granted second-look free agency as part of the collusion decisions. That was not known when Gorman made the deal. Still an awful deal.

    • Scott says:

      The Bagwell trade ranks as the dumbest in baseball history. I’ve started separating bad trades/signings from dumb ones. In a bad trade, a team understands the risks and makes a decision that doesn’t work out, while a in a dumb decision, the team never consider or ignores the consequences or fails to explore alternatives. Think the difference between the Angels signing Albert Puljos and the Phillies’ Ryan Howard extension.

      I can’t see any lens through which the Bagwell trade makes sense. He was hitting 333 in New Britain one of the toughest parks to hit. By comparison Scott Cooper’s OBP the year before was 339 in the same park (his average was 247). Even if Bagwell never hit any power, he would still be a valuable player. The Red Sox had a third baseman with a similar profile.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        Not compared to Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and another guy for one year ofA. J. Pierzinski, it doesn’t.

        • Craig from Az says:

          Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair for freakin’ Shelby Miller? Even if Miller doesn’t completely suck that’s a dumb trade.

      • Mark Daniel says:

        I don’t think a trade involving a prospect is ever one of the dumbest trades in history. Prospects are never a sure thing. Bagwell, meanwhile, only had 4 HR in 569 PAs in double A ball. He was batting .333, so he could obviously hit. But people are acting like the Red Sox knew he was the next Lou Gehrig and then trade him anyway. That’s ludicrous.
        In retrospect, one of the worst trades ever. And a dumb trade at the time. But the dumbest ever? I don’t think so.

  6. Mike says:

    I like the part in the quote where he talks frankly about the benefits. On the other hand, we’ve heard “I’m too good to need PEDs” before, when it was also used by known PED user Alex Rodriguez.

  7. Nickolai says:

    it is completely crazy that bagwell and biggio are so similar in size – like Joe I always saw them so differently based on their batting stances and performances. Shows the power of branding I guess…

  8. Zach says:

    The most surprising thing in this entire piece was that Bagwell was only a four-time All-Star…that stunned me.

  9. invitro says:

    “Yeah, it might be kind of risky but they still have a family to feed.” — Somewhere, Latrell Sprewell is smiling.

  10. Dave says:

    The Red Sox might not have considered moving him to first because they had Mo Vaughan clogging up that position, and hitting a ton, one year behind Bagwell in the minors. Still, a very bad trade (and the Sox didn’t realize that the players like Vaughan might well have a high peak, but they also have an early peak and a cliff for a decline).

  11. Tony S says:

    What I find hardest to believe about the trade is how fixated the Red Sox were on Larry Andersen, specifically. You’d think that after a couple of iterations of Red Sox make an offer/Astros turn them down, the Sox would just set their sights on a different reliever on another team. Andersen was a fine and effective pen man at the time, but hardly such a unique, irreplaceable talent who warranted that intense a pursuit.

    As an Astros fan, I’m not complaining. Bagwell’s run coinicded with the most sustained success the Houston franchise ever had. If only he’d still been healthy for the 2005 World Series…

  12. MikeN says:

    Peter Gammons saw it, he ripped up the paper announcing the trade, and walked home 2 miles in disgust.

  13. Wes Tovich says:

    Yeah the Bags trade was poo poo. I think he did Roids. I think most those guys then did. I still think he should be put in the Hall.

  14. KHAZAD says:

    I will celebrate when Bagwell goes in. It should have happened before now. Personally, I don’t believe anyone (other than the conspiracy theory dude above) gives any credence to a blowhard at tgym who has been debunked. I think Bagwell has waited this long because when asked about steroids (in an era when Selig still had his head in the sand) he gave a pretty frank interview where he admitted the temptation was there and that people were using, and understanding why a borderline player was using. He also said that he did not use, and that it was important to him to do it himself. He said he wished there were testing, but didn’t think it would happen. (At the time, it looked like it never would)

    What he failed to do was to puff up with self righteous indignation, and I think he has been punished for that.

    “Whispers” about players from that era seem selective. If we like his smile, then he didn’t do it. (Thomas and Griffey, among others. Griffey got a bigger hat size at the end of his career but was so beloved mentioning that is akin to blasphemy) Anyone else they can find a reason to whisper. There is no way to prove someone did not to conspiracy theorists. Player A played well into his 40s. “He extended his career with steroids” they whisper. Player B broke down early. “His career ended early because of steroids” they say.

    It is like the old witch trials. You are guilty because they decided that you were guilty, with no way to prove your innocence. If people want to, they WILL find a reason you are guilty.

    Bagwell was one the 5 greatest first basemen in history. I could argue that he is higher than #5. He should be in the hall.

    • invitro says:

      I’ve never understood why Bagwell didn’t sail in immediately. Perhaps I was naive, but I really thought rumors and whispers wouldn’t be enough to put a serious dent in his HoF vote. Does he have any holes in his stats? I suppose his career is a little short, and he was horrible in the postseason (maybe because the Astros always played the Braves… I mean 71 of his 129 postseason PA’s are against the Braves, that’s crazazy). If I’ve got my tin hat on, I remember how when I was an Astros fan that no one took any of the Astros seriously, ever, even when Ryan was there… and think that might be the cause. Or maybe the New England voters really want their biggest trade mistake to not be a HoFer.

      • Sadge says:

        It could also be that many of the voters had more than 10 people they felt worthy of a vote over the last few years and had to leave some people off their ballot. I don’t like whispers as evidence but maybe those were enough for them to pause and say, once X and Y are in, he’ll get my vote (and maybe more will be discovered so I’m ok withholding my vote for now). Pure guess, though.

  15. […] despite playing the majority of his career in the hitter’s hell that was the Astrodome, and as Joe Posnanski wrote recently, he’s provided more baserunning value than any first baseman in history. The good news […]

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