No. 61: Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell

Sure, it’s a copout making this a tie*, but Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell are so inextricable, so linked, that I see no way around it. They were both power-hitting, right-handed first basemen of the 1990s who hit right around .300, walked a ton, scored about 1,500 career runs, hit 39-plus homers six times, led the league in doubles once and won a 1994 MVP Award. Jeff Bagwell is Frank Thomas’ No. 1 Baseball Reference comp. Frank Thomas if Jeff Bagwell’s No. 2 Baseball Reference comp.

*In retrospect, I actually wish I had made one other joint entry. You can probably guess who that involves. I’ll fix that for the book version.

But the most amazing part of all is that they were both born on May 27, 1968. There is simply nothing else like it in baseball — two great players, so similar, born on the same day.

Let’s talk birthdays for a moment. If you are a parent, and you want a child who will someday be a superstar baseball player, you should probably hope he or she is born on January 31. That was the day Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan was born. It is also the day that Yuniesky Betancourt was born, so the day is not without risk — the yin and yang of baseball fortune.

Then, if you want your child to be a great catcher, then April 6 might be your day — Mickey Cochrane and Ernie Lombardi were born on that day. So was Bert Blyleven. October 20 is a good day — Mickey Mantle and Juan Marichal were born pm October 20 exactly six years apart. The pitchers Eppa Rixey and Red Ruffing were born on May 3rd, something to keep in mind if your ambition is to have a child who makes the Hall of Fame but has people constantly griping about how he should be thrown out.

November 11 is a great day if you would like your child to have a great baseball nickname. Pie Traynor and Rabbit Maranville were born on that day. So was a player unforgettably named Tony Suck — he hit .151 in his short career.

November 21 is a great day for a birth if you happen to live in Donora, Pa. In 1920, Stan Musial was born in Donora on that day. In 1969, Ken Griffey Jr. was born in Donora on that day. As Bill James has written, Ken Griffey Jr. is the second-best left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21st.

The best baseball birthday might be June 15. That was the day Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Wade Boggs were born. But it’s also the birthday for outstanding players like Andy Pettitte, Dusty Baker, Brett Butler and Lance Parrish. And it’s the birthday of new Player’s Association president Tony Clark. I think we all know what he would like for his birthday in 2014. It will probably cost quite a few million dollars.

As far as great players being born on the ACTUAL same day (rather than the same day in different years), the only day that really approaches Thomas and Bagwell is April 14, 1966. That was the day that Greg Maddux was born in San Angelo, Texas and the day that David Justice was born in Cincinnati. They, of course, have almost no similarities as players but they were teammates for a long time. In 1993, Justice finished third in the MVP voting and Maddux won the Cy Young Award, both for the Atlanta Braves.

* * *

Consider this scenario: Two men are born on the same day. They will both become very powerful Major League hitters. One is 6-foot and fills out to about 200 points, plays baseball at a small Northeastern College, is taken in the fourth round of the draft, works his way through the minor leagues, gets traded before he makes it to the big leagues, then is a good player, a better player and a great player and finishes one shy of 450 home runs The other is even bigger, about 6-foot-4, about 240 pounds, he plays football at a major football college, he’s a high first-round pick, he’s an utter sensation when he shows up and he hits more than 500 home runs.

Which one would you think the steroid whispers would envelop?

More than one person has written in to ask: Why have there been so many careless whispers about Jeff Bagwell using performance enhancing drugs (something he has strongly denied though he has never been formally accused) while there have been no whispers whatsoever about Frank Thomas using performance enhancing drugs?

There is one fairly plain and logical explanation for this — Thomas was pretty outspoken against performance enhancing drugs WHILE he was playing (for example he was the only active player to be interviewed by the Mitchell Report) and Bagwell was not. But that’s way too pat an answer. If there’s one thing we have learned in this whole crazy mess it is that shouting the loudest about steroids doesn’t mean very much.

The truth — best I can tell — is simply this: We believe some athletes and we don’t believe others. I think it’s something that goes much deeper than baseball. This is something embedded inside us, encoded in our DNA. It’s every day. Your neighbors. Your co-workers. Some people are more likable than others. Some people just seem more trustworthy than others. Some people make you happy the instant you see them. What is that? Maybe it’s charisma. Maybe it’s the force of personality. Maybe it’s simply an honest face.

Then, there are some people who make your skin crawl, some people who seem slipper, some people who no matter what good they might be doing at that particularly moment you an’t help but think, in your mind, “Yeah, sure, but deep down that person’s a phony.”

Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re way wrong.This stuff has fooled us going back to the first caveman who ever held a press conference apologizing for something, back to the time the first caveman was charged with a crime he didn’t commit because he just kind of LOOKED guilty. But we keep going back to these cracked and defective instincts because, like we all believe we have a great sense of humor we also believe we’re natural judges of character.

Frank Thomas was a slightly better hitter than Jeff Bagwell. It’s close because they had such similar offensive skills. But Thomas walked a little bit more, he homered a little more often, he hit for a slightly higher batting average. Thomas created 140-plus runs eight times, Bagwell four. And Thomas led the league in big categories more often — he led the league in OBP four times, Bagwell 0; in OPS+ four time, Bagwell 1, in runs created four times, Bagwell 1 — but this is in part because Bagwell was in the same league as Barry Bonds. Anyway, Thomas was a slightly better hitter.

Then, Bagwell was a way better runner and fielder. Bagwell stole 200 bases in his career and was an aggressive base runner and had a 30-30 season. Bagwell also won a Gold Glove at first base (though he has a negative defensive WAR for his career). Thomas meanwhile couldn’t run at all and played almost 60% of his games as a designated hitter. That’s a huge advantage for Bagwell and at least evens the score. WAR — both the Baseball Reference and Fangraphs varieties — rate Bagwell between six and eight wins better than Thomas.

So if Frank Thomas is in the Hall of Fame, Jeff Bagwell should in the Hall of Fame. But Bagwell is actually losing support while Thomas breezed in first year, and the biggest factor in this seems to be the whispers. My hope, at the start, was that voters so inclined might send a message with their early votes, a message that I thought meant, “While I have no proof, I am suspicious enough that I will hold back my vote for the first year, maybe two, as some sort of signal of my disapproval.” Then, I figured, they would fall back on the basic premise of justice that it’s better to presume innocence when you really don’t know.

What I fear is happening instead is a sort of growing momentum for the whispers, as if they are feeding on each other. Jeff Bagwell’s vote total went down in 2014, and while some of this was the overloaded ballot, I think some of it is what I have come to call the “Media Magnetic Field.” When you go into a professional clubhouse or a sports locker room after a game, you will have a bunch of reporters and camera people and bloggers and so on, and they are usually bunched into a group. Then one reporter will go over to talk to a player. This almost always leads to another person going, then another, then cameras, then everyone. It’s a bit like a junior high school dance.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what we’re getting here, if some people who voted for Bagwell in the past aren’t gingerly walking over to the other side in the thought, “Hey, a lot of people seem pretty sure about this.” Then, more follow.

I hope not. I don’t know if Jeff Bagwell used anything but that’s the point. I don’t know if Frank Thomas used anything either. Pick any Hall of Famer, any one, and ask yourself the question: Did they take performance enhancing drugs? Do you know? We only know what they admit to doing or are caught doing. We do know Pud Galvin used something; he took an injection of some 19th Century PED called Brown-Sequard Elixir in 1889. We do know Babe Ruth used something; he injected himself with sheep testes (which caused him to be violently ill, something that, as Dave Zirin points out, was reported as a “bellyache”). We do know Mickey Mantle during the 1961 home run chase used something; he visited the office of Dr. Max Jacobson (known alternately as Dr. Feelgood and Miracle Max) and took an injection of some bizarre concoction of amphetamines and steroids. The treatment was so agonizing that Mantle had to be admitted to the hospital.

“I was so frustrated,” Henry Aaron wrote about the 1968 season, “that at one point I tried using a pep pill — a greenie — that one of my teammates gave me. When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack. It was a stupid thing to do, and besides that, I shouldn’t have been so concerned about my hitting in the first place.”

We do know … we don’t know … we do know … we don’t know … the sad part is we respond to the uncertainty by just following our instincts where they take them. Now, voters seem much more comfortable follow circumstantial rabbit holes that don’t really mean anything (Bagwell admired his teammate Ken Caminiti) or rumors (someone told me they know someone who is 95% sure of …) — exactly the sort of things they would dismiss out of hand for people they like. Our intuitions pull us powerfully. And that would be fine if we weren’t wrong so often.

165 thoughts on “No. 61: Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell

  1. bl

    Great article, Joe, as always. I hate to be a nitpicker but perhaps my biggest pet peeve is misnumbered lists due to ties. These two really need to be tied at 60th. If they’re 61st then Robin Yount is 63rd and everyone else needs to move down a spot as well; if not your greatest 100 baseball players will include 101 players. Which, of course, if great, the more stories the better, anyway . . .

    Reply
  2. Steve

    I only wish you had taken some time on this one to really celebrate what great players they were, individually and as birthday twins. This series has been so wonderful in its story telling, in getting behind the numbers and telling something about the person. I’m so sick of the steroid talk, lets focus on the skill and the power and the wonder that these guys brought us during their careers.

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    1. Scott The Robot

      I agree with Steve. The reason I love the series, besides Joe’s excellent writing, is that I learn so much about these great ballplayers. This time it felt like I read about fun birthdays and baseball players (cute, and mildly entertaining), and a whole lot about how rumors shape a player’s perception, fairly or unfairly (duh). I got very little in great anecdotes about two giants of the 90s. What pushed these men to greatness? And am I the only one that thinks Thomas or Bagwell could be higher?

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  3. EnzoHernandez11

    I have no idea whether Bagwell or ever Thomas juiced, and I really don’t care all that much. But it does seem pretty obvious why one was suspected and the other wasn’t. As I understand it, Frank Thomas looked like Frank Thomas back in high school; Jeff Bagwell didn’t look like JEFF BAGWELL until he hit the majors. No proof of guilt or innocence in that, but it’s about the limit of some sportswriters’ analytical abilities.

    I assume the biggest fear among the anti-steroids crowd is that they’ll elect one of the innocent-till-proven-guilty guys, only to find out within a couple of years that he is, in fact, provably guilty. If that happens, of course, they no longer have legitimate reason to keep Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the HoF, as so many desperately wish to do. Or they might have to consider expelling an inductee, a Pandora’s box that nobody wants to see opened. (Of course, others are just Murray Chass-level buffoons who want to rage against modernity by punishing everyone who has played since 1990.)

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    1. SBMcManus

      I agree with this assessment of the (unsubtantiated) suspicions about Bagwell vs. Thomas. Bagwell “looks like” someone who works out a lot. In a reasonable world, he should probably be commended for this apparent extra effort, but in our world he is condemned as a possible cheater because he obviously works very hard, and some of the people who work very hard are cheaters. Thomas “looks like” someone who is naturally very big and strong. In a reasonable world, he would get no special credit for something that was apparently handed to him by God or nature. In our world, he gets extra points for apparently not working out a lot. Such is life in the steroid era, when gut feelings and fears rule the day.

      Not that I have anything against Thomas. He was a wonderful hitter and a joy to watch, one of my favorite players of his time (which coincided with my teen years when I had lots of time to watch ball). I would further point out that Thomas, his HOF induction notwithstanding, also suffered from ridiculous baseball writer stupidity as a player when he was routinely accused of not being “aggressive” enough as a hitter and taking too many walks. If not for the steroid issue, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the writers had “made him wait” to get in the HOF to punish him for being a wimp that takes walks with runners on 3rd instead of a real man who grounds out to second with runners on 3rd.

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    2. DB

      Only problem with the high school perception is that I am a couple years younger than these guys but not by much and in the mid to late 80s, kids in my high school were doing steroids and we all knew who they were. So Thomas theoretically gets a pass because he theoretically started earlier? So we are back to where we started from. We know nothing about these guys. Absent a positive test or overwhelming evidence (which in my mind is the criminal standard and reasonable doubt), we have to treat these guys the same.

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    3. Luke Martinez

      I don’t think anyone admitting to steroids who is in would change anything. We already have ample proof of lots of Hall of Famers cheating, and none of it has moved the needle for Bonds or Clemens.

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  4. Ian

    Joe – on the PED whispers, have you ever reached out to find out? Have you talked to teammates, coaches, beat reporters, people around Bagwell to see why there are whispers? You are a journalist sometimes, right? (As opposed to a columnist?) Richard Justice stated something to the effect that Bagwell weights 110 lbs now. Sure, it’s an exaggeration but it seems the guys who are sick of PED talk only want a picture of a dirty needle in someone’s butt before they believe someone used and ignore the other evidence – such as links to a dirty trainer, strange career paths, use of Andro, massive body changes after retirement, denying using PEDs while saying they wouldn’t help anyway, physical characteristics of PED use while playing, locker room conductive to PED use etc.

    Secondly, an issue that seems to come up a lot here on PEDs is that the HOF is broken b/c Bagwell, Palmeiro, Bonds etc aren’t in. Yet, most writers, fans and former players seem to think it’s a good thing that PED users aren’t in the Hall. Certainly there is a vocal minority who think differently but shouldn’t complaints about the Hall reflect that reality instead of these “doom and gloom” hall won’t matter posts?

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    1. Artie

      “Yet, most writers, fans and former players seem to think it’s a good thing that PED users aren’t in the Hall.”

      Yeah, but most writers, fans and former players are stupid.

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        1. TPrez

          I agree with you. Because we count ourselves among the “enlightened” baseball fans and spend our days reading “enlightened” baseball blogs, it’s very easy to assume that we are, in fact, in the majority when it comes to the PED issue. I suspect this is not the case at all. Just go and talk to people at a baseball game. From my experience, about 90% of them see the PED guys as cheaters who have no place in the HOF or the record books. That’s why there isn’t a huge public outcry over Bonds, Clemens, etc. falling short of HOF induction.

          We might consider those fans, writers, and former players to be “stupid,” but I suspect there are a lot more of them than there are of us. Is it really fair to expect the HOF to reflect our values and not theirs, just because we’re so certain we’re right? Maybe, just maybe, it’s their game as much as its ours.

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    2. wordyduke

      Ian, you’re long on assertions (“links,” “strange,” “denying”) while short on specifics that connect them to Jeff Bagwell, except for someone else’s “exaggeration.”

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      1. Ian

        Again, what do you need? He had the physical characteristics of a user. OK, by itself, maybe that’s worth, what, 10% suspicion? And he was linked to a dirty body builder who did use. So maybe another 25% suspicion? And, while he denied using, he also said it wouldn’t help play baseball. So, 5%? And he played in a locker room with many other known users. Another 10%? And he used Andro. 20%? And he didn’t have a “normal” career decline, remained remarkably durable (despite playing a ton on astroturf) unlike his “twin” Frank Thomas. Another 5%? All those things add up. And these are just the things that are known about him from miles away. I suspect the people that were around him – probably the source of the whispers – have a lot more to add.

        In any event, unless you’re naive or simply think that only a failed drug test/photo of needle in butt proves PED use, Bagwell was a roider.

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          1. Rob Pollard

            A “jury”? Why would that be the standard?

            This isn’t a court of law, which has high thresholds, particularly in criminal court, b/c you can send a guy to prison. While important, the Baseball HOF doesn’t approach that.

            So I think you can absolutely use logic and circumstantial evidence, like Ian did, and “convict” Bagwell.

        1. Cuban X Senators

          “All those things add up.”

          Actually, they wouldn’t. If we were speaking of anything worth evaluating, the first 10% would leave you with 90% doubt, then your next 25% would mean there is 75% doubt, if the first 10% chance were averted (.9x.75=new doubt).

          Then your above enumerative scattalogy layers on 5%, 10%, 20% & 5% for (.9 x .75 x .95 x .9 x .8 x .95).

          All your cumulative doubts as expressed here only get us to a 57% chance. And it was complete & utter bs.

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        2. Dan Shea

          This reminds me of the story about the guy who was souping up his car to increase fuel economy. He put on new tires that saved 10%. He installed a new carburetor (old story, so sue me) that saved 20%. He put in new spark plugs that saved 15%. Etc. etc. etc. He drove 20 miles and his gas tank overflowed.

          In other words, I’m not so sure this is mathematically or epistemically sound.

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          1. Ian

            I think you’re worrying too much about the fake numbers and not enough about the real things. But cute story.

          2. Cuban X Senators

            Which are those real things, Ian? The spitball numbers or the clouds of uncertainty you attached them to?

            The only point is that your droplets of possibilities do not fill a bucket that at some point spills over with certainty if you keep on adding more possibilities.

            Instead, each unproven possibility (or in your parlance “real things”) whittles away at the chance something is untrue. You can approach certainty, but you can never whittle away the last chance.

            And most importantly, you get there a lot slower than the chances “add up.” Ie, ten 10% chances at something having occurred don’t mean it has occurred. There’s still a very significant 1-in-3 that it has not.

        3. Kent

          You need ACTUAL EVIDENCE. Isn’t the United States law system based on the persumption of “innocent until proved guilty?” Then why should baseball be different?
          Beside, some of your assumptions doesn’t exactly make sense in my opinion. Why should “remarkably durable” be considered any percent of “evidence” that someone used a steroid? Why would someone believed that steroid wouldn’t help be considreed suspicious? (he would not be the only one that thinks this) BTW, what source “linked” him to adirty body builder? (this is a geniune question, I really don’t remember, a link would be helpful)

          By the way, it’s not like Bagwell doesn’t decline. In his prime, he was a 6~7 WAR player. In his last few years, he was a 3~4 WAR player. He went from hitting .310/.424/.615 (his age 32 season) to .266/.377/.465 (his last full season in 2004). Yeah, that slash line still pretty good, but he certainly declined, let’s please don’t mentioned him as someone like Bonds who broke record at 36 then slugging over 1 in his last season

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          1. bellweather22

            This would be true if Bagwell was in an actual trial. But he’s not on trial and not in danger of losing liberty or even being fined. He’s simply being judged, all things considered, as a HOF candidate. If he doesn’t get in, he’s still a multi, multi millionaire. So I won’t feel very sorry for him. Still, I’m not in favor of putting a lot of weight towards whisper campaigns and guilt by association. I’m OK with letting things play out, and I believe he’ll eventually get in absent some major revelation. Other players with good HOF qualifications have had to wait a few years to get in. It’s not the end of the world.

          2. SB M

            “Why should “remarkably durable” be considered any percent of “evidence” that someone used a steroid?”

            Another thing that is hilarious about this is that, when a player has a lot injuries, they are accused of using steroids because “as everyone knows” steroids increase injury risk.

            So if you don’t get many injuries – that’s steroids. Also if you have too many injuries – steroids. Only Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Junior had just the right amount of non-steroid injury problems.

          3. ksbeck76

            The “remarkable durability” thing is perplexing. I specifically remember that at the end of Bagwell’s career, there was much speculation that his shoulder injury was the result of PED usage. Damned if you do – damned if you don’t.

        4. Mike

          i’m also an attorney that primarily works for non-profits, and wow, your logic scares me. Replace “user” (and associated words) with “thug” (and associated words), and you’re looking at another Central Park Five (or Memphis 3 or Scottsboro Boys) case. all of the things you mentioned add up to nothing more than Bagwell happened to know steroid users. I know – and even hang out with – plenty of recreational marijuana users. I also look a little scruffy, dress a little crazy, nd listen to tons of music that marijuana users enjoy. And yet, i’ve only tried pot once in my life, 20 years ago… so why, again, does any of this prove bagwell used PEDs? oh right, it doesn’t…

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        5. KHAZAD

          @ Ian- This might be the most ridiculous comment I have ever read. Physical Characteristics of a user? Really? Bagwell was sort of a big guy , but not really big for his era.

          Linked to a dirty body builder? This is a complete fabrication, and a perfect example of the kind of thing that ignoramuses repeat ad nauseum on the internet until people start to believe it is true.

          Played in a locker room with many other known users? Who the heck are you talking about? Caminiti? The most open person ever about his own steroid use, Caminiti, by his own admission, started using only after being traded to the Padres. The 1996-98 Padres were the most steroid fueled team since the Canseco A’s, and included Tony Gwynn, who had his highest home run total, as well as his highest number of doubles at age 37, then had his highest isolated power the next year at age 38. Clemens and Pettite? Yeah they had a short stint with the Astros when Bagwell was in decline, but spent alot more time in a locker room with Derek Jeter. In fact, just about anyone who played for the A’s, Padres, Yankees, Cubs, Cardinals, Giants, Rangers, Dodgers, Orioles, or Mariners were in a locker room with more users than Bagwell.

          He used Andro? So what. It was legal at the time and you could walk into any mall (and there were alot more malls then) and buy it. I knew plenty of regular guys who used or tried andro and creatine, and if you are old enough, so did you. They were as common then as muscle milk is now.

          The silliest thing, and another clue that you really don’t know what you are talking about at all, is the part about his career decline. Bagwell retired in his age 37 season, and his last season as a starter was age 36. He had a classic decline, with his OPS+ falling steadily for his last 6 consecutive seasons, in addition to the early end to his career.

          So in the end, you assign arbitrary percentages to things that are largely made up out of whole cloth, laughably including the fact that he denied using, and decide that he used.

          The final detail was the intimation that the “whispers” come from people “around him”. Well, there have been many actual reporters interviewing those people for over a decade, and there has been nothing. Not a whisper, not even an anonymous source. The rumors are entirely media and internet generated, and the sad part is, they are given more life mostly by people like yourself with false gossip and little actual knowledge.

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          1. Brian

            He “assigned arbitrary percentages” because someone asked him to. Again, as Ian pointed out to someone else who did the same thing, you’re focusing on the wrong details. Arbitrary percentages wasn’t his point.

            The only thing I disagreed with from all of Ian’s comments was where he definitively stated that by adding it all up, Bagwell took steroids. Well obviously we can’t know that. But in my opinion, he probably did. We often hear from people who spend a lot of time in the gym who have no real incentive to take steroids admitting that they would if given the chance. Well Bagwell had plenty of chances. And plenty of incentive. And plenty of circumstantial events, as Ian pointed out. So yeah, I’d bet a few paychecks that he did.

            Having said all that, I’d still vote for him, because he was still a HOF player. I don’t really care about steroids the way most baseball writers do. But I understand where they’re coming from. They care, they have a vote. I don’t care, I don’t have a vote. Oh well.

        6. invitro

          “Again, what do you need?”

          Evidence.

          “He had the physical characteristics of a user. OK, by itself, maybe that’s worth, what, 10% suspicion? And he was linked to a dirty body builder who did use. So maybe another 25% suspicion? And, while he denied using, he also said it wouldn’t help play baseball. So, 5%? And he played in a locker room with many other known users. Another 10%? And he used Andro. 20%? And he didn’t have a “normal” career decline, remained remarkably durable (despite playing a ton on astroturf) unlike his “twin” Frank Thomas. Another 5%?”

          None of this is evidence. Good lord, with this logic, you would convict every adult black male alive of rape and murder. I think you are trolling.

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        7. Ric

          Ian, WADR, you’re part of the problem. Your conclusions have no basis in reality.

          “(H)e was linked to a dirty body builder who did use.”
          Kelly Blair? He was recanted, canted, and re-recanted his story. He’s proven a remarkably unreliable witness and has, at best, a specious connection to Bagwell.

          “(H)e played in a locker room with many other known users.”
          Most of those (alleged) users – Caminiti, Finley, Gonzalez – were gone during/after the 1995 season. Caminiti admitted to trying steroids for the first time in 1996. Clemens and Pettitte joined the Astros in 2004, as Bagwell’s numbers began to dip. The limp guilt-by-association game has a much stronger grasp on other players: Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine shared a locker room with Caminiti. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez shared a locker room with Derek Jeter. It’s a silly game; but if you’re going to play it, you can’t do so irresponsibly to fit your own narrative.

          “(H)e didn’t have a “normal” career decline”
          Huh? In 1994, Bagwell’s fourth full Major League season, he turned 26 and his home runs increased 95% (from 20 to 39). Babe Ruth, the season he turned 25, saw his home run total jump 86% (from 29 to 54). Hank Aaron, in his fourth full Major League season, saw a 69% increase (26 to 44) while Ken Griffey, Jr., also saw a 67% increase in his fourth full season (27 to 45). Three of baseball’s most revered power hitters – and they saw their power fully develop at roughly the same age/level of Major League experience as Bagwell.

          Altogether, Bagwell’s home run totals, other than the expected drop-off in ’95 (when he was hurt and missed 30 games), landed between 31 and 47, demonstrating a steady, expected ascension over a ten-season period that included the prime of Bagwell’s career.

          IOW, what should stands out is that nothing stands out. There are no egregious outliers during the prime of Bagwell’s career. There were 19 50-homer seasons during the course of Bagwell’s career; he had none of them. And only four times did he finish among the top 10 in home runs (1994, 1997, 1999 and 2000) and never higher than third. In an era marked by historic power surges, Bagwell never topped Ruth or Aaron’s single-season home run total.

          His prime was followed, incidentally, by an equally expected decline as his body began to break down when he turned 36, which is the approximate time most *normal* human beings begin to show signs of wear and tear. A steroid user, as we’ve been told repeatedly, can hold off the inevitable decline brought on by aging – isn’t that why Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs at age 36 or Roger Clemens winning his seventh Cy Young at age 41 put both of those players under such intense scrutiny? Even admitted steroid user Ken Caminiti’s power surge (in 1996) came at the age of 33. Bagwell’s began at 26 and was done by 35 –what is abnormal about that?

          Jeff Bagwell has never, to our knowledge, tested positive for a banned substance; he wasn’t named in Jose Canseco’s book, the Mitchell Report, the BALCO investigation, the Biogenesis investigation, or any other high-profile, PED-related scandal. And he hasn’t been implicated by a former teammate, friend and/or trainer. These are the ONLY facts.

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    3. Tom

      Can you please specify a list of all of the MLB locker rooms that were “conductive to PEDs use” and the years that there were? Then please follow that up with a list of the MLB locker rooms that were not “conductive to PEDs use.”

      It will be much appreciated if you cite all of the evidence, from credible sources, of course, which establishes where each locker room belongs.

      Thank you so much in advance for acting responsibly enough to provide these lists in order to prove your case, rather than relying on innuendo and smears the way that so many pathetic rumor-mongers often do!

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    1. invitro

      Whitaker/Trammell is my guess. What about Musial/Griffey: The difference in their skill at baseball can be erased, given the ease of displacing players a hundred places to make this list. :) :)

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  5. 18thstreet

    I’m really curious which two players will be tied in the rankings. I think it will be Jack Morris and Walter Johnson.

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  6. dcott

    At some point, a MD or someone will fess up and say they gave Nolan Ryan or Dennis Eckersley or Paul Molitor steriods to overcome cronic injury. This will clear the decks and we can let all the un-failed in the Hall.

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    1. Anon

      Interesting that you mention Ryan – not sure if it was here or another site but what would one say if a pitcher lost effectiveness and durability in his mid/late 30′s and then suddenly at age 40 leads the league in Ks 4 years in a row, and throws over 200 IP 4 years in a row after only doing it once the prior 4 years? If Nolan Ryan had come along 10 years later, it is almost guaranteed that people would be talking about him juicing.

      BTW, Ryan’s teammates on the 1992-93 Rangers included Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez and his87-88 Astros teammates included Ken Caminiti – pretty much the poster boys for steroids in the 90′s. . . . .

      Reply
      1. Bill Caffrey

        This is a very good point. I, for one, would be very surprised to find out that Nolan Ryan’s Age 43 and 44 seasons 204 IP/ 232 K/ 1.03 WHIP and 173 IP/203 K/1.01 WHIP in 1990 and 1991 were not aided by PEDs of some kind. And, anecdotally, it seems Ryan is deified by the PED scolds of the world.

        Reply
        1. NevadaMark

          If indisputable evidence came out that Nolan Ryan used steroids, that would be the second biggest scandal in MLB history. Verducci would have an on-line heart attack.

          Reply
    2. bellweather22

      Let’s talk Ryan. One of the earlier suspected steroids users is Brian Downing, who went from a no hit backup catcher with the White Sox in his 20s to a middle of the lineup slugger and DH in his 30s with the Angels. During that time, he was nicknamed The Incredible Hulk…. And not because he had an olive complexion. Ryan’s last two years with the Angels coincided with Downings first two. Downings second year, and Ryan’s last with the Angels, Downing hit .326 with a career high 12 HRs. After a couple of injury plagued years, the next 11 years into his early 40s, he averaged .269/.374/.461 with 20 HRs. Their paths also crossed in Texas in 1991 and 92.

      So chicken and egg question. If both used, who used first and shared?

      Reply
  7. Ericanadian

    Bagwell openly admitted to including androstenodione in his workout regimen. He also defended it by saying it helps him workout, but doesn’t help him hit homeruns. Applying his logic, why wouldn’t he use steroids when they were not banned by baseball? In order to believe him we have to believe he made some arbitrary line in the sand when he knew others (it is completely unbelievable that Caminiti never even approached him) were using it and seeing results. One can apply the exact same logic to Piazza who also used andro.

    On the other hand, there is no proof of Thomas using any objectionable substances to my knowledge. He actively cooperated with investigators when no one else would. Thomas’ assertions fit with his actions, so of course people are going to find him more believable. I don’t think facial features have anything to do with it.

    Reply
    1. Dave

      Well, he probably bought the andro over the counter at GNC when it was possible to do so, and anabolic steroids don’t generally come that way. It’s not hard to believe that someone would be willing to put an OTC supplement in their OJ but be unwilling to buy steroids illegally.

      Reply
        1. wordyduke

          Just in the interest of actual evidence, could we get the name of this trainer and a link to his “link to PEDs”? I’m not opposed to seeing the evidence and agreeing with it; I just don’t want to convict absent the evidence.

          Reply
    2. Spencer

      So if they used Andro it follows they used Steroids?

      What if they used creatine? Protein? Or just lifted weights?

      This logic breaks down pretty quickly…

      Except the clear line that could be drawn between any of the above things is between steroids and everything else. Legal/not legal.

      Reply
    3. invitro

      “Applying his logic, why wouldn’t he use steroids when they were not banned by baseball?”

      Uh, well, because they were illegal and against baseball rules, while andro wasn’t.

      This discussion pretty much defines “witch hunt”.

      Reply
  8. DjangoZ

    So this is what it comes down to? This is why you think so many people are wrong about PEDs: that people don’t have good instincts about who to trust?

    Why shouldn’t we trust our instincts on athletes when we have been proven right again and again and again. Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Armstrong, A-Rod, Braun and the list goes on.

    Joe, you’re a heck of a writer…but maybe you’re a fool when it comes to evaluating people. Maybe you don’t trust your instincts because you’ve been wrong alot, but that isn’t true for everyone else.

    I’m not saying that I’m infallible or that other people are, but we can be right alot more than we are wrong. Those caveman instincts you deride are in fact very powerful and honed over hundreds of thousands of years.

    The truth though is that I don’t think you hate the PED debate because people are wrong about their instincts. I think that’s a smokescreen, an honorable cover for the real reason: you hate that the sport you have covered and players you have admired were in fact cheating. It darkens your golden memories. I wish you could just admit it.

    Reply
    1. Bill Caffrey

      That’s what you get out of Joe’s writing? That he can’t bear to have his cherished memories tarnished? The same Joe Posnanski who voted for Bonds and Clemens for the Hall and has said, many times, that pre-testing PED users should be in the Hall because they were the best players of their era? I think you have not understood anything Joe has been writing. Not one thing.

      Reply
    2. wordyduke

      Yes, Joe is a heck of a writer. As for the rest of the airchair psychoanalysis, where’s your sheepskin? (A real analyst wouldn’t presume “the real reason” without meeting his victim.)

      Reply
    3. E

      Hundreds of thousands of years? I thought all people in your camp are the ones who think the earth was created 6 thousand years ago. You know, when dinosaurs and humans lived together.

      Reply
      1. Chip S.

        C’mon, E, you know you want to say it. So say it. Hell, shout it.

        Burn the witch! Burn the witch!

        You’ll feel much better, and will sound smarter, too.

        Reply
  9. tombando

    Al Simmons and Jimmy Foxx. See if you can write up their entries w/out the magic words ‘Max Bishop’ in there. Yew kin do it young man. Free Elway poster in it if you do.

    Reply
  10. Mark

    “Thomas was pretty outspoken against performance enhancing drugs WHILE he was playing (for example he was the only active player to be interviewed by the Mitchell Report) and Bagwell was not. But that’s way too pat an answer. If there’s one thing we have learned in this whole crazy mess it is that shouting the loudest about steroids doesn’t mean very much.”

    Actually, it’s not a pat answer. We use our judgment every day in evaluating people and claims and arguments. When a player such as Thomas, during his career and at a time when no one wanted to talk about it, advocated against PED use and for testing, and then voluntarily cooperated with MLB, we have a reason to lean toward trusting that person. This is much different thant the accused player who loudly shouts his denial. None of this is a reason to suspect Bagwell. But it is a reasonable answer to the question of why Thomas is not suspected.

    Reply
  11. Blake

    I want to take a diversion about WAR, and the value of hitting.

    The 2012 season caused me to doubt WAR’s utility as anything more than amusing shorthand for comparing apples and oranges. I’m wondering if the Bagwell/Thomas hitting comparison isn’t another example.

    Are we certain of the value of Bagwell’s defense, and baserunning, as opposed to Thomas’ superior offense?

    On a real team, regarding defense, the White Sox (and subsequent teams) had to play somebody at first when Thomas DHed. Assuming Bagwell is delivering greater value via defense assumes that the additional first basemen on the White Sox were lesser fielders — or that the White Sox had to have a lesser hitter in the lineup, at first base, because Thomas didn’t play there.

    As for baserunning, how much is that worth, really? From Jeff Bagwell?

    Isn’t it possible that Thomas’ being a better hitter, at that position, makes him the better player, period?

    This is not to say Bagwell doesn’t have a HOF case of his own. But it may not be just rumors (which I think are unfair to him) that separate him from Thomas in the eyes of voters.

    Reply
    1. Hov34

      Agree completely with this. Thomas was at least 10 places ahead of Bagwell. They should not be tied. The only reason they are is because they share the same birthday. Cute, but shouldn’t be tied.

      Reply
    2. Tom G

      “or that the White Sox had to have a lesser hitter in the lineup, at first base, because Thomas didn’t play there”

      Most likely the case. Thomas was a full time first baseman in 1996, split time between first and DH in 97 and was a full time DH from 98 until the end of his career. From that point on the White Sox used the best hitting first baseman they could find who could also play in the field. Had Thomas been able to play in the field, Chicago would have just had the best hitter they could find regardless of fielding ability. Thomas played 100 games or more at DH six times; four of those times his team had a first baseman with an ops below average. Had the team been able to use Thomas at first and had a league average hitter at DH instead, the team would have had a better offense

      Reply
    3. Joe U

      While I dislike this entire comment, I’d like to single one thing out:

      “As for baserunning, how much is that worth, really? From Jeff Bagwell?”

      Bagwell scored more runs than Thomas despite that sexy 521 HR total. It’s not as easy to quantify (and I surely can’t do so myself) baserunning, defense, etc., but that’s what WAR is there for.

      Just because there have been better stats that quantify hitting for decades doesn’t discount the other facets of the game and their importance. Isn’t it possible that Bagwell being the better baserunner makes *him* the better player period?

      Reply
      1. Blake

        No, not really. That’s not really your argument, is it?

        I’ve been thinking about Craig Biggio’s HOF chances next year, and I wonder if he might lose some votes to Bagwell.

        For the approximately 1/3 of voters who don’t care about either PEDs or PED rumors (I would be in that group), the top of the ballot will remain clogged with Bonds, Clemens and Piazza, inner-circle, Mays-Ruthian hall of famers. Two more inner circle guys: Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. So that’s 5.

        Do Bagwell and Biggio both climb into the second half of that ballot? They’ve got to get in over John Smoltz, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Alan Trammell. Just to give one sample ballot, quite defensible, that lists neither.

        Somebody said this above, and I think it matters for the HOF, in the early voting: Bagwell, as well as Biggio, was a very good player for a long time on a team not many people watched. When the Astros would make the playoffs, the announcers would try to sell us on how we’d get a chance to appreciate how good they were.

        Biggio has done well so far because people don’t see him as PED-connected, although why him and not Bagwell I don’t understand. But they may both end up being Bert Blyleven hall of famers: It might take a while. Even with Biggio seemingly just two votes away.

        Reply
        1. Adam S

          I concur that people are too quick to assume Biggio will get in next year.

          However, while I don’t think voters play games with their ballots — say leaving off Maddux or Glavine who are shoo-ins (or Bonds/Clemens) — to ensure Kent or McGwire gets 5%, I don’t think anyone is going to drop Biggio from their ballot because they don’t want to feel responsible for him getting 74% again and those who had him 11th or 12th will vote for him.

          Reply
    4. Stephen

      It may not be so much that Bagwell was fast as that Thomas was agonizingly slow. In 2002 I saw the Sox play a game in Minnesota.

      Somebody singled with runners at second and third, and it was one of those singles that wasn’t at any of the outfielders, and I said, Two runs, then remembered that Thomas was on second. He was thrown out by thirty feet.

      Bagwell would have scored easily. So would anybody other than Frank Thomas (not named Molina). Even if Bagwell was at best an average baserunner, that still puts him well ahead of Thomas.

      Reply
      1. Mark Daniel

        Stephen is right, and WAR calculates this type of thing. This includes going from 1st to 3rd on a single, 2nd to home on a single and 1st to home on a double. I think they even stratify it based on which part of the field the ball was hit to.

        An example is that Frank Thomas was on 1st when a single was hit 690 times in his career. For Bagwell it was 530 times.
        After the single was hit, Thomas made it to 3rd base 127 times, Bagwell made it to 3rd 193 times. So we’re looking at making it to 3rd 18% of the time for Thomas, vs. 36% of the time for Bagwell.

        If Bagwell had the same number of times on 1st as Thomas (690 times), you would expect him to have made it to 3rd about 120 or so more times. This type of thing is added into WAR for each player (also counting 1st to home on a double and 2nd to home on a single). These are little things, but everything is counted in WAR.

        The debate, I think, is whether you care that Bagwell would have made it to 3rd base 120 more times over a 19 year career. That’s like 6 or 7 times per year, which doesn’t seem like much. WAR cares, though. WAR tallies it all up.

        But, as a HoF voter, or even an MVP voter, do you care that a player makes it to 3rd base 7 more times in a season? Would you award an MVP based on that? I think you could easily make that argument. But many others would not.

        Reply
    1. Bill Caffrey

      No more or less of a thing than hitting 40-plus homers. There’s no magical quality to numbers ending in 0 that makes the difference between 40 and 39 more meaningful than the difference between 39 and 38.

      Reply
      1. mark

        True, to a limited extent. You know what else is true? The poker hand 2H, 3S, 5D, 6C and 8S is just as rare and unlikely as 10S, JS, QS, KS and AS. Yet social convention dictates that the latter hand is considerably more valuable as the former, just as it also dictates that for sports stats round numbers are more meaningful than crooked numbers.

        Pretending that these conventions don’t exist or don’t serve a purpose is neither clever nor useful.

        In this case, to get exceedingly obvious (thanks for sending me here), limiting ourselves to round numbers prevents us from cherry picking “just perfect” stats. Joe abides by the convention in every other stat in the article:
        “hit right around .300″
        “scored about 1,500 career runs”
        “one shy of 450 home runs”
        “more than 500 home runs”
        “Thomas created 140-plus runs eight times, Bagwell four”
        “Bagwell stole 200 bases in his career and was an aggressive base runner and had a 30-30 season.”

        Joe is so welded to the round number convention he can’t even bring himself to write that Bagwell hit 449 home runs, rendering it as “one shy of 450.”
        Yet when discussing single season HR totals, he breaks with convention and uses 39. Why? Because Thomas hit 40 or more 5 times and Bagwell only 4. And while 38 would look just as out-of-place,Thomas hit 38 or more 7 times and Bagwell only 6. Unless you want to move even higher or lower, 39 is the only number that works, and so Joe broke with convention and his own style. 39 is a “just perfect” stat, and most people consider those a bit less meaningful.

        Does that undermine the point of the article? Not even close. Is it worth pointing out in a one sentence comment that Joe had to break with his own style in order to make one stat line up? Yes, though it also would have been OK to ignore it. Was I maybe more snarky than necessary in doing so? Yeah, probably I was. But affirmatively pretending that the 39 is consistent with the rest of the article or that the conventions built up around round numbers have no purpose is not accurate.

        Reply
        1. Spencer

          Social convention doesn’t dictate that one of those hands is better, a specific scoring system does.

          There’s a difference between that and using benchmarks based on a base 10 number system.

          Is it a bad analogy?

          Yes.

          Reply
  12. Tom G

    If Jeff Bagwell was not a drug user, he would have received far more support from Hall-of-Fame voters, Therefore, the fact that he has fallen short of the Hall-of-Fame is proof that he did use drugs

    Reply
  13. tannerandcarolyn

    Speaking of intuition: As a kid growing up in the ’90s in the Midwest, Thomas just felt like a god. Bagwell, on the other hand, was just a very good player on an unremarkable team. Their auras were very different. This could (and probably is) due to my regional bias (though I’m not a Sox fan). Still, I’d bet it’s the basis for a good chunk of the voting gap.

    Reply
    1. Ric

      tannerandcarolyn – it’s absolutely, positively your regional bias. They’re offensive numbers are incredibly, almost interchangeably similar (with Bagwell being a better defender and runner):

      Frank Thomas
      .301/.419/.555
      521 HRs; 1,704 RsBI; 1,494 Rs; 10,075 PAs
      OPS+ 156; WAR 69.7

      Jeff Bagwell
      .297/.408/.540
      449 HRs; 1,529 RsBI; 1,517 Rs; 9,431 PAs
      OPS+ 149; WAR 76.7

      And Jeff Bagwell was most assuredly not a “very good player on an unremarkable team.”

      He ranks in the top 50 all-time among all baseball players in the following categories:
      OPS (22nd) – higher than Ty Cobb and Willie Mays
      HRs (36th)
      WAR (36th) – two spots ahead of Joe DiMaggio
      Slugging % (37th)
      Runs created (39th) – ahead of Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Cal Ripken, Jr
      On-base % (41st)
      Extra base hits (42nd)
      RsBI (46th)

      Among HoF-eligible first basemen, he ranks 3rd in WAR (trailing only Gehrig and Foxx); 5th in OPS+ (trailing only Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg & Mize).

      And no, the Astros never won a ring – but in their 51-year history, they have 28 total winning seasons; 13 of those were with Jeff Bagwell on the roster. And no, he did not walk onto a great team and ride its coattails. The team won 65 games his rookie season. They would not dip below .500 for another nine years and then never again while Bagwell was active.

      I’m not suggesting Bagwell deserves 100% credit as he had some incredibly gifted teammates. But I’m not sure people realize how good the Astros were for a very long stretch in which he and Craig Biggio were the year-to-year constants. They made the postseason six times over a nine-year period and won more regular season games than every other team in baseball, save the Braves and Yankees.

      Reply
        1. ksbeck76

          t&c – as an Astros fan who grew up in Houston and then moved to Chicago and became a White Sox fan, I completely agree with you. Astros’ fans always felt that Bagwell and Biggio were appreciated by the larger baseball world for the great players that they were. Thomas, on the other hand, was always acknowledged (deservedly so) as one of he greatest hitters in basebal. He was routinely described as the best player in White Sox history and for awhile was in the discussion as The Greatest Righthanded Hitter of all time.

          Bagwell never got that kind of recognition. Partly, I think that’s because his base running and defense weren’t properly values (although Houston announcers talked about his base running all the time), but mainly I think Frank Thomas just had a more memorable narrative. He was huge, a former football player who was an imposing presence at the plate, he had an awesome nickname – the Big Hurt, he has an outspoken personality, and he played in a major baseball city. Bagwell had none of those things. Houston has always been a it if a sports backwater, he had his best season in the strike year, and – thanks to his unique batting stance – his plate presnwce was likened to a man sitting on the toilet. He was never going to get h national recognition that Frank got.

          Reply
          1. Ric

            I fully accept that Bagwell played in relative anonymity throughout his career, though that’s the fault of the baseball populace as a whole, not his. He should have been more appreciated.

            But nerds locked themselves in their moms’ basements the world over in order to cut through such narrow-mindedness. We didn’t have to all breathlessly anticipate each and every Jeff Bagwell at-bat in real time to know that he is among the 50 greatest non-pitchers in baseball history. And that Frank Thomas is in the Hall of Fame while Bagwell languishes on the ballot makes absolutely, positively zero sense. In fact, as deserving as Thomas’ election was, you can’t mount a case that he was a better *player* than Jeff Bagwell. (Key word being “player” as defense and baserunning are still part of the game.)

            The BBWAA has been entrusted to tell the story of baseball, presumably because the writers have greater insight, perspective and access. But they shame their entire organization by leaving a player of Bagwell’s immense caliber out of the Hall of Fame.

            And if the whole BBWAA is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, ksbeck76 – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!

  14. thegreatstoneface

    …if it’s true that we’ve already elected folks to the HoF who used PEDs during their career? it’d be swell for one of them to step up and say so, so we can all get over this neverending contention over PEDs…

    Reply
    1. TPrez

      I wonder if that would really solve anything. More likely, I think, is that the current HOFers would treat the guy like a pariah, the writers would call for him to lose his plaque, and the fans would see him as forever tainted. Additionally, all of the anti-Bagwell, anti-Piazza voters would see their unwillingness not to vote for anyone suspected of PEDs as even more warranted, as they wouldn’t want to inadvertently elect another dirty player.

      Maybe in 20 years, after the climate has changed, it would be safe for a player to come out of the PED closet. It would be ill-advised to do right now, though, I think.

      Reply
      1. NevadaMark

        You’re probably right. The vitriol would be incredible. Why would any sane person want to go through that? And to what purpose? Clearing their conscience? They wouldn’t be invited to any HOF induction ceremonies, that’s for certain.

        Reply
  15. Ian R.

    “though he [Bagwell] has a negative defensive WAR for his career.”

    That’s because defensive WAR includes a positional adjustment, which kills players at the easier positions. It’s almost impossible for a first baseman to post a positive dWAR – heck, even Keith Hernandez checks in at just 0.6.

    Total Zone has Bagwell as 35 runs better than average at first base for his career, and that’s including a -19 mark – a crazy outlier – in 2003. Baseball-Reference has him at 54 career fielding runs above average. There’s issues with advanced metrics going back that far, of course, but the ones we have indicate that he really was a good fielder.

    Reply
  16. wordyduke

    Have your child born so he/she will be the oldest in her grade. She/he will be more likely to be an athletic leader and to dominate play in that age group. No edge is 100%, but the more advantages a kid has, the more likely to rise to the top.

    Or you can do it the Texas way, and just hold the kid back a few years so he’s the biggest, fastest, strongest in his group.

    Reply
    1. Bill Caffrey

      Bingo. A few years ago it was noticed that a disproportionate number of successful major leaguers were Virgos (or whatever sign covers the first part of August). Astrologists were citing this as proof of Astrology or some such nonsense. But it was undeniably true that there were a disproportionate number of Virgos (or whatever).

      But then someone figured out that the age cutoff in Little League was July 31. So kids born in August were always going to be the oldest kids in their league. Later on that matters much less, but among 10, 11 and 12 year olds, it can be a huge advantage. it wasn’t astrology. The August kids are the biggest and strongest because they were the oldest. Consequently they get more attention from coaches, etc.

      Think of the Little League World Series on TV every August.. The age limit is 12. But you only had to be 12 on July 31. If you turned 13 on August 1 you were still eligible. (In the last 3 or 4 years they’ve changed the cutoff date, I believe, so the August kids no longer have that edge).

      Reply
      1. adam

        One of Malcolm Gladwell’s books makes the same observation about pro hockey players. There are more Canadian-born players born in January than February, February than March, etc. The reason is that the Canadian youth league hockey age cutoff is on January 1st.

        Reply
      2. Rick R

        It may apply to Little Leaguers, but for Major League prospects, younger is generally preferable to being older. You don’t scout Little Leaguers, you scout high school players. That’s why so many Dominicans (and players from other locales where record-keeping is shoddy) take a few years off their birth certificates, because younger players are viewed as having more upside as they develop.

        Reply
      3. invitro

        “The August kids are the biggest and strongest because they were the oldest. Consequently they get more attention from coaches, etc.”

        I love this argument and it’s one of the few things that Gladwell gets right. But I would like to raise a minor objection. I don’t think it’s attention from coaches that these kids get; I think they are simply more likely to get lots of playing time.

        Reply
  17. Matt H.

    First, Thomas is my favorite baseball player of all time. Absolutely biased, so take this comment in that light.

    The thing about Thomas is that there is absolutely no evidence, hard, soft, or even whisper, that settle on the opposite side of the scale of evidence that he was not a user.

    Football recruiting websites (Rivals, Scout, ESPN, 247) are so prolific now that there is more information out there about high school football recruits than some fringe presidential candidates. However, long before those sites existed, recruiting classes were often announced in newspapers around the country to fill their local fans in on the new names they would see in the fall. On Feb. 4, 1986, the Atlanta Journal Constitution did the same for Auburn’s incoming class. Listed there was a kid that wouldn’t turn 18 for another 3+ months:

    “Frank Thomas (6-4, 245) of Columbus, Ga.”

    Right there is the start of the Frank Thomas PED story. The guy was a huge kid, teen, adult, and now retiree (definitely needs custom made suit coats on White Sox pre and post game shows).

    Thomas came up at 22 after less than a full season in the minors, and had a slash of .330/.454/.529 in 240 plate appearances. From the moment he arrived, and hit a rare triple (first hit ever, 12 total), he was a finished product. His first full season was .318/.453/.553 in 701 plate appearances. His slump years in ’98 and ’99, his OPS was .861 and .885.

    From day 1, the guy could rake. And the thing was, for a guy that was quite literally the biggest man in baseball and is now referenced by his 521 home runs, he was a big Aaron-esque in that he only peaked at 43 home runs. It was his remarkable slash lines and consistency that made him such a feared hitter.

    In 1991, his 32 home runs were 7th in MLB. Only Fielder and Canseco had more than 38.

    In 1993, his 41 home runs were 4th in MLB. Juan Gonzalez and Bonds led MLB with 46.

    But by 2000, Thomas’ last “Pantheon” season… .328/.436/.625, when Thomas’ 32 year old body was already failing him, his 43 home runs were ho-hum. And Thomas, a guy notorious for knowing his stats and who was constantly evaluating his legacy while he played, was pissed.

    That’s why he was loud. As someone else pointed out, he wasn’t denying because he was accused. He was screaming and yelling about PEDs because he knew these PED users were making his ridiculous stats look mortal.

    As early as 1995 Bob Nightengale wrote an article about PED usage in MLB. The only players willing to give him a quote… Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas who said, “I’d love to see testing myself. If it can be done in every other sport, why not ours? At least it would get rid of the suspicions.”

    When Ken Caminiti came out to Sports Illustrated as a PED user in 2002, the Daily Herald ran a follow up story. Frank Thomas:

    “When I played football in college (Auburn), a lot of guys were using them. I saw what they did. They change your whole personality, they make you an animal… I think they should test everybody, and that would be it. Please, Draw the blood. I hate this because I know what it takes to get to this level, all the hard work.”

    By the time testing was put into place, Thomas was so well known for his position on that matter that it led to Thomas’ long forgotten subpoena and involvement in the famous March, 2005 Congressional Hearings as an anti-doping witness – where, while Palmeiro pointed at Congressmen and Sosa forgot that he spoke English, Thomas was a forgotten afterthought, sitting silently on a screen in the corner, absolutely pissed off that he didn’t get to say more about what he thought was ruining the fairness in the game. Thomas advocated fines for players that tested positive. He advocated for all users names to be released. He aged, dealt with injuries that nagged, and never found that quick return from those injuries.

    Finally, he was famously the only active player to cooperate with the Mitchell Report.

    So I think the thing that gives Thomas credibility is, if I may be flippant, the “totality of the circumstances.” Knowing who he was and what he cared about… mostly himself and his legacy… led to this personal crusade. His story never changed. His refrain was constant. When there was a quote to be given on the subject or an appearance to be made, Frank Thomas was the one player that seemed to care.

    I won’t comment on anyone else from the era, but in hindsight, it was a very smart move by Thomas. And it is clearly the reason why he is now a first ballot Hall of Famer.

    Reply
      1. otistaylor89

        Great post!
        If they had done the Mitchell report in 1997 instead of starting in 2006, Henry Aaron would still be the home run king and Bonds, Clemens, McGuire (and Bagwell) would probably be in the Hall of Fame.

        Reply
        1. Simon

          Or, if Bonds had taken the “Thomas route”:
          Bonds got really jealous after the Great Home Run Chase of 1998. He got on the juice with the rest of them to show everyone who was truly the greatest – and it was amazing in a terrible-car-crash-can’t-look-away kind of way. What if Bonds had been like Thomas, an outspoken and consistent supporter of testing in order to make his pre-1999 stats pop off the page like they should have? I’d like to think he would have made the HOF class of 2013 a little better, and we would likely be speaking him as one of the greatest and classiest players ever.

          Then again, we would not have gotten to see what it’s like when someone breaks the game of baseball.

          Reply
    1. TPrez

      Well-stated. You make a compelling case.

      I also think you hit on one of the main reasons why retired players (and especially HOFers) are unlikely to be forgiving of the PED guys any time soon. Like Thomas, they know that their accomplishments were diminished when guys like Bonds and Sosa and McGwire were putting up video game numbers year after year. It’s interesting that even if PED use was rampant, you’ll hardly find any former players who will stand up and attempt to justify their usage (let alone the usage of teammates). It’s hard to imagine this baseball culture changing any time soon, especially with the most outspoken anti-PED guy entering the HOF this year. If anything, Thomas is likely to be held up as a guy who “did it the right way” and the public perception of the chasm between him and Bonds, A-Rod, etc. will grow wider.

      Reply
    2. wordyduke

      I am impressed by the eloquent and detailed case for Frank Thomas.

      However, much — not all — of the objection to others is based on whispers. Could we not whisper about Frank Thomas? “Why did his body begin to break down at age 32?” we might whisper. “What had he been doing before that, when the spotlights were off?”

      Thomas was probably very clean. And some of the others are probably falsely accused. At the very least, the extent of some others’ PED use is both unknowable and exaggerated by their critics.

      Reply
        1. wordyduke

          Assertions, assertions. Where’s the table that says age 32 declines are steeper and more numerous than those at age 33, or 31, or 28 (27 tends to be one’s peak as a position player), or any other age?

          Depending on how one quantifies her definition of “decline,” some year will be higher on the table than any other, but it may be only 15% of the total charting of players’ “primary decline years.” So can we then claim that this year, whatever it is, populated by 15% of the population, represents what happens to “most MLB players”?

          I’m hearing big claims, including claims about whispers, and I’m more impressed by Tom G’s circular argument and Cathead’s suggestion about “exchanged at birth.”

          Reply
  18. bellweather22

    It’s amazing how 80% of the stars in youth league have birthdays at, or near the age cutoff, so they’re the oldest kids in the league. This makes much less difference when they are in HS…. where the kids that are held back a year have the biggest advantage regardless of birthday. At a local school, there is a kid who’s a Sophomore who turned 17 last October.

    Reply
  19. Triston

    Considering ten players had their support drop “more” than Bagwell did* (including Jack Morris and Tim Raines), I seriously doubt that Bagwell’s drop was due to anything other than crowded ballot syndrome.
    But considering next year’s ballot is similarly stacked, we really can’t be sure until 2016. (Unless Bagwell’s support goes up again.)

    *By value of difference in percentage points between this year and last; so 59.6% [Bagwell's % last year] minus 54.3% [his % this time] gets 5.3%.

    Reply
    1. Bill Caffrey

      I think this is right. I think Bagwell and Raines were victims of the crowded ballot. And this doesn’t just mean that guys might have had them as 11th or 12th. There seem to be a quite a few voters who just don’t want to vote for more than 3 or 4 at a time, even if they believe there are 7-8 deserving candidates on the ballot. I remain confident of Bagwell going in the year after next.

      Reply
  20. largebill

    Joe, You highlighted some baseball player birthday’s but missed one crazy coincidence. Sure Maddux and Justice were born on 14 April in the same year, but more amazing is Rose and Justice were both Rookies of the Year born on 14 April in the same city (Cincinnati). There are other decent players born that day. Also, both Abraham Lincoln and future Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole were shot on 14 April. Oh, and the Titanic sunk on 14 April (okay it sank on the 15th but it hit the berg on 14th).

    Reply
  21. SpokaneGuy

    Love this whole series, but that sheep testes caused the Bellyache Heard Around the World? Dubious at best. Zirin is a respectable source, but note that he is citing a 1991 book aimed for children, The Baseball Hall of Shame’s Warped Record Book. More recent Ruth biographers have speculated about veneral diseases, but the real cause? We don’t know . . . we don’t know . . . we don’t know. ;)

    Reply
    1. BobDD

      We asked one of the descendent’s of the alleged testes-harvested sheep from Babe’s era what his family thought what might have happened to his ancestor, but the only reply about the situation was a dismissive “Bah” or something like that.

      Reply
  22. Alvaro Pizza

    The two greatest writers in their respective languages died the same day. William Shakeaspeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died on April 23rd of 1616.

    In spanish speaking countries like mine (Colombia), it’s spanish’s day.

    Reply
      1. Jeff Bullington

        Lest we forget that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence

        Reply
      2. BobDD

        I once read about these Siamese twins that were not only born on the same day, but always took a bath on the same day for the rest of their lives. So if they visit the HoF, they should be allowed to go in together.

        Reply
      3. Tom

        It’s common knowledge that Michelangelo Antonioni was a switch hitter who used Performance Enhancing Drugs, while Ingmar Bergman was incredibly clean, and as fresh as a daisy.

        Reply
  23. bl

    Reading all of these posts makes me feel like such an inferior human being. I have no superpowers. I can’t tell who used PED’s just by looking at them or their stats. I can’t tell who’s lying by looking into their eyes or their aura. I’m not superior to someone just because I disagree with their opinion. And I’m not right about everything and I don’t know everything.

    I read Joe because he’s a good writer, because I usually learn something, and because he doesn’t usually agree with me but generally poses a well thought out counter argument. I have no idea why a lot of other people read him as he seems to only make them angry.

    PS: Many people in the HOF have admitted to using PED’s – Amphetamines. Fortunately for them many people consider them harmless pieces of candy that everyone used. So they don’t count.

    Reply
    1. Ian

      I doubt anyone thinks Bagwell was a roider solely based on looking at him. There’s more there if you want to look for it. Some refuse to look and yell when others do. Same stuff was happening a decade ago when Sox fans were flooding message boards defending Ramirez and Ortiz.

      Reply
  24. Elon

    Joe is an idiot. Thomas never juiced — he never had the body type. Dude was just a monster.

    Joe defends juicers because his brother sure looks like he takes more than tic tacs.

    No one who posts here is a long term poster. When Joe left KC Star he all but swore to loyal readers he was staying in KC. A few jobs later he is in NC. The guy can’t be trusted.

    He wrote a million dollar book about a guy who had a pedophilia ring operating on his watch.

    I think Joe is a phony. Delete that first amendment champ.

    Reply
    1. largebill

      Elon,

      Why is it so difficult for people to discuss things respectfully on the internet. Instead of calling Joe names and making baseless accusations about his character, it would be much more productive to address specific points he made you disagree with and explain why you believe something else.

      Or in other words: “Grow up!”

      Reply
  25. Adam S

    I concur the tie is a copout, not because they’re equal but because it avoids the hard questions.

    I think most people perceive Thomas to be the better player. Sure PED rumblings are part of it, but this perception is pretty much the reason Thomas went in on the first ballot while Bagwell is lingering at 60% after 4 years.

    But really it’s hard to argue against Bagwell as the better player. Thomas was the better hitter for sure (964 OPS vs 948), but it’s close especially after park adjustments. Bagwell had much, much greater defensive value by being a decent 1B rather than having to DH. Bagwell also deserves credit for staying on the field more. While Thomas retired 3 seasons after Bagwell, he only had 600 more plate appearances. Bagwell leads in WAR by a decent margin (8 wins) and it’s only that close because Thomas racked up 4.5 WAR being a league average player after Bagwell retired.

    And I say all this being a huge fan of Frank Thomas who is a deserving slam dunk Hall of Famer. They’re linked by DOB and both being great 1B of the 90s, but they aren’t equal.

    Reply
    1. Carl

      Which one of the following first basemen on the most recent Hall of Fame ballot had the higher following stats, Jeff Bagwell or Fred McGriff:
      1. Runs
      2. Hits
      3. Home Runs
      4. RBIs
      5. All Star appearances
      6. Seasons in top-5 HR’s
      7. Seasons in top-5 OPS
      8. Seasons in top-5 Runs created
      9. Lower Postseason OPS
      The answer for all of the above is Fred McGriff, except for the last one, which was Jeff Bagwell. McGriff had a .917 OPS in 50 postseason games while Bagwell had an OPS of .685 in 33 games.

      Among players w more than 9999 plate appearances, McGriff has the 17th highest OPS ever. Higher than Mathews, higher than Palmeiro, higher than Brett. Seems like McGriff had both quantity and quality, while Bagwell had the quality.

      Reply
      1. Bill Caffrey

        First of all, McGriff had 700 more plate appearances in his career than Bagwell, so of course some of his counting stats would be higher. Jack Morris has many more wins than Sandy Koufax but not even the most ardent Morris supporter believes Morris was better than Koufax.

        On the other hand, 700 PAs is only a little more than one full season, so I don’t know how much “quantity” edge McGriff really has.

        More importantly, this is not all true.

        #1 on your list, Runs is actually: Bagwell – 1517, McGriff 1349

        That’s despite McGriff having all those extra PAs. And the RBIs are McGriff – 1550, Bagwell, 1529. Only 21 different, again despite all the extra PAs for McGriff.

        And although McGriff did have more seasons in the top 5 of OPS, his career OPS is .886, good for 78th all time. Bagwell’s career OPS is 948, 21st all time. Despite playing many games in the Astrodome. (Your cutoff of 9999 PAs conveniently cuts off Bagwell and his 9,431 PAs and just barely includes McGriff and his 10,174 PAs). Rank them again among all players with 9000+ PAs and see where they stand.

        I believe all evidence also suggests Bagwell was the superior defender, and we know he was the superior baserunner. McGriff has his case, but (steroids aside) there’s just not a reasonable argument that he has a better Hall case than Bagwell.

        Reply
  26. Alejo

    Hi,

    Just digressing but, how come George Will is in a committee to improve baseball? I read this guy once saying that governments build trains to destroy freedom and turn people into slaves. Today he says school curricula should be different everywhere (isn’t math or biology the same everywhere?)

    I mean, how can this nutcase improve anything?

    Reply
    1. Paul Zummo

      Yes, how dare someone with different political viewpoints than you (and who probably didn’t quite say what you claim he said) get on a non-political, baseball committee. This is madness!

      Reply
        1. Paul Zummo

          If you think that’s the entirety of the argument . . then you have serious comprehension issues. But of course you’re the type of guy who thinks George Will is a radical, so then we kind of knew that already.

          Reply
          1. Alejo

            If, to state an argument, you use nonsensical sentences (e.g saying trains will turn commuters into slaves) then you not only have mental issues, but are a poor writer as well.

            What has Will done for baseball? nothing? what a surprise…

  27. MisterMj

    Bagwell hit 6 home runs in 731 minor league at-bats. Very good eye (BB:K ratio) but mostly a line-drive hitter (warning track power). Kinda sorta maybe like Jason Giambi …. who hit 9 home runs in 524 college at-bats and just 28 home runs in 913 minor league at-bats from 1992-95. Giambi started his career the same way – good plate discipline, line drive power (20 or so HR), and then suddenly he started hitting bombs.

    Sucks but it’s hard not to be skeptical for ANYONE, considering testing has always and will continue to lag pharmacology and PEDs. A-Rod, Bonds, Clemens … never failed a test. Lance Armstrong … never failed a test.

    Reply
    1. TPrez

      This is a good point and one that probably explains why the PED whispers stick to certain guys more than others. Players like Bagwell and Piazza are probably even more presumed to have used PEDs because they weren’t supposed to be the kind of players they turned out to be. I mean, Bagwell was regarded as a good prospect, but he was behind the immortal Scott Cooper on the Boston depth chart and was traded for a middle reliever. You can be certain that Boston did not think they were trading a future HOFer. Piazza wouldn’t have even gotten drafted if it wasn’t for Tommy Lasorda being his godfather. When you see guys perform far greater than even the most optimistic scout could have predicted, people get suspicious. Obviously, that’s not fair, but you can understand the thought process.

      Reply
    2. Kris

      Yeah, and Alan Trammell hit 3 total HRs in the minors (749 PAs) and nearly 200 in MLB.
      Robin Yount every 81 ABs in the minors, every 44 in MLB.
      Mickey Mantle every 23 ABs in the minors, every 15 in MLB.
      Willie Mays every 38 ABs in the minors, every 16 in MLB.
      Willie McCovey every 22 ABs in the minors, every 16 in MLB.
      Duke Snider every 30 ABs in the minors, every 18 in MLB.

      It sure is hard to not be skeptical of anyone, in any era ever I guess.

      Reply
    3. Triston

      There is a good case to be made that the reason Bagwell hit so few home runs in the minors was because his one full minor league season was in a terrible stadium for home runs.
      In 1990, Bagwell played 136 games for the New Britain Red Sox, and hit 4 home runs.
      He was also one home run shy of leading the team; Eric Wedge had a whopping “5″ home runs.
      The 1990 New Britain Red Sox hit 31 homers “as a team,” fewer than any other team in the Eastern League.
      New Britain played in Beehive Stadium between 1983 and 1995; during that period, New Britain consistently found itself last or second-to-last in the league in home runs, and the team leader in home runs “rarely” hit double digits.
      Todd Pratt’s minor league stats again suggest a huge park: in 1986 and 1987, he hit 12 homers each season in Single A. In the three seasons he played for New Britain (1988-1990), he hit 12 home runs “total,” in 301 games. In 1991 he graduated to Pawtucket and hit 11 in 68 games. And in 1992, he hit 13 in 82 games.

      Reply
  28. Phil

    Another great shared death day: Babe Ruth (1948) and Elvis (1977), both Aug. 16. Maybe the two largest larger-than-life Americans of the 20th century.

    Reply
  29. ksbeck76

    An honest question here: One of the points raised against Bagwell is that the Astros were a notoriously PED-fueled team. What (or who) exactly is this in reference to? My understanding is that Caminiti admitted to using PEDs only after moving to the Padres in ’94, and Clemens and Pettite didn’t join the team until the tail-end of Bagwell’s career. Who else was there?

    Reply
  30. rastronomicals

    I don’t think that the Astros were “notoriously PED-fueled” but Chris Donnels, named in the Mitchell Report, played with Bagwell. So did Greg Zaun, also named. But mostly I think that the things you’re reading simply run with the fact that Biggio and Bagwell were friendly with Caminiti.

    Reply
  31. rastronomicals

    I think Joe underestimates the courage (in bucking the union of course) that Thomas showed in speaking out. People figure that courage doesn’t come from nowhere, that the strength Thomas showed might not have been there if he had been lying.

    Reply
  32. Richard Aronson

    Started a new job, so late to these. Since there is now official word of the possibility of a book, I’ll definitely proof.

    ” Frank Thomas if Jeff Bagwell’s ” if s/b is

    “One is 6-foot and fills out to about 200 points” points s/b pounds

    “in OPS+ four time, ” time s/b times (and if you’re going to spell our four, then maybe you should spell out the nearby ones and zero as well). Or, better, change the 1s to once and the zero to never.

    ” comfortable follow circumstantial rabbit holes” follow s/b following

    I take mild exception with your comments about Betancourt. He was definitely one of the 5,000 best baseball players in America during his career, and some years possibly in the top 1,000. His first three seasons he had a clearly positive WAR, fully justifying his place on a major league roster. Nobody who lasts in the majors as long as he has is a Yang of MLB fortune. And who knows: if he had hooked up with ARod’s suppliers in high school, he might have had a much better career.

    We are in complete agreement about whisper campaigns. We will see irrationally clogged HOF ballots. Players have always sought competitive advantages through whatever means were legal or they thought they could get away with. Players have used illegal bats, and gloves that were just a little too big. They wear glasses and contacts; I’m sure some of them correct to better than 20:20 since distance vision is far more important than reading when on the ball field. Curt Schilling underwent a risky and experimental surgery to pitch in one game (an open wound like that certainly carries heightened risk of infection) and was applauded; why is that better than Mark McGwire merely trying to get healthy, if reports are to be believed about his early steroid regimen?

    I would love to be in Cooperstown to see Bagwell, Bonds, Piazza, and Clemens go into the HOF. And then when the ballot is cleared, perhaps we could consider the candidacy of purportedly cleaner players during the steroid era whose numbers might have been suppressed by facing steroid users or appear worse in comparison, the better the appease the Gurnicks of the world.

    Reply
  33. Marcos Padilla

    There’s a link on baseballreference.com where you can link any two players in baseball history. It’s pretty fascinating to play with – anybody who wants to play 6 degrees of steroids should try it first and get a reality check. In any case, one, gee, big strong guys are good at hitting home runs? Athletes are good at sports? I’m glad we’ve gotten this revelation, else we’d never know about steroids. Two, the HOF vote is subjective, the problem is that the writers think “subjective” equals “arbitrary”. It’s childish and unprofessional, like throwing a tantrum. “I don’t have to vote for Jeff Bagwell, and you can’t make me!”. Okay, sure, of course, but I expect a little more accountability than that.

    And to add to baseless speculation, Cal Ripken will be the one who is outed for steroids. Broke Gehrig’s record, played with Brady Anderson – obvious, right?

    Reply
  34. rk70

    It crosses the sports line but even more “impressive” than the Thomas/Bagwell birthday is Patrick Roy and Mario Lemieux. Oct 5, 1965.

    Reply
    1. John Gale

      Wow. I didn’t know that. So that’s arguably the best goalie of all time *and* arguably the best player of all time (Gretzky is the best, but I know some people argue for Lemieux, and he’s certainly no worse than fourth all time–I have him second on my list). That would be like Bonds and Clemens being born on the same day, only without the PEDs.

      Reply

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