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.