By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 93: Craig Biggio

You can pretty neatly divide Craig Biggio’s career into two distinct eras. Before 33, he was probably a wildly underrated player because he did so many good things that went unrecognized. After 33, he was probably a wildly overrated player because he passed a handful of career standards (like 3,000 hits and 600 doubles and 1,500 runs) that people tend to associate with greatness … but he really was a shell of himself by then.

You probably know, Biggio began his career as a catcher. He held his own at the position despite leading the league in passed balls in 1991 and despite a subpar arm (he threw out less than a quarter of the runners trying to steal on him in his career). Still: He was an odd choice as catcher. Biggio could really run, and you wanted his bat at the top of the lineup every day. In 1992, Houston smartly moved him to second base and he played all 162 games, scored 96 runs, stole 38 bases and was solid as a defender. His career was about to take off.

From 1994 to 1999, Craig Biggio was a great baseball player. Those six years — which included two seasons shortened by the strike — Biggio hit .306/.401/.473, scored 120 runs a year, hit 20 or so homers a year, stole 35 bases a year, won four Gold Gloves. The pinnacle was 1997, which was so good it might have been mistaken for a Joe Morgan season in the mid-1970s. Biggio hit .309, was walked or hit by pitch 118 times, hit 22 homers stole 47 bases, scored 146 runs and, this is astonishing, did not hit into a double play all season.

He did not receive a single first place MVP for his amazing 1997 season because, well, to be fair, there were a whole bunch of ridiculous offensive seasons that year. That was the year Larry Walker hit .366 with 49 homers and an absurd 409 total bases in part because of the light air of Coors Field. Mike Piazza hit .362 with 40 homers. Even Biggio’s teammate, Jeff Bagwell, hit 43 homers and stole 31 bases. Still, Biggio’s unique talents — for getting hit by pitch, for avoiding the double play, for aggressively but effectively running the bases — were unfairly overlooked.

It was right around 1999 or 2000 that Bill James — in his New Baseball Abstract — ranked Biggio in his Top 100 all-time and then wrote a multi-page explanation of why he was not crazy. In the explanation, he gave his reasoning why Biggio was better than Ken Griffey pretty much every year of the 1990s. I think that by making Biggio a cause in the Abstract, Bill did push people to look at Biggio a little bit differently. This was good.

What was not as good is that it was right around that same time that Biggio stopped being a great player. He was injured a bit in 2000. And in 2001, he did many of the things he’d always done — he had a .382 on-base percentage, led the league in hit-by-pitch, scored 118 runs — but you could see his skills dulling. He only stole seven bases, his walks were down, and his defense was becoming a problem. Two years later, the Astros couldn’t take that defense and moved him out to center field, where he never once posted a positive defensive WAR. You expect players to decline in their late 30s and Biggio did at about the normal pace. He did score 100 runs twice more and he hit a career high 26 home runs at age 39. But he really wasn’t even a good player by then, much less a great one.

That, it seems, is precisely the time Biggio started getting recognized because of those gaudy career marks. Biggio is 16th all-time in games played, 10th in plate appearances, 15th in runs scored, 5th in doubles, and second only to 19th and early 20th century player Hughie Jennings in getting hit by pitch. People were calling him a sure Hall of Famer when he retired, not so much for the greatness he displayed in the heart of his career, but because of all those hits and doubles and runs scored and so on.

I think that’s a shame. I mean, if those career totals gets him in the Hall of Fame, I’m all for it. But I’ve heard way too many people refer to Biggio as a “compiler.” I don’t think it’s right in his case. Yes, I think he was a highly adaptable player who kept himself in amazing shape, and these things allowed him to compile those great career numbers. But that’s not a bad thing.

And more to the point he was really a sensational player in his prime, a better overall player for five or six years than Barry Larkin (in large part because Larkin couldn’t stay in the lineup) or Robbie Alomar, the two middle infielders of that time who are in the Hall of Fame. He couldn’t stay at that level for as long as they did, but he was awfully good.

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46 Responses to No. 93: Craig Biggio

  1. PF Chang says:

    1993 he had 15 SB and was caught 17 times.

    • Which hunt? says:

      Really? I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. If I was his manager I would have straight gone Tonya Harding on him that year.

      • invitro says:

        I guess somebody went something on him because next year he was 39-4.

        My notes say Bill James didn’t just put Biggio in his top 100, but had him #35. THIRTY-FIVE! That can’t be right, can it?

  2. Clayton says:

    I’d take Biggio over Larkin, but Robbie over both of them any day. I think 93rd seems about right but I’m curious to see who Joe ranks above Biggio at 2B.

  3. Herb Smith says:

    In order: The Rajah, Little Joe, Eddie Collins, The guy the Cleveland Naps were named after, the guy who broke the color line, and unless he expects Cubs fans to riot, Mr. Ryno Sanberg.

  4. Herb Smith says:

    SanDberg, that is, with a D. Actually, their careers (he and Biggio’s) are surprisingly similar. It’s quite like the Hornsby vs. Eddie Collins comparison; although their career WAR’s are very close, Sandberg/Hornsby acquired their numbers in a far shorter time period. This would seem to indicate that they were superior players, but simply didn’t last as long.

  5. sdsuffron says:

    Biggio wasn’t “injured a bit” in 2000. He tore the ACL and MCL in his knee. He moved to the outfield because they signed Jeff Kent. They didn’t sign Jeff Kent because they wanted to move Biggio to the outfield.

    I think Biggio was underrated by stats guys in the last part of his career. I never felt like he was overrated. Maybe I didn’t read those types of writers, but I never noticed people speaking of him as an all-time great player. (I do remember Colin Cowherd calling him a “utility player” who didn’t belong anywhere near the HOF when he passed some milestone). The totals started making people grudgingly admit that he was. I don’t think he sniffs the HOF if that knee injury had more or less ended his career in the early 2000s.

    Meanwhile, the BTF-types were calling him a replacement-level player when he was still putting up 80+ XBH per year, which I thought was a stretch (I know his OF defense was bad, but I’m pretty sure LF at Minute Maid skews defensive numbers). He only played one season or so when he was not the Astros’ best option at 2B; people act like he selfishly held back better options for half a decade.

    As an Astros fan, I was much more a Bagwell guy than a Biggio guy, but Biggio was a great player who hung around as a good one, not dead weight.

    • amazin69 says:

      Nice to know that Colin Cowherd has always been an idiot.
      I lived in Las Vegas in 1989-1991, when Colin was doing the sports at KVBC-3, the local NBC station. I don’t remember his being at all offensive, probably because they made him just introduce the highlights and not run his mouth. Or maybe he hadn’t yet become the a-hole who thinks “baseball is so simple, even Dominicans can play it”. How does this dip still have a job? Disgusting.

  6. Which hunt? says:

    This HOF Ballot is INSANE:
    My (fictional) Ballot:

    Convinced They belong, but don’t have room:

    Still Considering:

    I don’t have a coherent theory of the steroid problem, yet. Maybe I never will. I’m pretty sure Mattingly, Smith and Palmeiro would never make it on to a fake ballot of mine, but I’m open to arguments. Maddux, Piazza and Raines are no brainers in my opinion. Everything else is up in the air! Trammell, Thomas and Martinez are probably also not negotiable. There is no right answer here though… How is a voter to make sense of this ballot?

    • I completely understand (and agree with) the push to get Rock into the HOF, but as a Maddux-level no-brainer while Frank Thomas has to sweat it out? That’s pushing it a little…

    • Ian R. says:

      Swap Mussina and Walker for Schilling and Biggio (and I’d vote for all four of them if there was room), and you’ve got a dead match for my fake ballot.

      I do think Bonds and Clemens should go in eventually, but when there are this many deserving candidates, they can wait. I’d probably vote McGwire as well, but he’s way down on the list.

    • KHAZAD says:

      The sad part is that many of the writers will look at this list and not even use all ten of their votes. Some will use less than half. As far as I’m concerned, if you are a voter and can’t come up with 10 names off this list, whoever you choose, you have lost you perspective and need to have your vote taken away.

      • Which hunt? says:

        Plus left off Morris, McGriff, Rogers, Gonzalez and Alou. They would never make my ballot, but you could make a decent case for each of them. So 24 players in the neighborhood, give or take?

      • True and players deserving a longer hearing will fall off the ballot because they lack the minimum support to stay on. I realized this when researching Lou Whitaker. He came on to a stacked ballot with 7 future HOFers and another 8-9 with strong cases. He therefore could not get enough votes to stay on the ballot more than one year. This will be the fallout of this years voting…. Possibly even if all voters use all ten votes. There will be a lot of fragmented support for a lot of players, so I doubt that more than 1-2 will be elected, along with those that unfairly drop off the ballot altogether.

        • Ian R. says:

          We’ve already seen shades of that with Kenny Lofton’s dropping off the ballot last year. He’s a borderline candidate, but come on. One and done? Really?

  7. Biggio not hitting into a double play in 1997 probably was helped by the terrible OBP of the 8 hitters for the Astros that year (mostly Bogar and Ausmus) along with the pitchers hitting in the nine spot. I wonder how rare that really is.

    • dshorwich says:

      It’s rare. The NL started tracking GIDP in 1933, the AL in 1939. Since then there have there have been 7 batters who qualified for the batting title without grounding into a single double play:

      1942 Pete Reiser (537 PA)
      1968 Dick McAuliffe (658 PA)
      1990 Rob Deer (511 PA)
      1994 Ray Lankford (482 PA)
      1994 Otis Nixon (461 PA)
      1994 Rickey Henderson (376 PA)
      1997 Craig Biggio (744 PA)

      • Ian R. says:

        It’s worth pointing out that three of those players did it in a strike-shortened season and that one did it in the Year of the Pitcher when nobody was getting on base in the first place.

        • KHAZAD says:

          Also, one of the other ones was Rob Deer, who was not fast, but never hit a ball on the ground either. Stirike out or fly ball for him. Biggio put the ball in play 519 times in 1997.

        • dshorwich says:

          True, 3 of these seasons were posted in 1994, although there are still only 19 seasons of players with 376 or more PA and 0 GIDP, so it’s a rare feat even with that reduced criterion. And there are only 2 other seasons of players with 461 or more PA and 0 GIDP:

          1984 Dave Collins (492 PA)
          2006 Corey Patterson (499 PA)

          I’d rather know the number GIDP opportunities rather than just PA, but you work with what ya got.

          Also to mention, in 1967 Dick McAuliffe only had 2 GIDP (675 PA) – that total of only 2 GIDP over 2 consecutive qualified-for-the-batling-title seasons is likely a record (e.g. Biggio had 10 GIDP in both 1996 and ’98).

          • I saw Collins in his early career withe Angels. He had lightening speed. I think only his teammate Mickey Rivers was faster in the entire league, and I’m not sure that Collins might not have beaten Rivers in a race. The amazing thing, in 1984,is that Collins batted second. However the lead off hitter was Damaso Garcia with a .304 OBP and Alfredo Griffin, who batted ninth had a sub .300 OBP.

        • NevadaMark says:

          Agreed, but still. Dick McAulliffe? The man was SLOW.

          • dshorwich says:

            And McAuliffe doesn’t appear to have hit an unusually high number of fly balls, nor did he strike out at an inordinately high rate, so his ability to avoid the GIDP is somewhat mysterious.

            So, some more research. I looked up the number of GIDP opportunities for the hitter-seasons I’ve discussed above. It is indeed the case that the players with 0 GIDP have generally had fewer opportunities to hit into a GIDP than usual. A typical middle-of-the-order hitter has about 120-160 such opportunities in a season; a leadoff hitter will have something like 80-110 opportunities a season. Here are the numbers for the seasons previously mentioned, in order of ascending number of opportunities:

            1994 Henderson 31 GIDP opportunities (376 PA)
            1994 Nixon 61 opps (461 PA)
            1994 Lankford 67 opps (482 PA)
            1984 Collins 69 opps (492 PA)
            1968 McAuliffe 78 opps (658 PA)
            1997 Biggio 78 opps (744 PA)
            1990 Deer 87 opps (511 PA)
            2006 Patterson 100 opps (499 PA)

            Data not available for Reiser in 1942.

            Looked at this way, Corey Patterson’s 2006 season was the most impressive in terms of avoiding the GIDP – almost exactly 1/5 of his PAs were in a potential DP situation, & yet he grounded into none.

            A little more on McAuliffe:

            1967 112 opps 2 GIDP (675 PA)
            1968 78 opps 0 GIDP (658 PA)
            1969 44 opps 2 GIDP (321 PA)
            1970 88 opps 1 GIDP (639 PA)

            2293 PA, 322 GIDP opportunities, 5 GIDP. Jim Rice used to ground into 5 double plays a week, if I recall correctly. (E.g. from April 7-13 1984 Rice grounded into 5 double plays in 5 games.)

      • invitro says:

        Great stuff!

  8. Wilbur says:

    The ’68 Tigers had a three-headed monster at shortstop and 8th place hitter: Ray Oyler (247 PAs and .213 OBP), Tom Matchick (244 PAs and .243 OBP) and Dick Tracewski (239 PAs and .239 OBP). They won 104 games and the World Series.

    Pete Reiser is the amazing one, hitting third in the ’42 Dodger lineup, when he was able to be in the lineup. They also won 104 games, but finished second.

    I don’t recall where Lankford hit for the Cardinals.

    • dshorwich says:

      Lankford mostly hit leadoff in 1994, although he also saw some time in the 3-4-5 slots of the batting order.

      (It takes about 10 seconds to look this sort of thing up, y’know.)

    • Reiser had the reputation for great speed and no fear of outfield walls. The former is backed up by this amazing stat…. While the latter is backed up by his short career.

  9. Chad Meisgeier says:

    No. 93 on my list = Reggie Jackson.

  10. Ben Jones says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t think Biggio should get credit for the extra 200 HBP that he got over a normal hitter? He clearly made a habit (in violation of the rules) of trying to get hit by pitches. I don’t think players should be created in exploiting the umpires reluctance to not give first base on such plays.

    • I don’t understand your comment. Lots of players exploit umpire preferences. Maddux and other players of his era exploited the wide (but not high or low) strike zone of their era. Pete Rose let a fair number of balls hit his upper arm. I don’t like Rose, but I never begrudged this particular trait. Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton and others exploited reluctance to seriously curb doctoring the ball. So, I don’t understand wanting to punish Biggio for having the stones to take a HBP….. In which there is no deception involved since he did it with an umpire just two feet away.

    • mrgjg says:

      If it helps his team win, then he should get credit. Isn’t “taken one for the team” a positive thing?

    • Spencer says:

      He played the same game as every one else. Every player had the opportunity to take pitches to the body to help the team. Few actually do it to the extent of Biggio. Mostly because it’s terrifying, even to MLBers.

      He deserves all the credit he gets, maybe more for taking advantage of something few do, there’s a lot to be said for that.

  11. Rick R says:

    In 40 post-season games, Craig Biggio’s post-season line was .234/.295/.323. In his epic season of 1997, his line in 3 playoff games was .083/.154/.083.

    Maybe it’s the curse of small sample size, but if Biggio (and his teammate Bagwell) had performed better in the playoffs, so that the Astros had gone deeper, there would have been more games in which to compile statistics. Whenever I saw Biggio in the playoffs, against top-flight pitching, he looked over-matched. He seemed like one of those guys who feasts on a team’s back end of the rotation and middle relievers, but is helpless against aces and premiere closers. I never bought Craig Biggio as the best player in baseball then, and I don’t buy him as a top 100 player now (incidentally, in 18 playoff games, Ken Griffey Jrs line was .290/.367/.580)

    • Ian R. says:

      First of all, more than half of Biggio’s postseason play came in his age-38 and age-39 seasons, when he was a shell of his former self. Those three games (repeat, three games) in 1997 were the only playoff games he got into while he was still in his prime.

      Second of all, did you notice who started those three games in the 1997 playoffs? Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Are you really knocking Biggio because he went 1-for-12 with a walk against three future Hall of Famers, including arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation, in their respective primes? Really?

    • Ian R. says:

      Incidentally, Ted Williams’ career postseason line was .200/.333/.200. Am I to conclude from this that Griffey was a better hitter than Ted Williams?

  12. KTM says:

    My question about these ballots – out of the 10 necessary, how many should be reserved for pitchers? If i vote for 3 pitchers, that leaves 7 for position players (if i fill all 10 spots).

  13. tombando says:

    Biggio gets hit w the same old Roider suspicions Bags does, unfairly in both cases it will effect their hof cases….both belong easily.

  14. […] who was merely pretty good rather than great for a long time, baseball writers Joe Posnanski points to Biggio’s six year peak from 1994 to 1999 when he “hit .306/.401/.473, scored […]

  15. […]  Biggio was probably deserving, but I won’t try to make the argument.  Not when the great Joe Posnanski has already done the job so […]

  16. amazin69 says:

    Bill James wrote most of the Revised Historical Abstract in 1999-2000, yes, but the book wasn’t published in paperback (with its final revisions to the revisions) until 2003. So his ultimate judgment on Biggio dates from then.

    I like your placement better than James’s. And I’m not sure I should give him quite so much credit for the strike-shortened seasons. Yes, that means that his counting stats are more impressive, given the fewer games per season…but it also means that his case for true excellence rests mostly on only four full-length seasons. When, as noted, the overall totals were grossly inflated. If his peak years were 1928-1931 (hello, Chick Hafey!), we’d cock an eyebrow or two, I’m thinking.

    But he did get there on the career counting stats, so that’s something.

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