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.