It’s fun to look at Bagwell and Thomas back-to-back because they were born on the same day: May 27, 1968. I find it amusing that the Year of the Pitcher gave us so many great hitters; there’s Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Jeff Kent, John Olerud, Bernie Williams, Roberto Alomar…
Anyway, Bagwell was one of the best first basemen in the league throughout his career, and that was a league that at various points included Thomas, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome and others. He didn’t quite have Thomas’ offense, but his career 149 OPS+ is still outstanding, and his 449 home runs look much more impressive if you consider that he played his home games at the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. Bagwell was also a highly regarded defender and a surprisingly talented baserunner; he remains the only first baseman ever to post a 30-30 season, let alone two (1997 and 1999).
Bagwell has faced an uphill battle toward the Hall of Fame so far because of steroid accusations, which I find pretty much inexplicable. There’s no real evidence that he used. Those who make the charge* tend to point out that he noticeably bulked up through his career, that he played with several known users and that he developed power at the major league level. He hit just six homers in his minor league career, and his 39 in a strike-shortened 1994 season took everyone by surprise.
*Come to think of it, I only rarely see articles that actually allege that Bagwell took steroids. I see many, many more articles expressing outrage that he’s being unjustly accused of steroid use. Who are these silent commentators making baseless accusations?
It’s worth pointing out, though, that power tends to peak later than most other baseball skills. Bagwell was 26 in 1994, an age when most players are entering their power primes. Many young players upgrade from doubles power to home run power as they get older. Many athletes (and, for that matter, men in general) add muscle in their late twenties and thereafter. Performance-enhancing drugs can contribute to both of those changes, but they’re not the only way to do it.<
Is it possible that Jeff Bagwell used steroids? Sure. When the only argument you have against a player's candidacy is speculation, though, you don't have an argument. He should be in.
Six years ago, anyone with 3,000 hits was viewed as an absolute, no-doubt shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. That was when both Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. made it to the Hall on the first ballot. Ripken, of course, is one of the five or so greatest shortstops of all time, and he had the iron-man record to boot; the fact that he had a ton of hits was almost incidental. Gwynn’s case, though, was build almost entirely on his high hit total; his contemporary, Tim Raines (more on him in a bit), has had a much harder time reaching the Hall despite a remarkably similar career.
Since then, three more 3,000-hit guys have made it to the BBWAA ballot. One of them was Rickey Henderson, who sailed in without too much trouble, but he, like Ripken, was famous for something other than getting hits. The second was Rafael Palmeiro, whose situation is absolutely fascinating: He’s closer to falling off the ballot than making it to Cooperstown. I’ll talk about him in an upcoming post.
Then we have Craig Biggio, and on his resume, the 3,000 hits almost look like a negative.
It’s not that Biggio has a ton of hits, of course; it’s what he had to do to get them. There’s a widespread belief that he should have retired four or five years before he actually did, that he stuck around well past his days as a useful player in order to make history.
That criticism isn’t entirely unfounded. Biggio was above-average in only three of his last eight seasons, and his last year was especially brutal: According to baseball-reference.com, he was two wins below replacement level. Some people look at that stretch of mediocrity and remember Biggio as a “compiler,” a player who stuck around for long enough to accumulate good numbers without ever being truly great.
The truth is that Biggio was the best offensive second baseman of the ’90s. From 1991 through 1999, he posted an excellent .390 on-base percentage, including four separate seasons above .400. He was also an outstanding baserunner, leading the league in steals in 1994 and stealing 30 or more bags four other times. A leadoff hitter’s job is to get on base and get into scoring position, and Biggio was elite in both categories while playing above-average defense at second base.
Biggio had a nine-year run of playing at an All-Star level every season, and he was tremendous in 1997. That’s a Hall of Fame peak. He lasted long enough to accumulate 67 WAR, even with that negative number in his last season. That’s a Hall of Fame value career.
It would be great to see both Killer B’s go in together. That’s not likely to happen, as Biggio is much closer to being elected than Bagwell, but they’re together on my ballot.
Well, this case is pretty straightforward. Piazza is famous for one thing and one thing only: He’s the greatest offensive catcher in the history of the game.
You can pick just about any number you want. His 143 career OPS+ is tied with Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew and some guy named Alex Rodriguez. His 427 home runs are easily the most at his position (Carlton Fisk is second with 376). His career slash line is .308/.377/.545, and even given his high-flying offensive era, that’s an impressive line for any player.
Questions have been raised about his defense, but those issues are probably overstated. Yes, Piazza had a weak throwing arm, but pitchers generally liked throwing to him, and he was as good as anyone at blocking and receiving
Having said that, even if he were a terrible defender, Piazza would be a clear Hall of Famer. I don’t think that having the most home runs of all time at a position is an automatic qualifier for the Hall of Fame; Jeff Kent, for instance, isn’t on my ballot. I do, however, think that being the best all-around offensive player at a given position is enough.