.297/.408/.540, 449 HRs, 1,529 RBI, 202 SBs
Jeff Bagwell was one of the elite hitters of the 1990s and early 2000s. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1991 and MVP in 1994. He had nine 30-homer seasons (including two 30-30 campaigns), and was one of the best power-patience combos of all-time. He accomplished all of this despite playing much of his career in the Astrodome, a pitcher’s haven.
Bagwell did not hit 500 home runs, in part because of the home park and because his body broke down. While his contemporaries have excelled into their late 30s and beyond, Bagwell’s last great season was at age 35 and he was done at 37. His name has never been linked to steroids, but he could be one of the poster boys for sluggers kept out of Cooperstown because of playing in the Steroids Era.
Our panel saw beyond the career home run total and rewarded Bagwell for his overall offensive efforts. It will be interesting to see if the BBWAA writers do the same.
YES: 5 NO: 2
Patrick Stevens: Let’s see, a slugging first baseman who won a NL rookie of the year award and later a unanimous vote for an MVP award in a truly bizarre season. Orlando Cepeda, ye of the amazing performance in the Year of the Pitcher (1967), this is your life! Oh wait, it’s Bagwell’s, too. His MVP came in a strike-shortened season, and who knows if he would have won it even if Matt Williams (remember him?!) stayed on pace to obliterate Roger Maris’ then-home run record.
Bagwell is the prototype for the guy who could pay dearly for playing in the steroid era, a truly dominant slugger for 12 years (1991-2002) whose body didn’t permit him to chase any of the hallowed (and now slightly diminished) magic numbers. But for those dozen seasons, it’s tough to come up with an offensive player not named Bonds who so thoroughly ravaged the National League.
There is one nugget that sways my thinking quite a bit. Everyone thinks of the Astros playing in a crazy little band box with a flag pole in center field and a choo-choo on top of the wall in left. Bagwell played nine of his 12 best seasons in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome, a facility with the vastness wilderness of Yellowstone that turned such mortals as Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Jose Lima into All-Stars (and rich beyond the dreams of the most avaricious of men, of which Hampton may well be one) during the 1990s. In that environment, Bagwell put up five seasons of .400+ on-base percentages, .550+ slugging percentages and 100+ runs scored. Toss in six top-10 finishes in the MVP voting, and Bagwell’s excellence puts him a step above many of the suspicious sluggers who were his contemporaries.
KEVIN BREWER : Jeff Bagwell is overqualified for the Hall of Fame.
Bagwell played 14 full seasons, plus 100 at-bats in 2005. He was among the top 10 players in the league in seven seasons — 1992, 1994, 1996 to 1999 and 2001. In 1994, 1996 and 1999, he was the best player in the league. In his other seven seasons, including his rookie year, he played at an All-Star level. Bagwell hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage, a .500 slugging percentage, 30 home runs and 100 RBI in five seasons. He scored 100 runs nine times, including 143 in 1999 and 152 the next season. He had 100 RBI in eight seasons, including 130 three times. He drew 100 walks seven times, including 135 in 1996 and 149 in 1999.
Finally, in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (2001), James rated Bagwell as the fourth best first baseman of all time and the 45th best player of all time.
JOHN TAYLOR: Think for a moment about the truly great first basemen over the years: Lou Gehrig, Willie McCovey, Haron Killebrew, Jimmy Foxx, even Mark McGwire if you like. Some folks, such as baseball numbers guru Bill James, place Jeff Bagwell’s name right in that mix. I tend to agree. (James also has Bagwell ranked among the top 30 players of all time)
Check out Bagwell’s 1994 season, which was shortened by the strike and by another broken hand (that quirky batting stance left his wrist and hand exposed over the plate and landed him on the DL three times before he started padding it more): 39 homers, 116 RBI, 65 walks, .451 OBP, .368 batting average, 15 stolen bases … all in 110 games. Let that register for a moment. It earned him the only MVP award of his career, just three years after taking rookie of the year honors.
His career numbers add up as well. He never topped 500 homers (finishing with 449), but injuries played a large part in shortening his career. Bagwell, who didn’t make it out of spring training in 2006, finished with a .297 career batting average and a .408 OBP, and his 202 stolen bases jump off the stat sheet. His 1,529 RBI rank him ahead of Eddie Mathews, Jim Rice, Brooks Robinson and McGwire, to name a few; his 1,401 career walks place him among the top 25 all-time, just a few short of Hank Aaron, Wade Boggs and Frank Robinson.
COREY MASISAK: Will Jeff Bagwell’s candidacy for Cooperstown prove that voters realize there is more than just home runs when it comes to hitters, even at first base? I hope so. Bagwell does not have 500 home runs, and given the era he played in, that could be the number his detractors lean on. But Bagwell spent most of his career playing 81 games per season in the cavernous Astrodome. He would certainly have approached 500 if he played in a more neutral park. He also would have if his body had not failed him. Bags was known as tough, hard-nose guy, but that also often led to playing through pain or shelving him because of injury. He was not able to thrive after age 35 like many of today’s sluggers. His name has never been tarnished with steroid suspicions, either.
Regardless of all that, he was easily one of the game’s most feared hitters in the 1990s. He possessed power and patience (and even tossed in 202 steals, including two seasons of 30+), and would have finished his career as a .300/.400/.500 guy if not for his final two seasons when he couldn’t raise his right arm above his head. He is 23rd all-time in OPS, and there is only one guy ahead of him who is eligible for the Hall and not in - Mark McGwire. There are a couple others (Larry Walker and Jason Giambi) who won’t get in either, but Jeff Bagwell is most certainly deserving.
LACY LUSK: Jeff Bagwell was certainly every bit the player of his long-time teammate, Craig Biggio, and then some. He was a force from 1994 through the early 2000s — a long enough period of dominance, in my opinion — who could hit for power, draw walks and even steal bases. Most of his career was in a pitcher’s park, which he made look like a hitter’s park.
MARK ZUCKERMAN: I went into this thinking he was a pretty safe bet to get in, but the more I looked at it, I’m not so sure. Bagwell’s career numbers (.297, 449 homers, 1,529 RBI) are solid, but his individual accomplishments don’t blow you away. He won the 1994 MVP (which only covered two-thirds of a season because of the strike). He won Rookie of the Year in 1991. But did you know he only made four All-Star rosters? Here’s what ultimately swayed me to decide he’s not in the Hall: It’s hard to argue that he was ever the best at his position, or possibly even one of the top 2-3 at his position. First base in the 90s was loaded with HOF candidates: Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Fred McGriff. Now, obviously some of those guys’ numbers may have been inflated by a certain something, but not all of them have been linked to steroids. And even so, if we’re supposed to judge a player against his contemporaries, Bagwell just isn’t head and shoulders above the rest. Forget about steroids, and I’d probably rank him fifth out of that group of first basemen, behind McGwire, Palmeiro, Thomas and Thome. That’s just not quite good enough for me, though I may be in the minority on this one.
TIM LEMKE: Jeff Bagwell had several of the best offensive seasons in recent memory, and was one of the most consistent power hitters of the late 1990s. The problem, however, is that he did everything in an era clouded by steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. Power numbers were so inflated during his career that his numbers look relatively average by comparison. If he had stayed healthy and continued to hit homeruns into his late 30s, his career totals might give him a better case for the Hall of Fame. But as it stands, he falls just shy.