One of baseball’s all-time great debates is who should or shouldn’t be enshrined in Cooperstown, NY and receive the highest honor attainable for a baseball player. Recent inductions and exclusions have only added fuel to the fire.
Just this past year, the veterans committee voted to induct Ron Santo, one of, if not thee, best defensive third baseman of his generation and a player who led the league in walks four times while amassing 342 career home runs, 79.3 fWAR (wins above replacement as determined by FanGraphs) and 66.4 rWAR (wins above replacement as determined by Baseball Reference) in 14 major league seasons. He should have been inducted years ago. Sadly, Santo passed away before the veterans committee got it right. A Hall of Fame worthy player should, by most accounts, accumulate at least 60 or more wins above replacement over a career, which is why the 2009 induction of Jim Rice was viewed by many as a weak representation of HOF standards. Rice had a three-year peak in which he was considered by some as “the most feared hitter in baseball”. However, outside of those three years, 1977-1979, Rice was somewhat of an inconsistent hitter and not considered an especially good outfielder. From 1980 through the end of his career in 1989, Rice would only have two seasons in which he came close to five WAR and eight seasons of sub-three WAR according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs paints a different picture, but, in my opinion, they give Rice way too much credit in their defensive calculations, which are viewed by many as imperfect to say the least.
This brings us to the debates of 2012, one of which is Jeff Bagwell. Based strictly on WAR, there is no way that Jeff Bagwell should be left out of the Hall of Fame. Over a 15-year major league career, Bagwell accumulated 83.9 fWAR and 79.9 rWAR, or roughly 10 more WAR than first ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. In fact, in five fewer seasons than Gwynn, Bagwell posted 152 more runs created. Aside from wins above replacement, his overall numbers are insanely impressive. He hit 449 home runs, stole 202 bases, scored over 1500 runs, drove in over 1500 runs, was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1991, the National League MVP in 1994 and had a career triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .297/.408/.540. Unlike Jim Rice, Bagwell had an extended peak. From 1993 through 2001, almost a decade, Bagwell did not post a rWAR under five and had three seasons of at least eight rWAR. Andre Dawson, who played six more seasons than Bagwell, hit 11 fewer home runs, had an OPS 142 points lower than Bagwell and accumulated 22.9 fewer rWAR. Dawson is in the Hall of Fame. Bagwell received only 41.7% of the votes in his first year on the ballot in 2011.
One argument that people make against Bagwell is that he played in the heart of the steroid era and that his body type (as in this) is proof enough that he juiced. However, there has been absolutely no poof or linkage, other than opinions based on visual accounts, that Bagwell did indeed use performance enhancing drugs. Other sluggers of the era, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, etc, have at least been linked to PEDs if not openly admitted to using them.
For arguments sake, however, let’s just say the Bagwell did use PEDs because “everybody was doing it.” If "everyone was doing it", then we have to treat the numbers produced in the steroid era differently as we would treat the numbers from the dead ball era differently. If we compare Bagwell to other first basemen who’s careers started around 1991 and ended in the early 2000s, we get this list, sorted by rWAR.
Compared against his peers, Bagwell’s numbers shine. No matter how you look at it, he was clearly one of, if not thee, best first basemen of his era. He was the perfect hitter, one that limited his strikeouts, took plenty of walks and hit for both AVG and power. He also added the element of speed, which resulted in over 200 stolen bases.
However, baseball writers have historically been tough on voting in first basemen. Since 1980, only three players who were primarily first basemen over their careers have been voted into the Hall: Eddy Murray, Tony Perez and Willie McCovey. Two of those players, Murray and McCovey, hit over 500 career home runs. Both also played in over 20 big league seasons compared to Bagwell’s 15, in which he was still only 51 homers away from 500 – also, his 15th season only included 39 games and 123 plate appearances. If we compare peak seasons, Bagwell had arguably the best 6-8 peak years of the group.
The numbers and comparisons say that Jeff Bagwell deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. As shown above, he was the cream of the crop when compared to the first basemen of his era. Even if we strip away the first base part of the equation, we still find that he was simply one of the best players of his era. Hopefully the voters get it right and get Bagwell into the Hall.