Gehrig, McGwire... Bagwell?
added 12/27/2000 by Ray Kerby
Now that the Winter Meetings have passed and all of the significant free-agents have been signed, we can return to the fun speculation that traditionally occupies the minds of baseball fans during the winter months. The big news for Astros fans, of course, was the recent contract extension given to star first baseman Jeff Bagwell. Sure, everyone in Houston knows he is a star, but does he really stack up well against his peers? And will he eventually earn a seat at the table of Hall of Famers?
With Bagwell's contract with the team now extended for six more years, it is clear that the best hitter in the history of the organization will likely spend his entire career as an Astro. With apologies to Craig Biggio, Bagwell could be the first player with undeniable qualifications for the Hall of Fame, all earned while playing in Houston. While being a one-team player might slightly help his Hall of Fame case with the voters, it is invaluable to the fans that have been waiting for decades for a player to enter the Hall wearing an Astros cap. So before we get our hopes too high, we could save ourselves some potential heartbreak by realistically evaluating his chances for induction.
There are a lot of statistical criteria that can be used to evaluate the performance of players, but the yardstick by which first basemen have been historically measured revolves around offense. And while meaningful statistics like On-Base percentage and Slugging percentage would have a role in a discussion about the overall offensive value of a player, any discussion about Hall of Fame eligibility must necessarily revolve around the "Triple Crown" statistics that Hall of Fame voters have historically used to measure their candidates: home runs, RBIs, and batting average.
Career offensive totals are weighted very heavily in the minds of HOF voters. If a player is able to reach or maintain certain statistical benchmarks, these can greatly improve his chances of garnering the necessary number of votes for induction. For example, no player has hit 500 career home runs and NOT been inducted. Dave Kingman currently holds the career record for most career home runs (442) without reaching the HOF. Although offensive standards have been watered down in the current Yackball era, it's still safe to say that hitting 500 home runs should guarantee a HOF induction as long as the player was not one-dimensional like Kingman or has any off-field problems that would deny his induction.
Here are the career Triple Crown numbers of the first basemen currently inducted in the Hall of Fame, starting with the most recent inductees. (Eddie Murray has not been inducted, but should be considered a lock when he becomes eligible in 2002 or 2003)
The first thing that jumps out on this list is the incredible home-run power displayed by most of these players. All but three hit at least 475 career home runs, which is a prodigious total. One of the three, Hank Greenberg, missed over four seasons in his prime due to World War II. He hit 41 homers in his last full season before the war at age 29, and hit 44 homers in his first full season back, at age 35. It's not a stretch to conservatively estimate that he would have hit around 150 home runs if not for the war, which would have put him in the vicinity of 500 career home runs. George Sisler is a special case with regards to home runs because he played half of his career in the "dead ball" era, when playing conditions and strategies were decidedly against high home-run totals.
From this list you can also see why many people questioned the HOF qualifications of Tony Perez. He was admittedly an integral member of the Big Red Machine, but the same argument can be made for shortstop Dave Concepcion. But it is common knowledge that the statistic that got Perez into the Hall of Fame was his huge RBI total. In fact, it was a common lament among his backers that he was the player with the most career RBI that was not in the HOF. Of course, someone has to hold that honor, and Perez seemed as good of a choice as any player. There was nothing particularly outstanding about his power or average, and his induction demonstrates the heavy weight the voters place on RBI totals. Understanding this motivation could be an important consideration when Jeff Bagwell eventually retires and waits for his shot at the Hall.
Another list of first basemen to consider are Jeff Bagwell's contemporaries. After all, the voters are not going to be so blind to the current era of inflated offense that they induct half of the first basemen playing today because their career totals are comparable to the existing HOF first basemen. So it is also important that Jeff Bagwell is recognized as one of the elite first basemen of his era. Here is a list of the current "elite" first basemen that are at least as old as Bagwell:
Obviously, Mark McGwire passes the "hit by a bus" test and will be a lock for the HOF if he retires tomorrow. Assuming a worst-case scenario involving only one other induction of the remaining candidates, Bagwell looks well-positioned to be that selection when he is compared against each of the other players. Although Fred McGriff and Rafael Palmeiro seem to have a good lead in home runs and RBIs, they are four and three years older than Bagwell, respectively. Over the last four seasons, Bagwell has averaged 41 homers and 126 RBIs each season. This doesn't mean that those trends will continue, but it is heartening to know that three of those four seasons were played with the Astrodome as the home park, and playing half of his games in Enron Field will go a long way in masking any age-related decline in Bagwell's offensive totals. Projecting Bagwell's HR and RBI averages from the last four seasons would put him well ahead of Palmeiro and McGriff at their current ages, especially with regards to RBIs. In addition, Bagwell has the psychological edge (in the minds of voters) of being a .300 hitter, while Palmeiro and McGriff will likely fall short of a .300 career batting average.
Comparing Bagwell to Mo Vaughn and Frank Thomas is much more straightforward since they are all essentially the same age. In fact, it is a curious coincidence that Bagwell and Thomas were both born on the same day -- May 27, 1968. The comparison to Vaughn is simple: Bagwell has outperformed Vaughn is all significant offensive categories and any projection is going to favor Bagwell, especially with his recent move to a hitter-friendly park. Thomas has been a better hitter than Bagwell over his career, but suffers from what could be a fatal flaw: he has not played first base regularly since 1996 or 1997, depending on how you want to define 'regularly'. This is primarily because Thomas is an atrocious first baseman defensively, and will likely play out the rest of his career as a designated hitter. It is my opinion that voters will use this to discount his offensive numbers, especially when he is compared to legitimate first basemen. So while Thomas will likely get into the Hall of Fame, it should not come at the expense of Jeff Bagwell.
Now for more fun stuff. What kind of career numbers can we expect from Jeff Bagwell? To get an idea, I looked at the careers of the HOF first basemen (in the first table, above) and how their career progressed after age 32. Here are the improvements, as a percentage, in their career at-bats, home runs and RBI after age 32:
You can see a clear distinction in the "post-32" careers of first basemen in the "modern" era beginning with Ernie Banks. Every 1B since Banks saw at least a 56% increase in career at-bats, more than any of the earlier HOF first basemen. Their home run and RBI totals are similarly affected. As a result, I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jeff Bagwell's "post-32" career will be similar to the most recent first basemen. Of course, it is a great assumption to think that Bagwell will show the career length of these players, so I will choose the most conservative numbers of the "modern" era first basemen: Ernie Banks (yes, I am aware that half of his career was played at shorstop).
With an admittedly conservative, Banks-like career progression, Bagwell would end his career with about 450 home runs and 1740 RBIs. Those numbers alone are far superior to those of Tony Perez, even with regards to his vaunted RBI totals. If Enron Field does inflate Bagwell's numbers and we instead see a Stargell-like progression to his career, we might end up seeing around 530 home runs and 1900 RBIs. I believe those are going to be first-round "lock" statistics for any player for a long time, but especially for a high-average hitter like Bagwell. But no matter which path Bagwell's career progresses down, the best part is that we are going to see him doing it in an Astros uniform.