The Bagwell Debate

added 1/18/2006 by Scott Barzilla

Leave it to the Houston Astros to be creative when attempting to generate fan interest during the off-season. First, it was whether they should offer arbitration to Roger Clemens or not. Now, they are generating debate in blogsphere about what to do about Jeff Bagwell. Most teams just make trades and sign new players. Since the team seems unwilling to do that for the most part (Preston Wilson notwithstanding), creativity is in order.

The facts are hard to come by. That is why a debate of this nature is so interesting and insidious at the same time. No one has seen the doctor's report (including the Astros), no one has seen the insurance provisions (except for the Astros and Bagwell), and only Bagwell really knows how his rehabilitation is going. I'm not going to offer any facts, so I wanted to limit the conjecture that has been flying around. I would rather talk in generalities and let the Jim Adlers of the world haggle over worker's compensation.

Personal Parallel

Since July, I have been training to run in the Houston Marathon. For those outside of Houston, the marathon took place on January 15th and I ran as planned. The only thing is that I didn't run the whole thing. About thirteen miles in my feet told me I wasn't going to be running the rest of the way. I tried to talk them out of it, but they won the argument on that day.

However, I kept walking as quickly as I could and managed to finish the marathon before they closed the course. I got my finisher's medal. I bring this story up not because it was an amazing athletic feat or to brag on myself. I brought it up because I trained hard throughout the year and worked hard on that day. I wasn't going to quit until someone told me I had to. In that moment, I had a very profound understanding of what Jeff Bagwell and other aging stars must be thinking at times.

Of course, I had an advantage that Jeff Bagwell doesn't. My finish line was pre-established while Bagwell's is somewhere inside his head. He has said on several occasions that he wants to play through the end of his current contract. Depending on how you look at that, that could be either at the end of this next season or 2007. Either way, he can see the finish line and it's going to be next to impossible to get a guy like Bagwell to voluntarily quit before he crosses that finish line.

Beyond that though, every player has their own nebulous finish line in their own minds. Some want to put up enough numbers to garner serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. Others want to do that, but they are more interested in finishing on a high note or winning that elusive championship. I think Bagwell falls into the last category, but we can always take a look at the Hall of Fame side of the issue. I publish the following numbers expecting Bagwell to add to them, so this is certainly not to be an obituary on his career, but a look at a player entering the final mile of his marathon career.

Impressive Resume

As you might expect, I'm not going to focus on the traditional numbers because I don't think those numbers accurately represent anyone's true value. However, I will include them for our enjoyment. The numbers I want everyone to focus on will be runs created, runs created above average, fielding runs, and win shares. These truly reflect where Bagwell ranks in the history of the game.

          Total    1B Rank
Hits       2314       15
HR          449        6
Runs       1517        5
RBI        1529        6
Walks      1401        2
EBH         969        3
TOB        3843        3
AVG        .297       29
OBP        .408        8
SLG        .540       10
OPS        .948       10

We all know the number that the writers will focus on when they fill out their ballot. This is one of the frustrating things when you look at the Hall of Fame selection process. One the ESPN radio deejays said something I couldn't say better myself: 'people say numbers don't tell the whole story. Those people aren't looking at the right numbers.'

He went a little too far because statistics only explain about 95 percent of what happens on the diamond, but the truth is that too many people focus on the five percent and forget about the other 95. Folks, the 95 percent is enough the vast majority of the time. Here is an example of how a different set of numbers put Bagwell in the kind of light we all believe he should be in.

                Total     1B Rank
Runs Created      1768         7
RCAA               680         5
RCAP               510         6
Fielding Runs       71         * 
TRAA               581         5
Win Shares         387         3

I think Bill James (win shares) is a little generous, but the rest of it is pretty spot on. Unfortunately, there are no fielding runs rankings available anywhere, but it doesn't take too much of an imagination to assume Bagwell ranks somewhere near the top ten. So, Bagwell ranks somewhere between fifth and seventh all-time depending on who you look at.

Where do we go from here?

All of the folks that claim the Astros owe Jeff Bagwell have a point. Bagwell and Biggio single-handedly turned the organization around and made it legitimate. However, their view of history is somewhat limited. Let's be conservative and assume Bagwell is the seventh best first baseman of all-time. In that scenario we would put Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, Johnny Mize, and Jake Beckley in front of him.

Ironically, half of those guys played in the 19th century (probably explaining the win shares gap). How many of those players played for one organization in their career? Lou Gehrig. Of course, I would point out that player movement was a part of life in the 19th century and Gehrig's career ended tragically. Still, we cannot deny the fact that most superstars do not finish on the team they started with. Babe Ruth didn't. Willie Mays didn't. Ty Cobb didn't. Lefty Grove and Cy Young didn't. The point is that preferential treatment is the exception rather than the rule throughout history.

Expecting the Astros to be loyal is unrealistic. However, those that hope the Astros will be loyal have a fair point. Teams and players will always be loyal only when it suits them do so. Furthermore, any organization that sets loyalty as a policy usually gets burned more than a few times. So, the question for the Astros is whether it is in their best interest to keep Bagwell around.

On the one hand, we could look exclusively at the here and now and say no. Even if you take money out of the equation, teams cannot afford to have a player on the bench that can't play in the field (at least not National League teams). That spot would be better spent on an additional pitcher for the bullpen or a versatile player like Eric Bruntlett or Chris Burke that can play many positions.

Conversely, the here and now is a narrow view that denies public relations and long-term fan support. Allowing Jeff Bagwell to retire on his own terms gives him dignity and builds rapport with the fans. It also goes a long way to give the Astros their own identity. Teams like the Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox have a connection with their past. The Astros don't have that connection yet because most of the stars in their history either weren't legitimate stars or they left to finish their careers elsewhere.

One Man's Opinion

One thing last longer than fame in life. The Astros came very close to it last year and if they were able to earn it this year it wouldn't matter to most fans who was on the team. This is why the Astros are exploring every option on Bagwell's insurance settlement. Getting that money would allow them to make a deal or two that might give them a better chance to make another run.

I can certainly sympathize with that point of view and if given a choice between a World Series championship and seeing Bagwell play another year, I'd choose the championship. Of course, as we all know, it's never that simple. Even if the club got the settlement, there is not guarantee they would get who they wanted in a trade. Even if they got who they wanted there's no guarantee those players would lead them to the championship.

If I knew Drayton and company would parlay the money into another key player or two I would gladly take the emotional risk. If I knew he was going to parlay the money into the Drayton McLane retirement fund he would find a place in my heart next to John McMullen. I'm sure he knows that will be the case with most fans. Jim Clancy simply won't cut it.