Jeff Bagwell v. Round Numbers

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The early end to (Jeff Bagwell)’s career kept him from hitting 500 home runs, which almost certainly would have punched his ticket to the Hall (of Fame). – Brian McTaggert

For years, round milestone numbers drove the Hall of Fame selection process: collect 3,000 hits, bang 500 home runs or win 300 games and, “Hello, Cooperstown!” And while the aura surrounding those milestones has dimmed a bit (Pedro Martinez was elected with “only” 219 wins), there’s no question they still pack a punch when it comes to voting (look no further than Craig Biggio and his 3,060 hits). When a voter is tasked with narrowing a ballot of 30-35 eligible players – each and every year – pinpointing an easily understood milestone makes it easier.

Of the 59 Hall of Fame-eligible players who have won 300+ games, hit 500+ home runs or collected 3,000+ hits, only seven have not been enshrined and their exclusion is specifically tied to performance enhancing drugs (save Pete Rose, who is banned from baseball and thus not eligible). The other 52 have a bronze plaque.

Jeff Bagwell did not hit 500 home runs. He did not collect 3,000 hits (though he did reach base 3,843 times but, semantics). It wouldn’t shock us if some voters, looking for any excuse to not vote for Bagwell, are holding his not winning 300 games against him, too. In terms of creating Bagwell’s Hall of Fame narrative, it can be argued, rather easily, that falling short of both hitting milestones (though more specifically the 500 home runs) is hurting his candidacy.

But should it?

First things first – Bagwell hit 449 home runs in his career, which ranks 39th all-time. It’d be rather irresponsible to diminish the historic nature of Bagwell’s accomplishment just because it didn’t cross a mythical barrier. His career total is still mighty impressive and puts Bagwell in very elite company.

So why didn’t Bagwell crush 500 home runs? We think there are two viable reasons – bad luck and a home field disadvantage.

Bagwell only played 2,150 games in his career, which is the rough equivalent of 13 seasons (he was active for 15) even though, overall, Bagwell was an incredibly durable player.

Between 1991-92 and 1996-2004 –11 seasons altogether – Bagwell missed a grand total of 37 games. He played in at least 156 games ten times, 160 games six times and played a full 162 slate four times.

But Bagwell had a truly remarkable streak between 1993 and 1995: each of those three seasons ended prematurely when a pitch broke his right hand. The freak run of bad luck cost Bagwell 55 games. (The continuation of the 1994/95 player’s strike cost him 18 more games in 1995, by the way.) And then, in 2005, burdened by an arthritic shoulder that forced him to miss 127 games – and play the remaining 39 at far less than 100% health – he was done.

Round milestone numbers are made up of several components, not the least of which is longevity, which Bagwell simply didn’t have. His 2,150 games played are two less than Edgar Renteria. But when he did play, oh, boy – Bagwell was an unrepentant beast.

If you look at the 26 players who have hit 500+ home runs, half of them (13) failed to reach 500 home runs in their first 2,150 games. Here’s the list:

Player
HRs (2,150 Gs)
Barry Bonds
495
Frank Thomas
495
Ted Williams490
Hank Aaron489
Eddie Mathews482
Frank Robinson468
Willie McCovey464
Reggie Jackson459
Jeff Bagwell
449
Ernie Banks448
Gary Sheffield
440
Mel Ott
415
Rafael Palmeiro413
Eddie Murray381

And keep in mind – Bagwell was still a very good player in 2004; he hit 27 home runs and posted a 116 OPS+ and 3.1 oWAR. Sure, those numbers were below the lofty standards he had previously set – but had his career not come to an abrupt end, had he been able to stick around for two-to-four more years with reasonably good health, he almost certainly sails past 500.

He didn’t, and we’re not going to pretend he did. Bagwell couldn’t stay healthy and that can absolutely be used as a mark against him. But health doesn’t invalidate talent. He didn’t miss the milestone because he wasn’t good enough – look at the elite company he’s in. No, he missed the milestone, at least in large part, because he essentially missed the rough equivalent of nearly two full seasons of games.

Perhaps a much greater culprit was likely the venue where Bagwell accumulated roughly 30% of his career at-bats: the power-suffocating Houston Astrodome.

Bagwell totaled 2,832 plate appearances in the Astrodome and hit 126 home runs there. And let’s take a moment to clearly articulate that his nine years in the Dome included the entirety of his prime, ages 23 through 31.

Looking at his home run pace those nine years, had all 9,431 of his career plate appearances occurred inside the Dome, he would have totaled 420 home runs. Conversely, his road pace (215 home runs in 4,787 plate appearances) puts his total at 511.

And just to underscore the extreme pitching conditions of the Astrodome, and to illustrate that this wasn’t possibly an issue exclusive to Jeff Bagwell, a study in 1992 looked at the impact stadiums had on home runs.

According to the final results, from 1979-1991, the Astrodome yielded the fewest home runs, per game, of any stadium in baseball (.44). Further, if we assume an average stadium yielded a home run rate of 1.0, the Astrodome again ranked dead last with a rate of .63.

Additionally, the paper details a method they created to try and calculate “true” home run totals (ie an attempt to “even” the playing field so that plus/minus stadium yields didn’t skew the numbers too egregiously when evaluating power hitters).

If we plug Bagwell’s home runs into that formula (and we don’t want to spill too much nerd on you; hit the link if you want a full explanation), pitting his Astrodome total (126) against a league average stadium, his “true” home run total is 523.

In other words, you could, incorporating these two data points, estimate that the Astrodome cost Bagwell potentially 60-75 home runs during the prime of his career.

Now, to be fair, Bagwell did spend his final four full seasons in a park literally engineered specifically to take advantage of his right-handed power. But two things to note about Minute Maid Park and its ridiculously short left field fence: 1) he was 32 during his first season so it’s not like he was there at the peak of his greatness (though he was obviously still extremely good in 2000); 2) he wound up with just 1,812 plate appearances there; nearly half as many as his Astrodome total and just a tick below 20% for his career. Minute Maid undoubtedly padded his total; his projected career total if every plate appearance happened there is 562. If we split the difference with his projected Astrodome-only total (420), it comes to 494 career home runs.

(Does your head hurt? Our does. Let’s take a breather…)

(Feel Better? Good. Let’s wrap it up…)

Again, all of this is pretty surface-level dissection – we’re not trying to arrive at an exact number. Instead, we simply want to give some context to his numbers and show that there were other factors keeping his total down.

Finally, it should be noted that Bagwell did manage to cross some fairly significant round numbers. In addition to being one of only 51 members of the 400+ home run club, Bagwell’s also one of only:

52 players to score 1,500+ runs
48 players to drive in 1,500+ runs
28 players to draw 1,400+ walks

And Bagwell is one of only 17 players that belongs to the 400/1,400/1,500/1,500 club. And if you expand that class to include at least 200 stolen bases, Bagwell is one of only six players to go 200/400/1,400/1,500/1,500.200

More fun with round numbers: Bagwell is one of only 33 players in Major League Baseball history with 1,500 runs scored and 1,500 runs batted in. And he ranks 33rd* among that group in plate appearances.

In other words, Jeff Bagwell packed quite a bit of production into what is a relatively small sample. It’s why the totality of his greatness is easier to represent in rate stats than counting stats and why it’s unfair to judge him by milestones.

* As of January 2017.

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