Between 1980 and 1995, 30 players hit 40+ home runs and two hit at least 50. In 1998 alone, 13 players hit 40+ home runs, including four with at least 50.
Jeff Bagwell isn’t one of those players.
And yet, Bagwell’s career is so often lazily dismissed as being a product of the rampant performance-enhancing drugs that permeated baseball during his era. Here, in fact, is KBME’s Lance Zierlein perfectly articulating the sentiment:
@brettmo13 Why are you so upset that he didn’t get in this year? He was another power guy in a power era. Didn’t distinguish like Biggio
— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) January 7, 2015
Is Zierlein right? Was Bagwell just “another power guy in a power era”? Did he not distinguish himself the way Craig Biggio did?
Between 1991 and 2004, Bagwell ranked 5th in total home runs despite logging the third-most plate appearances during the era (9,308). His 446 long balls are actually closer to Matt Williams’ 311 than Barry Bonds’ major league-leading 586*. In terms of slugging, his .542 not only ranked 21st during the era (behind Jim Edmonds) but second among Astros (trailing Lance Berkman’s .563. And for the record, Moises Alou slugged .585 as an Astro 1998, 2000-2001).
(* To put that in perspective; if Bonds had totaled 9,308 plate appearances over the same stretch, he would have hit 636 home runs; or 190 more than Bagwell.)
Bagwell finished with 40, or more, home runs just three times in his 15-year career, the same number as Shawn Green. And his single-season career high of 47 was bettered by, well, Shawn Green, as well as Luis Gonzalez, Greg Vaughn and Brady Anderson (plus 12 other sluggers).
Specifically in 1998, when things went absolutely bonkers, Mark McGwire totaled more home runs at the All-Star break (37) than Bagwell did in nine of his 15 seasons, including 1998 when he finished with 34. Bagwell didn’t even lead his own team in long balls that year; Alou did with 38. Among all players, Bagwell ranked 21st in home runs in 1998, tied with Tony Clark and Dean Palmer (and trailing, yep, you guessed it: Shawn Green, by one). And he ranked 24th in slugging percentage, a full 25 points behind 36-year old Eric Davis, who was on his last legs.
Now at this point, you’re probably trying to figure out why, exactly, we started a campaign to try and get Bagwell elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fair question. While being outranked by Eric Davis on his last legs does indeed seemingly invalidate the idea that Jeff Bagwell was just “another power guy in a power era”… it also means, you know – Jeff Bagwell ranked behind Eric Davis on his last legs, and that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. (Maybe we should see if @ED4HoF is available…)
To answer your question (which you may or may not have asked), we created this campaign, at least in part, to try and address – and, hopefully, refute – long-held misconceptions about Jeff Bagwell. And there might not be a bigger misconception than the idea that Jeff Bagwell was just “another power guy in a power era.”
And here’s why that misconception desperately needs to be corrected: it is the straw most often used to stir the “Bagwell used steroids” drink.
If the era was drowning in a pool of PEDs, marked by previously unimaginable power numbers that did irreparable damage to Major League Baseball’s record book, and Bagwell is perceived as just “another power guy in a power era,” then the trip to condemning Bagwell as a product of PEDs is a short one.
But that line of thinking throws a significant chunk of Bagwell’s not-so-powerful career accomplishments out the window.
During the same stretch (1991-2004), Bagwell ranked 2nd overall in WAR (79.3, trailing only Barry Bonds). (And outdistancing Eric Davis on his last legs by nearly 50 points, by the way). He ranked 2nd in runs scored (besting more distinguished teammate Craig Biggio by nearly 40) and 3rd in both hits (2,289) as well as walks (1,383). And you need just two fingers to count the number of players who totaled at least 400 home runs and 200 steals (Bonds and Bagwell). Oh, and he won a Gold Glove in 1994.
Those stats are not the stats of just “another power guy in a power era.” He was certainly powerful – but not suspiciously powerful, relative to the era. Again, he never hit 50 home runs in a season, and he topped 40 only after moving into Minute Maid Park, which, with its 315-foot fence in left-field, was specifically designed for right-handed hitters like Bagwell.
The battle lines have long been drawn in the debate over performance-enhancing drugs. And we certainly don’t have any delusions of moving anyone off of their entrenched beliefs that using steroids should not be rewarded. But if you’re not voting Jeff Bagwell for the Hall of Fame because he was just “another power guy in a power era” (or if you’re helping to perpetuate that false narrative), then you’re doing a five-tool stud of a baseball player a tremendous disservice.