Jeff Bagwell v. Craig Biggio

Jeff Bagwell v. Craig Biggio

This past weekend, Craig Biggio was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Astro ever inducted.

(Technically, he’s the ninth Astros elected into Cooperstown, joining Randy Johnson, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Robin Roberts, Joe Morgan, Eddie Matthews, Nelly Fox and manager Leo Durocher. But only Ryan and Morgan spent significant time in the organization. In fact, Ryan spent more time in an Astro uniform than any of the other three teams he played for – but he had hugely defining moments in Anaheim and Arlington that makes it difficult to solely identify him as an Astro. Morgan played with the Colt 45s/Astros for 10 years (1963-1971 and again in 1980) but his greatest success came as a member of one of baseball’s most iconic teams – the 1970s Cincinnati Reds.

But Biggio? He has orange (and blue and gold… and black/red/sand…) coursing through his veins. Drafted by the team in 1987, he’s never spent a single day in any organization that wasn’t affiliated with the Houston Astros. And seven years after retiring as an Astro, he remains a fixture with the club, perhaps its most important alumna.)

His election into the Hall of Fame is a tremendous moment for the Astros and their fans. Better, it’s a well-deserved moment for Biggio, a tremendous baseball player whose accomplishments belong among the sport’s immortals.

As Biggio was building that Hall of Fame resume, of course, he was often abetted by Jeff Bagwell, his baseball life partner. The two were intricately linked; the foundation of the Killer Bs and the backbone of the franchise’s most sustained stretch of success. Biggio found a way on base, Bagwell knocked him in, and the Astros won a lot of games. Lather, rinse, repeat. Often.

As players, Bagwell and Biggio were cut from a similar cloth; men of action, few words, who set an impossibly high standard of professional excellence and built a culture that embraced winning above all else.

In 2013, Biggio joined Bagwell on the Hall of Fame ballot and, not surprisingly, the two finished near one another atop the ballot (of non-inductees), separated by a mere 49 votes; even in retirement, it looked like Bagwell and Biggio’s careers would again intersect as the prospect of them entering Cooperstown together grew stronger.

But then an odd thing happened.

The following year, Biggio took a tremendous leap forward, picking up 39 votes and moving within a mere two votes of election. But Bagwell inexplicably lost ground, losing 29 votes and dropping from third overall vote-getter to seventh, officially putting his candidacy in critical (but stable) condition.

After years of being inseparable, Biggio had suddenly separated from Bagwell, his candidacy deemed far more worthy and urgent. A year later, Biggio would receive the official call while Bagwell, again, lost votes (though, technically, he gained percentage points).

Biggio spent three years on the ballot; for some Astro fans, that was one or two years too many but, relatively speaking, it was a rather quick ascension. But Bagwell has now been on the ballot for five years and after steady, incremental improvement each of his first three years, he’s backslid and looks likely to be sidelined for at least another year.

We could waste countless hours in a bar debating whether Biggio was more worthy of induction than Bagwell – that’s not really going to solve anything and it’s not really our point here. What is our point? This: why did the Baseball Writers Association of America look at Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – long-time teammates who excelled at a similar high level – and deem one a (relative) slam dunk and the other a giant question mark?

We have a few ideas.

Unfortunately, as with every other Bagwell-related Hall of Fame discussion, it begins – and perhaps ends – with steroids, which only underscores the total sham that is the Bagwell/PED witch hunt. Bagwell packed on muscles – that’s the smoking gun. And he shared a clubhouse with Ken Caminiti. And Roger Clemens. And a host of other known or suspected steroid users.

But here’s the thing: you can say the exact same thing about Craig Biggio.

Here’s a softer, pudgier Craig Biggio in 1987, his rookie year. And here’s ripped, chiseled Craig Biggio twenty years later.

Wait, sorry – wrong picture – not sure how that happened… here he is.

And every nefarious teammate Jeff Bagwell associated with? Yeah, well, so, too, did Craig Biggio. Again, the guys played together for 15 years*.

We’re not suggesting Biggio did steroids; we’re merely pointing out how selectively – and ignorantly – the writers choose to view the era. If you hit a lot of home runs, you’re guilty (unless, apparently, you’re Frank Thomas). But a long, sustained career of excellence?… Hey, as long as you didn’t hit a lot of home runs, the writers will conveniently look the other way. (Well, most of them.)

* And, by the way, all the postseason failure heaped on Bagwell? Biggio shares equal blame. He struggled just as mightily.  

Beyond the ever-present steroid issue, another relatively clear and far more problematic narrative has emerged: too many members of the BWAA are, well, lazy. And we’re not here to necessarily bury them for it.

The Hall of Fame has no standards for being placed on the ballot, other than a few insignificant criteria – essentially every 10+-year veteran who’s been retired five years is eligible.

As such, voters don’t really have the time, or inclination, to do a deep dive into a potentially bottomless pit of stats year after year – there are simply too many candidates. Last year, there were 16 first-ballot candidates; next year, a whopping 25 are eligible. And that’s in addition to all the holdovers – there will be 42 players on next year’s ballot. And, yeah, sure there are always scores of Darin Erstad-like candidates that shouldn’t (but unfortunately often do) merit consideration. But there are also scores of worthy players – 14 received at least 100 votes last year.

That’s why 3,000 hits (and 300 wins and 500 home runs) still resonates (despite growing more and more archaic each year) – it’s concise, to the point and still rare enough (there are only 27 players with 3,000+ hits in all of baseball) that it absolutely elevates someone’s candidacy.

And voters seem almost star struck by the milestones, oblivious to almost any other consideration.

In his final six seasons, Biggio managed to shave 10 points off his batting average, 18 points off his on-base percentage, 21 points off his OPS; his OPS+ dropped 9 points and he was only able to add a rather paltry 4.5 to his career WAR while chasing his 3,000th hit. His final numbers dropped him considerably behind Joe Morgan and Roberto Alomar, and placed him squarely in Ryne Sandberg’s range – but by virtue of nearly 3,000 more plate appearances.

But none of that mattered: he totaled 3,000 hits and almost nothing could dissuade enough voters from checking his name.

Unfortunately, Bagwell doesn’t have that easy story to tell, even though he leads Biggio is every conceivable rate stat. To really appreciate Bagwell’s greatness, you have to invest a little bit of time and brainpower. Not a lot – his numbers are fairly incredible. But you’re not going to vote for Jeff Bagwell if you perform nothing more than a cursory glance at his BBref.com page

Without those easy-to-spot milestone numbers, Bagwell needs context. Some voters take that to inexplicably mean he isn’t worthy (the old “if you have to think about it…” trope) but that’s ridiculously quaint and, again, screams lazy.

The writers have been tasked with preserving the history of baseball; these players deserve to be examined and properly evaluated so that the story of Major League Baseball can be accurately told. And that story includes Jeff Bagwell being one of the 8-10 best first basemen who has ever played the game.

Until the writers are challenged to… you know, to do their jobs…, Bagwell – and his tremendous career accomplishments – might never be properly recognized.

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