Baseball Immortality: It's in the Bags
It was essentially a foregone conclusion that Jeff Bagwell would retire after the 2006 season, and he left the game on the field with little fanfare outside of Houston. The last memories of Jeff Bagwell as a player come from his first and only appearance in the grand stage of the World Series in October 2005, with his Astros falling to the Chicago White Sox in just four games, although that certainly is not the legacy he left behind.
During the course of his 15 seasons on the field for the Astros, Jeff Bagwell was one of the most consistent and productive baseball players in either league, and finished his career as one of the top first basemen in history. Sixteen years ago, few would have predicted anything resembling baseball immortality for the man who would become known simply as "Bags."
Jeff Bagwell was born on May 27, 1968; this is the same birthday as fellow first base slugger, Frank Thomas. After attending Xavier High School in Middletown, CT, Bagwell attended the University of Hartford before he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 amateur draft. Bagwell had grown up a Red Sox fan, idolizing Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, and was now a member of the same organization.
In 1989, Bagwell spent most of his season with Winter Haven of the Florida State League. He would hit .310/.384/.419 there while only striking out around 10 percent of the time. He would follow that up with a more impressive stint at New Britain of the Eastern League in 1990: Bagwell hit .333/.422/.457 with 34 doubles and 7 triples, but only 4 homeruns.
The problem was that the Red Sox were seemingly set at third base, Bagwell's position at the time. Future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was the current third baseman, and the Red Sox had Scott Cooper - who would finish his career with a paltry OPS+ of 89 - waiting in the wings at third base. Lou Gorman, General Manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time, dealt Jeff Bagwell to the Houston Astros in exchange for relief pitcher Larry Andersen. The Red Sox would go on to win the division title, and Bagwell would put together a Hall of Fame caliber career for the 'stros. That trade has been lambasted so universally that it was given its own chapter in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders:
In the Stats 1991 Major League Handbook - published shortly after the 1990 season - Bill James published projections for 413 major league hitters...But there was another set of projections: fifteen minor-leaguers included under the heading, "These Guys Can Play Too And Might Get A Shot." And among those fifteen minor leaguers was Jeff Bagwell, with a .318 batting average. Better than Tony Gwynn's...the underlying causes of the nonprediction were simple: the Eastern League was a pitcher's league, and New Britain's Willow Brook Park was a pitcher's ballpark. Bagwell was twenty-two in 1990, and he'd batted .333 with thirty-four doubles (tops in the league) and seventy-three walks (fourth in the league). Gorman simply didn't know how good Bagwell was.
Bagwell would appear in only seven more minor league games from this point forward, and those were all for rehab stints. Gorman had dealt Bagwell for a variety of reasons: he would need to switch to first base, he wasn't expected to develop homerun power, and the Sox needed the help badly in the bullpen. Well, Bagwell turned into a Gold Glove first baseman and hit 449 homeruns, but never did develop that secondary pitch that would have made him a valuable mop-up guy out of the pen.
Bagwell's first major league season went very well, with Bags bringing home the Jackie Robinson Award at year's end after hitting .294/.387/.437 in one of the toughest home parks for a hitter in the history of the game - Clay Davenport's translations spit out an equivalent line of .316/.414/.509, to put his production into context. It was not particularly close either, with Bagwell taking all but one first place vote. The following year, Bagwell would hit .273/.368/.444 and be worth 10.4 Wins Above Replacement. Before he even developed the power that he was later known for, Bagwell had already put together a 10-win season; not to continue to beat a thoroughly flogged and quite dead horse, Larry Andersen was only worth 7.9 WARP1 from 1990 Boston to the end of his career with Philadelphia in 1994.
In 1993 Bagwell put together what should have been another 10-win season, but fell just short of that mark as a result of playing in only 142 games. He did manage to hit .320/.388/.516 though, thanks in part to a .342 batting average on balls in play. This was exceptional for the Astrodome, and would only improve the following season, the best of Jeff Bagwell's career.
1994 was cut short for Jeff Bagwell because of a broken hand suffered on a hit-by-pitch as well as the player strike. By season's end, though, Bagwell had posted an OPS of 1.201 by hitting .368/.451/.750. Bags walked 65 times while striking out just as often, hit 39 homeruns in 400 at-bats, finished with 73 extra-base hits, posted the best defensive season of his career according to Rate while winning a Gold Glove, and even stole 15 bases at a 79 percent success rate. Measured by OPS+, Bagwell's season was 113 percent above the average, good for the 24th best mark of all-time, and one point and rank ahead of his birthday mate, Frank Thomas, whose loftiest mark came in 1994 as well. Both players took home the Most Valuable Player award at the end of the year with Bagwell becoming just the fourth player in history to do so unanimously. Bags also won the Silver Slugger Award for first base as well while making the first of three All-Star appearances. Incredibly, most of this production came at home: Bagwell hit .373/.459/.816 in the Astrodome, and "only" .362/.443/.683 on the road. His Davenport Translated line was .370/.464/.792; that's the kind of line that would force Babe Ruth to buy you a beer or two.
In 1995, Bagwell's season was cut short by a broken hand for the third consecutive year. He was vulnerable to inside pitches because of his unique stance; he began in a wide-open, crouched stance - almost like he was sitting in an imaginary chair - and would explode upwards into his swing. He began to wear protective padding on his batting gloves to shield his hands, and did not succumb to a broken hand again. I once wore Jeff Bagwell's batting gloves at the All-Star Fanfest from the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, and I can vouch for how heavily padded they were. With his now-protected hands, Bagwell was able to post the second-best season of his career in 1996, putting together a 12-win season that was all bat, finishing with a 179 OPS+.
Bagwell's peak offensive years were from 1994-1999, with Equivalent Averages of .385, .318, .355, .342, .335, and .343. According to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which leverages career and peak WARP into one number to help determine Cooperstown worthiness, Bagwell's peak WARP score is third best all-time among first basemen, behind only Lou Gehrig and Cap Anson. He was very good-to-excellent from 2000 to 2004, but not quite as dominant as his peak. The Astros signed him to a five-year extension in 2001 that would prove ill-fated, as Bags' arthritic shoulder began to bother him to the point of missing significant chunks of time in the fourth year of the deal.
During the 2004 season, Bagwell was able to exorcise the playoff demons that haunted the Astros' Killer B's from their first playoff trip in 1997 up through 2001. He hit .318/.400/.682 in the National League Division Series against the Braves and .259/.355/.333 against the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, vast improvements on his career playoff line of .174/.344/.174 prior to that year. The lack of timely playoff hits had plagued the Astros' most productive hitters every year they failed to win a playoff series, although the sample sizes were small and the circumstances usually beyond their control.
Bagwell also had some interesting streaks in his career: from 1996 to 2001, he hit 30 homeruns, drove in 100 runs and scored 100 runs. From 1996 to 2002, he walked at least 100 times, and had six seasons with over a .300 batting average, much to Lou Gorman's chagrin. Bagwell also managed to steal 202 bases over his career while only getting caught 78 times (72 percent success). In 1997, he became the first player at first base to record over 30 homeruns and 30 steals in the same season, a feat he duplicated in 1999. As previously mentioned, Bagwell was a fine defensive first baseman, with 127 Fielding Runs Above Average to his credit, as well as a Gold Glove in 1994.
He would play his last game in front of the hometown Astros fans at Minute Maid Park, coming to bat as a pinch hitter who did not reach base; an anticlimactic ending for an incredible player in his first trip to the World Series. With the end of his career, eyes now turn towards his Hall of Fame credentials. Some may question the validity of his statistics because of the era he played in, and others may take his numbers at face value with nary a mention of performance enhancing drugs in his history. Statistically, Bagwell is a shoo-in [corrected], with his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 149.5 where the average Hall of Famer is 100, and his Hall of Fame Standard score of 59.0 where the average Hall of Famer is a 50, as well as his JAWS score of 106.4, third all-time among first basemen. Whether or not he actually makes it is another story entirely, as he finished with 2,314 hits and 449 homers, relatively low totals for Hall of Fame first basemen, or so the belief goes among more traditionally minded baseball fans.
Jeff Bagwell could be a victim of his success in other areas; Bill James has said that players who do very well in many aspects of the game are often overlooked in favor of those who excel greatly in just one area, and Bagwell was an extremely well-rounded player, especially for a first baseman. Here's hoping from one of his fans that history smiles kindly upon him and remembers the man for what he contributed in all facets of the game, rather than a lack of 3,000 hits or 500 homeruns or some such nonsense.
Marc Normandin is a communication major at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, and currently writes a weekly column for Baseball Prospectus. He also contributes to the digital magazine HEATER, writes occasional guest columns at Mets Geek, and posts analysis at his blog Beyond the Box Score.