Baseball BeatAugust 16, 2010
Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell: Two Peas in a Pod
By Rich Lederer

Aside from their difference in positions, the careers of Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell have been almost identical. The National League rivals each won a Most Valuable Player Award and produced statistics that are almost indistinguishable from one another.

While Bagwell and Frank Thomas may have been separated at birth — both players were born on the same day (May 27, 1968), played first base, arrived in the majors within a year, won the MVP Award in 1994 (Bags in the NL, the Big Hurt in the AL), and produced career totals that were more alike than not — the similarities between Bags and Chipper are nearly as astonishing.

Jones and Bagwell have both been in the news recently. Chipper underwent surgery for a torn ACL this past week, and Bags was named the hitting coach for the Houston Astros last month. The offseason should be an interesting time for these superstars. Speculation will surround whether Jones can fully recover from his knee injury and return in time for the 2011 season, while Bagwell will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at how closely Jones' and Bagwell's career counting and rate stats line up:


It's pretty difficult to separate the two, no? I don't think you can really make a strong case for one and not the other based on the counting or rate stats. Given that Jones has played in 111 more games with 223 additional plate appearances, perhaps we can agree that Bagwell edges Jones by the slimmest of margins on the offensive side of the ledger by virtue of his .003 and .004 advantages in OBP and SLG, respectively, as well as his favorable ballpark-adjusted OPS (aka OPS+).

Bagwell was actually a better defensive player at his position (1B) than Jones was at his (3B). However, Jones played the more difficult corner infield spot and the difference in positional scarcity is estimated to be worth about 140 runs according to Sean Smith of, whose work on Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has become the industry standard.

Based on WAR — which factors hitting, baserunning, fielding, and position — the difference between Bagwell (79.9) and Jones (80.0) works out to 0.1 win. One-tenth of one win over the course of their 15- and 16-year careers. They rank 56th and 57th all time in WAR among all players and 36th and 37th among non-pitchers.

As far as peak value goes, the nod goes to Bagwell, who produced three seasons (8.9, 8.3, and 8.1) that exceeded Jones' best (7.9). On the other hand, Bagwell had two seasons that were worse than anything Jones has put up to date.*


* I'm skeptical of the -19 Total Zone assigned to Bagwell's fielding in 2003, which is the primary reason for his abnormally low 1.7 WAR total that season. His basic stats (games, innings, putouts, assists, errors, double plays) are not all that different than 2002 and 2004. Moreover, his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) was 4.1, which is almost exactly halfway between his 2002 (3.1) and 2004 (5.0) marks. The net effect of this potential glitch is that it reduces Bagwell's value by about two wins in 2003 and, by extension, two wins for his career.

The bottom line is that Jones and Bagwell are two of the greatest players of the past two decades. One can make a case that both rank among the top five players at their position since 1900 (with only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, George Brett, and Wade Boggs possibly exceeding Jones at 3B and Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols outdoing Bagwell at 1B). As a result, Jones and Bagwell should be slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Here's hoping that Bagwell gets his due when the results are announced in January and Jones follows up five years after his retirement, which may or may not be in 2010.


The strikeout difference is pretty stark between the two, ~16.5% to ~13.2%, so in terms of outs produced, Jones' distribution was likely more preferable.

Also, Bagwell's stolen base rate is sub-par, while Chipper's is above-par (sup-par isn't a word... right?). However, in both cases, the variation is slim.

Regardless, great comparison! Did not realize just how similar they were. It would be interesting to see if their spray charts were also similar.

To be fair about those two lousy seasons at the tail end of Bagwell's career, he was dealing with an arthritic shoulder and could barely throw in the field, much less crank a home run. It was really hard to watch him those last couple years.

Great job on the analysis.

One thing to note is that there are really big variances in Chipper's defensive stats. Some places have him at basically hovering around league average the whole time, whereas some have him as basically historically bad. I think BBRef's numbers fall on the historically-bad end, but I don't remember exactly.


Why do you say "Bagwell's stolen base rate is sub-par?" The league average was 178-80 for a % of 69% while he had 72.1%.


" Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols outdoing Bagwell at 1B)"

Wow. How fully has Mark McGwire slid beneath the sands of time...

I watched most every game of Chipper's career. He was probably a slight negative to mildly negative on defense in comparison to other 3B-men of his era. But he never was as bad as what Baseball Prospectus had him at on defense, which was nearly historically bad by the numbers. This is no Derek Jeter situation, where he would be considered one of the worst fielding MLBers at his position for multiple years. 2010 would be the first year where I would say he was a replacement-level fielder at third. Ironic he tore his ACL on his best defensive play of the year.

Thanks for the comments.

@James: The types of outs are partially captured in WAR as the negative value of GIDP and the positive value of Reached on Error are both inputs in the calculation. In addition, as Cyril points out, I would not classify Bagwell's SB rate as "sub-par" and believe the difference between Bags and Chipper is "slim" as you noted.

@valuearb: I wasn't surprised by McGwire's career WAR as much as the fact that Mac's peak season in 1998 ranked fifth when compared to Bagwell's best seasons. McGwire created more runs as a hitter that year than Bagwell's best season but his defense and baserunning both detracted from his overall totals whereas they enhanced Jeff's. While a case could be made for McGwire as the fifth-greatest first baseman of all time, an objective analysis of offensive *and* defensive value would find it difficult to rank him ahead of Gehrig, Foxx, Pujols, or Bagwell.

I agree, both among the all-time greats.

Overall, I'd give the edge to Chipper though, defensive position, less Ks, switch-hitter.

I think Chipper gets extra credit for being more versatile than Bagwell I didn't follow Bagwell that closely but I think his reputation was similiar to Steve Garvey--- neither of them could throw a baseball. Jones could have played first base, but I don't think Bagwell could have played anywhere but first base.

Stan: Bagwell came into the league as a 3B. However, he got traded to the Astros, who had a viable 3B in Ken Caminiti, thus they moved him to 1B.

Mark McGwire doesn't even belong in the same discussion with Jeff Bagwell when it comes to discussing the greatest first basemen since 1900.

Hey, I dig the long ball. I had the "Bash Brothers" posters up on my wall when I was kid. Also had the one of a super-sized McGwire on one side and Will Clark on the other side of the Bay.

But McGwire was a one tool first basemen and we don't even know how legitimate that one tool was.

Bagwell did it all from hitting for average, power, great defense, taking the extra base, stealing a bag, etc...

The recent comparisons of his birthday mate Frank Thomas (and the Flavor-of-the-Month Jim Thome) don't compare either. He wasn't a DH type, he was third baseman playing first because of Caminiti that happened to hit for enough power to hold the position down.

Some younger players that remind of Bagwell as far as playing style are Mark Texiera and Derek Lee.

Good analysis on the similarity of regular season stats.

One distinct edge in Chipper's favor are his post-season stats. Lifetime .871 OPS in October and because of the Braves remarkable run, Chipper played in 11 NLDS, 6 NLCS, and 3 WS.

Bagwell on the other hand was actually quite miserable in the post-season, providing a .685 lifetime OPS across 6 NLDS, 2 NLCS, a 1 WS.