Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell: Two Peas in a Pod
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 BaseballProjection.com, 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.