As we count down the final days to the start to Spring Training, I’ve been wanting to take the opportunity to talk about the one other big bit of Astros-related news this winter: Jeff Bagwell and the Hall of Fame.
We already know the results of this year’s voting. Bagwell became a buzzword and an unfair scapegoat this winter for PED usage and how it affects HOF induction. I won’t argue in depth a case that’s already been argued to death, but the bottom line is that Bagwell has never, ever been connected to PED usage. I didn’t expect him to get elected this year, because he didn’t reach the magic 500-homer or 3000-hit plateaus that seem to be required for first-ballot election. But it’s absurd to label him a “marginal” candidate because of that, and even more absurd to try and exclude him from the Hall based on the possible chance that maybe he might have at some point potentially considered using PEDs during his playing days. Unless concrete evidence to the contrary suddenly emerges, the PED issue should have no effect on Bagwell’s candidacy. Period. And as for his “marginal” status – Baseball Prospectus ranks Bagwell as the fourth-greatest first baseman of all-time based on their JAWS metric, ahead of other such “marginal” candidates as Jimmie Foxx, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Rod Carew and Eddie Murray. He belongs in Cooperstown, end of discussion, and it will be a crime if he never makes it in.
Fortunately, the voting results this year actually weren’t that bad for Bagwell, so it seems now more of a question of when he gets in than if. The purpose of this post is to examine that question. To that end, let’s look at other HOF candidates who posted similar percentages in their first year on the ballot.
In the last 30 years, five other players besides Bagwell have received vote totals in the 40% range their first go round:
1993: Steve Garvey (41.6%)
1998: Gary Carter (42.3%)
2002: Andre Dawson (45.3%)
2003: Lee Smith (42.3%)
2003: Ryne Sandberg (49.2%)
2011: Jeff Bagwell (41.7%)
Of those other five, three (Carter, Dawson, Sandberg) are now enshrined in Cooperstown, one (Smith) is still on the ballot, and one (Garvey) stayed on the ballot for 15 years before he ran out of chances. Examining their cases one by one:
Steve Garvey: Garvey was a long-time Dodgers first baseman, a ten-time All-Star and the 1974 NL MVP. He racked up 2599 career hits (to Bagwell’s 2314) with a .294 career batting average (to Bagwell’s .297), so the two would at first seem comparable. Bagwell and Garvey also both won Gold Gloves and MVP awards. But Bagwell put up much better numbers in HRs (449 v. 272), RBIs (1529 v. 1308), and OPS (.948 v. .775), and that in four fewer seasons. Bagwell also ranks 57th all-time in career WAR (79.9), leading the league twice and posting top 10 finishes six times, whereas Garvey never broke the top 10 and ranks 513th all-time. Garvey was a very good player, but not a great one, and that’s reflected in that he only once ever posted a higher percentage in HOF voting (42.6% in ’95) than in his first year on the ballot.
Gary Carter: The great Expos and Mets catcher was elected to the Hall in 2003 after his sixth appearance on the ballot. After earning 42.3% of the vote on his first go, he dropped to 33.8% the next year, then gained ground every year after that (49.7%, 64.9%, 72.7%) before he finally received 78% in ’03. The Kid’s career 66.3 WAR is good for 106th all-time, but significantly lower than Bagwell’s 79.9.
Andre Dawson: The Hawk was finally a member of the HOF class last year on his 9th try. After posting 45.3% on his first ballot, he held or gained ground every year thereafter but one (50%, 50%, 52.3%, 61%, 56.7%, 65.9%, 67%) until 2010’s 77.9% pushed him over the 75% required for election. Dawson was four times in the top 10 in WAR, earning 57.0 for his career, 178th best ever.
Lee Smith: Lee Smith has had nine turns on the ballot so far, earning 42.3% on his first go round and hovering in that neighborhood ever since. Since his first year on the ballot in 2003, Smith has received 36.6%, 38.8%, 45%, 39.8%, 43.3%, 44.5%, 47.3% and 45.3% of the HOF vote. He’s #3 on the all-time career saves list and one of the pioneers of the modern “closer” role in baseball, which is what his candidacy is primarily based on. But it seems that the BBWAA is still struggling to decide what to do with relievers when it comes to the Hall of Fame. WAR has become an increasingly important stat to voters in recent years, so Smith’s ranking as 698th all-time doesn’t do him many favors (though it does put him well ahead of fellow closer and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers at 927th). He may or may not eventually make it in – he’ll get six more tries – but his situation is so different from Bagwell’s that comparisons are almost impossible.
Ryne Sandberg: Ryno was one of my favorite non-Astros as a kid, so I was well pleased when he got elected to the Hall in 2005, his third time on the ballot. After gathering 49.2% for his initial tally, he got 61.1% in 2004, then made it in with 76.2% of the vote. Sandberg has weaker career stats than Bagwell in almost every major offensive category (though Sandberg did get 72 more hits, but in about 600 more at bats). However, Sandberg played most of his career at 2B – a traditionally weaker offensive position than 1B – so he’s rightfully regarded as one of the best offensive second basemen of all-time. He has a career WAR rank of #139, finishing in the top 10 in the league five times.
All other things being equal, it would seem that Jeff Bagwell has a stronger Hall of Fame argument than all of these other five players, three of whom are already in Cooperstown and one of whom may yet make it. One made it in three tries, one made it in six and one in nine, so there’s no clear trend in the voting history, making it hard to predict when Baggy might finally get the call, but I’ll venture a guess anyway.
Looking at the most recent two years of voting, Roberto Alomar saw a jump of 16.3% from his first year on the ballot to his second. We know that, whether justifiable or not, a certain percentage of the HOF voting body believes in the sanctity of the first ballot. This is reflected perhaps most dramatically in Alomar’s percentages, as he’s the first player ever to be elected with 90% of the vote not on the first ballot. A certain percentage of voters no doubt withheld their votes for him in 2010 based on his 1996 spitting incident involving umpire John Hirschbeck, but it’s impossible to know what that exact percentage is. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say that those 16.3% are the first ballot purists. If Bagwell were to see a similar jump in his votes next year, that would place him at 58%; if for two years, that would place him at an excruciatingly close 74.3% in 2013.
So it’s a fairly sure bet that Bagwell won’t make it in next year either, but 2013 ought to afford him his first great chance. Alomar has a career WAR total of 63.5 and a career rank of 126th (as opposed to Bagwell’s 79.9 and 57th), so it’s not unrealistic to imagine Bagwell gaining at least an equal or greater percentage each year. 2013 will be Craig Biggio’s first year on the ballot, too, and of course Biggio did reach that magic 3000 hit mark, so he’s got a great shot on his first ballot (every other 3000-hit club member since 1953 has been elected on the first ballot except for Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro). How many career teammates like Bagwell and Biggio have there been in recent years? How many people would love to see them enshrined together?
The concern about 2013 that some have expressed is the number of other stellar candidates appearing on the ballot then and soon thereafter. But this is wh
ere the PED controversy might actually help Bagwell’s chances rather than hurt him. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling will all be first-time candidates along with Craig Biggio that year. But Bonds, Clemens and Sosa all have ties to PEDs, and Bagwell should have a much stronger case – especially in his third year – than both Schilling and Piazza. With Bagwell and Biggio both clear of any PED evidence, wouldn’t the voters love to honor them in contrast?
I’ve never been to Cooperstown, but I’ve always wanted to go. Summer of 2013 will be, I expect, a once-in-a-lifetime event for all Astros fans. I’m planning a trip already.
Joel Roza of the Corpus Christi Caller agrees with me on a Carlos Lee for Michael Young trade. Luke Truxal of MLBcenter.com also says that Lee-for-Young “makes the most sense.” At this point I still expect either 1. Colorado or 2. no one to end up acquiring Young, but we still haven’t heard an official “nay” from anyone in the Astros camp, which we have heard from pretty much every other club that has been linked to him. C’mon, Ed & Drayton!
And now we get the news that Michael Bourn has hired Scott Boras as his agent. Michael, I am disappoint. You’re still my favorite Astro these days, but I don’t expect to see you in Houston after 2012, and I won’t shed a tear when you (or your agent) is gone.