Jeff Bagwell for the Hall of Fame

As a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (or BBA for short), I recently participated in their annual Hall of Fame voting process. I don’t have one of the writer’s votes for the election that determines who will actually be enshrined at Cooperstown, but like everyone who loves the game, I do have an opinion. So my ballot results will be shared and defended here.

There were several names on the ballot (somewhere between 10 and 20, I think), but Jeff Bagwell was the only one who deserves a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And since there’s only one affirmative vote here, I’ll have a greater chance to get at the issues surrounding his candidacy. As for the others (Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Vinny Castilla and some others I can’t recall right now), someone else can take up their cause. Bagwell’s is the only one I’ll be addressing here.

First, the negatives about Bagwell. The overriding topic–and Bagwell’s not the only one this will apply to–is how to address the Steroid era. Mark McGwire is at the leading edge of these players, but Palmiero, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, and many others will be coming up in the coming years. The five year “sorting out” period is beginning to expire, and the matter of what to do with these players and their inflated numbers over the years will be coming to the fore.

Jeff Bagwell was on the Hall’s ballot last year, and he only received 41% of the votes cast, which is well short of the 75% needed to get in. So he’s back on the ballot again this year. I would hope that the writers who didn’t think he deserved  “first-year” induction have had their say, and that his number rises nearer to the percentage that he needs. I would be surprised if he doesn’t at least break 50% this year.

Those who suspect Bagwell was using the juice during his career have only that: suspicion. There is no failed test (as in the case of Ryan Braun, Alex Gonzalez, Rafael Palmiero, and Manny Ramirez), no admission of guilt (as with McGwire, Canseco,  Giambi), and no court proceedings (as with Bonds and Clemens) to confirm what they suspect to be true. There is no presumption of innocence in these proceedings, because this is not a legal matter. As a result, some people will probably never give him the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

If that’s the case, and withholding a Hall of Fame ballot is meant as an indictment of the entire Steroid era, will that standard also be applied to Jim Thome one day? Or Ken Griffey, Jr.? What about Frank Thomas? They will all likely end up in the same place that Bagwell now finds himself. Do you tell one or more of these players they’re in, while also telling Bagwell that he has to pay the price for your suspicions? There isn’t too much justice there, in my view.

Absent any proof that Bagwell used PEDs, I think you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Or you have to make a blanket rule that will keep all other sluggers from the Steroid era out, regardless of whether or not there is any evidence to prove they actually did anything wrong.

The second knock against Bagwell is his lack of winning a championship. Worse, he seemed to be conspicuously absent during the post-season, when his team needed  him the most. His lifetime average of .226 in the postseason certainly played a big part in his team’s failure to win so much as one World Series game against the White Sox in 2005 (and it’s quite painful for a Cubs fan to write those words). A 2-4 series record in Houston’s NLDS appearances will doubtlessly be held against him in, as his job was to carry the team in October, and he failed to do this more often than not.

A final knock that I can think of is the length of his career. Fifteen seasons in the majors is not inconsiderable, but among recent inductees, only Kirby Puckett had a shorter career. Another two or three seasons would probably have cemented his place in Cooperstown, but anyone who saw him practically sitting on a stool as he batted at the end of his career knows that it wasn’t going to happen that way.

So what are the positives about Bagwell’s career? The first is that he had a sustained period of excellent offensive production  between 1993 and 2004. In fact, his 1994 season deserves some special notice here.  Every baseball fan knows that was the strike year, and the last six weeks of the regular season–and eventually the playoffs–were cancelled. Bagwell finished first in RBI, second in average (behind Tony Gwynn) and second in home runs (behind Matt Williams).  I grant you that catching Gwynn wasn’t likely to happen, but he trailed Williams by four homers with more than a month still to play in the regular season. Catching Williams in home runs wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

But something else pops out about that season. He led the league comfortably in over a dozen statistical categories. He won the RBI title with 20 more than his nearest competitor (that would be Matt Williams). His slugging percentage was nearly 70 points higher than Williams’ was.  He truly left the rest of the National League in his dust that year.

Bagwell slumped a bit, by his standards, after the strike ended in 1995, but starting in 1996 he peeled off eight straight seasons with at least 30 home runs and 98 RBI per season (and usually many more than that in both categories).  McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds would set all of the home run records, but each of them will have a mark against their name when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. Bagwell, as I said before, has no such mark against him. Throwing those three hitters’ achievements into question makes Bagwell’s numbers seem all the more impressive.

Separating the sheep from the goats, and the juicers from the non-juicers, will not be an easy task in the years ahead. However, the fact that Jeff Bagwell went on an extended hitting tear and–not inconsequentially–was also one of the game’s brightest stars during the difficult post-strike period of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, are enough to warrant his enshrinement with the game’s best in Cooperstown next summer.

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