Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Next Great Sabermetric Hall of Fame Cause

Occasionally sabermetrically-inclined people will get behind a Hall of Fame candidate, generally one who has overwhelming qualifications from one perspective or another, but for whatever reason don't resonate as well with the mainstream. Rich Lederer's tireless campaign for Bert Blyleven is the most prominent (and successful), and the Tim Raines group of Jonah Keri, Nate Sager, Tango Tiger, and the late John Brattain has put together a website for their now Andre Dawson-endorsed cause. Alan Trammell certainly has his advocates, although they are not nearly as well-organized. Both Robbie Alomar and Barry Larkin debuted with a high enough percentage that there's no particular sense of urgency to make their case.

Blyleven is very likely to be voted in 2011, which should free up some people's quota of HOF arguing time. I have an early suggestion for you on where to invest it, if you're into that sort of thing. It's quite possible that I'm off-base, and that this player will be viewed more favorable by the BBWAA than I imagine. I admittedly don't have a particularly good handle on the mainstream baseball consensus.

Perhaps it's a sign of how out of touch I am that the comment I'm about to describe even raised my eyebrow. Tom Hamilton, the Indians' play-by-play announcer, described this player as a guy who "might be a borderline Hall of Famer". Had it just been "might" or "borderline", I probably wouldn't have thought as much of it, just chalking it up to laziness. But "might" and "borderline"? As in, "If this guy gets in, he's still more like Jim Rice than Carl Yastrzemski"?

Before I go any further, it must be acknowledged that this player performed in the 90s-00s, and thus will be written off by many because of steroids. So be it; there's no changing any minds on that issue.

The player I speak of is Jeff Bagwell, and he'll be on the ballot for the first time this year. I'm suggesting that if you would like to be the next Rich Lederer, you should get a head start. The day the vote is taken, the blogosphere will be overrun with posts about how badly the BBWAA missed on Bagwell. This is your chance to get ahead of the curve and stake out your territory.

From the sabermetric perspective, it's hardly worth even making the case for Bagwell. He ranks 35th all-time among position players in Chone's WAR, essentially equal with Ken Griffey. The only post-1900 first baseman ahead of him are Gehrig and Foxx (the great ABC trio of the nineteenth-century also ranks ahead of Bagwell). My own figures agree with that assessment. His peak seasons (probably 1994, 1996-1999) are impressive.

However, it's not too difficult to see why Bagwell might be underappreciated by the mainstream. Among the explanations:

1. While Bagwell compiled impressive triple crown numbers during his big seasons, he was a big secondary average guy who looks even better through the lens of advanced metrics. As you'll see below, his adjusted runs scored and RBI rates are much closer to equal than many other great first baseman, and RBI get all the attention (which is not to suggest that Bagwell's RBI rates were anything but outstanding).

2. Bagwell's best season, 1994, was shortened by a hand injury and the strike. The strike was probably fortuitous in his case, as he would not have been the NL MVP had the season continued with him out of action. I'm not suggesting that his 1994 be counted as a full season, and I don't think he requires any dispensation for it. Without it, though, he's missing what would have been a monster season around which to build his case.

3. The end of Bagwell's career was cut short by shoulder problems. His last full season came at age 36, one in which he was still an above-average performer and hit 27 homers. Without injury, it's a pretty safe assumption that he'd have reached 500 homers.

Of course, he didn't, and again I'm not suggesting that he should be credited for doing so. However, getting to 500 would have given him one of the key milestones that shape mainstream perception of career value.

4. Bagwell spent his peak in a fairly strong pitcher's park. The Astrodome park factor ranges from 94-97 during his years playing there (1991-99). The erstwhile Enron Field was a hitter's park, driving Bagwell's career park factor up to a close-to-neutral 98, but the Astrodome disguised some of his peak value.

5. To some extent, Bagwell is associated with poor post-season performances, compiling a .226/.364/.321 line. One has to put a lot of stock in 129 PA to significantly change their evaluation of him on that basis, though.

Earlier this year, I looked at measures of runs and RBI per out relative to the league average. The point was not to suggest that these were superior to context-neutral metrics like runs created, but to put R and RBI totals in context, at least up to a sabermetric minimum (considering outs made and league scoring context). Bagwell's R and RBI, considered in this light, give a similar view of his value as advanced metrics.

Bagwell's runs scored per out relative to the league average (R+) was 153, which would rank fourth among post-1900 Hall of Fame first baseman, trailing only Gehrig, Chance, and Foxx. His RBI per out relative to the league (RBI+) of 163 is nearly as impressive; it would rank seventh, behind Gehrig, Greenberg, Foxx, Mize, McCovey, and Killebrew. The average of the two (which I called Runs Anything and abbreviated as ANY) is 158, which would rank fifth, trailing Gehrig, Greenberg, Foxx, and Mize.

I'll allow you to peruse the chart yourself and draw your own conclusions (or not, as the case may be), but I think it's fair to say that Bagwell's R and RBI figures are very much in line with the other great first baseman. Of course, ANY is not really a stand-in for mainstream analysis, despite being fueled by R and RBI. It does not fit that role, since it recognizes the fundamental principle of sabermetrics with respect to offense: that offense occurs within the context of outs.

When I have had occasion to discuss ranking players with non-saberites, I have often said something like "I'll accept for the sake of argument that R and RBI are appropriate measures of a player's offensive production." However, I refuse to waver on insisting that league context and outs be considered. In the case of Bagwell, league context is not a particularly important factor either way--the NL average R/G of 4.57 for his career is fairly normal. His OBA was outstanding, though, even when compared to great first baseman of history.

It's possible that I'm wrong, and that Bagwell is appreciated by the BBWAA voters and will debut at a percentage that makes future induction a solid bet. If so, any would-be Bagwell Lederers out there will have wasted their time and I will have cried wolf. I'd like for that to be the case, for Bagwell's sake if nothing else.

Bagwell and some other first basemen:

4 comments:

  1. Bagwell is a classic Steroids Era example of a guy who has kept his name clean, but does not come without suspicions. Obviously, going strictly by his career numbers and comparing historically he is a Hall of Famer.

    However, if BBWAA voters are going to view the Steroids Era as tainted, regardless of whether or not your name was ever positively linked, then it will be a bit tougher for him to be inducted. (For what it's worth, this is how I would vote.)

    When I look at this era, the top first basemen are McGwire, Palmeiro, Thome, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton and Bagwell. (Thome and Thomas could either be labeled as 1B or DH). Of that group, McGwire, Palmeiro and Helton (whom his own manger, Don Baylor, mistakenly mentioned as a steroid user) all have either been caught or admitted to steroid use.

    Does this mean that Thome, Thomas, and Bagwell were clean during these years, or that they were just fortunate not to get caught?

    Jeff Bagwell hit 6 home runs in 731career minor league at-bats. I know that power develops as one ages, but even taking that into account, unless the fences were 500feet away, it is nearly impossible to imagine a guy with those stats going on to hit close to 500 MLB homers. Not to mention that he looked like the Incredible Hulk during his prime years. (Do yourself a favor and look at pictures of him every year from 1991 through 2005, staggering).


    For me, it all depends on how the voters choose to view the Steroids Era. If they look at it as just another era in baseball (Dead Ball Era, All White Players Era) and take the best players, then Bagwell should make it, along with the others I've mentioned.

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  2. Thanks for making the case for one of my very favorite players. If only you (or anyone else) could explain why Bagwell would undertake the thankless task of trying to teach Ed Wade's untalented 30+ year olds to hit ...

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  3. I'm happy to say that I think you probably are wrong...I'm pretty sure Bagwell is indeed viewed positively from writers nationally. Important to remember won ROY, MVP, and had four other top-10 MVP finishes (important only because writers vote for those). He might not get in first-ballot, but I bet he gets in pretty easily.

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  4. Ben, good point about his MVP finishes...1st in '94, 3rd in '97, 2nd in '99. 2.89 career MVP shares ranks him 34th, and everyone who's eligible at that level (and down to Steve Garvey, 56th with 2.46) has been inducted.

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