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December 28, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2012: The First Basemen
As with comedy, timing is everything in baseball. "Hitting is timing," Hall of Famer Warren Spahn said famously, finishing the thought with the complementary observation, "Pitching is upsetting timing." A good chunk of both the game's traditional and advanced statistics, the ones that we spurn and those that we celebrate, owe plenty to being the right man in the right place at the right time—wins, saves, and RBI from the former camp, leverage, run expectancy, and win expectancy from the latter. ERA owes everything to the sequence of events. For better or worse, MVP votes are won and lost on the timing of a player's productivity, or at least the perception of it that comes with being labeled "clutch." Timing is a major part of how we measure the game, so it should matter when we look over the course of a player's career in evaluating his fitness for the Hall of Fame.
As such, when delving into the muck where performance-enhancing drugs intersect with baseball, it's important to take timing into consideration. It's all too easy to sit in judgment, attempting to retrofit today's standards onto yesterday's actions, to apply what Buster Olney called retroactive morality to Hall of Fame candidates when it comes to PED usage. However, it's important to remember that the rules of the game and even the laws of the country didn't change quickly enough to head off the dopers. A great deal of institutional inertia had to be overcome on both fronts before they did change, and even then, the sequence of what transpired was far more complicated than simply flipping a switch. So timing matters.
Timing isn't exactly what prevented Jeff Bagwell from gaining entry to the Hall of Fame when he first appeared on the ballot last year. Instead, a whisper campaign regarding his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs—despite the fact that he never failed a drug test, and wasn't named in the Mitchell Report—was used by some voters to justify not voting for a player who ranks among the game's greatest first basemen despite an injury-abbreviated career. Bagwell received 41.7 percent of the vote, not an insurmountably low percentage, but a disappointing one in light of the strength of his candidacy.
As we debated the propriety of not voting for Bagwell based upon a lack of PED-related, what nearly everyone debating his candidacy missed, critics as well as supporters (yours truly included) was that Bagwell had admitted to using androstenedione back before it was outlawed by major league baseball. In the August 31, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum noted that "Houston Astros star Jeff Bagwell told The Houston Chronicle, two weeks before the McGwire storm erupted, that he had taken it," it being andro and the storm being the one that AP reporter Steve Wilstein unleashed when he detailed the presence of a certain brown bottle of pills in Mark McGwire's locker as he chased Roger Maris' single-season home-run record.
A year later in the same magazine, Tom Verducci profiled the Astros slugger, writing, "His off-season regimen now includes not only [competitive bodybuilder Herschel] Johnson's training but also creatine, the nutritional supplement, and the controversial testosterone-boosting androstenedione. 'It may help your workout, but it doesn't help you hit home runs,' he says." Verducci alluded to that article in his rundown of the 2011 ballot, which wasn't published until January 4, the day before the announcement of the voting results, and long after most of the initial jousting over Bagwell's candidacy had occurred and ballots sent off. Timing, right?
One can’t discuss the first basemen on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot without addressing the subject of PEDs, so as we consider the Hall of Fame candidacies of Bagwell, McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, we must not only reckon with their on-field accomplishments but with our incomplete knowledge about what they used and when, and what we know (and don't know) about the effects of the drugs. We will return to the topic of PEDs within the contexts of the various candidates below, but let's talk about some baseball first.
Deciphering the abbreviations in the first table, AS is All-Star game appearances and GG is Gold Gloves won; HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor, respectively; Bal is how many years the player has appeared on the ballot, and 2011% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election. In the second table, TAv is True Average, RAP is Runs Above Position, VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, Career is career WARP total, Peak is the WARP total for a player’s best seven seasons, and JAWS is the adjusted average of those two.
A fourth round draft pick by the Red Sox in 1989, the Boston-born slugger never got to play for the Olde Towne Team. Instead he was traded to the Astros in a deal that has since become a cautionary tale, one which sent reliever Larry Andersen to Boston. For the price of 22 stretch-drive innings which were worth all of 1.0 WARP, the Sox surrendered a player who would win the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year award, the 1994 NL MVP award, and make five All-Star appearances. Even with Mo Vaughn occupying first base for the bulk of the Nineties, Boston's 86-year championship drought might have ended a few years sooner if they hadn't pulled the trigger on that deal. Nice trade, Lou Gorman.
Bagwell spent the first nine years of his career (1991-1999) in the Astrodome, which in its day was one of the majors' toughest hitting environments, so when he put up numbers that looked decent, they were actually very good, and when he put up numbers that looked very good, they were absolutely great. Case in point: Bagwell's rookie season, when he hit .294/.387/.437 with 15 homers,was good for a .307 True Average, the league's 10th-best mark. Bagwell hit a combined .304/.416/.545 during his Astrodome years, good for a .334 True Average (fifth in that period behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza)and 54.7 WARP (third among hitters behind Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.). Playing in the same league as both Bonds and McGwire, he never led the Senior Circuit in homers, but he did rank second in 1994 (39) and 1997 (43), the latter the first of three 40-homer seasons in a four-year span. He ranked among the top 10 in True Average in eight of those nine years, and the top five in six of them, finishing with the league's best mark in 1994 (.381). His strike-shortened 1994 numbers are just off the charts —368/.451/.750 with 39 homers in 110 games, for a career-high 8.8 WARP, 2.7 higher than Bonds, and 3.4 higher than any other NL hitter.
The Astros were a doormat when Bagwell joined them, but with an offense led by Bagwell and fellow "Killer B" Craig Biggio, they soon emerged as contenders. Division realignment was kind to them; they finished first four times in a five-year span from 1997-2001, though each time they lost in the first round, and in fact went 2-12 in the postseason during that span. Bagwell was of particularly little help, batting just .174/.367/.174 in those series.
The Astros moved into Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park) in 2000, when Bagwell was 32, and the hitter-friendly park helped mask his gentle decline. He was still worth 15.7 WARP from 2000-2002, but his True Averages fell by about 20 points. His play took a noticeable dip in 2004, when he hit just .266/.377/.465, the first time he'd slugged below .500 since 1995, but he did hit .286/.375/.490 in the postseason as the Astros fell just one win short of the World Series. The team would get there the next year, and he would even get a chance to take his cuts, but Bagwell played in just 39 games and 123 plate appearances in 2005 due to an arthritic right shoulder which limited him to pinch-hitting duties after he returned from surgery in September. DHing in two games and pinch-hitting in the other two, he went just 1-for-8 in the World Series as the Astros were swept by the White Sox. Bagwell was just 37 at the time, but his career was over.
That early end prevented Bagwell from reaching round-numbered plateaus (2,500 hits, 500 homers) which would enhance his case, but even without them, he measures up against the best first basemen of all time:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
Bagwell ranks fifth among the first basemen in career value and JAWS, sixth in peak, and while we can stop to gawk at the fact that Pujols is a lock to surpass Gehrig atop the rankings, that's not the issue at hand. Bagwell is about 130 runs better than the average Hall of Fame first baseman with the bat, and another 50 with the glove. Unequivocally, he belongs in Cooperstown.
As obvious as his election should be, Bagwell fell far short last year, because a certain contingent of voters inferred that he used PEDs. After all, he put up strong numbers during a time when PED use was rampant in the game, and look at the size of those arms! Bagwell never had a positive test; his career barely overlapped with the introduction of testing and penalties. He wasn't named in the Mitchell Report (though latter-day teammates such as Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were) or any other investigation, nor was his name leaked from the supposedly anonymous list of 104 players who tested positive during survey testing.
McGwire has failed to garner much support on the ballot from the same body that put him on a pedestal back in the late ‘90s, doing so while shunning the writer who exposed his dirty little secret. He has yet to draw 25 percent of the vote on five ballots, and in fact fell below 20 percent last year, the first ballot following his January 2010 admission of use. After publicly pressuring McGwire to confess, some of the biggest names in the BBWAA flat-out declared they wouldn't vote for him now that he'd done so, and his chances for gaining entry during his 15 years of eligibility appear bleak. While I don't agree with the way he's been vilified—again, the timing of his usage is important, as far as I'm concerned—the focus of this project is to argue in favor of the players my system identifies as worthy. The current measures say McGwire is not, so we move onward.
A first-round pick by the Cubs in 1985, the Cuban-born Palmeiro reached the majors in September of the following year, and arrived for good in mid-1987. He was primarily a left fielder for the Cubs, who had Leon Durham and then Mark Grace at first base, and so after the 1988 season—a year in which he'd finished second in the batting title race and earned All-Star honors—he was dealt to the Rangers in a nine-player trade that also included Jamie Moyer and Mitch Williams. Palmeiro emerged as a star during his first stint with the Rangers (1989-1993), leading the league in hits in 1990 and in runs in 1993. The two most valuable seasons of his career took place during this period; in 1991 he hit .322/.389/.532 for a .324 TAv and a 5.0 WARP, and in 1993, he hit .295/.371/.554 for a .311 TAv and 4.4 WARP. The Rangers finished above .500 in four of those five years, but never with more than 86 wins, and never higher than second place in the seven-team AL West.
Palmeiro departed for Baltimore via free agency after that season, and over the next five years, he put up the biggest numbers of his career. He hit .292/.371/.545 while averaging 36 homers a year including the strike year, and topping 38 for four straight years. His most valuable season of this period was 1995 (5.1 WARP), but he dipped as low as 1.3 WARP in 1997 despite his home runs. The Orioles' star-laden lineup, which included Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson, and Cal Ripken, plus Eddie Murray and Harold Baines, made the postseason in 1996 and 1997 but couldn't make it to the World Series. Palmeiro hit a combined .239/.304/.479 with four homers. He departed after the 1998 season—the first losing season in a streak that's still alive—and returned to Texas as a free agent, where he set a career high for homers (47) while hitting .324/.420/.630, good for a .325 TAv and 4.4 WARP. He finished fifth in the MVP balloting, his highest showing ever, and won one of the most dubious Gold Gloves in history, claiming the first-base award despite playing just 28 games there in his first year as a primary DH.
Palmeiro's second Texas stint lasted five seasons, and he averaged .284/.390/.566 with 43 homers while playing half his games in the hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington. On May 11, 2003, he reached the 500-homer plateau with a homer off Cleveland's Dave Elder. He moved back to Baltimore at the end of that season to chase 3,000 hits. He reached that milestone on July 15, 2005, with a double off Joel Pineiro. Just over two weeks later, all hell broke loose when it was revealed he'd tested positive for a banned substance, later said to be Winstrol, and was banned for 10 days, the penalty in place at the time for first offenders. He denied knowingly taking PEDs, implicated teammate Miguel Tejada as having provided him with potentially offending supplements, and was subjected to a Congressional investigation into whether he perjured himself, but was not prosecuted any further. Meanwhile, a day in his honor to celebrate his 3,000th hit was canceled, and when he returned from his suspension, he was showered by so many boos that he took to wearing earplugs, a state of affairs that didn't last long. After collecting just two hits in 29 plate appearances over a two-week span, he went home and never played again.
On the traditional merits, Palmeiro certainly has the numbers for Cooperstown. The knock on him before he tested positive was that he racked up those numbers in favorable hitting environments during a high-offense era at a time when others were similarly putting up huge numbers, and that in that context, he was never really considered a star. That explanation falls at least somewhat flat; while he made four All-Star teams, he received MVP votes in no less than 10 seasons, and while he cracked the top 10 in those votes just three times, that still means he was considered one of the league's best hitters in half of the seasons he played.
Having said that, the fact that Palmeiro falls short on the peak standard by more than eight wins but comes much closer (though still short) on the career score does lend credence to the notion that his longevity put him in a position for the Hall more than anything else. He ultimately falls below the JAWS standard by a significant margin, though as I noted last year when he was right on the line, the presence of a positive test and the ridiculous spectacle he made of himself in relation to the subject at hand both before and after don't help his cause. While we have no idea what role PEDs played in compiling his career numbers, we do know he violated the game's policy and brought a great deal of negative attention to himself and Major League Baseball in the process. In that light, I can't feel particularly broken up about where he stands on the ballot.
Even on the traditional merits, McGriff’s case didn't look all that strong. Despite the two home-run titles, he's well short of the Black Ink of a typical Hall of Famer (though that Jamesian metric fails to adjust for expansion). He never won an MVP award (his top single-season WARP total of 5.5 isn't MVP caliber), and while he did place in the top 10 in the voting in six straight seasons (1989-1994), he only cracked the top five in 1993. Previously, I compared the shape of his JAWS line to that of Tony Perez (now 53.2/37.1/45.1), but that particular Doggie had five pennants, two rings, and a more famous dynasty to his name, and he’s now clearly ahead of McGriff. No sale.
So having reviewed the infielders on the BBWAA ballot thus far, we come away with Bagwell joining Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez among the JAWS-approved. I’ll be back with another installment of the series later this week.