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January 8, 2013

Wezen-Ball

Through the Years: Jeff Bagwell

by Larry Granillo

With the Hall of Fame announcement scheduled for this week, now is a good time to look back at the early careers of some of this year's most talked-about nominees. (And with the early exit polls looking as they do, it might be nice to remember just how great some of these players were.)

The way you hear people talk about it today, it'd seem as if Houston's superstar first baseman Jeff Bagwell came from as deep a pit of obscurity as Mike Piazza, the Los Angeles catcher drafted in a round so low that it doesn't even exist today. Bagwell, after all, came to the Astros in a trade for the less-than-thrilling Larry Andersen. But Bagwell was the Red Sox fourth-round draft pick in 1989 and the Boston Globe had this to say the day after the trade:

Three weeks ago, the Houston Astros were evidently holding out for Babe Ruth for the 37-year-old reliever. So the Red Sox gave them Lou Gehrig. Well, not quite, but third baseman Jeff Bagwell, a University of Hartford product, was considered one of Boston's best prospects. Bagwell, who played all season in Double A New Britain, hit .333 with 4 home runs and 61 RBIs.

Boston general manager Lou Gorman cited the club's depth at third base (namely Wade Boggs) for their willingness to make the trade. Nevermind that Boggs was only on the club for two more years.

In the leadup to the 1991 season, Bagwell's first full season with the Houston franchise, that spring's Street & Smith's preview guide was positive about the new addition, focusing on the third baseman in their minor leagues section.

Jeff Bagwell, Houston (.333, 61 RBI at New Britain). In his first full pro season, Bagwell was the Eastern League's MVP and its No. 2 hitter. The Red Sox traded him last summer (for Larry Andersen), but he's a future big leaguer for the Astros.

And boy were they right. In 156 games with the big league club, Bagwell batted .294 with 15 home runs and 26 doubles. His .824 OPS seems a bit on the low side, but it was good enough for a 139 OPS+ in the 1991 Astrodome. His Rookie of the Year Award was nearly unanimous, with Pittsburgh first baseman Orlando Merced receiving the only other first place vote cast that year. Street & Smith's kept their praise for him the following spring a bit subdued.

Rookie of the Year Jeff Bagwell (.294, 15, 82) did an impressive job in replacing the traded Davis at first base. He is one of the brightest spots in the gloomy Texas picture in Houston.

In the Sporting News, we learned that Bagwell was already looking to improve himself.

What can first baseman Bagwell do for an encore after hitting .294 with 15 homers and 82 runs batted in as a rookie? For starters, Bagwell wants to cut down on his strikeouts (116 last season) and increase his average and RBI count.

In his rookie season, Bagwell struck out 116 times in 156 games. For his career, he struck out 117 times every 162 games. He did manage to lower his strikeouts in that second year, however, bringing them down to 97 strikeouts in 162 games. His sophomore season wasn't quite as strong as his rookie campaign, but it was still impressive. From Sporting News:

First baseman Bagwell wasn't happy with his offensive performance—his average dipped 21 points—but he did drive in 96 runs.

And Street & Smith's:

First baseman Jeff Bagwell had another strong season after his Rookie of the Year debut in 1991. The 24-year-old from Boston (How did the Red Sox let this guy get away?) hit .273 with 18 homers and 96 RBIs in his second full season.

Things ticked up considerably in Bagwell's age-25 season. After a dip of 21 points in average the year before, Bagwell's average jumped to .320 in 1993. At the same time, he hit 20 home runs for the first time and even stole 13 bases. It still wasn't good enough for a spot on the All-Star team, however (John Kruk won that starting spot). After three years, Bagwell's strong consistency was beginning to get noticed.

First baseman Bagwell was on his way to a 100-RBI season when he was hit by a pitcher September 12 and missed the final three weeks with a broken hand. Bagwell had to "settle" for a .320 average, 20 homers and 88 RBIs. His consistency and production make him the key to the Astros' attack.

Street & Smith's was a bit more effusive.

Jeff Bagwell (.320, 20 HRs, 88 RBIs) is a solid first baseman and one of the fastest rising stars in the National League. He won rookie honors three years ago and has shown no decline in recent seasons. Just wind him up, put him in the lineup, and expect a .300 year.

As strong as those first three years were, Bagwell's career really exploded in the strike-shortened 1994 season. In 110 games, Bagwell scored 104 runs and drove in 116 while slugging 39 home runs and batting .368/.451/.750. And he did it all in the confines of Houston's other space center. His 1.201 OPS and 213 OPS+ were the highest totals the National League had seen since Rogers Hornsby batted .400 in back-to-back years in 1924 and 1925. A unanimous vote gave Bagwell his only MVP award that offseason.

In just 110 games, Bagwell put up numbers that would have popped eyes over a full-season. The biggest surprise was that he hit 39 home runs, considering he had just 53 in three previous major league seasons. Bagwell's average never dropped below .323 all year, and he led the majors in slugging percentage (.750).

Not everyone can keep putting up video game numbers every year. Bagwell proved that by coming back to earth a bit in 1995, amassing only 21 home runs and a .290 batting average while missing thirty games of the short season after breaking his hand for the third time in three years. He came back strong in 1996, playing in all 162 games and hitting .315 with a 1.021 OPS. It was also Bagwell's first season in the 20/20 club, when he successfully stole 21 bases in 28 attempts. He also walked 135 times while scoring 111 runs. Sporting News was impressed with his return to a full, healthy season:

First baseman Jeff Bagwell fell short of his MVP production of 1994, but he still had a terrific '96, hitting .315 with 31 homers, 120 RBIs and a career-high 21 steals. Most important, he showed that a padded glove could protect his fragile left hand.

As was Street & Smith's:

Biggio takes second seat offensively to first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who again put up huge numbers (.315, 31 HRs, 120 RBIs) and survived the entire season without a broken hand.

Amazingly, Bagwell's 1997 may have been even better than his 1996, despite a drop in batting average to .286. That's because he balanced that drop in average with an increase in slugging, including an as-yet career-high 43 home runs. He also scored another 109 runs and drove in 135 more, all while stealing 31 bases for his first of two 30/30 seasons. The only other first baseman with even a single 30/30 season in history was Joe Carter, who barely qualified as a first baseman when he did it in 1987.

Up to this point in his career, the annual spring preview guides had been big fans of the Houston first baseman. Their praise was warranted, though the superlatives that someone like Ken Griffey, Jr. might have received were few and far between. As the 1998 season approached, Sporting News finally took the time to fully acknowledge everything Bagwell brought to the league.

This is the strength of the team. First baseman Jeff Bagwell and second baseman Craig Biggio are perennial All-Stars who run and field well and hit for average and power. Each finished in the top four in the MVP voting last season.

Bagwell was second in the league in homers (43) and RBIs (135). He's an extraordinary fielder who excels at charging bunts and throwing runners out at second and third. Although he has average speed, he's one of the game's smartest baserunners and stole 31 bases in 41 attempts last season.

He truly was a corner infielder who could do it all. While he is compared to his contemporaries like Frank Thomas and Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell was a more complete player than either ever was, contributing to the Astros success with his power, his patience, his speed, and his defense. He also played in the stingiest ballpark amongst those peers. Bagwell continued to perform at a high level well into his thirties, hitting 39 home runs and scoring 109 runs in 2003 when he was 35 years old. His steals disappeared as he aged and his career average finally dipped below .300 in 2004, but it's not enough to take away from the best all-around first baseman of the 1990s and one of the best of all-time. It's such a shame that Hall of Fame voters haven't been able get past their prejudices against the high-offense era in which he played (or any other, more nefarious issues some may be grappling with) to give him his due.

Related Content:  Jeff Bagwell,  First Career Hit,  The Who

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