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March 30, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

Pack Your Bag Well

by Jay Jaffe

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It was a sight Houston Astros fans thought they'd never see: Jeff Bagwell in his inimitable spread-legged stance, batting in a World Series game. When Bagwell's arthritic right shoulder forced him to the disabled list on May 10, 2005, the Astros were just 12-20, and when doctors performed arthroscopic surgery on June 7, they were even further in the hole at 21-35. The team and its all-time home run leader both rallied, however, and as the Astros clawed their way into Wild Card contention, Bagwell rehabbed his way back into shape to pinch-hit by mid-September. Thanks to some unlikely heroics, the Astros and Bagwell found themselves in the franchise's first-ever Fall Classic, and Bags even got the starting nod as the DH in the first two games of the World Series.

For all of the drama and closure that late-season cameo may have provided to Bagwell's career, its price tag may prove astronomical. Earlier this week, Connecticut General Life Insurance denied a total disability claim which would have allowed the Astros to recoup $15.6 million of Bagwell's $17 million salary for the year. Despite Bagwell's unsuccessful attempt to prove himself healthy enough to start the season as the team's first baseman and his subsequent placement on the disabled list, "The company determined that there had been no adverse change in Mr. Bagwell's condition or ability to play baseball between the end of last season, when he was an active member of the roster, and Jan. 31, 2006, the date the policy expired." [emphasis added]

Upon being placed on the DL, Bagwell conceded, "I may never play again," but the denial of the claim--which the Astros will contest--paradoxically opens the door for the 37-year-old's career to continue. Had the claim been accepted, no amount of progress in rehabilitation would have justified Bagwell's return to the team later in the year. If owner Drayton McLane and his legal hounds are unable to gain some relief, AND if Bagwell undergoes surgery for bone spurs AND still has the desire to play AND makes progress in the training room, he may yet step up to the plate in Minute Maid Park once again. Still, as MLB.com's Alyson Footer noted the other day, Bagwell's day of reckoning makes it appropriate to reflect on on Number 5's stellar 15-year career.

Bagwell came to the Astros in a deal that has since become a cautionary tale. Chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 draft out of the University of Hartford--behind such luminaries as Ben McDonald, Tyler Houston, Calvin Murray, Jeff Juden, Brent Mayne, Cal Eldred, Willie Greene, Tom Goodwin, Alan Zinter... we're not even out of the first round, people--Bagwell was sent to Houston in a deal for reliever Larry Andersen on August, 30, 1990. For the price of 22 stretch-drive innings of 1.23 ERA relief and a whopping 0.040 Reliever Expected Wins Added, the Sox punted a player who amassed 2,314 hits, 449 homers, the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year, and the 1994 NL MVP award. Even with Mo Vaughn occupying first base for the bulk of the '90s, Boston's 86-year championship drought might have ended a few years sooner if they hadn't pulled the trigger. Nice trade there, Lou Gorman.

How does Bagwell stack up historically? For starters, he holds the franchise records for homers, RBI, walks and strikeouts, is second only to longtime teammate Craig Biggio in games, at-bats, hits, doubles, runs, and hit-by-pitch, and trails only Lance Berkman in batting average, OBP and SLG, though in more than twice as many plate appearances. His 449 homers rank 28th all-time, just beyond the mythical "Kingman Line"; every eligible slugger above Dave Kingman's total of 442 is in the Hall of Fame, though the pending ballot appearances of Jose Canseco (462) and Fred McGriff (493) may raise that bar.

Bagwell doesn't need to rely merely on homer totals to justify his Hall of Fame case. As the Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS) system shows, he is eminently qualified for admission to Cooperstown. JAWS combines a player's career value (as measured by WARP3) with his peak (defined as his best seven years as measured by WARP3, not necessarily consecutively) to create a score (simply the average of the two figures) which is easily compared with the average score of Hall of Famers at his position. Bagwell's JAWS score doesn't just surpass that of the average enshrined HOF first baseman, it beats it like a rented reliever:

         BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
HOF 1B    738   483   -2   100.4   60.9   80.6
Bagwell   941   683   61   125.3   72.9   99.1
Bagwell has about a 200-run edge offensively on the Hall first-sackers, and he adds another 60 or so with the leather. In fact, he's in elite company. His JAWS score ranks 47th all-time--impressive enough--and his ranking compared to enshrined first basemen is even more impressive:

               WARP   PEAK    JAWS
Lou Gehrig    142.8   83.2   113.0
Jimmie Foxx   136.0   78.6   107.3
Jeff Bagwell  125.3   72.9    99.1
Eddie Murray  131.1   65.6    98.4
Roger Connor  123.4   65.3    94.4
Though his playing days appear to have ended prior to his Age 38 season, Bagwell's career value surpasses every Hall of Famer except the Iron Horse, Double X, Steady Eddie, and Cap Anson (130.3). His peak is even loftier, surpassing all but Gehrig and Foxx thanks to a consistency which puts his seventh-best season at 9.1 WARP. MVP awards have been won with less.

That's the top of the heap, folks, although it's worth noting that Bagwell may share a spot on the 2011 ballot with a first baseman who scores even higher. I'm referring to Rafael Palmeiro (137.9 career/67.5 peak/102.7 JAWS), who unsurprisingly has drawn zero interest in his services this past offseason after becoming the poster boy for hubris in double-knit polyester. Whatever the merits of Palmeiro's career--including 3,020 hits and 569 homers, a career double achieved by just three other players--they are overshadowed by the juxtaposition of his finger-wagging Congressional testimony, his subsequent positive steroid test (which made headlines just 17 days after his 3,000th hit) and his abject refusal to take any kind of responsibility for his actions in the wake of his suspension. Evaluating his Hall of Fame case on its objective merits at this juncture is folly; it will take significant heel-cooling, healing and historical perspective before his case can be appropriately weighed, and even then, he may languish in ballot purgatory for years. Roll over, Canseco, and tell Kong Kingman the news.

Bagwell and Palmeiro aren't the only players with Hall of Fame resumes who are sitting in limbo as the 2006 season dawns. Sammy Sosa, who drew mild interest from the Washington Nationals this spring, has yet to call a press conference to officially hang up his spikes. Like Palmeiro, Sosa couldn't even finish the 2005 season in Baltimore; he hit .221/.295/.376 with just 14 homers, running his career total to 588 before he was sidelined by a pair of foot injuries, the latter of which ended his season in late August.

Sosa will be remembered for blasting 243 homers over the four-year span from 1998-2001, an unprecedented barrage that saw him cross the once-unreachable 60-homer threshold three times. Ironically, none of those 60-plus seasons led the league; Sosa was runner-up to Mark McGwire twice and to Barry Bonds once, though he did top the NL with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002. His proximity to those two sluggers has taken some of the luster off that output, as their accomplishments have been tainted by steroid allegations. The recently published Game of Shadows alleges--based on mounds of evidence from the BALCO case and the slugger's own testimony--that Bonds injected or ingested the Steroid All-Star Team, Traveling Road Show and Three-Ring Circus: the Clear, the Cream, Human Growth Hormone, Deca Durabolin, Winstrol, and more. McGwire, who openly used the steroid precursor androstenedione during his 1998 home run chase has been connected to an FBI investigation into steroids trafficking called "Operation Equine."

There's no similar smoking gun for Sosa. We don't know whether he was among the 83 players who turned in a positive test during 2003, when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association conducted survey testing to determine whether a stronger program was needed, or in 2004, when the 12 players who tested positive weren't publicly identified but placed on a so-called "administrative track." We do know that he wasn't among the Dirty Dozen who tested positive and drew a suspension last year. We know that his performance collapsed in the first year of open testing, although so did those of many other players including (to reel off a bunch from the lower ranks of the VORP listings) Mike Lowell, Cristian Guzman, Ivan Rodriguez, Tony Womack, Steve Finley, Miguel Cairo, Jeff DaVanon, Cesar Izturis, David Bell, Jose Hernandez, B.J. Surhoff, Scott Hatteberg, Jose Lima, Russ Ortiz, Kirk Rueter, Al Leiter, Eric Milton... a long list.

We know that Sosa was never linked to BALCO, and hasn't turned up in any other law-enforcement investigation pertaining to steroids. We know that he wasn't among the names named by Canseco in his salacious tell-all Juiced. We know that last March, Sosa appeared before Congress along with McGwire and said he never used steroids. He was clearly uncomfortable in the proceedings--let those who haven't quaked in front a Congressional hearing, however dubious, cast the first stone--and his denial may have lacked the flair of Palmeiro, but he didn't fail any of his subsequent wizz quizzes.

Yet the assumption that Sosa used steroids runs rampant. Back in 2002, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly smugly challenged Sosa to pee in a cup and prove his innocence; when Sosa refused, Reilly wrote a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife column about it. Even now, as Sosa fades into the sunset, writers such as Buster Olney can't resist treating him as though he'd been caught red-handed, and neither can former teammates such as Mark Grace and Turk Wendell.

We may know more in five years about Sosa, but judging purely on the JAWS system, Slammin' Sammy falls surprisingly short for a player fifth on the all-time home run list:

         BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
HOF RF    780   504   21   112.4   61.5   86.9
Sosa      676   390  -12    93.6   59.5   76.6
Right field is an especially strong position among HOFers; only the second basemen, at 90.6, have a higher average JAWS score (the reasons for that may be systemic). Part of the problem for Sosa, JAWS-wise, is that he's hanging up his spikes earlier than most superstars; another three years and 10.0 WARP would do wonders for his score. Examining his peak score a bit more closely, Sosa's got a big gap between his best season (13.6 WARP3) and his second-best (9.6), though anyone looking for fuel to add to a steroid-fluke fire ought to consider that more than 300 players throughout baseball history have a gap of 4.0+ wins or between best and second-best seasons. Moving along, there's a pretty serious drop-off between Sosa's fifth-best year (7.6 WARP) and his sixth (6.0) and seventh (5.8, a total he hit three times). An extra win in each of those years would almost cut the difference between him and the Hall average in half. Among right fielders, Sosa's score falls between those of Enos Slaughter (96.2/57.7/77.0) and Harry Heilman (92.8/57.7/75.3) and would rank 12th of all time. That's not inner circle, but it's nothing to sneeze at.

Turning our attention elsewhere, Roger Clemens is playing Hamlet for the third offseason in a row, unsure whether he will return to shave another run off the previous year's ERA and gun for another Cy Young award (he has seven already). Last year, in his 22nd major-league season, the Rocket ratcheted up his career win total to 341 on the strength of a 13-8 record marred by miserable run support (including nine shutouts by opposing pitchers). Nonetheless, he led the NL with a 1.87 ERA and 80.6 VORP, but he didn't re-sign with the Astros--or any other team, for that matter. Clemens did toss a rather anticlimactic 8.2 innings (allowing two runs) for Team USA in the just-completed World Baseball Classic and may yet return to the 'Stros, Rangers, Red Sox or Yankees this summer, depending on who's grinding the rumor mill on a given morning. Still, it's worth taking a look at his JAWS:

          PRAA   PRAR   WARP    PEAK   JAWS
AVG HOF P  239   1009    99.3   61.9   80.6
Clemens    624   1767   184.1   81.3  132.7
If the sheer distance between Clemens' numbers and those of the average Hall of Fame pitcher doesn't grab you--he's nearly lapping the field on career value, and his seventh-best season clocks in at 10.8 WARP--consider this: Clemens ranks 10th all-time in JAWS, and third among pitchers, surpassed only by Walter Johnson and the guy whose name litters the Rocket's trophy case, Cy Young. The class photo:
                 WARP   PEAK    JAWS
Babe Ruth       224.7  102.7   163.7
Barry Bonds     211.1   96.4   153.8
Willie Mays     207.6   93.4   150.5
Walter Johnson  194.4  101.9   148.2
Hank Aaron      200.0   80.7   140.4
Ty Cobb         194.3   83.3   138.8
Stan Musial     187.6   85.1   136.4
Cy Young        184.3   86.2   135.3
Honus Wagner    185.6   83.6   134.6
Roger Clemens   184.1   81.3   132.7
Yeah, some of those guys could play. In the unlikely event Clemens returns to put up a season halfway between his last two, WARP-wise, he would rise to seventh on the list, not that he has anything left to prove on the diamond.

With all of these less-than-climactic "retirements," it's worth turning to one player who has done us the service of definitively hanging up his spikes: Kevin Brown. Unless you're a Red Sox fan, the final, Yankee portion of his career was decisively unsatisfying (a 5.21 ERA over 35 starts in 2004-2005, something like 37 trips to the disabled list including one for a self-inflicted broken hand, and an ill-fated Game Seven start that helped the monkey off of the Sox's back). But Brown had plenty of good work under his belt before arriving in the Bronx, including some ace-manship of the World Champion 1997 Marlins and pennant-winning 1998 Padres. He'll likely be remembered most for those performances' aftermath: a seven-year, $105 million deal (plus use of the corporate jet to be named later) that symbolized the wretched excesses of the Fox-era Dodgers, and an astronomical number of days spent on the DL (405, according to Gary Gillette of The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia).

Even with more than two full seasons' worth of sick days, Brown fares surprisingly well:

          PRAA   PRAR   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
AVG HOF P  239   1009   99.3   61.9   80.6
Brown      261   1056  104.6   61.6   83.1
Brown's score is actually above the HOF average for pitchers. It's also better than (among others) Tommy John, Red Ruffing, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, Bob Lemon, Jim Kaat, Curt Schilling, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, John Smoltz, Jim Bunning, Wes Ferrell, Whitey Ford, David Cone and Curt Schilling. Which isn't to say he'll make it to Cooperstown, not with "only" a 211-144 lifetime record, a shelf that's lacking a Cy Young (though he finished among the top six five times), and a postseason record of 5-5 with a 4.30 ERA. But in five years, he'll have a case that even a disgruntled Yankee fan might be willing to make.

As the curtain draws on the 2006 season, it's likely that it's dropped on these five. We'll move on without them, making room for the Felix Hernandezes, Delmon Youngs and Francisco Lirianos to begin carving out their own legacies, while leaving space for a few more well-earned bronze plaques in upstate New York.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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