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Hall of Fame Vote 2013: Why Jeff Bagwell Deserves to Be in Cooperstown

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Hall of Fame Vote 2013: Why Jeff Bagwell Deserves to Be in Cooperstown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Never mind Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling, who are all on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. Let's talk about Jeff Bagwell instead.

The longtime Houston Astros first baseman has been on the ballot since 2011, and last year he was still well short of getting the call to Cooperstown. He only received 56 percent of the vote, and you need 75 percent to start outlining your acceptance speech.

The voters are doing it wrong. Bagwell should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The fact that he still has a long way to go to get in after two years is an utter mockery.

The smart money is on Bagwell being left out once again when the vote totals are announced in January, as he's likely to be lost in the shuffle amid all the new guys. Besides, he still has to get past all those who are suspicious of how he enjoyed such a fine career.

We'll get to those suspicions in a moment. For now, what everyone has to realize about Bagwell is that his accomplishments on the field are actually underrated. He was a much, much better first basemen than many fans (and writers) seem to realize.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, Bagwell's career on-base percentage of .408 is good for seventh all-time among first basemen. His .540 slugging percentage is good for 10th. His .948 OPS is good for eighth.

Bagwell ranks a little higher on the list in regards to OPS+, a park- and league-adjusted version of OPS that helps compare players from different eras. Bagwell ranks seventh among first basemen with a career OPS+ of 149, placing him just ahead of Willie McCovey and just behind Hank Greenberg.

But Bagwell was more than just a great hitter. He also got it done on the basepaths, as he's the only first baseman in the post-WWII era with at least 200 stolen bases to his name. Per FanGraphs, Bagwell also ranks as one of the top 20 defensive first basemen to ever play the game.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Bagwell only won one Gold Glove, but he was a steady presence at first base for the majority of his career.

Combine hitting, fielding and baserunning, and you get a lovely thing called WAR. By FanGraphs' reckoning, Bagwell has the eighth-highest WAR ever among first basemen. By Baseball-Reference.com's reckoning, he ranks fourth all-time among first basemen in WAR.

The only players ahead of him on B-R.com's list are none other than current Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. Good company for a first baseman to keep.

Bagwell could have finished his career with even more impressive numbers. In 1994, a broken hand and the strike robbed him a chance to complete an an all-time great season, as he was on pace to finish with 58 home runs and over 170 RBI (for what it's worth). He also retired somewhat abruptly after the 2005 season when his body just couldn't hack it anymore.

"Physically, I can not do it anymore," Bagwell said in 2006. "I wish I could. I wish I could continue to play and try to win a World Series in Houston. But I'm just not physically able to do that anymore."

There was (and still is) stuff that could have kept Bagwell going. Evidently, he chose not to use it.

But people think he did anyway. There's plenty of suspicion about Bagwell, as there really should be regarding any muscular player who hit for a ton of power in the 1990s and early 2000s. So far as the eye test is concerned, there's really no denying that Bagwell fits the mold of a Steroid Era juicer.

The problem is that the eye test is all Bagwell's skeptics really have. As far as actual evidence of his juicing goes...well, there is none. 

Bagwell hasn't admitted to using PEDs, so he can't be lumped in with admitted juicer Mark McGwire. He never tested positive, so he can't be lumped in with Barry Bonds or with Sammy Sosa. He wasn't the subject of a government investigation, so he can't be lumped in with Bonds or Roger Clemens.

Those curious about how Bagwell responded to the rampant juicing in MLB during his playing days should heed what he told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick a couple years ago:

If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else? I was pretty happy with what I was doing, and that's the God's honest truth. All of a sudden guys were starting to hit 60 or 70 home runs and people were like, 'Dude, if you took [PEDs], you could do it too.' And I was like, 'I'm good where I'm at. I just want to do what I can do.'

As for how he managed to get so big and strong, Bagwell said it was a simple matter of eating "30 pounds of meat every single day" combined with heavy lifting. He said he first got serious about putting on muscle in 1995 after Mike Hampton mocked him for looking like he was on crack (his words).

Is it so hard to believe that Bagwell may have actually told the truth about his weight gain? After all, eating a ton of protein and lifting weights does tend to result in more muscle mass. You don't need sinister chemicals to put on weight.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Notice the lack of shoulders where there used to be shoulders.

Many took Bagwell's massive post-retirement shrinkage as a sign that he was off the juice, but all that weight could have come off simply because he wasn't working out anymore. He had a good reason to stop, too, as he told Crasnick that all the weightlifting really did a number on his body.

Those keeping Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame aren't open-minded enough to consider rational explanations such as these. It's more convenient for them to assume that he's guilty by association and to leave it at that.

As Jeff Jacobs of Hartford Courant put it last year, Bagwell is being punished for "the sins of his baseball generation." Several other writers voiced similar sentiments last year.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Judging all players from 1990s and early 2000s under the same suspicious umbrella isn't fair. They deserve to have their cases considered on an individual basis.

There are only two simple questions that need to be asked. The first is whether there's sufficient evidence that proves a candidate used PEDs. In Bagwell's case, there's not even a shred of evidence.

The second question is whether a given player really needed PEDs to forge a Hall of Fame-worthy career. This question is only worth bringing up in Bagwell's case because it highlights the possibility that he could have enjoyed an even more Hall of Fame-worthy career had he turned to PEDs.

Had Bagwell turned to steroids early in his career when he wasn't yet a hulking presence at the plate, he could have developed 30-homer power a lot sooner. Had he turned to steroids later in his career when his body was beginning to break down, he could have made a run at 500 home runs.

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A skeptic will respond to this by saying that it can't be proved that Bagwell didn't turn to PEDs, which is certainly true. But it also can't proved that he did turn to PEDs, and assuming that he did in order to achieve his career numbers is to suggest that he couldn't have possibly achieved them without juicing.

And that's an absurd thought. Bagwell only retired with 449 career homers and a .297/.408/.540 slash line, numbers that don't look at all gaudy when considered alongside numbers compiled by great sluggers who came along in the decades before the Steroid Era. It's not like nobody had ever hit as many as 449 homers without chemical help before Bagwell came along.

Well, except for all those guys who did.

Bagwell shouldn't be deemed guilty by association. Since there's absolutely no evidence that he was a juicer during his career, it's far more fair to take it for granted that he was just a naturally gifted ballplayer who enjoyed a damn fine carer.

There are plenty of those already in the Hall of Fame. Bagwell belongs in their company.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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