I can still picture him in my head, crouched in that unusual batting stance, uncoiling to lash a line drive into the outfield or drive a ball into the seats. Jeff Bagwell put up tremendous offensive numbers during his 15 year major league career, numbers that should have already landed him in the baseball Hall of Fame. Yet after four years on the ballot, he remains on the outside looking in.
Bagwell remains one of the biggest “What ifs” in Boston Red Sox history. What if Lou Gorman hadn’t traded the 22 year old prospect in 1990 for Larry Andersen? What if he had played on the 1998 Red Sox with Pedro, Nomar and Mo Vaughn? Would he have fulfilled his potential in Boston, blossoming into a superstar like he did in Houston?
I moved to the Houston area in 2006, and have followed Bagwell’s progress in the Hall of Fame voting since 2011. There seems to be a large number of writers who are holding back on voting Bagwell in, likely due to suspicions that he used performance enhancing drugs.
Since there was no drug testing during Bagwell’s playing career, these suspicions seem based on three arguments:
1) Jeff Bagwell was a large human who hit a lot of home runs
I’m obviously poking some fun at baseball writers with #3. Baseball beat writers dealt with years of frustration on how to write about the PED issue in baseball. Grantland had a great piece this week about how though the writers during the late 90’s early 2000’s suspected many players of PED use, they couldn’t write the stories without facts backing up the suspicions.
I wish they would apply those same journalistic standards to the Hall of Fame voting. Jeff Bagwell has failed exactly the same amount of drug tests as the players like Frank Thomas who were voted in this year: zero. Thomas actually presents an interesting contrast to Bagwell in how the voting has played out.
Despite playing four fewer seasons than Thomas, Bagwell’s career numbers are very similar. They’re close in WAR, with Thomas at 73 and Bagwell at 80 (Fangraphs). Thomas had slightly better offensive numbers, posting a .301/.419/.555 career line with 521 home runs, while Bagwell hit .297/.408/.540 with 449 home runs.
Thomas hit the magic .300 batting average and 500 home run thresholds, which historically have led to the Hall of Fame. Bagwell was a much better defender and base runner though, something the voters seem to have overlooked. Bagwell remained at first base throughout his career, while Thomas became a full time designated hitter. Bagwell also stole 202 bases in his career, an impressive mark for a slugging first baseman.
Then we get back to the PED question, the not so hidden elephant in the room. Frank Thomas was an outspoken critic of performance enhancing drugs during his time in the majors, vehemently denying he used them and criticizing their use in baseball. For the writers who couldn’t point to specific players due to lack of evidence, he at least put the subject on the table.
Bagwell denied using PEDs (straight from the Grantland article), but was never as outspoken as Thomas. Bagwell’s name (as far as we know) wasn’t on the list of players who tested positive in 2003, but he’s somehow become a stand in for steroid using players in an era when no one could tell who was using and who wasn’t.
The logic the sportswriters have used to assume Jeff Bagwell used PEDs (he’s a big guy who hit home runs) was never applied to Frank Thomas. If we’re going to use flimsy evidence, Thomas even played with known steroid user Jose Canseco in 2001 on the White Sox. Isn’t he guilty by association like Bagwell was with Ken Caminiti?
Let me be clear: I am in no way saying that Frank Thomas used performance enhancing drugs. I’m saying that with no hard evidence on who used and who didn’t, it’s insane to declare one guy clean and another guy guilty.
The Jeff Bagwell voting saga will hopefully end at some point with him entering the Hall of Fame. I just find it a shame that some voters are focusing on what he supposedly did off the field rather than focusing on the amazing accomplishments he performed on it.