Houston Astros great Jeff Bagwell appeared on the baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2011. While many things have changed in the past seven years, Bagwell’s credentials for the Hall remained the same.
Despite that, Bagwell waited seven years before the voters recognized his greatness. Bagwell will finally enter the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday after receiving 86.2 percent of the vote. He was listed on just 41.7 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility.
The prevailing notion is that steroid suspicion delayed Bagwell’s induction to Cooperstown. But another factor may have also had a major impact on his lengthy wait. Perhaps no player was hurt more by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike than Bagwell.
The strike-shortened 1994 season was Bagwell’s best year. He hit an incredible .368/.451/.750, with 39 home runs. He led baseball with 106 runs scored and 116 RBI and a 7.8 fWAR. He accomplished all of that in just 110 games.
The 1994 season ended on August 12. The World Series was cancelled, and Bagwell never got an opportunity to continue what would have been a legendary season.
By some measurements, it already was. Bagwell’s 205 wRC+, an advanced stat that measures offensive performance, ranks Bagwell’s 1994 as the 24th best offensive season of all-time.
If you prefer counting stats, it’s not hard to figure out where Bagwell could have finished had his year not ended after 110 games. He was on pace for 57 home runs, 153 runs scored, 170 RBI and 217 hits. In 1994, 57 home runs would have been the sixth-highest single-season total ever. The 170 RBI threshold has been reached only seven times in MLB history.
(As pointed out in the comments, Bagwell suffered a broken hand prior to the strike and would have missed a few weeks. He would not have reached those on pace totals, though was slated to return before season’s end and would have added to his counting stats. Dumb mistake on my part. In that scenario, he would have still been overshadowed by guys like Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Matt Williams even though he was still producing a legendary year, so I’ll stubbornly stand by the point that his 1994 was terribly underappreciated.)
Bagwell did receive both a Silver Slugger and the National League MVP award for his efforts. While those help define his excellence, his performance could have been better.
Had the rest of season played out, Bagwell’s legendary season may have been the one thing the forced stingy voters to give in to his Hall of Fame case sooner.
The case for keeping Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible to make when looking strictly at statistics. For 15 seasons, Bagwell was one of the best hitters in the game. He finished his career with a .297/.408/.540 slash line, 446 home runs and a 149 OPS+. His 149 wRC+ ranks 32nd all-time. His 80.2 fWAR ranks 33rd all-time, and fifth among all first baseman.
And yet, Bagwell was underappreciated most of his career. Part of that can be attributed to playing on the Astros, who didn’t reach the postseason during the first six seasons of his career (thought they were just a half-game behind Cincinnati when the 1994 season ended). Once the Astros became a consistent playoff team, the team won just two games in four postseason appearances, not advancing past the National League Divison Series until Bagwell was 36. When he finally had the opportunity to shine in the World Series, Bagwell was a shell of his former self due to a debilitating shoulder injury that eventually forced him to retire.
It’s a nitpick, but Bagwell also comes up short in hardware. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1991, and took home the 1994 MVP, but only made four All-Star Games and received only three Silver Sluggers.
In order to rationalize keeping Bagwell out of the Hall from a statistical standpoint, you had to be an extreme “small Hall” voter or ding him on popularity and lack of awards. Bagwell’s legendary 1994 performance could have been the deciding factor for those stingy voters who were somehow on the fence about his numbers.
Hall of Fame cases aren’t made solely on stats, though. Those PED whispers, however slight, undeniably played a role in Bagwell’s seven-year wait. Bagwell never tested positive, and didn’t appear in the Mitchell Report, but rumors followed him because he was a power hitter in baseball’s most dubious era.
That line of thinking has changed in recent years. Mike Piazza’s induction may have signaled a change with the voters. Piazza was proof that whispers and rumors alone weren’t enough to keep a player out of the Hall of Fame. He may have paved the way for Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, who also faced those issues, to be inducted on his first try.
There’s no reason Bagwell shouldn’t have been the pioneer for that movement. Had the 1994 strike not taken away his one shot at a truly legendary season, he might have played the role of Piazza – or gotten in on the first ballot like Pudge.
Bagwell had to wait, but things are changing. Baseball hasn’t experienced a work stoppage in 22 years, and voters are coming to terms with how to handle Hall-eligible players from the Steroid Era. No player will be unfairly punished for those mistakes again.
Ultimately, Bagwell will get the recognition he deserves Sunday. With his induction, he’ll finally become a baseball legend. He should have received that title a long time ago.
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