I love Jeff Bagwell. Do you want to know why? It’s because he’s better than you think. No matter who you are, and no matter how good you think he is. I guarantee there’s something that you didn’t fully appreciate about him.
First, there’s the obvious: he could flat out rake. Among first basemen, he’s 4th in offensive WAR, behind just Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols. He’s 5th in runs, 6th in extra-base hits, 3rd in walks, and his AVG/OBP/SLG triple slash lines are 9th/3rd/6th, good for the 3rd best OPS+. Clearly the guy’s career was special.
In addition to career-long dominance, his peak years rank among the best ever. Again, among first basemen, his 1994 season has the 3rd highest OPS+ ever (behind McGwire’s magical ’98 and Gehrig’s similarly magical ’27). Only Gehrig has ever had more runs than Bagwell in 2000, and then only Gehrig, Foxx, and Hank Greenberg are above Bags’ 1999 season. His 149 walks in 1999 are absolutely ridiculous, only bested by McGwire in 1998. He also has the 3rd highest single season slugging percentage, and the 3rd highest OPS+.
I bet you didn’t know just how amazing of a hitter he was. But, even if I’m wrong on that, I bet you didn’t know how good of a base runner he was. Only Frank Chance has a higher running WAR among first sackers in history. He has the 9th most stolen bases, but if you only look at players debuting after 1930, he is first and has 50 more than second-place Dan Driessen.
OK, so if you know anything about baseball, you know Bagwell was masher. Then, if you can glance at a stats page, you can see he had pretty unusual contributions as a runner, considering the position he manned. You probably think you’re at the top of the Bagwell-the-HOFer fan club, but I bet even you underestimate his fielding. Initially, his rank of 33rd at 1B in terms of fielding WAR isn’t overly impressive. In fact, it’s a little surprising after looking at his individual seasons. The reason is that at the end of his career, when he was dealing with an arthritic shoulder that severely impeded his throwing, he posted the worst single-season fielding by a 1B at -19 runs compared to replacement level. That number is very suspect, though. Total Zone (the fielding number that baseball-reference.com uses for fWAR) has him at -19 runs that year, while UZR (the number that fangraphs.com uses for fWAR) has him at +3.5 runs that same year. Rarely do the two major schools of thought differ by so much, so I think that this number for Bagwell from TZ is an outlier. Throwing that year out (so it is neither severely negative nor slightly positive), Bagwell jumps to 15th on the all-time fielding list.
There are 17 men in the Hall of Fame who played at least 75% of their games at first. Three (Lou Gehrig, Cap Anson, and Jimmie Foxx) have a higher WAR than Jeff Bagwell. Fourteen don’t. And I love Jeff Bagwell.