Monday, November 26, 2012

Debunking the Bagwell/Steroids Connection

Jeff Bagwell is entering his 3rd year of Hall of Fame eligibility, and received 56% of the vote last year. The general consensus is that his numbers are deserving of enshrinement, but that his vote totals are depressed from whispers of steroids use. (I'm assuming everyone here knows how incredibly deserving he is of enshrinement. If not, I'm sure one of us at AC would be happy to outline that). There has been no direct evidence of use, but there are some who have built a case based on what could loosely be described as speculation and conjecture. This is faced with consistent and clear denials of use from Bagwell himself. I am aware that many users have denied, and its perfectly legitimate to disbelieve a denial when faced with conflicting evidence. However, disbelief of someone’s unequivocal denials without any evidence seems misanthropic. I'd like to take a look at the case presented, to see how it holds up.

A quick caveat. I don’t know whether Bagwell used steroids. I personally do not believe he did. However I am not naïve. If evidence of use is discovered, I will be disappointed, but not shocked. However, mere accusations without evidence amounts to nothing more than a witch hunt.

 Physical Evidence

This is probably the most commonly used evidence, and essentially posits…”well, look at him.” There is no doubt that, in his prime, Bagwell had a weight lifter's body. A comparison of Bagwell’s rookie card to shots from the mid to late 90’s shows someone who had bulked up considerably, or so they say. Seems like this shot of Bagwell in his Red Sox minor league days shows some significant muscles. Not that much different that this guy. But still, there really is no denying that Bagwell got much stronger in his mid to late 20’s.

This is where not being naïve comes in. In the 90’s, many players bulked up and many of them have been linked to steroids. Once a player is linked to steroids, I think it is perfectly fine to look at body changes to help corroborate the accusation. It just can’t be used the other way around. You know another way of getting a weight lifter’s body… lifting weights. Bagwell was a noted gym rat.  A 21-22 year old kid, especially one already sporting the muscles shown in the above picture, who gets on a legitimate workout regimen, is going to add muscle into his late 20’s. Heck, I added (very limited) muscle in my 20’s, and I never touched a weight. For Bagwell’s physique to offer proof of steroid use, it would have to be accepted that he could not have gotten that way naturally, even on the workout regimen he was on. Which is of course preposterous.


Steroid accusers often point to Bagwell’s explosion of power in 1994, compared with his middling power in the minor leagues and in his first several seasons in the majors. In his minor league career he hit a total of 6 homeruns. In his first year in the majors, he hit 15, then 18, then 20 and then 39 in the strike shortened 1994.

Looking closer at his minor league numbers shows that his power numbers are misleading. Yes, he only hit 4 homeruns in his 22 year old year at New Britain. But he hit 34 doubles, in only 136 at bats. His slugging percentage, as a result, was .457. He would not top that in the majors until his third season. In addition, his league, and his home ballpark, was notoriously tough on power. None of his teammates hit over 5 home runs, and the league leader (Rico Brogna) hit only 21. Bagwell led the league in doubles and was in the top ten in slugging. Bagwell’s power potential was evident even in the minors. 

But what about the jump in 1994? That kind of power surge was abnormal, right? There is no doubt that Bagwell was having an all-world season in 1994. At the time of the strike, he had 39 homeruns, and had a reasonable chance at 50+ (although he had just broken his hand, so the strike might have actually clinched the MVP he would have lost had the season gone on.) He never really approached those numbers again, at least in the Astrodome, topping out at 43 in 1997. So, is a huge jump in homeruns between your third and fourth seasons, at the age of 26, a sign of steroid use?

Well, Hank Aaron jumped to 44, from a max of 27, in his third full season at the age of 23. Willie McCovey jumped to 44, from 20, in his 5th season, at the age of 25. Willie Stargell saved his breakout 48 homerun binge for his 8th season,  at 31. He had never hit more than 31 before. Mike Schmidt jumped from 18 to 38 in his third season at the age of 24. Stan Musial had never hit more than 19 homeruns before he hit 39 in his sixth full season at the age of 27. Carl Yastrzemski hit 44 at the age of 27, his seventh full season, despite never even hitting 20 prior. I'm sure we could find more, but I've now gotten to Bagwell on the all time homer list, so it seems like a good place to stop. If a huge rise in your homerun totals from one year to the next, in your late 20’s, is a sign of steroid use, these players have some explaining to do.

Guilt by Association

I am not using this in the general sense, i.e. that all players in the 90’s are under a cloud. This is used very inconsistently, and has not held mid 90’s superstars such as Roberto Alomar from entrance. No, I’m referring to the claim that Houston was a hotbed of steroid use, and that adds extra suspicion to Bagwell. I have seen this in various places, but most notably from Jeff Pearlman, who claims that the Rangers and Astros were well known to have the most connections to steroids in baseball. He has never provided any evidence of this, as many of our readers are very familiar. So let’s just analyze the facts we know.

One of the most prominent steroid users in baseball was Ken Caminiti, who openly admitted that he used steroids. That is many people’s a-ha moment. Bagwell and Caminiti were close friends, and played together in Houston for several years. The steroid connection is made. But that ignores what Caminiti actually admitted to.

Caminiti openly acknowledged steroid use beginning in 1996, in his MVP season with the Padres, after injuring his shoulder. So two seasons after Bagwell had his huge power increase, a former teammate began using steroids while playing for a different team, and this is supposed to implicate Bagwell? I can’t really see the connection. Other notable connections include Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, who were both accused of taking steroids while with the Yankees in the late 90’s and early 2000s. Pettitte admitted HGH use in 2002, although he denied use any other times. The Mitchell Report alleged Clemens used from 1998 through 2002. Many assume Clemens was using when he played for the Astros in 2004 through 2006, but this was after testing began. Clemens, of course, denied all of those allegations, even defeating charges of perjury in a recent trial. Regardless of whether you believe Clemens used or not, its hard to tie that back to Bagwell.  Several other former Astros were named in the Mitchell Report, but none, except Caminiti in 1999, were tied to use at the time they played with the Astros. I know the Mitchell Report is flawed, but unfortunately, it is the best evidence we have.

Did the Astros have a steroid’s problem in the late 90’s? Sure. Its fair to say every team did. However, was it so significant that no Astros player’s denial can  reasonably be believed? I have seen no evidence of that.

Bottom line, Bagwell's career arc was consistent with sluggers throughout history, and his physique was easily explained by an intense workout regimen. It has been 8 years since Bagwell's retirement, and he has been under Hall of Fame scrutiny for three years. I believe if anyone had evidence of use they would have come forward by now. Besides, Morgan Ensberg doesn't think Bagwell used. And if we can't trust Morgan Ensberg, who can we trust?