Friday, January 10, 2014

Bagwell's Power

As we turn our eyes to the 2015 Hall of Fame announcement, (actual baseball might distract me in a bit), I would like to start the campaign for Bagwell. (Biggio's getting in. I am 100% confident in that. Book your ticket).

Jon Heyman, once again, did not vote for Bagwell for the Hall of Fame, primarily due to steroid suspicion. He stated
Going from a prospect with questionable power to posting a single-season slugging percentage higher than anyone in history besides Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby isn't proof.... But again, this isn't a court of law. And like Piazza, he will be considered again in a year.
And he's exactly right, its not proof. But, and this is a very large point, is not even remotely true.

The Hall of Fame released an amazing collection of old scouting reports about a year ago. They have 5 reports, by three scouts from 1989 and 1990, on Bagwell. Bagwell's power is mentioned prominently in all five reports. Jon Niederer, a scout for the California Angels, scouted Bagwell as a 20 year in 1989. Physically, he described Bagwell as having a "compact, very muscular build," and described him as having "explosive, line drive power to all fields. - balls he hit really take off." In two separate reports, Donald Lobassierre noted "power to all fields" and "good upper body strength."

From a scouting perspective, Bagwell was expected to hit for power. After being drafted in 1989 by the Red Sox, he had 262 PA in 1989 in rookie ball and A ball. He spent the entirely of 1990 in AA at New Britain as a 22 year old. He hit only 4 HRs - Where was the power?

Well, the Eastern League in 1990 was a very difficult hitting environment and his home park, Beehive Field, was one of the toughest environments in baseball.  Only 10 hitters exceeded double digits, and Bagwell himself was only 1 off his team lead. Also, Bagwell racked up the doubles. He led the league with 34. He was also second in the league in triples. His slugging percentage of .457 ranked 5th in the league (3rd with over 200 PAs). And he showed the on base skills that would become his true calling card, getting on at a .422 clip.

After the 1990 season, Baseball America rated Bagwell the #32 prospect in baseball. I doubt that ranking came because he was a wizard at 3B.

So, the Bagwell that came over and hit 15, 18 and then 20 in his first three seasons with the Astros did not come out of the blue. In fact, his slugging percentage was actually lower his first two years than the .457 clip he had at AA. He took a step towards great in 1993, bumping up his slugging over .500 and his OPS over .900.

Then came the explosion. In 1994, his slugging percentage shot up to .750 and he had 39 homeruns in just 479 PA. Thing is, for a young hitter with established power, this kind of explosion is not at all unusual. Musial had it in his age 27 season, going from a career high 19 to 39 HR, and raising his slugging percentage to .702.  A sudden power surge in the mid to late 20's also happened to Carl Yastrzemski, who hadn't hit above 20 before exploding for 44 in his age 27 season. Good hitters, entering their prime,  sometimes (often) become great hitters.

So, Jon Heyman, Jeff Bagwell was not a skinny nothing with questionable power who inexplicably exploded with power. He was a prospect who showed signs of budding power at all stages of development. He then had a power surge entering his prime, as many sluggers throughout history have. So, please, Jon Heyman, when filling out your ballot next year, reconsider your stance on Bagwell.

Further reading (from December 2011): Jeff Bagwell, 1993 to 1994