Friday, January 20, 2017

How Do Bagwell's All-Star Appearances Stack Up?

Jeff Bagwell was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, and it's a well-deserved honor. 
Reading about Bagwell's election reminded me of his remarkable consistency and his delightful bent-legged batting stance. Bagwell was a bit underappreciated in his time, and that continued into his seven years on the Hall ballot. Here's what The Ringer's Michael Baumann wrote in his excellent piece on Bagwell and fellow inductees Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez:
[T]he electorate has long skewed toward a set of writers who are pro-tradition, puritanically anti-PED, and limited in their willingness and/or ability to grapple with sabermetrics. 
That made Bagwell’s case hard from the start, because even as a power-hitting first baseman, he doesn’t have a traditional Hall of Fame profile. Bagwell’s 15-year career isn’t that long by Hall of Fame standards, so he wound up short of the traditional milestones with only 2,314 hits and 449 home runs, and his .297 career batting average is just below that nice round number. Bagwell never led the league in home runs and only led the league in RBIs once — in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Bagwell also never played in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, never won a World Series, and only won a pennant in his last season, when an arthritic shoulder limited him to 39 games. Chris Burke had more memorable playoff moments as an Astro than Bagwell did.
One thing I didn't see mentioned in the slew of articles about Bagwell is the fact that he only appeared in four All-Star Games. If you count up all the seasons in which he played in at least 60 games, Bagwell was an All-Star about 28 percent of the time. That seems low, right?  

I figure a quick historical comparison is in order. How do Bagwell's All-Star appearances compare to his Hall of Fame peers?

The MLB All-Star Game has been held annually since 1933. There are 22 players that the Hall of Fame classifies as first basemen, but we can't consider any of the guys who played most or all of their careers before that. So sorry, Cap Anson, Jake Beckley, Dan Brouthers, Jim Bottomley, Frank Chance, Roger Connor, High Pockets Kelly, George Sisler, and Bill Terry. (Also, apologies to Hall of Famers Mule Suttles, Ben Taylor, and Buck Leonard, who played their entire careers in the Negro Leagues and/or the Mexican League.)

That leaves us with 10 first basemen who played at least the majority of their careers during the All-Star Game era. Here's how they stack up against Bagwell, whose four All-Star selections represent only 28 percent of the Midsummer Classics for which he was eligible.

Orlando Cepeda (7 All Star Games, 50% of possible appearances*)
Cepeda made it six times by his age-26 season then only once afterwards despite playing in 10 more seasons. (By the way, did you know the 79-year-old Cepeda is on Twitter?!?)

*Possible appearances include all seasons in which the player logged at least 60 games.

Jimmie Foxx (9 All-Star Games, 90% of possible appearances)
Foxx was the reigning MVP winner for the first All Star Game, and he was then selected every year until his final season.

Lou Gehrig (7 All-Star Games, 100% of possible appearances)
The majority of Gehrig's career actually occurred before 1933, but he made all seven Midsummer Classics for which he was active after the game was implemented.

Hank Greenberg (4 All-Star Games, 36% of possible appearances)
Greenberg missed three late-prime seasons due to military service in World War II then didn't make another All-Star Game despite a top-10 MVP finish in 1946. He retired in '47.

Harmon Killebrew (11 All-Star Games, 65% of possible appearances)
Killer made nine straight contests from 1963-71.

Willie McCovey (6 All-Star Games, 30% of possible appearances)
McCovey recorded a stretch of seven straight years with either an All-Star appearance or down-ballot MVP finish before experiencing a gradual decline to replacement level in his late thirties and early forties. Still, he made the All-Star game more frequently than Bagwell.

Johnny Mize (10 All-Star Games, 67% of possible appearances)
Despite missing three years to military service, Mize racked up more than double the All-Star appearances of Bagwell. 

Eddie Murray (8 All-Star Games, 40% of possible appearances)
Early-career Murray was an awards hog, collecting Rookie of the Year, All-Star, Gold Glove, and MVP honors like they were going out of style faster than the afro-mustache combo he'd sport for decades.

Tony Perez (7 All-Star Games, 32% of possible appearances)
Perez was an early-career beneficiary of Cincinnati's infamous ballot-stuffing. His percentage is hurt by a six-season stretch at the end of his career in which he never played in more than 100 games. But alas, he still made the All-Star Game at a higher rate than Bagwell.

Frank Thomas (5 All-Star Games, 29% of possible appearances)
The Big Hurt faced the same type of logjam of slugging first basemen as Bagwell. While Bagwell had to contend with Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, and probably some other Mc's, Thomas competed for All-Star recognition with American League beasts like Rafael Palmeiro and Jim Thome.


So while Bagwell's career WAR would rate sixth overall among HOF first basemen, his All-Star appearances don't reflect that standing.

Among the seasons when Bagwell wasn't selected, we find six seasons in which he finished in top 20 of MVP voting in addition to his Rookie of the Year-winning season. At first, I thought his first- versus second-half splits might account for his All-Star scarcity, but despite a tiny average uptick during second halves, that doesn't explain enough.

Expansion also added more competition for Bagwell than players who came before him. Like Thomas, he had to compete with more guys than players from earlier generations. He also had to vie for recognition on his own team with fellow star Craig Biggio.

Maybe Bagwell was a little underrated, too. His contemporary Mark McGwire, for instance, made 12 All-Star appearances in just 16 seasons despite a career WAR (62) that was considerably lower than Bagwell's 79.6. In addition to McGwire, Bagwell had to share the spotlight with a plethora of terrific slugging first basemen, including McGriff, Todd Helton, and Andres Galarraga.

Regardless of the reasons for his All-Star omissions, Bagwell has now received the highest honor to which a ballplayer can aspire. Good for him. I just wish there was a way for his Hall plaque to immortalize his batting stance as well as his face.

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