Monday, July 31, 2017
Bags, Rock & Pudge
This weekend Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines joined the Cooperstown ranks alongside executives Bud Selig and John Shuerholz. Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero narrowly missed joining them, falling just a handful of votes short of election. Both are virtual locks to make it next year.
Even without the greatest closer not named Mariano Rivera and one of last decade's most exciting players, this year's class was a formidable one. It had arguably the greatest catcher of all-time (or at least the greatest since Johnny Bench), the greatest basestealer of all-time (in terms of success rate), and perhaps the greatest first baseman of the integrated era (or at least until Albert Pujols came along).
If Rodriguez is not the greatest backstop of all-time, then he is certainly the best defensively. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs have him leading the position easily in defensive WAR, with each putting him in the top 10 all-time for all positions. FanGraphs has him as the fourth-most valuable defender ever, ranking behind only Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, and Mark Belanger. The drop-off between him and other backstops is so severe that it's hard to imagine anyone challenging his title, much less his record (for a catcher) of 13 Gold Gloves (Yadier Molina is still five away, in case you're wondering). Throw in his sizeable offensive contributions -- 311 home runs, 2,844 hits, a .296 lifetime average -- and it's clear that he's one of the three greatest catchers ever along with Bench and Yogi Berra.
It's hard to argue that Raines was the greatest base-stealer ever, especially since Rickey Henderson already claimed the title for himself. He never stole 100 bases in a season, which has been done 21 times throughout baseball history (he topped out at 90), and the difference in total thefts between him and Henderson is a whopping 598 -- more than all but 18 players have stolen in their entire careers. But Henderson got caught a lot more than Raines -- 189 times more, to be exact. As such, Raines' 84.7 percent success rate is considerably better than Henderson's 80.8 percent. It's also the highest of all-time for anyone who stole that many bases. So while Raines may not have been the most prolific base-robber of all-time, he was the best at combining volume and efficiency. And like Rodriguez, Raines brought a lot to the table with his bat, too, slashing .294/.385/.425 (123 OPS+) for his career with 2,605 hits and far more walks (1,330) than strikeouts (966). Add it all together and Raines was the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, which somehow took the BBWAA 10 years to recognize.
And last but not least there's Bagwell, who was Pujols before Pujols. Check out their averages through their first 14 seasons:
Bagwell: 151 G 665 PA 108 R 32 HR 108 RBIs .297/.408/.542 (150 OPS+) 99 BB 110 K 14 SB
Pujols: 150 G 660 PA 108 R 37 HR 114 RBIs .317/.403/.588 (162 OPS+) 80 BB 65 K 7 SB
Pujols hit for a higher average and a bit more power while striking out less, but Bagwell walked more and stole twice as many bases. They were both good fielders, winning Gold Gloves for their play at first base, but the metrics say Pujols was better. Overall, you have to give the edge to Pujols, but it's close.
And yet, it took Bagwell seven tries to get into the Hall of Fame, whereas Pujols will be a slam-dunk as soon as he's eligible. The difference is that Bagwell played just 39 games in his 15th season and retired at 37, leaving him well short of several notable milestones such as 500 homers and 500 doubles. Pujols, whose contract runs until he's 42, has continued to play on through debilitating lower body injuries that have rendered him a full-time designated hitter. He's padding his career totals without adding much value on the field, socking his 600th homer this season in a year where he's been over a win below replacement level. A lifetime National Leaguer, Bagwell never had that option except during interleague games, playing a grand total of 10 games as a DH. Perhaps the DH would have lengthened his career, but we'll never know.
If nothing else, this year's class raises the bar for the average Hall of Famer. Next year we'll get Hoffman and Guerrero, along with likely newcomers Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. It's good to see the stars of the '90s and 2000s get the recognition they deserve. Now if we could only do something about the '70s and '80s...