Of Bagwell, Mize and McCovey
Finishing fifth in the voting this year, Mike Piazza saw a significant boost of support for his candidacy by being named on 69.9 percent of the ballots cast, up from 62.2 percent last year. This makes him the presumed front-runner of the returning eligibles next year. (see the following New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/sports/baseball/mike-piazzas-turn-could-be-next-for-hall-of-fame-election.html?ref=baseball.) Tim Raines, who came in seventh in this year's vote, made the biggest gain, seeing his name appear on 55 percent of the ballots compared to only 46 percent last year.
Nestled between Piazza and Raines was Jeff Bagwell, whose total barely budged, but was at least in an upward direction, from 54.3 percent to 55.7 percent of the voters' ballots. Bagwell, however, had received as much as 60 percent of the vote in 2013--his third year of eligibility--when the writers did not elect anybody to the Hall.
Jeff Bagwell was indisputably one of the game's best players in his prime during the 1990s. While Frank Thomas, Cooperstown class of 2014, was the best first baseman in the American League in the 1990s, Bagwell had that distinction in the National League. Bagwell's peak years of performance based on the WAR metric are a strong argument to put him in the discussion with Willie McCovey and Johnny Mize as the premier National League first baseman of the twentieth century. Albert Pujols, of course, clearly established himself in the first decade of this century as the greatest first baseman in the entire history of the senior circuit, and Pujols is in the conversation with Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx as the best at the position in all of baseball history.
From 1993, his third year in the majors, to 2001, Bagwell averaged 6.5 wins above replacement and was better than 5 WAR--which represents an All-Star level quality of play--each of those nine years except for 1995, when he just missed with a 4.8 WAR. There were, however, extenuating circumstances in 1995: like everyone else in major league baseball, Bagwell's season was shortened by 18 games at the front end because of the 1994-95 players' strike/owners' lockout, but Bagwell also missed the entire month of August with a broken hand after being hit by a pitch.
Bagwell retired with a .297 batting average, got on base in nearly 41 percent of his plate appearances and hit 449 home runs over his fifteen-year big league career, but in the nine years between 1993 and 2001 he hit 316 of his home runs, had six consecutive 100-RBI seasons (which would have been eight, if not for his injury in 1995, when he finished with 87 RBIs) and batted .308.
Johnny Mize also had nine years of peak performance with almost exactly the same player value as Bagwell (an average annual WAR of 6.7 for The Big Cat) from 1937 to 1948, three years of which he was wearing the uniform of Uncle Sam during World War II instead of that of the New York Giants, to whom the big first baseman was traded from the Cardinals after the 1941 season. One of the most prolific power hitters of his generation, Mize hit 278 home runs between 1937 and 1948, leading his league four times. His career total was 359 in a fifteen-year career, the last three of which were primarily as a part-time first baseman and exceptional pinch hitter with the Yankees.
Mize had six straight 100 RBI seasons from 1937 to 1942 and two more in 1947 and 1948. Were it not for missing the last two months of the 1946 season, stuck on 70 runs batted in, because his hand got in the way of a pitch and was broken, it would have been nine straight years of 100 RBIs. Unlike Bagwell's broken hand in 1995, Mize suffered his in the annual New York Mayor's Trophy exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants.
And then there is Willie McCovey, perhaps the most potent power hitter of his generation when taking into account the negative Candlestick factor. McCovey hit 521 career home runs, 469 of them in nineteen years with the Giants, all but 13 of those after the San Francisco team moved into wind-swept Candlestick Park in 1960. The Candlestick winds limited McCovey to 236 home runs in the park where he played 42 percent of his games. The man known as Stretch reached the 500-home run plateau, once a very big deal, not only playing most of the primetime years of his career in the 1960s, when pitchers were dominant, but getting many fewer plate appearances than he should have in the first six years of his career despite having burst on the scene with 13 home runs and a .354 batting average to win Rookie of the Year honors in 1959. It being he was not called up till the end of July, McCovey did all of that in only 52 games and just 192 at bats.
McCovey's career was stalled for three years because Orlando Cepeda had primacy at first base. Then, after a breakout season playing left field in 1963 when he led the league in home runs for the first time with 44, McCovey was hobbled by a foot injury throughout 1964, limiting his ability to generate power, and he hit only 18 home runs. His manager, Alvin Dark, was less than sympathetic and not convinced McCovey's dramatic falloff in production was attributable to an injured foot. This, of course, was the year Dark stirred controversy by questioning the work ethic of the Giants' African American and Latin players. (See my November 19 article, "Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes" http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/11/alvin-dark-and-persistence-of-racial.html.)
Cepeda's season-long absence in 1965 made McCovey the Giants' new first baseman, which proved to be his big Hall of Fame-career-making break. McCovey's best years were from 1965 to 1970, during which he hit 226 home runs--(43 percent of his career total); had at least 30 go out of the park each of those six years; led the National League in both home runs and RBIs in 1968 (with 36 and 105 in the infamous Year of the Pitcher) and 1969 (with 45 and 126); and had an average annual player value of 6.4 wins above replacement.
But back to Jeff Bagwell.
Like Piazza, Bagwell has endured suspicions of steroid use that have not been proven. There is no actual evidence that either player used performance enhancing drugs. While it is clear by now that being linked to steroids by testing, personally admitting to their use, or being named in the Mitchell Report or in federal investigations into illegal performance-enhancing drugs have sunk the Hall of Fame candidacies of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and damaged at least the near-term prospects for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, Piazza and Bagwell are likely to be the test case for whether players about whom there are suspicions but no proof will be elected by the cohort of Baseball Writers Association of America members who vote for the Hall of Fame. Should either, and especially both, Piazza and Bagwell clear that bar in the next few years, the writers may eventually soften their objections to at least Bonds and Clemens as they approach the end of their ten-year ballot eligibility in 2022.