Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why Steroid Rumors Against Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza Are TotallyBaseless (Beyond the Obvious...)

This is more of a short collection of my thoughts as we lead up to the Hall of Fame announcements, to refer to this year and in future Hall elections. Unfortunately, It will probably take future elections. Baseball Think Factory’s Ballot Collecting Gizmo has Mike Piazza at 79.3% and Jeff Bagwell at 73.9% as we speak, and generally speaking, every player sees their percentage drop due to writers who don’t reveal their ballot. So while Piazza barely clears the 75% cutoff, he probably won’t make it this year, especially with four candidates ahead of him (last year, he went from 67.9% all the way down to 62.2%, and a drop off that size this year would leave him just over 73%). Bagwell, being further back, will almost certainly need to wait until next year.

This is not due to a lack of worthiness on their part; the fault lies totally on the electorate. Both are easily among the top ten at their positions all-time, and arguably among the top five. Bagwell hit 449 home runs, stole 202 bases and fell just shy of posting a .300/.400/.500 career batting line (he hit .297/.408/.540). His career weighted Runs Created+ (like OPS+, but properly weights OBP and slugging) is 149, and is fifth among first basemen with over 8000 plate appearances, and he was by most measures a good fielder. Piazza was the best hitting catcher ever. The only qualified catcher with a higher wRC+ is Buster Posey at 141, and he still hasn’t entered his decline phase; he’s played in a third as many games as Piazza.

The five reasons for not voting for them, as I can tell, are as follows:

1) Not understanding how to evaluate baseball players
2) Not understanding what the Hall’s standards are
3) Running out of space on the ballot (rather justified, especially given this year)
4) Imposing an artificial limit on your ballot beyond the existing ten-man limit (which is not at all justified, especially given this year); or
5) Penalizing them for imagined PED use

The latter is the most irritating. The perception is that, as sluggers, Piazza and Bagwell are more likely to have been taking steroids. They’ve never been linked to them in any official capacity, though. And on top of that, good luck finding any consistency in characteristics among players busted for taking steroids. Even among the batters, there’s no common link, with almost as many slap hitters as sluggers.

But both have additional “strikes” against them, in the mind of voters; both are seen to have “become” power hitters.  Even if we ignore the wide range of results we’ve seen in players taking steroids, in both cases, there are plenty of other factors in play.

We’ll start with Piazza. Most of the non-back acne evidence against him consists of how he went from a 62nd round draft pick to an all-time great. However, he was actually rated #38 on Baseball America’s 1993 list (the year before he won Rookie of the Year). So really, any “mysterious improvements” came between getting drafted and his major league debut.

However, there’s a much easier explanation; Piazza wasn’t drafted as a catcher. He was drafted as a first baseman.  In fact, looking back at his high school scouting report, scouts loved his power and potential for growth in that department.* What they didn’t love was his glove. Under weaknesses, we are told that he “lacks knowledge of 1B, does not know how to shift…needs to [improve] glove”. So his biggest flaw was that he was a first baseman with decent power who absolutely could not play first base. And it turns out, a good bat for a first baseman is a fantastic bat for a catcher. Even as the all-time leader in wRC+ for catchers, his 141 mark would 23rd among qualified first basemen and right around non-Hall of Famers like Jason Giambi (140) and Norm Cash (139).

*This isn’t some big secret, either; it’s right there on his Wikipedia page. Although apparently “some” saw the fact that Tommy Lasorda helped him switch as an unfair advantage, but I don’t really think that’s enough of a ding on his record to make him not a Hall of Famer.

Bagwell’s case is a little different. He was drafted in the 4th round, but that’s not  normally what people cite (although I guess that means the arbitrary cutoff between a draft pick’s success being “suspicious” and “definitely okay” is somewhere between round 5 and 61). Instead, they point to his minor league numbers, where he only hit six home runs before being called up.

Amusingly, people who take the time to look that up when they criticize him don’t simultaneously notice that he was still rated the 32nd best prospect in 1991 in spite of that. No, it must be something sinister. Really, though, the issue is that the minor leagues are much less uniform than the major leagues. Leagues have a wider range in power, and players in them are frequently not in their most developed state.

After five games in Rookie ball in 1989, Bagwell was promoted to A ball at Winter Haven, where he would hit both of his home runs for the season. However, the entire team would only hit 69 homers in 139 games that season. And what’s more, Bagwell was still fourth on that team in slugging percentage, in spite of that low home run total (and each of the players ahead of him had multiple years of minor league experience; none had to adjust from college to the minors mid-season that year like Bagwell).

The following year was even stranger. At AA New Britain, he managed four home runs. Team leader Eric Wedge only hit five, though; the entire team only hit 31. He did, however, lead the team in triples (7 out of the team’s 33) and doubles (34 of the team’s 219). His .457 slugging percentage led the team by 22 points, and the only players to even slug .350 were all three years older than the 22-year old Bagwell (on a team where the average age was 23, and in a league where even a year’s difference can be huge). What’s more, he also led the team in batting average by 40 points (.333, team average of .241, and the their next best hitter within a year of him age-wise only managed a .256 average) and was second in OBP by 2 points (.422, .322 team average, and with the second-best 23-and-under mustering only a .326 mark). He could always hit, and inferring that any of his offensive prowess was totally unexpected just means that the evaluator in question didn’t know what they were doing.

It’s too late this year to make a difference in their vote totals, and like I said earlier, there’s probably too much working against both of them to expect either to make it in this year. But it’s still worth addressing; maybe with a full year to dispel these unfounded claims, we can work to end any opposition to their cases once and for all for next year’s election.  

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