Jeff Bagwell and the Unfortunate Fate of the Early Bloomers

What do Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Ted Simmons, and Ron Santo have in common?

The short and obvious answer: they are not in the Hall of Fame.

But there is another relatively simple thread connecting these five players that may partly explain why in spite of their seemingly unassailable career numbers they have not gotten the call.

On the ballot for the first time in 2011, Bagwell was deemed worthy by only 41.7% of the voters, a shocking total given his 79.9 career wins above replacement, ranking him fiftieth all time among players currently eligible for the Hall of Fame. With Bert Blyleven’s enshrinement all 49 players ahead of Bagwell—and an overwhelming percentage going quite a ways down the list behind him—are Hall of Famers.

In 1998 Jeff Bagwell was the most valuable player on a Houston Astros team that won 102 games and ran away with their division. He put up great numbers by traditional standards (.304, 34, 111), nineties era sabermetrics (.424 OBP, .981 OPS), or the newer WAR (6.7), he was a solid defender, and reportedly a clubhouse leader worthy of all the intangible points you want to hand out. Not that any of this means he actually deserved an MVP, but consider this: in 1998 Jeff Bagwell did not receive a single vote. For the record he finished behind Mickey Morandini.

 In light of this I decided to compare Bagwell’s league rank in WAR to his finish in the MVP voting:

Year 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99
MVP rank 19 20 1 15 9 3 X 2
WAR rank 16 12 1 6 2 4 7 1


Year 00 01 02 03
MVP rank 7 7 X 14
WAR rank 14 17 27 70

Note that every year until 1999 he was underrated, with the exception of 1994 when he was properly rated at the most valuable player in the league. After 2000, though, the rankings completely flip and he becomes overrated. No doubt a large part of the explanation is simply that award voting is largely influenced by a player’s reputation, but it suggests an interesting theory: are players who produce later in their careers more appreciated than players who put up similar numbers when they are younger?

To test this theory I looked at players, like Jeff Bagwell, who accumulated 40 or more WAR by the season when they were 29 years old and compared them to the players who accumulated 40+ WAR starting at age 30. There was one player in each group (Shoeless Joe Jackson in the young achievers and Pete Rose in the late bloomers) ineligible for the Hall. The pending column is made up of recently retired/on the ballot. 

Group Total Players Hall of Famers  non-Hall of Famers Pending Ineligible
<29 69 46 10 12 (9/3) 1
>30 35 27 1 6 (6/2) 1

The upshot: it’s not just what you did but when you did it. In the baseball history Bob Johnson is the only player to ever accumulate 40 WAR after turning 30 who was not elected into the Hall of Fame. (His career total was a mere 53 WAR, having not reached the majors until he was 27.) On the other hand, there are ten players (including Ted Simmons and Ron Santo) on the younger list who dropped off the ballot, and three more (Raines, Trammell, and Bagwell) currently on the ballot who may not get in.

But as Sam Gamgee’s gaffer used to say, it’s an ill wind that don’t blow nobody no good, so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in this for fans of Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker, the two members of the older group currently on the ballot.

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3 Responses to Jeff Bagwell and the Unfortunate Fate of the Early Bloomers

  1. Kerry C says:

    Very interesting, Christopher! Thanks for writing this.

  2. Steve says:

    I want to believe that the writers who get to vote are intelligent enough to see beyond what you are suggesting. But the results don’t lie. In my opinion the HOF voting process is a joke. While players such as Ozzie Smith, with a lifetime .262 BA, get in immediately, players like Alan Trammell wither in the wind. Clearly an example of popularity over production.

    • Epistibrain says:

      It does strike me as rather simplistic but it seems like that is what has happened. I suspect that voters inclined to go more by their gut and less by the numbers tend to be more influenced by players who have more great seasons later in their careers, after they have become stars.

      In addition to the early peak factor, Trammell also suffers from the fact that his contributions were spread out. His career WAR was 66.9, a couple points higher than Ozzie Smith’s, but nearly a third of Ozzie’s WAR came from his defense. In contrast, Trammell’s value was less obvious since it was spread out over so many aspects: defense, getting on base, power. And I have to confess I had forgotten how many steals he had his first ten years. He definitely deserves to be in the Hall, unfortunately his prospects are not looking great.

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