Jeff Bagwell wasn't supposed to play for the Houston Astros, but the Boston Red Sox were desperate for a reliever during the final months of a playoff run. Bagwell also wasn't supposed to play first base, but he hit the ball hard, and the Astros were desperate for bats in the lineup, so he became a first baseman.
Bagwell spent 15 seasons as the first baseman for the Astros. He played in four All Star games. He was a Rookie of the Year and a MVP. He won a Gold Glove for defensive excellence and three Silver Slugger awards for his hitting. And now Bagwell gets to claim the greatest honor that any baseball player can claim: being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"It's a weird thing to be a Hall of Famer," Bagwell told reporters Wednesday. "I wrote it on a ball tonight. It was kind of crazy."
Bagwell may be the second Astro to reach the Hall of Fame, but he is the all-time best of all the players ever to wear any of the Astros uniforms. Yes, Craig Biggio had more hits. And perhaps Lance Berkman had the prettier swing. Put all of that aside and concentrate just on this: Only six first basemen in MLB history have a career WAR higher than Jeff Bagwell's. And only one first baseman in league history hit 30-plus homers in a season while also stealing more than 30 bases. Thus Bagwell is not only the greatest player in Astros history, but one of the best first basemen ever.
"Jeff Bagwell stood out as the complete player," former Astros broadcaster Bill Brown said in a statement. "He provided power, on-base average and timely hits. He also ran bases in expert fashion and fielded with utmost skill, attempting plays that most first basemen could not make. He was one of the most intelligent players in the game. He was the complete package."
It is fitting that Bagwell enters the Hall in the same class as Tim Raines. They're both players who should have been in on the first ballot and have been overshadowed by many of their contemporaries. They've both been punished for not getting the magic counting number stats (500 homers for Bagwell and 3,000 hits for Raines). But then you realize that Raines reached base more often than first-ballot inductee Tony Gwynn. And then you realize that Bagwell's WAR is higher than that of just about every first baseman in the Hall, and you further realize that he hit only 33 fewer homers than Hall of Famer Frank Thomas even though Thomas played four more seasons than Bagwell.
Bagwell finished his career with 449 homers, 1,529 RBI, 1,517 runs, 2,314 hits, 202 stolen bases, 1,401 walks and a .297/.408/.540 slash line to go with all of his rewards. He leads the team in career WAR, homers. OPS, RBI and walks, and comes in second behind Craig Biggio in games played, at-bats, hits, runs and doubles.
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Bagwell deserves lots of credit for his success as moving from third base to first base during the middle of spring training and learning the position is difficult. But there was nobody better in the sport at turning the first base to second base double play than Bagwell. He was fearless at charging the plate on bunt attempts. And the defensive reputations of Biggio and Ken Caminiti would be nothing were it not for Bagwell's ability to catch everything thrown in his general vicinity.
"The Hall of Fame often focuses heavily on offensive statistics to determine worthiness," current Detroit Tigers manager and former Astros catcher and Bagwell teammate Brad Ausmus said in a statement. "Baggy was much more than his great run-producing statistics. He was a great base runner, Gold Glove defender and an All-Star teammate. He is the complete Hall of Fame player. I couldn't be happier for him."
It must be remembered that Bagwell wasn't just a self-made player. It was GM Bill Wood who signed off on getting Bagwell and approved the move to first base. And don't forget about manager Art Howe and coach Matt Galante, who worked with Bagwell throughout that 1991 season as he made the switch from third to first base. Then there's hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, whom Bagwell credits for turning him into a home run hitter. But he’s the one who took what he was taught and applied those teachings to his game.
"It was an interesting process," Bagwell said. "Anxiety was very high. What happened today was the culmination of a great time."