January 7, 2015
An Astro for the Ages
Fifty-three years into a lifespan that’s included—to various degrees of infuriation—one decade of infantile ineptitude, two more of talent and teases, another of almost-excellence and a most recent of putridity, the Houston Astros have their first Hall-of-Famer.
Other Hall of Famers have played for the Astros – Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan, who had significant time in Houston, did, as did some forgotten Astros and Colt .45s like Robin Roberts, Nellie Fox and now Randy Johnson—he of two months service.
But Craig Biggio, whose cap controversy only comes down to which of the Astros’ many redesigns he’ll sport for eternity, will be the first to represent the Astros in sculpted headgear.
He’s a deserving Hall of Famer, cruising in at 82.7 percent, which would make you wonder why it wasn’t sooner had Roberto Alomar not garnered 90.0(!) percent on his second try a few years back. He fits the standard by new metrics, and he more than fits it if you’re a hits fetishist, which is probably the contingent that ultimately carried him in.
It’s fitting that he’s the first Hall of Famer in team history, a title he’ll wear very well forever. No player in Houston baseball history is more beloved than Biggio. He never wore another uniform, got the one that he was given dirty, gave 20 years of well above-average play, retired on his own terms, and then rejoined the front office. There is no better ambassador for Houston baseball who could be standing up there in July.
Still, it’s a little funny that he’ll be the one with that denotation of first. For most of the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s as the division titles kept coming even as both started to decline simultaneously, it was always Bagwell and Biggio. Sure you might have been a Biggio guy if you were of that body type or played second base or liked getting hit by fast moving objects, but it’s hard to put together a sustained stretch where he was the best player on his team.
Biggio had a nearly two-and-a-half-year head start on his fellow import from the northeast, but after Bagwell emerged with the Rookie of the Year in 1991, it would only be three more years before they’d accomplished just as much. Their WARPs ran together for a few years as both put together superb seasons in the middle-to-late 1990s, but for all that we hear about Bagwell’s decline, his wasn’t the sharp one. Or more accurately, it was, just quite a bit later.
Cumulative career WARP by year
Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz will get in in their proper order even if that one was just contingent on retirement dates. Johnson and Schilling will as well.
But when Biggio goes up on stage in Cooperstown, it will be a shame that his teammate who got on the ballot two years earlier won’t have been in there first. It’s always too bad when Hall of Famers don’t get in, and Bagwell should have been a first-ballot guy, but this makes for just an odd footnote in the way this team’s history should have progressed.
A couple other thoughts on Biggio’s induction:
Standing taller vs. standing alone
We shouldn’t play dumb as to why this is. A lot of it was suspicion of steroid use around Bagwell, whose home-run hitting profile and body type during the 1990s make him a candidate for that sort of suspicion, albeit with no evidence presented.
At least that’s part of it.
There’s also the part that Bagwell just blended in with all the power hitting first baseman of his time. Biggio was something new by being something old—singles and doubles guy, not without power but not dependent on it for his game. So while Bagwell was the better player, Biggio stood out more from his peers because he reached the 3,000 hit mark.
Nothing all that revolutionary there, but it did lead me to wonder today whether there would be a Bagwell and Biggio of this generation, and specifically, of this generation of pitchers.
As the elite pitchers start to look similar in a lot of ways with strikeouts on the rise all over the place and starting pitchers throwing harder than ever, will there be somebody who gets in the express lane and cuts in front of more statistically deserving pitchers? It isn’t as easy for pitchers because there aren’t really as many ways to distinguish yourself and it’s a challenge to make a career without strikeout stuff, much more so than it is without a power bat (not that Biggio couldn’t park a few).
If there were to be this guy, I would think it would have to be someone who comes up and just starts tossing complete games. He could be worse than whatever the elite level is when he comes up amid the eight-strikeout-per-nine starters, but because of something about how he throws or his physique makes him capable of complete game milestones that we haven’t seen in a long time.
He’d still have to be really good, but if there’s going to be something unusual that stands out, that’s probably the likeliest.
Painful ticket to the Hall
Biggio’s modern-record-setting hit-by-pitch total of 285 wasn’t just a fun piece of trivia.
Over the years that made up Biggio’s career, the average player was hit by a pitch every 124 plate appearances, meaning that if Biggio had been average, he would have been hit by 101 pitches. But he exceeded that by 184.
Had you taken away those plate appearances, at roughly 0.34 runs contributed per HBP according to league average linear weights during his career, that adds up to around 62 runs or about six wins contributed by his excess plunkings.
You’d probably have to replace those 184 plate appearances by a quarter to a third of a typical Biggio batting season, so maybe temper that number by one or two wins, but you’re still looking at a huge number for a player who didn’t exceed the Hall’s historical thresholds by that much.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for the research assistance.