No one has any evidence that Jeff Bagwell used performance enhancing drugs. There are whispers, but there is no evidence. None. Not the Mitchell Report, not the leaked 2003 survey, nothing. But Jeff Bagwell got 54.3% of the vote on his fourth Hall of Fame try. Frank Thomas got 83.7% on his first. Why is Thomas above suspicion and Bagwell is not?
If you look only at their on-field record, it’s impossible to come to the conclusion that Bagwell is underserving. He leads Thomas in both FanGraphs’ (80.3 to 72.4) and Baseball-Reference’s (79.5 to 73.6) versions of WAR despite fewer career plate appearances. Bagwell also leads Thomas in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS. Bagwell was a better defender and baserunner.
Even if you’re a traditionalist who ignores measures of defense and baserunning, the offensive comparison is pretty favorable. Bagwell’s career wRC+ is 149. Thomas’ is 154. They’re separated by four points in batting average, eleven points of OBP, and fifteen points of slugging percentage. Thomas was a slightly better hitter if you look to the basic rate stats or if you look to the more nuanced wRC+. Thomas has about an extra season of at bats to his name, but all told, they’re very similar players.
Bagwell wasn’t quite the dominating force that Thomas was at the plate, but he was close and made up for it with some other types of value. And even though we think of Thomas’ amazing peak, Bagwell’s stacks up very nicely. Thomas’ seven year peak features a 177 wRC+ and 46.3 fWAR (1991-1997). Bagwell’s seven year peak features a 165 wRC+ and 48.5 fWAR (1994-2000). That’s basically Miguel Cabrera.
Both were big guys who hit for power. Both were 1B/DH type players even though Bagwell had very little opportunity to stay on the field by DHing. If you look at these two careers, it’s reasonable to think Thomas was better, but it’s not reasonable to think he was significantly better than Bagwell. Bagwell was simply one of the best first basemen in baseball history.
But Jeff Bagwell is barely over 54% on his fourth ballot and Thomas skated in easily despite an ever-crowding ballot on his first try. Why?
Bagwell is suspected of steroid use and Thomas is not. Personally, I think we should induct PED users into the Hall of Fame, but even if you have a strong belief that we shouldn’t, what separates Thomas from Bagwell? McGwire is an admitted user. Bonds and Clemens were named in various legal proceedings and reports. Sosa and Ortiz showed up on the leaked 2003 survey. There is some (albeit limited) evidence about some players and an actual failed test for Palmeiro, but there is nothing on Bagwell except that some people things he looks too muscular to have done it naturally.
This isn’t a matter of what we should do about PED users, it’s a matter of how people come to form opinions about players as users. On performance alone, Bagwell is a no doubt Hall of Famer. So is Thomas. One of them is in and one of them isn’t.
For whatever reason, Frank Thomas is above suspicion. So are Griffey and Chipper and Jeter. Thomas has been an outspoken critic of steroid use, but if that’s all it takes to prevent steroid associations then voters have very strange standards. Bagwell denies using PEDs but that doesn’t register. Thomas denies using and it does. Both are huge. Both mashed. Both earned their spot in Cooperstown, but here we are.
There are many reasons why I think Cooperstown should welcome suspected users, but the Bagwell example is the strongest point. I would rather induct 100 cheaters than punish one innocent player. I’m not alone in feeling that way, but I do seem to be in the minority.
People routinely bring up questions like “how can I explain cheaters being in the HOF to my kids?” or “what kind of message does that send?” when dealing with the PED question, but as someone who grew up watching this era of players and will be one of the people explaining the PED era to his kids, I will have a much harder time explaining to my kids why innocent people were punished because others behaved badly.
I don’t advocate banning Palmeiro or Manny Ramirez from Cooperstown, but they violated an explicit rule and failed a legitimate test. Jeff Bagwell lost in the court of public opinion even though he’s really no different than Frank Thomas. As someone who watched these players closely and came of age during their primes, it’s kind of amazing that people separate the two. If you told me that one of them did steroids and that I could make $1 million by guessing correctly, I would honestly flip a coin. It could be both, either, or neither. There’s no way to tell.
The Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t a court of law. You don’t need to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, but you should be innocent until proven guilty. Guilt by association is a dangerous game to play. By that logic, isn’t every member of the BBWAA guilty of giving their ballot to Deadspin (a move I support)? Every member is in the association with Le Batard and some members seem less than honorable, so maybe they sold their ballots too. That’s the logic path that convicts Bagwell.
We teach our kids not to judge people based on how they look and we teach them to think critically and independently. Maybe you’ll have trouble explaining Barry Bonds to your kids, but I’m going to be kept up at night wondering how I’m going to explain Jeff Bagwell, who is unquestionably a Hall of Famer, even if he never wins the BBWAA vote.