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Jeff Bagwell, Don Mattingly, and the Hall of Fame

December 20, 2010

Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated wrote about his Hall of Fame ballot today.

Much of it centered on his inclusion (again) of Jack Morris and his rejection (again) of Bert Blyleven. This has been written about often, so I won’t rehash it. Suffice it to say, if you’re going to vote for Morris, you need to vote for Blyleven, because, well he was better. Check out Craig Calcaterra’s extensive treatment on the issue. You can start here and find your way through the rest of them.

Anyway, the omission I find interesting is Jeff Bagwell, especially in light of Don Mattingly’s inclusion. Now this is Baggs’ first time on the ballot, so that may have something to do with it. There is, sadly, a misguided notion that some guys just have to wait their turn. In think if you’re good enough, you’re good enough. Now I’m not meaning to rip on just Heyman here because I’m sure many others will vote the same way, but rather, he was brave and honest enough to publish his views.

Heyman wrote of Bagwell:

Jeff Bagwell. The numbers were plenty good (449 home runs, .408 OBP, .540 slugging percentage) and he’ll merit reconsideration next year. I won’t argue if he gets in, but I’d prefer a chance to reconsider in future years.
So, his numbers are “plenty good,” but he wants a chance to reconsider. Why? And why choose Mattingly instead, when Heyman himself admits that he  was one of the best players in the game for a five-year period (and presumably would have continued along those lines had it not been for a bad back).
Well, fine, but he still wasn’t as good as Bagwell.
First, take a look at these rate stat comparisons I ran at Fangraphs. (Look at the bottom one for each category as it runs the comparison by age.) Except for Bagwell’s first couple of seasons, he trumps Mattingly in nearly every category at nearly every stage of their respective careers, and even that can be explained by the fact that Mattingly entered the league at a younger age.

Now, take a look at some other stats. Bagwell’s career triple slash: .297/.408/.540 ; Mattingly: .307/.358/.471. Bagwell, 449 HRs; Mattingly, 222. Bagwell, 1529 RBI; Mattingly, 1099. Bagwell, 2314 hits; Mattingly, 2153. Bagwell, 202 stolen bases; Mattingly, 14. Bagwell struck out a lot more than Mattingly, but also walked a ton more than Mattingly. Bagwell also racked up 83.9 WAR over 9431 plate appearances, while Mattingly turned out 45.8 over 7721. Mattingly was much better in the postseason, but he only played in 5 postseason games, so it’s pretty much moot.

So Mattingly trumps Bagwell by 10 percentage points of batting average (though Bagwell’s OBP was 50 points higher than Mattingly’s). Mattingly is also widely considered to have been an excellent fielding first-baseman, but while he was probably better than Bagwell, Jeff was no slouch himself. Does the difference there really warrant Mattingly getting a vote and not Bagwell? I say no.

I understand that Mattingly was a very good player on pretty bad Yankee teams. He was the face of the team, and everybody loved him. But the bottom line here is that he was not nearly as good as Jeff Bagwell, who trounces Mattingly in just about every category. I have a hard time believing that a.) there is a large enough difference in fielding ability to push Mattingly over the top and that b.) even if there was, that’s why Heyman and others are voting for him over Bagwell. Or maybe they prefer Mattingly’s classic ‘stache over Bagwell’s punk-rocking goat. Who knows.

This is all about perception. This is all about Mattingly being a Yankee, a “true Yankee.” (Even though he didn’t win anything.) Because if you look at the numbers, Bagwell wins going away. It’s not necessarily to say that Mattingly shouldn’t be in the Hall (though, I think there’s a much better case to be made that he should be left out than there is that he should be put in), but that Mattingly shouldn’t get into the Hall of Fame before, over, or at the expense of Jeff Bagwell.

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