Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy Birthday...

Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell!

Having kind of come of age as a baseball fan in the 1990s, it's almost impossible for me to believe that The Big Hurt and Bags both turn 41 years old today.

I would like to suggest, first of all, that, even without regard to simultaneity and such freak coincidences, you'd have a hard time finding two truly great ballplayers who are more similar to each other than Bagwell and Thomas are. Having played parts of 34 combined seasons, they're separated by 202 at-bats, 23 runs, 154 hits, 7 doubles (!), 20 triples, 72 home runs, 175 RBI, 4 strikeouts (!!), 4 points of batting average, 11 points of OBP, and 15 points of SLG. (And a ton of stolen bases and walks, but still.) Bill James' Similarity Scores, for what they're worth (which isn't much), lists them as each other's #1 comp.

But then of course there are those coincidences. Born on the exact same day in 1968, both drafted in 1989. Both had their first full seasons in 1991. Both had enormous offensive years and won their league's MVP award in the strike-shortened season of 1994. Both were 37 year old non-factors in their last years with the teams they had spent their entire careers with in 2005, when those two teams met in the World Series, the first for both players (Thomas didn't play but got himself a ring, while Bagwell went 1-for-8).

Differences, too, of course--Frank was huge and intimidating while Bagwell seemed a little small for the position; Bagwell reputedly played great defense, while Frank was a born DH; Frank was a first-round pick and instant star, while Bagwell was a fourth-round pick who the Red Sox traded for 22 innings of Larry Andersen; and so forth. But the similarities are more interesting, and quite a bit more numerous.

Thomas is apparently holding out for an offer until the All-Star break, but I think we can assume that his significant contributions to the equation here are pretty well over with.

So who do you suppose was better? Here are a bunch of different ways to look at it:

OPS+: 156 to 149, Thomas. Frank was a better hitter, and it's kind of surprising that it ended up as close as that. Thomas was a legendary, Stan Musial-type hitter for the first eight or so years of his career, but then suddenly settled into being a more typical low-average, high-walk slugger like Killebrew. Bagwell was much more steady, though part of that is an illusion caused by a move from an extreme pitcher's park to an extreme hitter's park right around the time he started to decline.

WARP3: 105.3 to 97.2, Thomas. Baseball Prospectus' wins above replacement player stat has Thomas ahead by a deceptively comfortable margin. 8 wins above replacement equals one excellent year; Bagwell's WARP3 was exactly 8.1 in 1999, for instance, when he played all 162 and hit .304/.454/.591. A big part of that boost comes from Thomas' longevity, though; per 700 plate appearances, Thomas was worth 7.32 wins above replacement, Bagwell 7.21.

Fielding: Bagwell did it and Thomas didn't. This is theoretically accounted for in WARP3 -- Bagwell gets 205 career fielding runs above replacement and 66 career fielding runs above average, while Thomas is 26 and 87 below -- but I'm not convinced that it's covered enough. For instance, UZR is available only for Bagwell's decline years (2002 to 2005, years in which BP's system says he was pretty much exactly average in the field), but still says he was worth 5.7 runs above average in 2003 and 5.4 in 2004. It seems safe to assume that he would've shown up as being worth quite a bit more than that during his twenties. Also, in Tom Tippett's Diamond Mind Baseball simulation engine's "all-time greatest players" disk, Bagwell was rated "average" and Thomas "poor" -- a difference of about 20 runs over the course of a season.

Baserunning: Bagwell stole 202 bases at a respectable 72% clip and was known as a very smart, if not very fast, baserunner; Big Frank was a big slug, with 32 steals in 55 attempts and that special ability to go from first to third on a triple. We can assume that Bagwell was worth a handful of runs a season over Frank, and that measures like WARP and WAR only capture a portion of that value (the part that comes from stolen bases).

Bill James: In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, James ranked Bagwell the #4 first baseman of all time, and Thomas #10. In the comment to Thomas, he briefly noted the comparison, but simply said that Bagwell was a better all-around player. Of course, Thomas at that time had two more brilliant offensive seasons, two more brilliant partial seasons and one more very good full season to go, while Bagwell had two more good years and kind of skidded to the finish. Also, James' comment about Bagwell at #4 was, in its entirety: "Pass." Anybody ever figure out what the hell that was all about?

Other subjective measures: Thomas went to five All-Star games, starting two; Bagwell went to four and started two. Thomas won 2 MVPs and finished in the top 5 four other times; Bagwell had just the one MVP and two more top-fives. Thomas wins Silver Sluggers, too, four to three, though two of Thomas' were at DH rather than 1B, so that's not a fair fight. Bagwell wins in Black Ink Score (another James toy measuring how many times the player led the league in big-name categories like HR, RBI, etc.), 24 to 21, but Thomas led the league many, many more times in things like OPS, OPS+, Runs Created, and so forth. Bagwell won a Gold Glove, while Thomas appeared to actually use a glove made of gold, or perhaps a harder metal, when he was asked to play in the field.

Peak Value: From 1990-1997, Thomas hit .330/.452/.600, good for a 182 OPS+. Bagwell, meanwhile, had an OPS+ as high as 180 in only one single season, his MVP year of 1994. From 1993-2000, Bagwell did hit .311/.428/.583, 164 OPS+. Awfully impressive, but I'm not entirely convinced you can find me a right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby who has put up an eight-season hitting stretch like Frank's.

So who wins? I went into this sure I was going to pick Frank, but having gone though it, I'm on the fence. I thought of Frank's offensive advantage as being bigger than it really is. I tend to be a peak-value guy--give me Mantle over Mays, for instance--but I'm no longer convinced that Thomas' peak is so much bigger than Bagwell's that it cancels out Bags' huge advantage in the field and on the bases.

So that's it: I'm going Bagwell. But it's ridiculously close, and I'm firmly convinced that they both deserve to be shoo-ins for the Hall.

What do you think?


  1. BAgwell. Better all around player.

    But if you needed one at bat?

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  3. Yeah, if I needed one at bat, I'd probably choose Frank (especially early-to-mid '90s Frank). But if I needed a season, or was picking a player to build a team around, I'd have to go with Bagwell.

    Two other things:

    1) Bagwell at #4??? I love me some Bill James, but we've got to be able to find four better 1B than Jeff Bagwell, can't we? I can't quite wrap my mind around him being an inner circle HOF guy.

    2) Mantle over Mays? Really? When you factor in the defensive contribution and the fact that Mantle was hurt a bunch over the last 7 years of his career, and the difference in quality between the leagues (Mantle never had to face the Yankees, after all), I would not hesitate to take Mays in a walk.

  4. Great post, Bill. I love looking at these two guys' careers. As good as they were and as popular as they were, I still think both of them are underrated. Yes, Thomas was a pretty big star in the late-90s (and Bags was too, to the degree that an Astro is a big star), but these aren't the guys that people talk about anymore when talking about the best players of the '90s. And it's weird, because they were just so darn good.

    The only real problem I have with looking at the stats of these two guys is Thomas and his OPS+. I'm a big fan of OPS and OPS+ as a metric, and I think it's one of the simplest and easiest way to measure a hitter's performance. I do think it tends to overemphasize the walk, though. I know, I know... that's not necessarily the accepted viewpoint from us saber-friendly guys, but it's just how I feel. Anyway, when you rely on that tool above all else, it seems to give the crown to Thomas hands-down, and I just don't think it's that clear cut.

    Last winter, I did a little comparison piece on Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols. It's mostly about how, after Thomas' first 8 years, he was being considered as possibly the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. And now, ten years later, we're saying the same thing about Albert. I also put up a simple comparison of the pair's numbers. But now that you bring up the similarities between Thomas and Bagwell, maybe I should think about looking at Pujols and Bags. Especially considering that the two biggest differences between Thomas and Bagwell are that Bagwell plays better defense and walks less, same as Albert...

    Hmm... I might have to do just that...

    (and, for the record, I'd call Bagwell the better all-around player [and teammate], but they're both HOF shoo-ins, so it doesn't really matter)

  5. Bill, James' Bagwell comment ("pass") I think regards a controversy from Bagwell's rookie year. In the Bill James Stat book (I can't remember what it was called back then), James posted several potential rookies' MLEs along with his usual projections for every Major League hitter. Bagwell's MLE from the year before in AAA ball gave him a higher batting average than any other National Leaguer's projection. The media, not understanding MLEs or projections, jumped on this to proclaim that Bill James was predicting that rookie Jeff Bagwell would win the NL batting title. He tried to explain that he wasn't doing anything of the sort, and it turned into a big issue that ultimately was resolved with Bagwell coming through and winning the rookie of the year. I'm guessing that "pass" was James' way of saying, "I'm through discussing Jeff Bagwell."

  6. @TCM: 1. I'll have to look at the list again when I get home from work...I remember that being quite the surprise at the time, too. But: Gehrig, Foxx, McCovey maybe, I know James had Eddie Murray ranked preposterously high, maybe #3...and who else? McGwire?
    2. All good points in Mays' favor. I recognize that I'm probably wrong about this. But I just look at Mickey's peak numbers, and I can't help myself. Not like his defense was bad either, you know.

    @lar: thanks for sharing the Pujols-Thomas piece. Very interesting. I'll look forward to seeing the Pujols-Bagwell one. :) On OPS, I'm not sure. I mean, a single counts twice as much as a walk, right (1-1 with a single = 2.000 OPS, 0-0 with a walk = 1.000)? And I think the general feeling is that a walk is something considerably more than half as valuable as a single. Also, during Thomas' peak (and career), his AVG and SLG were higher than Bags', too. Anyway, you're certainly right that it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all or anything.

    @abywaters: thanks so much for that explanation. The world makes much more sense now. Although you'd think he'd want to say a few words in his own defense for ranking an active player that shockingly high...

  7. That's a good point about how to think about walks with regards to OPS. I'll have to consider that. I still feel that people who rely heavily on OPS tend to overemphasize walks, but maybe it's for another reason. Or maybe it's a personal bias - I don't know.

    As for Pujols-Thomas-Bagwell, I did a rough look at the numbers yesterday (just using the "summation" capabilities of the new Baseball Reference over their first 8 seasons). Bags is clearly not the hitter Thomas was who is not the hitter Pujols is (walks aside), so maybe it's a lesser point [First 8 full seasons, OPS+: Bags - 159, Thomas - 174, Pujols - 170]. I still might have to write the piece though, just to investigate the whole "all-around" side of the equation. I'm just afraid that it will too easily come down in Pujols' favor, like comparing Jim Edmonds to Ken Griffey or something. (though, of course, Bagwell is much better than Edmonds)