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Big on Biggio: His no-doubt case for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame

Updated on January 10, 2013

Six months ago I wouldn’t have been as disappointed by Craig Biggio’s failure to make the Hall of Fame as I am now.

As you probably know, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its voting on Wednesday and for the first time since 1996, no one was elected. Biggio came closest with 68.2 percent of the votes, falling 39 ballots short of the number he needed for election.

Many people tended to shrug it off, since the big news was Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and PED use, etc. Others thought it fitting that Biggio didn’t make it on his first ballot since Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg hadn’t been elected on their first ballots either.

Jeff Bagwell, Biggio’s longtime teammate who himself is vying for a spot in the Hall, called the writers’ failure to elect Biggio “a travesty.”

Clearing up some misconceptions

For the past year or so several writers have questioned whether 3,000 hits alone makes Biggio worthy of the Hall of Fame. Had he not hung on so long and managed to reach that number, they wondered, would he even be in the discussion. Perhaps he may even have dipped into the steroid well, they speculated under their breaths.

Because I never followed Houston closely, the impression I formed of Biggio from these stories was that he was a good player but had, perhaps selfishly, played seasons long after he was washed up so he could reach 3,000 hits and have his one claim to the Hall of Fame.

I believed that. Until I started looking at his statistics.

Now I’m convinced that Biggio is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, with credentials superior to many others already enshrined, including Alomar and Sandberg.

Top 20 in hits

Let’s start with the hits. Biggio had 3,060 of them, good for 20th place on the all-time list. I’m pretty much of the opinion that if you reach the Top 20 of any major category, considering the game has been played for more than 100 years, you pretty much should be in the Hall.

But if the hits were all he had to his credit, I might listen a little more closely to the arguments against him. As it is, I don’t think the hits are even his biggest claim to enshrinement.

Doubling down on his credentials

For reasons I can’t quite understand, virtually no one talks about his doubles. Biggio hit 668 doubles. That puts him at No. 5 all time. The players ahead of him are legends: Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Stan Musial and Ty Cobb.

But when you look closer at that list, you notice that Biggio ranks No. 1 all-time among right-handed hitters. In all of baseball history, no right-handed hitter has ever hit more doubles than Biggio.

Doubles aren’t home runs, of course, but for a leadoff hitter, as Biggio was most of his career, a double means you’re in scoring position right away. No need for a bunt or a steal. You’re already there.

HBP and runs in the Top 15

Biggio could get on base other ways, too, primarily by being slow to avoid a pitch. He was hit by a pitch 285 times in his career. That put him two behind the all-time leader, Hughie Jennings, who played most of his career before 1900.

Once Biggio reached base, he also scored a lot of the time. His total of 1,844 runs ranks 14th all-time. That makes four offensive categories where he ranks in the Top 20 all-time – hit by pitch, doubles, runs, hits. That seems like a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame already.

Extra base hits and speed

But Biggio also ranks 31st in extra-base hits with 1,014, only one behind Mike Schmidt. Biggio was sort of a reverse power hitter. Many home run hitters don’t have high doubles totals – the balls usually go out of the park but occasionally some won’t have the carry and wind up as doubles. For Biggio, most of the balls he hit were only going to reach the wall for doubles but occasionally he got enough air under them to go out.

Biggio also had good speed. He stole 414 bases, ranking 64th all-time, and I suspect that total might have been higher if he hadn’t been on second base so many times already with a double. In 1997 Biggio also accomplished the rare feat of coming to the plate 744 times without grounding into a single double play, which indicates pretty good speed out of the box.

Normal career span for a Hall of Famer

All right, so he had a lot of statistics, but lingering in the air is the accusation that he was a hanger-on, playing long beyond his usefulness just to pad his numbers. So how long did Biggio play? Some ungodly number like 22, 24, 25 years?

Nope, 20. Do you know who played more years than that? Rose and Cobb (24 years). Also Hank Aaron and Carl Yastrzemski (23), Willie Mays and Stan Musial (22) and Cal Ripken Jr. and George Brett (21). In fact, everyone ahead of him on the all-time hit list played 20 or more seasons except Derek Jeter.

No mere hanger on

But, of course, Biggio could have still played well beyond his usefulness. Could have, but didn’t.

In his final two seasons, when he was 40 and 41, he banged out 135 and 130 hits, 33 and 31 doubles, and 21 and 10 homers. Do you know how many players aged 41 had 130 or more hits in a season? Seven. The others were Rose, Luke Appling, Honus Wagner, Dave Winfield, Musial and Paul Molitor.

You know who qualifies as hangers-on, playing well beyond the point when they were less effective than a Double A player? Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Biggio’s final two seasons were significantly better than Aaron’s final two years and better than Mays’ final three years.

So while Biggio wasn’t as good as he used to be in final two seasons, he certainly made significant contributions to his team.

Comparison to Alomar and Sandberg

Well, what about the comparison to Alomar and Sandberg, the names most often mentioned in connection with him. Here are the raw numbers (Alomar played 17 seasons, Sandberg 16).

Player
G
PA
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
OPS+
TB
GICP
HBP
SH
SF
Craig Biggio
2850
12504
10876
1844
3060
668
55
291
1175
414
124
1160
1753
.281
.363
.433
,769
112
4711
150
285
101
81
Roberto Alomar
2379
10400
9073
1508
2724
504
80
210
1134
474
114
1032
1140
.300
.371
.443
.814
116
4018
206
50
148
97
Ryne Sandberg
2164
9282
8385
1318
2386
403
76
282
1061
344
107
761
1260
.285
.344
.452
.795
114
3787
139
34
31
71

There were differences between the three that affected some of the numbers: Biggio served primarily as a leadoff hitter, Alomar batted second or third and Sandberg hit in the middle of the order. But overall, their numbers are comparable, with Biggio holding a big edge in some of the categories.

But I think longevity counts for something. As I mentioned above, Alomar played for only 17 years – but only effectively for about 14 of those. His production fell off rapidly after he turned 33 and he was done by age 36.

Sandberg played 16 seasons, but again effectively for only about 13 of those. His production dropped sharply after his age 33 season and he was done by 37.

Biggio, on the other hand, never experienced a sharp drop off in production. His numbers gradually tapered off to a nice gentle close. He might have been able to DH in the American League for another year or two and pad his numbers, but he chose to retire.

Playing the field

Alomar and Sandberg may have been better fielders, each with nine Gold Glove awards at second base. Biggio won only four. But Biggio wasn’t just a second baseman.

He began his career as a catcher and played 428 games in his career behind the plate. And he wasn’t bad there – he made an All-Star team as a catcher.

Then he moved to second base, where he played 1,989 games. Do you know who else played more than 400 games as catcher and more than 400 games at second? No one. Do you know who else played more than 100 games at catcher and more than 100 games at second? No one.

It’s just not an easy switch to make. Plenty of catchers have become first basemen. Others successfully moved to the outfield and a few, like Dale Murphy, even excelled in center. A few made the transition to third base with success, like Joe Torre. But second base is a different animal, so for a player to be a successful catcher and then move to second and excel to the point of winning Gold Gloves is mind boggling.

But Biggio wasn’t done yet. When the team needed a centerfielder, when he was 37 years old, he made the switch. He played 255 games in center, 352 total in the outfield. Then he moved back to second his final three season. And just for good measure, in his final season, at age 41, he moved back behind the plate and caught two innings.

Other data

Biggio led the National League in plate appearances six times, hit by pitch five times, doubles three times, runs scored twice and stolen bases once. Sandberg led the league in runs three times, triples once, homers once and total bases once. Alomar led his league in plate appearances once, runs once, sacrifice hits once and sacrifice flies once.

As for any hint of steroid use, I see none. Biggio did have a slight uptick in the number of homers he hit in 2004 and 2005 but that probably had more to do with playing in cozy Minute Maid Park than anything else. His body shape never changed and no one has ever hinted at steroid use except for the handful of sportswriters who bring it up with every player who played since 1995.

Why has Biggio been marginalized?

So why have so many writers and talking heads been marginalizing Biggio?

Part of it has to do with the kind of player he was. Biggio wasn’t flashy, he didn’t shoot off his mouth, he didn’t hit majestic homers, didn’t steal high numbers of bases. What he did was come to the ballpark every day and play as hard as he could every inning he was in the game. He was consistent. Bob Costas said Biggio excelled at doing all the little things that often go unnoticed.

It’s always hard to compare players across eras because of differences in pitching and hitting conditions. But Biggio strikes me as the kind of guy would have been pretty much the same player, putting up the same kinds of stats, in almost any other era in baseball history.

I suspect his earthy, gung ho style of play made him seem, to many observers, as one of those players without a lot of talent but who hang on for a few years because of their attitude and heart. Playing in Houston, out of the limelight, didn’t help, although the Astros were pretty good and went to a World Series during Biggio’s tenure. And I have to believe that oddly oversized helmet he wore, which made him look like a 12-year-old wearing a bigger kid’s helmet, didn’t help even if he did slather it with pine tar.

Will next year be a travesty?

So I definitely think Biggio should have gone into the Hall of Fame this season. He definitely should next year. But….

Next year the ballot will contain players like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. Bonds and Clemens will be back. It’ll be Jack Morris’ last year on the ballot and there’ll be a big push for him. Others are starting to tout Curt Schilling. My fear is that with all that going on, Biggio’s vote totals could actually decrease next year.

And then I would certainly concur with Bagwell that it is a travesty.

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    • e-five profile image

      e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      OK, you've convinced me. The thing I liked the most about Biggio was that he started as a catcher and had to learn the infield, which he did very well. The things I didn't like about Biggio was his obvious intent to get HBP whenever possible (including the absurd armour he wore late in his career), the oversized helmet, the pine tar, the fact that he played for Houston (a team I despised), and late in his career he played in a stadium that dramatically racked up his extra base hit total. But the clincher is the Top 20 in four different and important stats-- you just can't fake that.

      Another great, baseball hub, Gary. Voted up and more.

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