Sports

Alex Speier

An insider’s view of the rise of Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza

Jeff Bagwell played 15 major-league seasons, all with the Houston Astros.

AP

Jeff Bagwell played 15 major-league seasons, all with the Houston Astros.

In some ways, the Hall of Fame candidates of the 1990s and 2000s are now identified primarily in relationship to the question of PEDs.

The suggestion that Ken Griffey Jr. possessed a “squeaky clean” reputation is invariably part of the narrative of his claim of more than 99 percent of the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame ballots. Mike Piazza’s addition to the Cooperstown roster is viewed as a landmark, the first election to the Hall of a player whom some observers suspected of using PEDs without anything tantamount to formal proof.

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Jeff Bagwell, whose career numbers are among the greatest for a first baseman and in their own right would represent a slam-dunk case for the Hall, moved to the brink of election, commanding 71.6 percent of the votes – just short of the 75 percent needed. Bagwell now appears likely to join Piazza, perhaps as soon as next year, as a member of the Hall whose entry was delayed by suspicions that lacked anything approximating definitive proof of use.

Of course, in the case of both Piazza and Bagwell, their early careers often are cited as circumstantial evidence of a possible PED taint over their careers. Piazza went from a 62nd round draft pick with 14 homers and a .413 slugging mark in his first two minor league seasons to the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Bagwell went from hitting six homers in his first two pro seasons in the Red Sox system to a player who posted the 21st-highest OPS (.948) of all time.

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How do players make those kinds of performance jumps? That simple question obviously casts a cloud over the candidacy of Bagwell, just as it did Piazza.

In some ways, that sort of dot-connecting can be wildly unfair because it ignores the reality of player development and the specific context of his amateur and early background. In the case of both Piazza and Bagwell, a longtime member of the Red Sox organization has interesting insight into the career paths of both.

Ray Fagnant, the Red Sox’ regional scout in the Northeast for more than two decades, spent three years in the Red Sox organization from 1989-91. A seldom-used backup catcher, Fagnant’s attention to the game laid the groundwork for his future as a talent evaluator. From that position, his exposure to Bagwell with High A Winter Haven of the Florida State League in 1989 and in the subsequent offseason merits consideration.

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“Sometimes the best people to evaluate players is the peer group. And you just knew he was different,” said Fagnant. “You hear all the analysts on TV saying he went from single-digit home runs in the minors to a 30-plus guy. But what stands out vividly, even before, looking back 20 years when he got to the big leagues, that summer in Winter Haven, he didn’t hit many home runs. But he hit the ball as hard as everybody. And when he did hit one, he hit bombs. He was a different hitter.

“Then he played in New Britain the next year, one of the biggest graveyards of all time. But the power never surprised me because he was a physically strong kid, and the thing that stood out physically, I called him Popeye because of how big his forearms were. He always had hitter’s natural strength. You just knew he was different than everyone.”

That notion was reinforced during the offseason. Fagnant worked after the season as an actuary at Cigna in Hartford. Bagwell, a Connecticut native who’d been drafted by the Sox out of the University of Hartford, was working in a nearby sporting goods store during the offseason. The two hit together a couple times a week in a batting cage in Middletown, Conn.

“I’d take my round. He’d take his round. It was gunshots. I remember vividly him hitting the ball so hard that, we were hitting in the cage, it went into the drywall and stuck,” said Fagnant. “I’d feed the pitching machine behind the L-screen. You were expecting it, but you’d still cringe. It was no surprise to me whatsoever that he was a very good major leaguer. The home runs weren’t a surprise.”

Fagnant likewise got an early look at Piazza in the High A Florida State League in 1990. At the time, Piazza had no real prospect standing. Yet despite the modesty of his .250/.281/.390 line with six homers in 285 plate appearances, and the fact that Piazza trailed Pedro Gonzalez on the Vero Beach depth chart, Fagnant recognized something distinctive in his fellow catcher.

“I do remember that for the at-bats he had in the Florida State League in 1990, he had a lot of home runs. No one hits home runs there. … We watched him taking [batting practice] in Vero Beach and he just hit bombs,” said Fagnant, who at one point that year swapped a Winter Haven hat for Piazza’s Vero Beach hat. “Piazza hit balls that were awe-inspiring. As a 20-something-year-old in the minors, he hit balls where nobody else did. It was power that you knew was different than everyone.”

Fagnant recognized clear big-league ability at the time in the two players, and even recognized the potential for considerably more power than they’d shown to that point. That doesn’t mean he forecast 400-plus homers for either or both, or that he could have predicted Hall of Fame careers for them.

Nonetheless, Fagnant saw considerable home run ability in players at a time when he hadn’t seen evidence of a rampant PED culture in the minors.

“I was that guy that was always getting off the bus to go to Gold’s Gym in whatever city we were playing in. I had limited ability, but what helped me in the minors a couple of years was just physically working hard to try to get stronger,” said Fagnant. “I was in the weight room a lot and saw a lot of guys working out. I never heard any talk of it. If it went on, I never saw it. There was never any talk of it in any clubhouse I was in. I don’t think I was completely naive to it, but I never saw it and never heard any talk about it.

“As a fringe minor leaguer who spent a lot of time watching the game, you knew those guys were so, so different. You knew they were going to be big leaguers,” Fagnant continued. “Their home runs do not surprise me at all. The home runs were just different.”

None of that rules out the possibility, of course, of PED use. But at the least, Fagnant’s perspective as a future scout who was a minor league peer of those future stars – at a time before they’d established their power-hitting credentials – offers a reminder that the absence of big home run totals in the minors does not preclude significant fence-clearing prowess in the big leagues.

The varying paths of player development include the possibility that a player who shows the ability to hammer the ball on the barrel of his bat eventually can show exponential growth in his power as he learns his swing and finds his way to the right ballparks.

That’s a relevant notion for teams as they try to build a roster for the present and future, and it’s also evidently a meaningful consideration for Hall voters considering the cases of players like Piazza and Bagwell.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.
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