Scout saw Jeff Bagwell’s potential back in college
Jeff Bagwell stands on the threshold of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Astros great and one-time Red Sox minor leaguer was named on 71.6 percent of ballots submitted last year, a percentage that has meant eventual induction (and clearance of the required 75 percent mark) for everyone who has ever reached it.
Yet the fact that Bagwell – a career .297/.408/.540 hitter with 449 homers, 202 steals, and a 149 OPS+ that ranks as the 26th best in major league history (min. 6,000 plate appearances) – has not yet gained a plaque in Cooperstown reflects voter uncertainty related to circumstantial suspicion. He played in the era of a PED explosion, and so it’s easy to connect some dots.
Chief among them: Bagwell hit four homers in 569 plate appearances with the Red Sox’ Double A New Britain affiliate in 1990. How on earth, it’s become common to wonder, did he then go on to have nine 30-homer seasons, including four where he exceeded 40 homers?
That line of thinking rankles Tom Mooney. After all, it was Bagwell’s power that drew Mooney to him as an amateur at the age of 20, and Mooney’s belief in the first baseman’s power – in the middle of the aforementioned season in New Britain — likewise helped to set in motion one of the great trade heists of all time.
Mooney, who retired after the 2016 season after 34 years as a scout with the Mariners, Astros, Red Sox, and Brewers, was in his first year as a Northeast area scout for the Astros in 1989 when he glimpsed Bagwell at a college tournament in Florida. Bagwell was the slugging third baseman for the University of Hartford.
Mooney submitted a report that questioned the player’s defensive abilities and athleticism, but that raved about his ability to launch. The scout gave Bagwell a “7” grade on the 2-to-8 scouting scale (also commonly called a “70” when the scale is referenced as a 20-to-80 range), in which a “5” is major-league average and a “7” represents an elite mark approached by few big leaguers.
“On a first look, I thought he was going to be Steve Balboni,” Mooney recalled by phone on Thursday, referencing the former Royals slugger who averaged 28 homers a year from 1984-88. “The interesting thing was the power potential. To give him a 70 raw future power, I don’t throw 70s around a lot. He must have been really, really dramatic with the power. The funny thing is, people look at, ‘He only hit [four] home runs in Double A and then he’s hitting 45 and 50 in the big leagues — where did it come from?’
“[A 7 grade represents] the ability to get the ball out of any ballpark. He generated that kind of bat speed, that kind of explosiveness, when he squared the ball up. This was going to be impact-type power. It wasn’t going to be six, seven, eight in the lineup. It was going to be middle of the order,” he added, putting it in the context of another player he scouted and signed as an amateur, Ken Griffey Jr. “Nobody gets eights. I don’t think I ever gave Griffey an eight in anything. Seven was about as high as I’d go. That meant that I thought he’d be an elite power guy.”
Nonetheless, it was the Red Sox rather than the Astros who took Bagwell in the sixth round of the 1989 draft. One year later, after he’d wrapped up his amateur coverage, Mooney turned his attention to the minor league teams in the Northeast. Among them: The Double A New Britain team for whom Bagwell was playing in 1990.
Bagwell was amidst a spectacular year in his first full pro season. He ended up hitting .333 (losing the Eastern League batting title by one point) with a .422 OBP (2nd) and .457 slugging mark (5th).
Though he hit just four homers, no one in the Eastern League — filled with cavernous parks — hit homers. As a team, Bagwell’s New Britain unit went deep 31 times. When Mooney saw Bagwell in the summer of 1990, he recognized some errors in his prior evaluation — chiefly, his view of Bagwell’s instincts and baserunning, not to mention his pure hit tool, where an all-fields approach that featured little swing-and-miss merited at least a 60-grade — but did not veer from his assessment of his 70-grade power.
“I give myself a good grade for seeing the future power but a poor job for not seeing the instincts or the baserunning,” said Mooney. “I graded him [as an amateur as] a 30 baserunner and 30 baseball instincts. If you look at his career, he was an 80 runner with 80 baseball instincts.”
Of course, that career ended up unfolding with the Astros, in no small part because of Mooney’s recommendation.
In 1990, the baseball landscape was vastly different. Minor league statistics were exceedingly hard to come by, and rarely used. There wasn’t readily available video footage of prospects. As such, when making deals, teams had to rely heavily — sometimes solely — on the evaluations of the scouts who’d seen the players.
Mooney saw a number of impressive prospects on that New Britain team, including players like John Valentin and Eric Wedge. He was particularly drawn to a number of pitchers on that club, particularly Kevin Morton, who entered 1990 as a top-100 prospect.
Still, when Astros GM Bill Wood queried Mooney about that affiliate while Houston talked with the Red Sox about a potential trade that would send reliever Larry Andersen to Boston — a deal that was discussed in July but wasn’t consummated until the end of August, right before the Aug. 31 deadline for trades requiring players to clear waivers — Mooney didn’t hesitate to pound the table for Bagwell, among others.
“I remember getting a call from Bill Wood, this is 1990 — no computers, no cell phones. Bill said, ‘Give me a rundown of New Britain. The Red Sox called about one of our relievers.’ This is probably in July,” said Mooney. “They had a bunch of pitchers then, and I said, ‘There’s this guy Bagwell who I saw at the University of Hartford. My report was just so-so as [an amateur] but the more I see him, the more I think the bat’s going to play.’ That’s the hardest thing as a scout — you can judge the arm strength and speed, but you make it in the game with the bat. I felt really, really comfortable then that the bat was going to play, no matter that the speed was below average or the arm was below average.
“In a perfect world, we probably wanted to take one of those pitchers,” Mooney continued. “Maybe [then-Red Sox GM] Lou Gorman said no to [Paul] Quantrill or no to Kevin Morton, and Bill Wood said, ‘Well, we need Bagwell,’ and they said, ‘Do it.’ I wasn’t privy to those conversations.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until one day after the trade of Bagwell for Andersen, on Aug. 31, 1990, that Mooney caught word that the deal had happened.
“We ended up getting him and I didn’t even hear about it until I’d gotten to Pawtucket [on Sept. 1],” said Mooney. “It comes over the wire that Houston had acquired Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. I said, ‘Doggone — good for us.’”
Bagwell represented a sensible ask for the Astros given that the Red Sox were deep in corner infielders at the time, with Wade Boggs and Scott Cooper ahead of Bagwell in the system at third, Mo Vaughn knocking on the door to the big leagues as a more highly regarded first baseman, and Tim Naehring and Valentin offering infield versatility. Bagwell seemed to represent surplus inventory.
That reality proved crushing to the young Bagwell, who came from a family of Red Sox fans. Yet when Mooney met with Bagwell for lunch in Farmington, Conn., after the deal, he assured the young player that the trade was a positive development, that whereas he’d seemed blocked in Boston, Bagwell would get opportunities in the near-term in Houston.
The lunch helped to facilitate that opportunity. Bagwell told Mooney that he had no hard-and-fast offseason plans, that he might go back to the University of Hartford to take classes. Mooney asked whether he’d have interest in playing in the fall instructional league. Bagwell endorsed the idea immediately, and the two went to a pay phone at the restaurant to call Wood and make plans for Bagwell to play in front of Astros coaches and officials in Florida.
There, the full complement of Bagwell’s skills quickly became apparent — in a way that suggested that even Mooney’s increasingly enthusiastic view of the player in New Britain might have been too conservative.
“I remember going to some meetings we had with scouting and player development halfway through instructional league in Kissimmee. It comes around to, they’re going to the different instructors. ‘Who’s our best baserunner?’ ‘Bagwell.’ ‘Who’s our best hitter?’ ‘Bagwell.’ The kid had only been there for two and a half weeks. ‘Who has the best baseball instincts?’ Every question, the answer was Bagwell,” said Mooney. “He made such a quick impact impression on everyone he came across that fall that he got an invite to big league spring training the next spring. We had [Ken] Caminiti at third base, but Bagwell hit so well that we moved him to first base, and then … ”
Mooney left the idea hanging, thinking back over a career that ranks as one of the most productive ever by a first baseman, then looping back to the first memory he had of seeing Bagwell, back when he was quite literally making noise in the batting cage for Hartford. That glimpse in 1989 came long before all of those 449 big league homers, and long before the questions that — fairly or not — arose around them.
With that perspective comes conviction. Mooney believes that Hall of Fame voters who leave Bagwell unchecked on their ballot based on circumstantial suspicion — particularly as it relates to that four-homer season in New Britain — fail to comprehend who Bagwell was, even at the age of 20.
“On a warm spring day in 1989 . . . I saw the power and put it down on the report,” said Mooney. “Hopefully he’s in the Hall of Fame come January.”