November 2010

Is Jeff Bagwell a Hall of Famer? Indeedy.

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Anyone who on a daily basis watched Jeff Bagwell play during his 15-year career has no doubt that he is worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

And I truly believe he’ll get there — eventually. But on the first ballot? Probably not.

Before you fire off angry emails filled with statistical data to back up the argument that he is a first-ballot candidate, let me say that I totally, completely, 100 percent agree with you. He is one of the best first basemen ever to play the game, and he played for a long time, and his numbers are tremendous. That, by definition, merits Hall of Fame election. And if he’s a Hall of Famer, then logically, he would be elected this year by the more than 500 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who recently received their ballots. But that isn’t how it works.

Most players, save for the ultra elite, have to wait more than one try to be inducted. And I doubt Bags will be the exception to the rule.

It’s too bad, really, because this notion that you’re a Hall of Famer but have to wait a while to be recognized as such is just silliness. Is there a separate category — “Hall of Famer, at some point, when we decide it’s time”? To me, it’s black and white. You are either a Hall of Famer, or you’re not.

And in Bagwell’s case, he most certainly is. I’m going to list some of the stat-based criteria that support this argument. But then, we’ll look at this from the perspective of what Bagwell did other than hit a lot of home runs and pile on the RBIs. More on that later.

First, the bare facts:

*His .948 career OPS ranks 22nd in Major League history and 10th among right-handed hitters. Four of the nine right-handed hitters ranked ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, while four others are not yet eligible for induction.

*His .408 career on-base percentage ranks 15th all-time among right-handed hitters and ninth all-time among first basemen (third among right-handed first basemen).

*He is the only first baseman in history and one of 12 players all-time to reach 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases.

*He is one of five players in history to collect 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored in six consecutive seasons (1996-2001). Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols are the others.

*He is the only player in history to record 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored and 100 walks in six consecutive seasons (1996-2001).

Clearly, not only was he the best first baseman of his era, he was one of the best, ever, in history.

But Bagwell wasn’t just a force at the plate. I doubt you could find a smarter all-around ballplayer, one who played his position and ran the bases flawlessly, one who had instincts so keen that it seemed as if he knew what was going to happen 10 seconds before it did. He perfected the 3-6-3 double play, knew exactly when and how quickly to run up on bunters (who would subsequently be nailed at second base after a flawless throw from Bagwell) and rarely received a throw in the dirt from a fellow infielder that he couldn’t pick.

I asked him once why he wasn’t given more credit for his defense. His reasoning: “I’m not left-handed.” So is that to mean that just because left-handed first basemen have an easier time fielding their position, that automatically makes them better? Of course not.

He downplayed his baserunning by stating simply, “I’m not that fast.” He had much better speed than he gave himself credit for, and with over 200 stolen bases, he was clearly doing something right. That’s where the instincts came into play. His timing was flawless. He could read a pitcher better than anyone. Heck, he stole home three times in his career, which is three more times than most players have on their resume. Quite simply, Bagwell was nearly perfect as a ballplayer.

You know a player was good when you can distinctly remember the rare time that he wasn’t. I recall one game in St. Louis in 2004 when, with one out, Bagwell took off from first base on a fly ball. He was halfway to third when the ball was caught by the center fielder and thrown to first for the easy double-up. After the game, I said to him, “I’m so flabbergasted I don’t even know how to phrase the question.” Bags: “I’ll make it easy for you. Obviously, I’m a complete moron.”

I can’t count the number of times I’d watch Bagwell play and think to myself “this is the best baseball player I’ve ever seen.” Over 14 seasons, there were three players who repeatedly floored me with their abilities: Roy Oswalt when he pitched, Adam Everett when he played shortstop, and Bagwell, when he did anything.

So yes, if you watched Bagwell play every day, you grew to appreciate just how superior of a ballplayer he was. A Hall of Famer in every way imaginable. But a few elements will work against him this year: His 449 homers falls short of the 500 that usually guarantees first-ballot election; his shoulder injury ended his career prematurely and prevented him from going over the top in some of the offensive categories; and most of the voters did not watch him play on a regular basis and therefore will judge him only on the offensive numbers. He was so much more than a hitter, but, in some cases, that is not a point of interest when it comes to election time.

And, simply, some voters just like to make players wait. First-ballot Hall of Fame election is reserved for those players whose numbers are so gaudy, so off the charts, that you don’t even need to have watched them play a single game to know there were few — if any — who were better.

Bags was great. Really great. Hall-of-Fame great. But in terms of waiting for that call to Cooperstown, we might have to wait a while longer. And I really, really hope I’m wrong on this one.

(I also think there are enough writers out there who would be tickled pink to have Bagwell and Craig Biggio go in together. Biggio will be eligible in two years, which will be Bagwell’s third time on the ballot.)

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Odds and ends as we shift our focus from eating too much pumpkin mousse cheesecake during Thanksgiving to eating too much at the office Christmas party…

Hunter Pence All-Star Camp 2010

Your favorite right fielder is hosting a baseball camp for kids ages 6-18 that will offer one day of training with Pence and other professional ballplayers. Campers can participate on either Dec. 18 or 19 and the cost is $200.

For that cost, you will receive:

HP Play Dri Reebok Camp Tee
HP Reebok Drawstring bag
HP 2010 Camp Bracelet
Instructors and Sponsorship Program
Personalized autograph and picture
Autographs from all instructors

To sign up, visit hunterpencebaseball.com or call 713-254-7520.

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Speaking of Pence, he and several other Astros were in the weight room bright and early Tuesday morning, as they are every Monday through Thursday throughout most of the offseason.

Under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman, the crew — Pence, Humberto Quintero, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Bogusevic and Ross Seaton – spent most of the morning hitting the weights, the exercise bikes, and several other pieces of workout equipment that I don’t know the names of. In other words, it might be the offseason, but the players are still working. (And more will join the morning routine in the near future, including Bud Norris, Chris Johnson, Jason Bourgeois and Brett Wallace.)

Here’s proof:

Bogusevic, Coleman, Wandy

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Pence, Seaton

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Wandy, Coleman, Pence

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Quintero, Wandy

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Wandy

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And finally, here’s an updated photo of the big empty hole formerly known as the Astros dearly departed (and outdated) scoreboard. The new version will be delivered later in December and will be installed, hopefully, in January. Stay tuned…

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The Astros are for sale, the scoreboards are coming down. Busy day at the ballpark.

It was anything but a typical workday on Friday at Minute Maid Park, which might be the biggest understatement of the offseason considering club owner Drayton McLane made it official — his team is up for sale, and he’s hired an investment bank to find a buyer.

How long this will take is anyone’s guess. Could be months, could be years. Drayton said it took about four months for him to finagle a deal with the previous owner, John McMullen, in 1992, but other sales of teams have taken much longer.

So for now, we wait. There are few answers just yet, considering we don’t know who out there is seriously interested in buying the team or if they will be able to come up with the money to seal a deal. One question was answered during the press conference, however, one that a lot of you have expressed in the last few hours. The team will operate under the guise of business as usual, so if you’re expecting the payroll to be stripped down to $40 million with no effort to build a team for 2011, don’t. The show goes on.

“We’ll see where the market is,” McLane said of the pending sale. “There’s no rush to do this.”

McLane was reflective and forthright during two meetings — first with the entire Astros front office staff, and then with the media. He’s owned the team for 18 years, during which the Astros enjoyed their best years as a franchise — six playoff berths, four division titles and one World Series appearance.

Ownership has been a family affair for the McLane crew — Drayton, his wife, Elizabeth, and his sons Drayton III and Denton. Drayton has talked about the business of baseball with his sons since they were in high school, but now that they’re both in their 30s and raising young families, Drayton realized it’s time to move on. Neither son has expressed an interest in making baseball ownership a career, and with that understanding, the elder McLane made the decision to sell the club.

You can read McTaggart’s full MLB.com report on the afternoon’s events here

 Press conferences are designed to answer pointing questions from the media, but there were a couple of off-the-cuff poignant moments that stood out as well. It was very moving to hear Drayton mention the late Neil Hohlfeld, who covered the Astros for the Houston Chronicle during McLane’s early years as owner. McLane identified Hohlfeld as the one who taught him the nuts and bolts of the business of baseball with a firm hand, while having no problem admonishing Drayton when he stumbled.

“I made several public speeches (in the early years) and if I said something inaccurate about baseball, Neil would pull me aside and say, “get it right.”

McLane said Hohlfeld was his baseball “mentor.” Classy move.

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Drayton also told a funny story about when he bought the team in 1992. Rumors were floating around that a family from Temple, Texas — “maybe some country bumpkins,” McLane joked — was buying the franchise from McMullen. Houston Post reporter Kenny Hand was sniffing around, trying to get ahead of the story. The McLanes were listed in the phone book, so Kenny looked Drayton up and gave him a call. Hand quickly learned there was more than one Drayton McLane living in Temple.

McLane’s dad, Drayton McLane, was in poor health and had a nurse taking care of him, so when the phone rang at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, it was the nurse who picked up.

“Kenny asked, ‘Is Drayton there?'” McLane (the Astros owner) recalled. “The nurse said, ‘Is it really important? When we wake him really quickly like that, he has a hard time getting up and focusing on the conversation.’ Kenny said, ‘How old is he?’ The nurse answered, ‘Ninety-two.'”

Realizing he had the wrong Drayton McLane, Hand called another number. Drayton (the owner) was at work, and his wife was at the beauty salon. The sons, as is the case with most teenage boys, were sleeping.

The phone rang, and one of the slumbering boys answered. So Hand tried again.

“Who’s this?”

“This is Drayton McLane.”

“And how old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

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In addition to McLane announcing he was selling the team, activity on the playing field at Minute Maid Park was also busy. Around 9:30 a.m., the cranes began the process of removing the old scoreboard for the new one, which will be installed sometime in January. The new video board will dwarf the old one, and additionally, a new scoreboard will be installed in left field. Here are the early images of what is sure to be a winter-long project (with some photos from the press conference tacked on at the end):

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Press conference:

Steve Greenberg of Allen & Company will search for a buyer. Greenberg surmised the process could take six to 12 months, or longer.   

Drayton conducts an interview with FS Houston’s Greg Lucas.

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Gold Glove voters often get it right (Bourn). But not every time.

Michael Bourn was a deserving winner of his second consecutive Rawlings Gold Glove Award, and given his nearly flawless play in center field for two years running, few, if any, will question that his selection was legit.

But the yearly announcement of Gold Glove Award winners also brings up the yearly argument that certain players got hosed, and that the voting system is flawed. This appears to be one of the few areas of conversation that, seemingly, fans and writers actually agree upon.

I’ve read many columns this week that suggest Gold Glove voting is unfair, broken, inaccurate…pick whatever word you want, the fact is, many believe the system doesn’t work. I tend to agree with this. Voting on defense is extremely difficult, for two reasons: you need to play close attention to each individual player over a long period of time to truly grasp how capable a defender he is, and, more importantly, the numbers you see on a stat sheet regarding defense mean very little. And therein lies the problem.

It drives me absolutely crazy when an infielder’s low error total is used as a barometer for defensive excellence. “So-and-so has made the fewest errors of all NL shortstops and leads the league with a .991 fielding percentage.” In some cases, you can interpret this as “So-and-so has no range and therefore, every ball that is hit five feet to the left or right of him sneaks by for a base hit. Therefore, so-and-so’s fielding percentage is nearly perfect!”

It’s absurd. An older infielder who has limited abilities at his position, and therefore gets to half as many balls as someone 10 years younger, gets the high fielding percentage, while that lightning-fast youngster who gobbles everything hit within two time zones of where he’s standing and makes the occasional bad throw to first gets the shaft because the stat sheet says in plain view that his fielding percentage is *only* .975.

This is the main issue when it comes to voting for Gold Gloves. The sticking point really lies with the infielders more than anyone else. An outfielder’s ability is pretty transparent — he’s either fast, or he’s not. He either takes good routes to balls, or he doesn’t. He can either catch a fly ball, or he can’t. With infielders, it’s different. The balls come at them faster and there are many different types of errors to make — bobbles, bad throws, balls rolling through the legs, etc. Range is hugely important, and when an infielder’s range starts to leave him, it’s obvious.

But range is not something you can read on a stat sheet, and stat sheets are often the only thing the voters — managers and coaches — are using to determine who is deserving of Gold Gloves.

This isn’t a knock on the voters, although I don’t believe they’re all putting in a full effort to make good selections. I’ve been around a bunch of coaching staffs over the years and I’d say 60 percent really put some thought into voting and 40 percent did not. If that’s anything close to a barometer for the rest of the teams, there’s a problem.

To aid the voting process, managers and coaches are given statistical packets full of defensive stats for every player in the league to reference. The problem is, they’re only getting half the story, and if they’re basing it solely on whoever made the fewest errors…well, that’s an issue.

I believe Gold Glove voting can involve the managers and coaches, but it shouldn’t be limited to only them. Perhaps the writers should become involved, but to be honest, the first people I’d add to the voter pool are the broadcasters. Announcers are watching and scrutinizing and talking about every single play made during a game. And they remember what they saw and described. As a reporter, I remember several instances where I’d call Dave Raymond while writing my game story because I couldn’t remember a certain play but I knew he’d recall it instantly.

I also think some consideration should be given to players becoming involved in voting. Not all of the players, but perhaps those who appear on the All-Star ballot. First basemen vote for the best first basemen, second basemen for the best second basemen, and on and on. The only rule is, you can’t vote for yourself.

And let’s not forget the pool of experts that comprise The Fielding Bible committee. Let’s face it — there are a lot of qualified people that can help pick the best of the best defenders. So why aren’t we using them?

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Fortunately, we don’t have any such controversy in Houston. Bourn is just really, really good. As Ed Wade said, “You see the ball leave the bat, and you say, ‘No way that one gets caught,’ and then Michael runs it down. Some guys make plays look tougher than they are. Michael makes the impossible catch look routine.”

Some snippets from Bourn’s conference call with the media:

On if he feels that it’s easier to win Gold Gloves once you’ve won one:

“I didn’t expect it. I think you still have to earn it. The first time is the hardest time, but every time you get it, it’s an honor. It can never get old.”

On what it takes, besides speed, to be a Gold Glove center fielder:

“The routes you run. The better routes you take, the easier it is to get to the ball, the less you have to dive. That’s the biggest thing. Jumps are important, too.”

(Bourn also said he gave his parents his Gold Glove Award last year, but this year, he’s keeping it for himself.)

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Whoever gets my old seat in the press box better take tender loving care of it.

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I’m not asking for it to be sectioned off by purple velvet rope and declared an Astros shrine (although if you want to, who am I to stop you?), but I do hope whoever snags the area previously known as my press box seat will at least treat it as part of the family. Or, if that’s too much to ask, just appreciate it for what it is/was — the single best vantage point you’ll find at Minute Maid Park.

In my opinion, press box seats were better than Drayton’s comfy seats behind the plate, because when something happened on the field that made you want to roll your eyes and slap your forehead in disgust, it helped being tucked away in the press box, away from the cameras that could otherwise capture you in all of your exasperated glory.

Anyhoo, the dearly departed press box is being renamed the Astros Press Club, and by Opening Day next year, the venue will be fully functional and available to the public. (They’re taking orders now — read more about it here).

press club 2.jpgThis whole redesign thing has made me pretty nostalgic. After all, we’ve witnessed some pretty spectacular moments from those precious press box seats, ranging from historical (first World Series game ever played in Texas) to hysterical (Mike Hampton throwing Brad Ausmus a cookie of a pitch during Ausmus’ last game as an Astro, which Ausmus “muscled” to the first few rows of the Crawford Boxes).

But what moments were the most unforgettable? After doing a mental sweep of the last 11 seasons in this ballpark, two instances stand out to me more than any other.

Jeff Kent’s home run that ended Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS and gave the Astros a 3-2 lead in the series has to be one of the most memorable moments, ever. I just remember thinking how those types of plays in the postseason were so opposite from what we were used to in Houston. Not to knock the franchise, but let’s face it — at the time, the Astros were on their fifth postseason in eight years, and very little had gone right up until then.

So watching Kent throw off his helmet as he approached home plate, hold up his index finger and say to his ecstatic teammates, “One more” was just really awesome.

But even more than that game (or Chris Burke’s 18th inning walkoff the next year), there was only one time, as memory serves, where I actually said out loud, “This is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever watched here.” And that happened while we were watching Lance Berkman lob home run after home run over the Crawford Box seats, over the facade behind the seats, and out of the ballpark during the Home Run Derby during the 2004 All-Star week.

I know it was a meaningless event in terms of standings and playoffs, which really are the only things that ultimately matter to ballplayers. And I would never suggest this was the best moment, or the most impactful. But watching Berkman in such a groove, doing his thing in front of 42,000 screaming hometown fans, was something I’ll never forget. I think it was the second round where he really started going off, and at some point, a few of us in the press box just had to sit back and laugh because of the wonderful absurdity of it all. The baseballs were actually leaving the ballpark, one after another after another after another. For a while, it seemed like Lance was going to be able to sustain that pace until the next morning.

So while it wasn’t as impactful as the postseason clutch home runs or as emotional as Craig Biggio’s 3,000th hit or as entertaining as watching Jimy Williams kick dirt on home plate while jawing with the umps, the 2004 Home Run Derby gets put in a separate category to be filed under Things I’ll Never, Ever Forget.

Now let’s hear from you. Was there one moment at Minute Maid Park that stood out to you more than any other?

That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the most exciting game, or a game that was historic for one reason or another. Maybe it was the first game you went to with your kids. Or a game where you caught a foul ball. Or a game that Junction Jack laid a big furry kiss on you. Whatever the game, whatever the circumstance…what is your best memory?

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In today’s From the Photo Vault segment, we step back in time to Spring Training 2006, when the Astros hosted a bunch of kids for their Read Across America program. The event takes place on March 2 every year, Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and celebrates the simple joy and importance of kids reading books.

Dr. Seuss is obviously the inspiration behind the program, a notion clearly not lost on Fernando Nieve, Chad Qualls or Steve Sparks.

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 Or Milo.

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On our TV broadcasters, Astroline and Michael Bourn.

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While I realize there are still a lot of unanswered questions floating around regarding last week’s announcement that the Astros will partner with Comcast beginning in 2012, I do want to clear up one thing: Astros broadcasters, both for radio and television, are employed by the Astros, not the stations that broadcast the games.

I’ve read and heard a lot of concern about Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown, our lovable TV announcers, as to how the new TV deal affects them. Rest assured, it doesn’t. They’re Astros employees and therefore, they go where the Astros go. Same goes for Milo Hamilton, Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond on the radio side.

Regarding your other questions surrounding what the new TV deal means for you and your current cable carrier, please be patient. Most of your questions do not have answers yet. There are a lot of moving parts and eventually, everything will be clear. For now, it’s not, so giving half-baked answers that may or may not accurately apply in ’12 would be irresponsible on my part. Thank you for your patience.

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Speaking of broadcasting, the Astros’ wildly popular offseason radio show, Astroline, will begin its weekly run beginning Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. CT. Aired on 740 KTRH, streamed live on Astros.com and hosted by Hamilton, Astroline will take place at a new location — Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown (510 Gray St.)

We’re still waiting for confirmation on the first guest, but we can tell you that the Houston portion of Astroline will include 13 dates: Nov. 17; Dec. 1, 8, 15 and 29; Jan. 5, 12, 19 and 26; Feb. 2, 9, 16 and 23. The show will then relocate to Florida for Spring Training.

As was the case last year, Twitter will have an active role during Astroline. Fans will be encouraged to tweet their questions to me (twitter.com/alysonfooter) and we’ll read them, and answer them, over the air.

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Next Wednesday, we’ll find out if Michael Bourn won his second National League Gold Glove award. I’m guessing the odds are in his favor, for two reasons: he’s clearly one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, and, it’s a lot easier to win it the second, third and fourth times around. The toughest part is getting the player enough national publicity for voters from far-away teams to take notice, but once his name is out there as a top defender, the ensuing awards come at a much more rapid pace.

In the meantime, Bourn was recognized for his defense last week by another pretty reputable entity. The Fielding Bible doesn’t carry the same glitz and glamour as the Gold Glove, but I like it because of how technical it gets when evaluating the candidates.

The Fielding Bible is a book compiled by John Dewan, who has recruited some of the most respected people in the game to analyze every play (literally) a player makes during the season. Detailed information is recorded on each play, such as the location of each batted ball, the speed and the type of hit and determining how each player compares to his peers in making those plays. An example Dewan uses is: How often does Derek Jeter field a softly batted ball located 20 feet to the right of the normal shortstop position, compared to all other Major League shortstops?

Dewan uses the plus/minus system for plays made and missed, as compared to how often they were made and missed by others at the same position. (For the record, Adam Everett turned in the highest score ever, turning in a +43 at shortstop in ’06. That means he made 43 more plays than the average MLB shortstop would make.)

Anyhoo, in layman’s terms, Bourn being recognized as the best center fielder in baseball by the Fielding Bible doesn’t just mean he made a bunch of plays that drew oohs and ahs by spectators, cable stations and web sites. It means he’s taking good routes to balls, getting good jumps and reading the ball well off the bat. It means he has great instincts, which is something that can improve over time but cannot be taught. He’s making a lot of things look easy that simply are not. All good news for Astros fans.

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And finally, a dip into the photo vault…here we have a very young, fresh-faced Hunter Pence attending batting practice after he was drafted and signed by the Astros in 2004. Other than utilizing a wide array of hair styles over the years, he really hasn’t changed much…

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