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One of a Kind
Tom Verducci
July 19, 1999
A self-made slugger with a screwy stance, Houston's uniquely gifted Jeff Bagwell is Mr. Indispensable
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July 19, 1999

One Of A Kind

A self-made slugger with a screwy stance, Houston's uniquely gifted Jeff Bagwell is Mr. Indispensable

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Bagwell's combination of power and speed is unprecedented for a first baseman. He is on his way to his second 30-30 season. No other first baseman has had even one. His ability to hit for a high average to complement his power and speed is nearly as rare. Bagwell is a .305 lifetime hitter with 249 home runs and 145 stolen bases. Only two other active players have exceeded 240 home runs and 140 steals while maintaining a .300 average: Larry Walker and Ken Griffey Jr.

"The other thing that Bags does is, he'll take his walks," Galante says. Bagwell is on pace to draw 100 walks for the fourth straight season; Walker and Griffey have never drawn 100. "He really understands how pitchers work him," Galante adds. "He'll take that 3-and-l pitch and just spit on it."

Bagwell also stands as a good representative of what has happened to baseball at the close of the century—it has become a game of powerball. Home runs never have been as easy to come by as they have this year; on average, one had been hit every 30.1 at bats as of the All-Star break.

There was a time when players such as Stan Musial, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente forged Hall of Fame careers without ever hitting 40 home runs in a season. Now there are guys with names you cannot spell and faces you cannot recognize swinging from their ample behinds toward 40 home runs. Could you pick out Jeromy Burnitz and Magglio Ordoñez from a lineup?

In the entire 1980s, the 40-homer barrier was crashed 13 times. Last year 13 players hit 40. The demarcation point for the home run explosion is 1993, the first of the two most recent expansion seasons. In the six seasons since then—two of which were shortened by a strike—players have hit 40 or more homers 53 times. That's four more 40-homer seasons than occurred in the previous quarter of a century (1967 to '92). What happened? Take a look at Bagwell, your basic protein-packing, iron-pumping, creatine-chugging, andro-popping, body-armor-wearing '90s kind of slugger, who is 25 pounds of muscle heavier than he was as a Red Sox prospect. How could Gorman have foreseen all that?

Any analysis of Bagwell's hitting, of course, must begin with that stance. "It looks like he's sitting on the John," Caminiti says. "He's the one guy who can work on his stance in the bathroom." Bagwell didn't always hit that way. He did use a slightly spread stance at the University of Hartford (where he played for three seasons), but never for long. The kid who grew up admiring Carl Yastrzemski adopted Yaz's penchant for employing a variety of stances. It wasn't until 1994 that Bagwell heeded the advice of the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn, who one day told him, "When you change your stance so many times, you have no foundation to get back to when you struggle." Early that year Bagwell settled on the Twister stance. "It keeps my head on the same plane," he says.

When Bagwell became a member of the Astros out of spring training in 1991, Rudy Jaramillo, then the Houston hitting coach, told him he was capable of hitting 20 home runs. Responded Bagwell, "You're kidding me, right?" He hit 15 and won the Rookie of the Year award. Bagwell annually improved upon his home run totals after that, to 18 in 1992, 20 in 1993—a season cut short when his left hand was broken in September by a pitch from the Phillies' Ben Rivera—and then to 39 in only 110 games in his breakthrough season, 1994. The '94 season was truncated in August by another broken left hand (he was hit by a pitch from the Padres' Andy Benes) and, two days later, by the strike. Bagwell finished with a slugging percentage of .750 (only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Horns-by, all between 1920 and '27, and Mark McGwire last year had higher percentages) and was named MVP.

"Crazy stuff happened that year," Bagwell says. "Every pitch that I was looking for, I got. And when I got it, I didn't miss it. It was ridiculous."

Bagwell hit 21 home runs in 1995 in a third straight season shortened by a pitch that broke his left hand (this one from the Padres' Brian Williams in July). Since then Bagwell, whose hands dip near the inside edge of the strike zone as he starts his swing, has worn a protective pad on his left batting glove.

Always an avid weightlifter, Bagwell hired a bodybuilder to train him after that '95 season. The trainer, Herschel Johnson, suggested a program to make Bagwell stronger for baseball without adding too much bulk, which might cause a loss in flexibility. "I don't care about that," Bagwell retorted. "I need to get as big as I can and be as strong as I can."

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