There are few players that are as polarizing as Craig Biggio. Obviously, this is through no fault of his own. Through most accounts, he played hard and he played the game right for 20 seasons. The reasons for his polarizing nature are based on how people perceive his career. Naturally, Astros fans think he is one of the all-time greats based on some impressive counting numbers. People on the east and west coast think he is one of the more overrated players in the history of the game.
Chief among these was professional talking head Mike Francesa. He steadfastly believed that Biggio shouldn’t get in and called him a glorified singles hitter. The numbers say something else as they almost always do. That is the defense against the “I know them when I see them” crowd. On top of that, systems like the index reveal the problems with the counting numbers that see below. Here are Biggio’s career ranks amongst primary second basemen in history.
Hits: 3060 (3rd)
2B: 668 (1st)
HR: 291 (4th)
TB: 4711 (2nd)
BB: 1160 (7th)
SB: 414 (6th)
RC: 1832 (2nd)
Much of the debate in Francesa’s case was a Craig Biggio vs. Roberto Alomar debate. Of course, the numbers here clearly point to Biggio as any Houston fan would attest, but they aren’t necessarily completely right either. Counting numbers can be deceiving. Add in runs and RBI and it becomes that much more of a stacked deck. It might lead you to believe he was a top five second basemen in history. As we will see, that’s a bit far fetched.
The index is different from counting numbers because one must have value to accrue career value. Well duh. However, it is easy to miss how this differs from even sophisticated counting numbers like runs created. Would anyone in their right mind really suggest Biggio was the second best second sacker in history? The fact is that playing for 20 seasons (and most of them healthy seasons) has a way of helping you accrue those numbers. Unfortunately, his last few seasons saw him add very little if any real value.
Of course, Francesa was quick to point out that Biggio was not as good with the glove as Alomar. This is both true and misleading. Biggio was not a good defender by most metrics, but neither was Alomar. Alomar won Gold Gloves because Alomar made it into the highlights almost every night. Defensive metrics don’t add up Web Gems. They add up assists, putouts, double plays, and yes even errors. More advanced systems use video to determine how many plays a player should have made in comparison with the plays he did make. You don’t get extra credit for diving stops or acrobatic throws.
The index includes both offense and fielding. If we go only according to the index we would have put him in our last grouping with the likes of Charlie Gehringer, Rod Carew, and Frankie Frisch. As we will see, there are reasons not to include him in that group. However, he compares favorably to Sandberg and Alomar. Before we go to the offensive and fielding numbers we should probably look at peak value numbers.
One of the things we notice when looking at this data is Biggio’s significant advantage in win shares. Why does this happen? Simply put, the Astros were consistently competitive throughout Biggio’s career. Their only real down seasons came in 1991 and 2000. Otherwise, they were usually in the playoff hunt every year. Since win shares are based on wins that would give him that advantage.
Sandberg famously missed two seasons after a premature retirement that didn’t take. He tried to save his first marriage and it wouldn’t be saved. Give him even two mediocre seasons and he likely would be in Biggio territory in career value and might have surpassed his peak value. Of course, he isn’t the focus of this particular debate. Most of us know what Sandberg was and there isn’t a particular amount of debate there. Before we move onto the meaty part of the debate we will clean up the index with the totals.
Hall of Fame Index
The index scores put Biggio in the group that we mentioned last time, but he also hung out for a long time. We will ignore counting numbers because counting numbers tend to get skewed as players play for a long time. Biggio probably played two or three years past his usefulness in order to get to 3000 hits. The Astros obliged because of all he did for them and they got some marketing out of the deal. Let’s tear all that away and look at the facts.
Francesa argued that Biggio didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame period. The numbers above show that point to be ludicrous on its face. Alomar was better, but these are career numbers and were based on all 20 years for Biggio. While he added singles, doubles, and home runs down the stretch, he also added strikeouts and suffered through down OBP and SLG years. The Astrodome was already accounted for, so fellow Astros fans can rest assured Biggio wasn’t punished here.
Still, you can argue that Alomar was a better player based on these numbers. I have to wonder if we looked at the peak value numbers whether that would still be the case. Yet, when all things are considered if you admit one you have to admit them all based on this data alone. They are just too close. Since we can go back to the peak years, let’s check it out.
We can start with the obvious comparison, but these numbers are proof of something else. When you look at these players you must look at them over the course of their careers and when they are at their best. Biggio held on longer, so his numbers took a bigger dive. Considering that each of them were better in some categories than others we can only conclude that they are very close if not equal when they were at their best. At least offensively that is.
By all accounts, Alomar was not as brilliant a defender as people seem to remember. The numbers say something else. What’s more, he almost exclusively played at second base. Biggio played behind the dish for a few years, in left field for a few seasons, and in center field. He was not particularly good at any of them admittedly, but he might have been had he been given the opportunity to play their exclusively. This is likely wishful thinking though.
This brings us to the ultimate question. Who would you rather have on your team? This is an impossible question to ask definitively. If you want longevity it’s Biggio. If you want top end performance it might be Alomar, but that is closer than it appears. Alomar was the better defender, but Biggio offered more flexibility. The choice is yours.