July 22, 2003

May 27, 1968

As far as I can tell, May 27th, 1968 was a fairly routine day in the history of the world. The year, 1968, was extremely eventful, but this particular day was pretty routine.

On May 27th, 1968...

The top of the music charts featured "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon and Garfunkel, "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by the Ohio Express and "Mony, Mony" by Tommy James and the Shondells.

After 48 years as coach of the Chicago Bears, George "Papa Bear" Halas retired.

The nuclear submarine "Scorpion" was lost.

Major League Baseball awarded expansion franchises to Montreal and San Diego.

R&B singer Little Willie John, who would later go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, died at the age of 30.

The cover of Sports Illustrated featured a 27 year old switch-hitter who would go on to set the major league record for hits in a career.

Also on May 27th, 1968, two baby boys were welcomed into the world. Beyond their birthdays, the similarities between them appeared to be non-existent.

Frank Edward, a black guy, was born in the South (Columbus, Georgia), while Jeffrey Robert, a white guy, was born in the North (Boston, Massachusetts). Frank grew up to be 6'5" and 275 pounds, while Jeff stopped at 6'0" and 215.

They did however, have one fairly large similarity: They both played baseball - and they both played baseball very well.

It is now just a little over 35 years after their births and Frank Edward Thomas and Jeffrey Robert Bagwell have each become one of the greatest first basemen in baseball history and, amazingly, their baseball careers are almost as similar as their birthday.


Frank Thomas starred at Auburn University before being selected in the first round of the 1989 draft.

Jeff Bagwell starred at the University of Hartford before being selected in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.

Both players played their first full-season in the majors in 1991. Thomas finished 3rd in the AL MVP voting, while Bagwell won the NL Rookie of the Year award.

In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Thomas hit .353/.487/.729 and was the MVP of the American League, while Bagwell hit .368/.451/.750 and was the MVP of the National League.

This past Sunday, Jeff Bagwell hit his 400th career home run, becoming just the 35th player in baseball history to do so. Meanwhile, yesterday afternoon, Frank Thomas hit his 399th career home run and will join Bagwell as the 36th member of the 400-homer club with his next blast.

The odds of two major league baseball players being born on the exact same day strikes me as relatively rare. The odds of two all-star level major league baseball players being born on the exact same day seems incredibly rare. The odds of two Hall of Fame level major league baseball players being born on the exact same day seems almost impossible.

And the odds of two Hall of Fame level major league baseball players who play the same position, won MVP awards in the same season, will both hit their 400th career home runs within a week or so of each other and have incredibly similar overall career statistics strikes me as something that is extraordinarily unbelievable.

Take a look at how eerily similar their career hitting stats are:

             AVG      OBP      SLG      HR      2B      RBI

Thomas .311 .430 .567 399 417 1339
Bagwell .301 .412 .548 401 444 1376

I'd say that is about as close as two players can get after they both play 13 or 14 years in the major leagues.

The obvious question that arises regarding these two incredibly similar future Hall of Fame first basemen born on the same day is: Which one is better?

At first glance, this seemed like an obvious answer to me, because, in looking at their hitting stats, Frank Thomas is clearly superior. Thomas has a higher career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and his career Adjusted OPS (OPS+) is 163, compared to Bagwell's 155. And, not only are Thomas' career hitting numbers better than Bagwell's, he has also had more "elite" offensive seasons.

A simple way of looking at that would be to line up their best OPS+ figures from full-seasons (550+ PAs, except for strike-seasons):

Thomas      Bagwell

212 213
181 179
180 169
178 168
178 158
177 152
174 144
160 142
129 141
125 138
117 137

Bagwell's best season and Thomas' best season both came in 1994, when they were both MVPs. Those two seasons were essentially equal offensively, but, after that, Thomas has the edge for the 2nd-best season to the 8th-best season.

So, while Bagwell's offense has been tremendous throughout his career, it hasn't been quite at the level of Thomas'. That said, Bagwell does have 2 things on his side when it comes to a "Who's the better player?" argument.

1) Base stealing and base running.

The base running part is tough to put an exact value on, but I think it's pretty obvious that Bagwell has a sizable advantage in that department, however much value that has.

The base stealing part is easy to put a number on...

             SB     CS       SB%

Bagwell 190 71 72.8%
Thomas 32 21 60.4%

Stolen bases are, in my opinion, a very overrated part of a hitter's game. That said, the fact that Bagwell has 158 more steals than Thomas and a much higher stolen base success rate does add value to Bagwell's career compared to Thomas'. Exactly how much value? I'm not quite sure, although certainly not enough to come anywhere close to off-setting the difference in their OPS+ figures.

2) Defense

Like base running, defense is a difficult thing to place an accurate value on. Instead of attempting to do that - because people much smarter than me have attempted to do so with mixed results - I will simply say that Frank Thomas has never won a Gold Glove and, to the best of my knowledge, has always been considered a significantly below-average defensive first baseman. On the other hand, Jeff Bagwell won a Gold Glove in 1994 and, to the best of my knowledge, has always been considered a signficantly above-average defensive first baseman.

So, in the simplest of terms, here is what the argument boils down to:


Thomas - 163 OPS+ with 8 seasons above 150 and 6 seasons above 175.

Bagwell - 155 OPS+ with 6 seasons above 150 and 2 seasons above 175.


Thomas - 32 career SBs at a 60.4% success rate, along with below-average base running.

Bagwell - 190 career SBs at a 72.8% success rate, along with above-average base running.


Thomas - 0 Gold Gloves and below-average defense.

Bagwell - 1 Gold Glove and above-average defense.

Like I said, those are the simplest of terms. If I had to choose, I would be inclined to go with Thomas, simply because his elite offensive seasons are more plentiful and more dominant than Bagwell's elite offensive seasons. Plus, stolen bases are overrated and a 72.8% success rate isn't that great anyway. And, of course, defense is nice, but it's not that important at first base.

That's certainly no knock on Bagwell, because I think both he and Thomas should be first-ballot Hall of Famers. It's just that Frank Thomas is one of the best dozen or so hitters in baseball history and it's tough to compete with that.

Of course, both Bagwell and Thomas are still productive players and a lot could change between now and the time they decide to hang up the spikes. However, the way they have played in 2003 is, to me at least, very suprising.

Here is what Thomas and Bagwell did offensively the past two years:

BAGWELL                                   THOMAS

2001 717 .288 .397 .568 141 2001 79 .221 .316 .441 95
2002 691 .291 .401 .518 137 2002 628 .252 .361 .472 117

While Bagwell's 2001 and 2002 seasons were sub par for his standards, they were still excellent. He was one of the top first basemen in the National League in both seasons and finished 7th in the NL MVP balloting in 2001.

Meanwhile, Frank Thomas missed all but 20 games of the 2001 season because of an injury and then had the worst season of his career in 2002. His .252 batting average and .361 on-base percentage were both career-lows, as was his 117 OPS+.

So, heading into this season, it seemed fairly obvious that Jeff Bagwell was the favorite to have the better season between the two of them. Of course, the exact opposite is happening...

             AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     2B     BB

Thomas .273 .403 .558 23 24 65
Bagwell .278 .371 .497 21 17 51

Despite playing in a much better ballpark for hitting, Bagwell trails Thomas by over 30 points in on-base percentage and nearly 60 points in slugging percentage. Thomas is on pace for 38 homers and 39 doubles, while Bagwell is on pace for a total of 64 extra-base hits, which would be his lowest total in a non-strike season since 1993.

Baseball can be a funny game and things can happen when you least expect it. Many people wrote Frank Thomas off completely and yet he's having an MVP caliber season, ranking in the top 10 of the AL in homers, on-base %, slugging % and OPS (on-base % + slugging %). At the same time, Jeff Bagwell is having his worst offensive season in a long time.

About 4 months ago, you would have had a hard time finding anyone willing to predict that, and that's the beauty of the sport. It is impossible to even predict which Hall of Fame first baseman born on May 27th, 1968 will have the better season. And if you can't predict something that specific, how in the world is anyone going to see something like Esteban Loaiza coming?!

By the way, according to Baseball-Reference.com's "Player Similarity Scores"...

Jeff Bagwell's most similar player in baseball history? Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas' most similar player in baseball history? Jeff Bagwell

That must have been one hell of a day.

Link of the Day:

This is something I have been thinking about doing for a while now. Basically, there are a ton of awesome websites out there, many of which are featured in my links on the left side of this page. I visit quite a few of those sites on a semi-regular basis, but I don't always get a chance to give them the "plugs" that I think they deserve. So, what I am going to do (for a little while, at least) is have a featured "Link of the Day." I might feature a site with a really great article currently posted on it or a blog of a team that is making headlines or, most likely, just one of the many great websites that I enjoy. Today's link...

Stephen Silver - "This blog is about politics, sports, entertainment, current events, religion and much more."

Today's picks:

Florida (Redman) +145 over Atlanta (Hampton)

Arizona (Batista) +110 over San Francisco (Brower)

Oakland (Zito) -110 over Seattle (Franklin)

Total to date: + $805

W/L record: 177-177 (2-2 yesterday for -40 with one rainout.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.