Monday, January 19, 2009

Through the Years: Craig Biggio

For the past few weeks, I've been focusing these "Through the Years" posts on players on the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. I think it's been a good exercise, and I was glad to do it. I wasn't able to get to all the players that I was hoping to get to before the election took place, though, but that's okay. It just means that I get to tackle the stories of players like Tim Raines and Alan Trammell and Dale Murphy at some other time, when people aren't in over their heads with Hall of Fame columns, and that's not a bad thing.

I thought I'd take a break from players on the current Hall of Fame ballot and look at one of the more underrated superstars of our time, the Astros second-baseman & leadoff hitter extraordinaire Craig Biggio. I remember a story my brother told me sometime in spring 2004: a friend of his who had owned the Astros in his stratomatic league for years had been standing in line at Six Flags one winter day and realized that the man standing behind him was Craig Biggio. He approached him, and they proceeded to talk baseball for the remainder of their time in line. It sounded like a good story, but I remember both my brother and myself asking the question, if Craig Biggio was standing behind us in line for 45 minutes while waiting to get on a roller coaster, would we recognize him at all in that time?

The point isn't that Biggio talked shop with a random fan for 25 minutes in line at Six Flags, but that neither my brother nor myself ever felt that we would recognize him if he was standing 3 feet from us for 45 minutes, and we're pretty big baseball fans. I mean, can you name any other future first-ballot Hall of Famer that that would be true about? It's hard to say why Biggio was so underrated. It could be that he played his entire career in Houston and not in a city like New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles; it could be that he played the highly-ignored second base (and equally ignored catcher); it could be that his greatness came through in doubles and hit-by-pitches and avoiding double-plays, etc.; whatever it is, though, it's pretty clear to most non-Texans that Biggio was a superstar player without the superstar attention.

Let's give him some due attention then. As with all other "Through the Years" posts, I'll be looking at Biggio's career through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis, and to see just how long it took for people to realize that they were watching a likely future Hall of Famer.

Biggio's first appearance in any of my preview guides comes in the Minor Leagues section of the 1988 Street & Smith's. It is a rather underwhelming first mention and the (likely) typo in his first name is fitting for the most underrated superstar of his time:
"Catcher Graig Biggio [sic], the Astros' No. 1 draft pick in '87, hit .375 with 49 RBIs and 31 SBs in 64 games at Asheville."
Biggio played in 50 games that first year, spread around the summer, but wasn't able to make the impact that I'm sure he was hoping to. He was only 22 years old, though, so there was still a lot of potential in that young catcher. Heading into the 1989 campaign, the Sporting News was still high on his talent:
"[The Alan Ashby-Alex Trevino tandem] would allow Biggio, who was rushed to the majors last year after Ashby was injured, to get some much-needed playing time in the minors. Biggio was overmatched at the plate but showed enough flashes to encourage the Astros about their catching future."
His first full year in the majors, Biggio earned himself a Silver Slugger award and put the league on notice. His future as a catcher wasn't certain to everyone though, despite the value his bat brought. From the 1990 TSN preview guide:
"The Astros have one of the majors' top offenseive receivers in Biggio. Exhibiting a rare combination of power and speed for a catcher, he produced 13 homers, 60 runs batted in, and 21 stolen bases last season. He's targeted as the No. 3 hitter in 1990.

Defensively, Biggio's enthusiasm and quickness are overshadowed by his inability to throw out basestealers. Granted, the Astros' pitching staff often didn't give Biggio a chance last season, but opponents stole 140 bases in 169 tries (a whopping 82.8 percent success rate) when he was catching.

Some scouts believe Houston eventually will move Biggio to second base or the outfield. For now, he'll remain behind the plate and receive on-the-job training to improve his throwing."
Biggio would continue to play catcher for two more years, through 1991, though it seems obvious that his catching abilities were already up in the air. He did improve in his 1990 season some, though it was a mixed bag. His slightly higher average and on-base percentage and the increased number of stolen bases were offset by his drastic drop in power and OPS+. The Astros weren't about to give up on him, though.
"At least for now, the Craig Biggio shuffle is over.

Biggio, moved from catcher to the outfield and back to catcher last year, will start the '91 season behind the plate and stay there.

The Astros wanted to conserve Biggio's speed (46 steals over the last two seasons), so they put him in the outfield. Biggio wasn't happy with it, and the catchers the Astros used in his place (Rich Gedman, Carl Nichols and Alex Trevino) didn't exactly bring back memories of Johnny Bench. Until someone better both offensively and defensively comes along, Biggio is No. 1.

While Biggio's average rose 19 points last year to .276, his homer/RBI production skidded from 13/60 to 4/42. This could be a key year for Biggio, 25, whom many still think can be a .300 hitter with average power and above-average speed."
Biggio made more improvements in '91, bringing all three rate stats up and keeping his counting stats in line with the year before. His time behind the plate wasn't getting much easier, though. By the end of 1991, he was still getting run on at a 75% clip. His fielding percentage put him in the middle of the pack, but he was near the top of the list in both errors and wild pitches, neither of which is very desirable in a backstop. The next season would see Biggio change positions, in an effort to get more production out of him. From the 1992 TSN:
"First, the Astros persuaded Biggio to move from catcher to second base. The reason? The Astros felt that Biggio's speed, far above average for a catcher, was being sapped behind the plate. Also, they felt he hadn't progressed defensively.
Biggio and shortsop [Andujar] Cedeno both figure to give the Astros more offense than defense, Biggio because he will learn virtually from scratch how to play second base..."
He did perform better at second in '92, and, as he got more comfortable there, his numbers got improved. He broke the 30 Win Share threshold that year, and put up an impressive 26 Win Shares in 1993, when his power jumped dramatically and he hit 20 homers for the first time. By the start of the 1994 season, he was already a two-time All-Star and quickly becoming a well-respected player. His status as the leadoff man in the lineup was questioned, though.
"No NL leadoff hitter hit more home runs than second baseman Biggio, who had 21 after hitting a total of 14 in his three previous seasons. Biggio's stolen-base number fell from 38 to 15, though, leading some people to believe the Astros would be better served if he hit lower in the batting order."
The 1994 season began with Biggio hitting in the three-spot, apparently trying to capitalize on his power and on-base percentage. He performed well in that spot and, by July, had worked his way back to the leadoff spot. By the time the strike rolled around in mid-August, he was hitting .318/.411/.483 with 39 stolen bases, only 4 caught stealings, and a 138 OPS+. It was a great year, and he wouldn't look back for another 6 years or so.
"With all eyes on Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio's big season almost went unnoticed. Biggio hit .318, led the league in steals (39) and won a Gold Glove. He hit .347 in 32 games batting leadoff, where he'll likely start this season."
Going into the 1995 season, Biggio was 28 years old and was fitting comfortably into his dual roles of second baseman and leadoff hitter, and he was finally getting noticed by people outside of Houston. His 1995 season, where he stole 33 bases (8 caught stealing), slugged 22 home runs, and scored 123 runs with a .302/.406/.483 line and a 141 OPS+ all while playing Gold Glove defense, would only help him get noticed even more, and clearly the people of Houston loved him.
"By agreeing to stay in Houston, All-Star second baseman Craig Biggio not only gave the Astros hope for a reasonably good 1996 season, he may have saved the franchise from leaving the city after this year.

It's doubtful that a decision by one player ever has meant more to the future of a baseball team than Biggio's acceptance of a four-year, $22.36 million offer from the Astros. How much of a difference can Biggio make in '96?

'I'll tell you how much,' relieve Todd Jones said. 'It makes the difference between losing 100 games and winning the division. I love him. And this wasn't about the money. He turned down five years for $25 million from St. Louis. This was about whether he thought we could win, and now we know he does.'...

'People always say there's no loyalty in the game anymore,' Manager Terry Collins said. 'But this is a superstar who stood up and said: 'I'm loyal to the city.' He made our day and our year.' "
That was a lot of pressure that people were putting on Biggio's shoulders. Not only the weight of his contract, or of his teammates, but also of the city itself. That is talk reserved for true superstars, and it's clear that Biggio had reached that status within Texas. The pressure did not seem to get to him, though, as he put up another solid year, reaching 32 Win Shares for the second year. It wasn't impressive enough for the writers at Sporting News though.
"[Jeff] Bagwell and second baseman Biggio played too many games (all 162) and tired in September. Biggio won his third consecutive Gold Glove but may not have deserved it. His range was off, and he shared blame for the club ranking 13th in the league in double plays. Numerous nagging injuries limited him offensively and defensively. When healthy, Biggio has 20-homer, 30-steal ability."
He rebounded from that (relatively) poor season in '96 to have the best season of his career in 1997. His 38 Win Shares that year were supported by 146 runs scored, 22 home runs, 81 runs batted in, 47 stolen bases, and a .309/.415/.501 line with a 143 OPS+. He also earned his fourth consecutive Gold Glove that year, and finished 4th in the MVP voting, all while helping lead the Astros to their first postseason in 11 years. What's uniquely impressive about this season is that he led the league in hit by pitches with 34 and played the entire season - 619 at-bats - without grounding into a single double play.

A few years later, Bill James would rank Biggio as the 35th greatest player of all time, and the 5th greatest second-baseman, in his New Historical Abstract. In the Abstract, James flat out states "Craig Biggio is the best player in major league baseball today," and then goes on to use his 1997 season as evidence.

Granted, Bill James is far from the mainstream media, and so his praise of a player isn't exactly representative of writers as a whole. Still, the fact that Biggio is so high in the discussion says a lot. Plus, being called the "consummate leadoff hitter" and the "strength of the team" by the likes of TSN shows overall acceptance by the more mainstream writers.

Biggio would go on to play 10 more years in the majors, all with the Astros, and would hit some significant milestones, including 3,000+ hits, 1,800+ runs scored, and 400+ stolen bases, all while batting .281/.363/.433 with a 111 OPS+. He should be going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2013, and it'll be quite a celebration. Hopefully his career will prove a good foil to the countless steroids stories that will resound that year, with the likes of Bonds and Clemens also on the ballot for the first time that year as well.

No comments: