you're reading...
Sidebars

Craig Biggio’s Crazy Career

"Wow! My carer is so super weird, man!"

“Wow! My carer is so super weird, man!”

The year 2013 stands out as one of the most impressive slates of new candidates for the Hall of Miller and Eric. Bonds, Piazza, Clemens, Schilling, Lofton, Sosa. Good group. Guys with marvelous careers and lots of interesting moments. And then there’s Craig Biggio who, especially among great players, has one of history’s strangest careers.

Ouch

We wondered briefly about Biggio’s HPB totals the other day, so let’s start there. Biggio’s assault on Hughie Jennings’ record 287 career HPB came up two short. On the other hand, he was plunked 4.8% more often that third-place (272 by Tommy Tucker) and 6.7% more often than well-known modern human piñata Don Baylor (267). Imagine instead these were home runs, and we made Jennings’ HPB equal Barry Bonds’ home runs record:

  1. Jennings: 762
  2. Biggio: 757
  3. Tucker: 722
  4. Baylor: 709

Interesting how closely it parallels the actual career homer totals (762, 755, 714, 669 and counting). The HPB record has held unchanged since 1903, and is by a decade or more the longest-lasting offensive counting-totals record out there. Like I said the other day, he could have leaned into two or three more, for Pete’s sake.

In MLB history, only 111 times has a player been hit 20 or more times in a single season. Craig Biggio did it six times. He shares that record with Ron Hunt, Hughie Jennings, and Tommy Tucker. In 1997, Biggio’s 34 HBP beat the entire Dodgers’ team total, tied the Cubs, and trailed the Padres by one. That 1997 total alone beats the career totals of 422 players with 5,000 or more plate appearances, including 52 Hall of Famers.

Double your pleasure

If I randomly asked you who was 5th all-time in doubles would Craig Biggio leap to mind? I didn’t think so. But it’s true. Among the top six, he’s the only righty swinger to do so. Biggio belted fifty doubles twice. Only five other players have done so more often:

  • Tris Speaker: 5
  • Albert Pujols: 3
  • Brian Roberts: 3
  • Stan Musial: 3
  • Paul Waner: 3

Biggio smacked 40–49 doubles five times. Only 10 players can top him:

  • Wade Boggs: 7
  • Robinson Cano: 7
  • Harry Heilmann: 7
  • Rogers Hornsby: 7
  • Bobby Abreu: 6
  • Lou Gehrig: 6
  • Nap Lajoie: 6
  • Heinie Manush: 6
  • Stan Musial: 6
  • Pete Rose: 6

Biggio doubled 30–39 times in another seven seasons, a feat topped by 28 players, among whom only Brett, Rose, and Waner were mentioned in the lists above. Biggio even doubled 30 times in his last two awful seasons. In fact, Biggio is one of only seven players with 14 or more seasons of 30+ doubles, joining Musial, Speaker, Rose, Cobb, Brett, and Wagner. That’s some really incredible company.

How’d he do it? Well, Biggio wasn’t know for his power or necessarily as a burner, but he hit 291 homers (in history’s most homerific era) and slugged about 10 points higher than his league. He was fast enough to steal 414 bags though his 77% success rate isjust a little above the break-even mark, but he nonetheless racked up 54 runs of base-running value in his career (26th for all seasons we have data for), meaning that he was a smart baserunner when it came to taking extra bases. Dude hit the ball hard and knew how run the bases effectively, which means that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he stretched so many doubles.

Catch Me if You Can

One of the very weirdest parts of Craig Biggio’s career? The whole catcher-converting to second base scenario. Biggio kicked off his career as a catcher, of course, and the Astros toyed with him in the outfield in his third season. They left him alone behind the plate in his fourth season, then in 1992 moved him permanently to second base. All told, Biggio played 428 times as a backstop among 2760 defensive appearances, a little more than 15% of his career.

If you ask BBREF’s Play Index to list all players with 500 or more career games who played at least 15% of their career at catcher, the return is 537 names. Of course, most are actually career-long catchers or close enough. Here’s the motley crew who aren’t at least 50% catchers, ranked by career WAR (HoMErs in bold):


NAME               C   1B    2B    3B   SS   LF   CF   RF   DH   P  WAR
========================================================================
Craig Biggio     428    0  1989     0    0  109  255    2   20   0   65
Joe Torre        898  793     0   515    0    2    0    0    0   0   57
Brian Downing    675    0     0     8    0  735    0   43  824   0   51
Buck Ewing       636  253    51   127   34    9   34  193    0   9   48
Deacon White     458  133    34   827    3   12    8  148    0   2   45
King Kelly       583   25    54    96   90    2    8  742    0  12   44
B.J. Surhoff     704  158     1   316    1  904    5   94  139   0   34
Jack Rowe        298    0     0    20  657   47   32   26    0   0   28
Tom Daly         308   40  1058   102   14    9   17   29    0   0   28
Cal McVey        182  186     5    84    5    5   33   72    0  34   21
Doggie Miller    637   22    51   243   83  146   68   96  308   0   19
Brandon Inge     376    4    19  1083    1   10   33    8    4   0   19
Carlos Santana   330  280     0    26    0    1    0    0  103   0   17
Mike McGeary      96    0   196   117  147    0    2    9    0   0   11
Jack O’Brien     275  149     8    49   20    5   36   31    0   0   10
Scott Hatteberg  369  663     0     1    0    0    0    0  174   0   10
Don Padgett      250   26     0     0    0   67   11  164    0   0    6
John Kerins      163  334     1     4    2   13    9   49    0   0    6
Klondike Douglas 250  342     0    13    3   68    9   55    0   0    5
Eli Marrero      346   58     0     1    0  125   56  117    2   0    5
Bill Sudakis      83   83     0   217    0    4    0    3   61   0    5
Dave Engle       196   43     0     3    0   16    0  121  118   0    4
John Ellis       297  304     0     5    0    0    0    0  169   0    3
Robert Fick      158  313     0     1    0   31    0  178   72   0    2
Tyler Houston    173   75     3   291    1    1    0    1    0   0    2
Bobby Bragan     142    0     7    23  420    0    0    0    0   0    1
Dave Roberts     152   28    62   387   40    3    6   10    8   0    0
Tom Satriano     320   85    57   168    3    0    0    0    0   0  - 1

Biggio is not necessarily the best player among them. Ewing, Kelly, and White are at least comparable if not better. But you’ll notice that they are all products of the 1870s and 1880s. Catching was terribly destructive to the body in the early days and most catchers, therefore, frequently played elsewhere to keep their bodies fresh. As protection for catchers improved, they moonlighted less often. In fact, Biggio is the only one on our list since Tom Daly in the 1880s and 1890s who had a substantial career as a middle infielder. (Bobby Bragan’s career totals 597 games, or only about three and a half seasons.) Catcher cum middle infielder is just incredibly rare. And if you think about what guys like Jose Molina look like, you’ll quickly intuit why.

But About His Defense

Then again, Biggio’s ability to play second base could be better described as playing at second base. Biggio’s defensive stats at second base aren’t awful on paper. He led NL second basemen in assists six times, in putouts five times, in double plays once, and never in errors. Historically, he’s 14th there in defensive games, 20th in putouts, 17th in assists, 19th in double plays turned, 52nd in fielding percentage, and 79th in range factor per nine innings. Seems pretty decent from the looks of it.

Well, not so much. Biggio is, in fact, an historically awful defender. BBREF has him at -100 fielding runs overall (23rd worst all-time) and -64 at second base. Biggio owns the fourth worst total fielding runs of any player who played at least half his career at second base. DRA has him at -131 runs (17th worst all-time). Of those -131 runs, -104 of them came at second base, making his the 6th worst total at the position. Biggio is not the worst second baseman of all time, there are many worse on a per-game rate. He was sure handed but had terrible range. Not unlike a famous contemporary and fellow 3,000 Hit Club member who played the position to Biggio’s right but whose defensive numbers are far, far worse. Biggio is, however, one of the worst.

So why did the Astros move him from behind the plate in the first place if only to plop him at a place where he wasn’t very good? They wanted to protect his body, of course, but also, he was a poor catcher. He had trouble with passed balls and even worse struggles throwing out base runners. Looking at Biggio’s skills plus the team’s needs, the move makes complete, open-and-shut sense:

  • 1B: Jeff Bagwell had just won the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year
  • 2B: Incumbent Casey Candaele was a career .664 OPS hitter and more a super utility man than a starter, and second basemen don’t require strong arms like the other throwing infielders.
  • 3B: Biggio didn’t have the arm, and the Astros had 28-year old Ken Caminiti.
  • SS: Ditto the arm, plus the Stros were bringing along hot prospect Andjuar Cedeno.
  • LF: Biggio probably had the speed for left field in the Astrodome, and his arm strength wouldn’t have been an issue, but the team was also breaking in a young Luis Gonzalez.
  • CF: A 27-year-old Steve Finley locked this position down.
  • RF: Biggio didn’t have the arm for right field, and even if he had, the team still had some hopes that former hot prospect Eric Anthony might pan out.

In other words, the Astros were loaded, and the only hole that matched up decently to Biggio’s weaknesses was second base. The fact that the move necessitated dealing Kenny Lofton for Eddie Taubensee (who was not a non-prospect by any means) makes me cringe in retrospect, especially because Lofton had torn up the A+ Florida State league in 1990, and, skipping AA in 1991, more than held his own in the PCL. But that’s life.

So Craig Biggio is one of the weirdest careers we’ve seen. One of the strangest mix of great secondary skills, poor defense, and an utter willingness to ignore his nerve endings that baseball has known. I can’t imagine there’ll be another one like him.

 

—Eric

Advertisements

Discussion

No comments yet.

Tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Institutional History

%d bloggers like this: