Bill James on Craig Biggio.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 25 2008 6:45 AM

The Epic of Craig Biggio

Why I loved, and then grew tired of, the long-time Houston Astro.

The BIll James Gold Mine 2008

Bill James is not only one of the most influential baseball thinkers of his generation, he's also one of the most influential writers. For decades, James has been challenging and reshaping the game's conventional wisdom with his uniquely brilliant and witty essays. His latest book, The Bill James Gold Mine 2008, includes hundreds of pages of analysis, scores of statistical nuggets, and 17 new essays. In this excerpt, James explains how Craig Biggio became his favorite baseball player and why he ultimately soured on the just-retired Houston Astros stalwart.

I wonder how many people even remember anymore that Craig Biggio came to the majors as a catcher? Biggio wasn't much of a catcher, honestly, but he was a major league regular catcher for three and a half years. This was ages ago. When I heard that the Astros were taking their young catcher and moving him to second base I thought, "Yeah, right; that'll work great." I would have given you 20-1 odds it would fail. I've been a baseball fan a long time. Moves like that always fail.

Advertisement

Biggio made it work, however, and I was thrilled to be wrong. It was such an unusual thing to see a player who could make a transition like that at the major league level, from catcher to second base. It required something that you don't often see, an exceptional level of determination, dedication and adaptability.

Gradually, over the years after that, Craig Biggio emerged as my favorite player. I had a Craig Biggio pennant on my wall. The only other one I ever had was George Brett. I was never an Astros fan; that wasn't it. It had to do with something Dan Okrent had asked me, when he was working on an article for Sports Illustrated in 1980. "Bill," he said, "you write about the player with subtle skills, the player who isn't a recognized star but who is just as valuable as the star because of his combination of skills. Who is the player that best exemplifies that other kind of star?"

I couldn't come up with anybody. I finally pointed toward Al Bumbry, who was that kind of a player in 1980, but not consistently throughout his career. I loved Craig Biggio because he was the perfect answer to that question. He was the player who wasn't a star, but who was just as valuable as the superstars because of his exceptional command of a collection of little skills—getting on base, and avoiding the double play, and stealing a base here and there, and playing defense. Here was the guy who scored 120 runs every year because he hit 45 or 50 doubles every year and walked 70 to 90 times a year and led the majors in being hit with the pitch and hardly ever grounded into a double play and somehow stole 25 to 50 bases every year although he really had very average speed.

You have to understand, when I wrote in 1998 that Craig Biggio was one of the five greatest second basemen of all time, people thought I was nuts. Very few people at that time saw him as a special player. I liked that, too—I liked people thinking I was out on a limb about something when I knew I was right. I loved doing a point-by-point summary comparing Craig Biggio to Ken Griffey Jr., and showing Biggio was actually as valuable, in his best seasons, as Griffey. Griffey at that time was generally regarded as the best player in baseball. In 1997 Griffey outhomered Biggio 56-22, in 1998 56-20. But Biggio had a higher batting average, more doubles and triples, more stolen bases with a better stolen base percentage, was hit by pitches an additional 20 times a year and grounded into fewer double plays. He had as many walks and fewer strikeouts. It was pretty obvious that, if you added together all of Biggio's advantages, Biggio was, at a minimum, on the same level.

Later on, after an injury, the Astros needed a center fielder. Craig Biggio raised his hand and said, "I can play center. We've got other guys here who can cover second; put me in center." Later he moved back to second. It's an amazing thing, absolutely amazing. Who else could cover you at three of the four up-the-middle defensive positions? Nobody.

Craig Biggio. Click image to expand.
Craig Biggio

But in the last years of his career, my affection for Biggio started to fade, I'm afraid. As he moved closer to 3,000 career hits there came a general recognition of his status as a star player, which severed the bond that I felt to him when he was deserving of recognition that he wasn't getting. Yes, he moved to center field and yes, he moved back to second base when they needed him back at second base, but in all candor, he was pretty awful in center field, and he was pretty awful defensively back at second base. I got tired of pretending not to notice.

At some point, Biggio was hanging around to get 3,000 hits. On the one hand I was happy for him that he was going to get his 3,000 hits and pleased that he had proven to everybody that he was a great player, but it's not something I really admire, hanging around to pursue personal goals. He couldn't hit a good pitcher—never could, really. His career batting average in post-season play was .234, OPS somewhere around .600. His clutch hitting record is miserable.

We have this profile in the online … Batting Performance by Quality of Opposing Pitcher. Of course, over time, almost everybody is going to hit better against weaker pitchers. I doubt that anybody was as consistent or extreme about it as Biggio was. In 2003 he hit .354 against pitchers with ERAs over 5.25 (64 for 181), but .143 against pitchers with ERAs under 3.50 (19 for 133). In 2004 he hit .382 with 10 homers in 110 at bats against pitchers with ERAs over 5.25. Every year he has had huge good pitcher/bad pitcher splits.

I'm not picking on him, I hope, but the reason that Biggio struggled in clutch situations and against good pitchers couldn't be more obvious. He was an overachiever, and he knew what he was doing. Against a weak pitcher, a pitcher not really in command of his material, Biggio could take control of the at bat and drive it toward a good conclusion. When the pitcher was not really focused, Biggio was. But when the pressure was on and there was somebody on the mound who knew what he was doing, Biggio had limited ability to step up. Maybe this was not as true in the 1990s. I hope. We'll figure the data and put it online.

I'll still say today, if there was a draft and you could look ahead and say, "OK, that guy's going to be Ken Griffey, that guy's going to be Frank Thomas, that guy's going to be Juan Gonzalez, that guy's going to be Tom Glavine, that guy's going to be Craig Biggio," just give me Biggio and I'll take my chances. Maybe that's not what the numbers say is the right answer, but Biggio was the guy who would do whatever needed to be done. Makes it a lot easier to build a team.

And then the story went on a little too long. You ever go to a movie, it' s pretty good for about an hour and a half but then the story is over but it's like the director can't find the ending so it goes on for another half-hour looking for some way to tie things together? That's kind of Biggio's career; it was over, and then it went on for quite awhile.

Bill James is the author of The Bill James Gold Mine 2009and the proprietor of Bill James Online.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.