In 1997, Bagwell became the first full-time first baseman to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases, leading the Astros into the playoffs for the first time since 1986. (Joe Carter reached the 30-30 plateau with Cleveland in 1987, but he split his time between first base and the outfield.) But Bagwell didn’t need the 30-30 feat to establish himself as the league’s premier first baseman, one of the game’s best clutch hitters, and probably the best player in Astro history. In 1994 he became only the fourth National Leaguer to be named unanimous MVP; Carl Hubbell (1936), Orlando Cepeda (1967), and Mike Schmidt (1980) were the others. And all this despite suffering from bad eyesight (Bagwell wears contacts during games) and broken hands in three consecutive seasons.
Bagwell accomplishes his feats with one of the most unusual batting styles in baseball history. The vast majority of batters step into a pitch — toward the pitcher with their front foot — as the pitch is thrown. Bagwell, with his exaggerated wide stance, actually steps back with his front foot as he makes contact.
Being selected by his hometown Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 free-agent draft was a thrill for Bagwell, who had idolized Carl Yastrzemski growing up. But he was devastated a year later, when he was traded to the Astros for pitcher Larry Andersen after winning the Eastern League MVP award at Double-A.
The young slugger was an immediate sensation at the Astrodome in 1991. After switching from his natural third base position to first base to accommodate Ken Caminiti, Bagwell hit .294 (second only to Craig Biggio‘s .295) and led the Astros in home runs (15), RBI (82), walks (75), slugging (.437), and on-base percentage (.387). After the season he was named club MVP and also became the first Houston player to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, capturing all but one of the 24 first-place votes.
Despite a short sophomore slump in 1992 that saw his average lingering at .227 in late June, Bagwell continued to improve, raising his average, cutting down his strikeouts, steadying his defense, and hitting for more power. This progress culminated in his MVP year in 1994 when he won a Gold Glove and became the first player in the NL to finish first or second in the league in average, runs, RBI, and homers since Willie Mays in 1955. He also set club records and career highs with 39 homers — 23 in the spacious Astrodome — 116 RBI, 300 total bases, and a league-leading 104 runs scored, all despite having the season cut short due to the strike and a broken hand after he was hit by an Andy Benes pitch on Aug. 10.
Bagwell broke his hand for the third straight season in July 1995, cutting short another fine campaign. Bagwell’s unusual stance was responsible for his strange string of injuries. “I just don’t turn my shoulder into the ball,” Bagwell explained. “I’m up there, and they throw that fastball at my shoulder and I just don’t turn my shoulder in. I kinda just lean back and it forces my hand up and that’s where I get hit.” Rather than change his stance, Bagwell now wears a protective glove on his left hand while batting.
The slugger returned in 1996 with career highs in runs (111) and RBI (120) and a league-leading 48 doubles. In the process, Bagwell eclipsed the .300-30-100 barrier for the second time in his career. He also became only the second player (Willie Stargell was the first) to hit two balls into the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and, two weeks later, tied a major-league record with four doubles in a game. With second baseman Craig Biggio and rightfielder Derek Bell, Bagwell was the core of Houston’s “Killer Bs.” He made a run at a second MVP, but he and the Astros both faded down the stretch.
Bagwell’s 43 homers and 135 RBI in 1997 were new career highs, but another MVP run was thwarted by Larry Walker’s near-.400 season for the Rockies. Bagwell drew 27 intentional walks during the season, including three consecutive free passes issued by the Cincinnati Reds during a fourteen-inning marathon late May. After Reds coach Dennis Menke (subbing for suspended manager Ray Knight) ordered the final walk with two outs and nobody on in the fourteenth, Bagwell promptly stole second, scoring the winning run minutes later when Luis Gonzalez singled to left. “I knew Bagwell wasn’t going to beat us with his bat,” Menke said after the game. “He didn’t. It just didn’t work out like I’d hoped.” The key steal was one of Bagwell’s career-high 31. He had swiped 21 the year before.
Despite his early mishaps, Bagwell shrugged off concerns about his health and by the turn of the century had become one of the most durable players in the league. “So long as I can put my uniform on with both hands, I’ll be out there,” he asserted, and his consistent excellence backed him up. Bagwell’s streak of 389 consecutive games played through May 1998 was the third-longest in the majors behind those of Cal Ripken, Jr. and teammate Craig Biggio until he injured his knee in a collision with Florida catcher Charles Johnson on May 12. Bagwell finished the game but missed the next two weeks in his first trip to the DL since 1995.