Remembering the 'Killer B's'

Please feel free to admire the "Killer B's." (Getty Images)

The earliest reference to the Astros' version of the "Killer B's," according to the cryptic powers of Google, is dated March 31, 1996. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Derek Bell were all holdovers from the '95 squad, and third baseman Sean Berry was acquired from the Expos the following winter. So that made four core players whose surnames started with the letter "B." Little wonder, then, that a collective nickname followed.

In time, of course, attrition wore away at the non-Biggio/non-Bagwell members of the "Killer B's," and eventually they became somewhat incidental. The "Killer B's" were Biggio and Bagwell and whatever B-named sidekicks were rostered alongside them. Those sidekicks ranged in consequence from Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran (briefly) to Joe Boever and Brandon Backe (OK, they weren't "Killer B's" in any genuine sense, but this is no time for pedants). In 1999, the Astros, quite possibly in pursuit of arcane history, used eight players whose last names began with "B." The "B's" … they killed.

Anyhow, the occasion of Biggio's Hall of Fame case here at EOB also occasions this: a meandering discussion of these "Killer B's."

Which "Killer B's" version was the greatest? Well, in order to limit the discussion to the worthies, we'll say that it's Biggio plus Bagwell plus a third quality ballplayer. Basically, it comes down to Biggio-Bagwell-Bell vs. Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman. On the one hand, Berkman was a roundly better player than Bell. On the other hand, Berkman came along after Biggio and Bagwell had entered their decline phases. In order to keep score, we'll turn to Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR -- go here for an edifying description).

So, when it comes to total WAR amassed while the three "B's" in question were teammates, Biggio-Bagwell-Bell checks in with 75.1 WAR across five seasons (or 15.02 WAR per year), while Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman tallies 52.8 WAR over their five full seasons together (or 10.58 WAR per year). So Biggio-Bagwell-Bell it is, thanks almost totally to Biggio's and Bagwell's prime seasons (Bell contributed just 10.3 wins toward that trio's total WAR).

This finding, however, raises another urgent matter … How do these greatest of all "Killer B's" compare to other teammate trios who shared the first letter of their last names?

In the chart below, you'll find the "Killer B's" stacked up against the four other contenders for the august designation of "best three teammates to have their last names begin with the same letter." Once again, we'll use bWAR and bWAR/season as the basis for our comparisons. One qualifier: Each player must be of at least Derek Bell-ian quality. In other words, we're not going to include, say, Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris-Duke Maas because including the likes of Mr. Maas would open this process up to rank parasitism. And we can't have that.

Onward …

Teammate Trios, Same First Letter of Last Name (!)
Teammates Years, Team Total WAR WAR/season
Bagwell, Biggio, Bell 1995-1999, Astros 75.1 15.0
Jay Bell, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla 1989-1991, Pirates 43.5 14.5
Ty Cobb, Harry Coveleski, Sam Crawford 1914-1917, Tigers 56.6 14.2
Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey 1960-1972, Giants 202.6 15.6
Marty Marion, Terry Moore, Stan Musial 1941-1948, Cardinals* 79.6 11.9

(* Moore and Musial missed a total of four years to military service, so that has been reflected in their WAR/season column.)

As you can see, the "Killer B's" fare quite well, particularly from a "per annum" standpoint. However, no one's going to challenge the troika of Marichal-Mays-McCovey when it comes to total WAR, and they also come out on top in the yearly category.

In defense of the "Killer B's," though, note that "B" surnames are notably less common in the Western world than "M" surnames (evidence: Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2). So in some ways, it's more of an accomplishment for three "B's" to rise to heights comparable to those of the "M's," given the larger pool of eligibles on the "M" side. Perhaps you should think of the "Killer B's" as more impressive on a per-capita basis. Or not. Whatever.

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