Fisking the Crime Dog's candidacy

December, 1, 2009
12/01/09
4:54
PM ET
Yesterday in a post about the BBWAA's Hall of Fame ballot, I listed four candidates who aren't obvious (to me, anyway) ...

    There are four other candidates who give me pause: Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, and Dale Murphy.

    The first three of those were excellent, immensely strong hitters who offered little else of value. Which certainly does not disqualify them -- Lou Gehrig probably wasn't much of a fielder, and I would happily vote for Frank Thomas -- but I do think it's worth noting.

    --snip--

    Dale Murphy is a different sort of case. His time as an elite player lasted for only eight seasons, and he is generally considered to have too few great seasons for a Hall of Famer. But he did win two MVP Awards, he was one of baseball's five best players for about six years running, and he was a fine defensive player in center field. And about the playing time -- it feels like Murphy's career was short -- there are only six center fielders in the Hall of Fame who played more than Murphy (and many who did not).

    No, Dale Murphy was not Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. But that's never been the standard, and it's not fair to hold him to that standard now.
My excuse with these guys has essentially been that if I had an actual ballot I would take the time to decide ... but that's a pretty lousy excuse, right? It's December and the Winter Meetings aren't until next week; what else should I be doing right now? Plus, it'll be good practice for 2018, when I will have an actual ballot.

Anyway, let's start with McGriff, whose candidacy Jayson Stark addressed yesterday (lest I be unduly influenced, I won't read Jayson's post until I've finished writing my own).

First, I have to mention that the Hall of Fame is already loaded with first basemen. I'm sure I've run this list before, but here's the Hall by position:

C 13
1B 17
2B 16
SS 18
3B 10
OF 59

Well, maybe first basemen aren't over-represented; maybe catchers and third basemen are under-represented (and there are certainly too many outfielders). Still, I think it's fair to suggest that for all the prattling we do about defense and baserunning, it's generally the big hitters who get most of the attention, particularly when it comes to MVP awards and (broadly speaking) Hall of Fame honors. There have always been special rewards for players who drive in a lot of runs, and players who drive in a lot of runs tend to play first base or one of the outfield corners.

Here's the odd thing about McGriff, though: he did not drive in a huge number of runs. McGriff drove in more than 100 runs seven times ... but he never drove in more than 110 runs. He never led his league in RBI or finished second in his league in runs batted in. Here's something that actually surprises me: McGriff ranked among the top 10 in his league in RBI just five times.

Granted, driving home runners is just half of the thing. Someone has to score the runs, too. But while McGriff was pretty good at getting on base, he wasn't great at getting around the bases; he scored 100 runs in a season just twice.

McGriff was not painfully slow. He would steal the occasional base and hit the occasional triple. He was not an awful fielder. No, he never won a Gold Glove or gained a stellar reputation, but he was still playing first base well into his late 30s. Still, I think it's fair to say that a huge majority of his value came in one place: the batter's box.

Was McGriff ever the best hitter in his league? He might have been exactly that in 1989, when he led the American League in home runs, OPS and adjusted (for context) OPS. That's the only season in which McGriff came close to being the best hitter, though. There were a few other excellent seasons. Essentially, McGriff was a premier hitter for seven years: 1988-1994. Afterward -- in his 30s, essentially -- McGriff simply couldn't keep up.

Ah, but I'm ignoring the two-ton gorilla in the room, right? The reason the "Crime Dog" couldn't keep up with the rest of the pack is that the he wouldn't use the drugs. While others were juicing (and powering) up, McGriff went through 10 seasons without hitting more than 32 home runs in a season. Give McGriff the drugs other guys were using -- and we know that some drug users are in the Hall of Fame already, or will be soon -- and he clears 500 home runs by a lot, and this is a different discussion.

Or so the argument goes. I'm afraid that I'm not yet convinced. McGriff did benefit in the late 1980s and early '90s from an environment that helped power hitters, and yet he failed to dominate his leagues. We know that steroids became popular in the 1990s, but our knowledge of who used them and what they did remains far from perfect.

Our knowledge will always be imperfect. But I suspect that we'll know more in five years than we know now, and that we'll know more in 10 years than we know in five years. Often, we've little to learn about Hall of Fame candidates. Bert Blyleven's case is exactly as strong today as it was 10 years ago. But when it comes to the players of the last 20 years whose candidacies hinge on the use -- or in McGriff's case, the supposed non-use -- of illegal drugs, I think the wise course of action is to wait awhile longer and see what turns up.

The wise course for me, anyway. I suspect that Fred McGriff will still be on the ballot in 2018. I suspect that my position will have evolved by then.

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