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The Fred McGriff Hall of Fame debate

Fred McGriff hit 493 home runs during his 19-year career. Robert Skeoch/MLB Photos/Getty Images

I know Hall of Fame week was last week, but writers are still writing about it and people are still debating about it. Take Fred McGriff, who has now been on the ballot seven years. He received 21.5 percent of the vote his first year, peaked at 23.9 percent in 2012, declined to 11.9 and 12.9 percent in the crowded ballot years of 2014 and 2015 and then climbed back up to 20.9 percent this year. With only three years left on the ballot, his chances of selection are slim, although I do think discussion around his candidacy is going to pick up.

One reason: Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and the MLB Network, one of the preeminent writers out there, has sort of taken up McGriff's case as one of his causes. Whenever a prominent writer like Verducci does this, it brings more attention -- and thus more votes -- to the player. One of his arguments is that McGriff, who is presumed clean from PEDs, is hurt by the big numbers others put up in the steroids era:

The dudes who cheated the game cheated guys like McGriff, whose numbers had once been good enough to win home run titles and establish him as an elite power hitter but suddenly looked puny. If you divide McGriff's home runs virtually in half—before and after steroid use exploded—you can see how the juiced sluggers who were pounding out 50 or more home runs made McGriff look like just another hitter:

Verducci then shows that from 1987 to 1993, McGriff ranked first in the majors with his 228 home runs; from 1994 to 2004 he hit 265 and ranked 26th.

Joe Posnanski, another preeminent writer but not a McGriff supporter, responded with this:

This chart was intended, I think, to make the point I was arguing with Brian Kenny about: That, in Tom's words, the steroid sluggers "made McGriff look like just another hitter."

Where to begin. OK, for one thing, Tom cheats on the ranges. The first range, 1987-93, is seven seasons. But the second range, 1994-2004, is 11 seasons. I have absolutely no idea why he does this unless he's trying to give the illusion that 265 homers in 11 seasons is somehow the equivalent of 228 homers in seven. There's some inconvenient math that seems to be avoided.

From 1987-93, McGriff averaged about 33 homers a year.

From 1994-2004, McGriff averaged about 24 homers a year.

Put that way: Would you expect someone averaging 24 homers a year to lead all of baseball or come especially close?

Joe goes on to point out that 1987 to 1993 was McGriff's prime -- he was 23 to 29 years old. Joe points out that other players who led the majors in home runs over a similar period of years includes Dale Murphy, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder -- none of whom are Hall of Famers.

Anyway, Verducci compared McGriff's batting line to Eddie Mathews, which didn't really make sense because Mathews was a third baseman and McGriff was a first baseman. Again, the point is that McGriff's numbers don't look as good only when compared to his presumably roided-up peers. He was one of the best hitters in the game and then he was just another slugger. In 1992, he led the National League and ranked third in the majors with 35 home runs. A few years later in 1999, he hit 32 home runs -- a total that tied for 38th in the majors. Heck, Jay Bell hit 38 home runs that year, John Jaha hit 35, Steve Finley and Fernando Tatis hit 34. Home runs were definitely cheap.

McGriff finished with 493 home runs, and the other assumption is that if he'd hit seven more he'd have a stronger case. That seems ridiculous, but it's not. Hall of Fame voters have historically loved milestones. Does Craig Biggio get elected with 2,986 hits instead of the 3,060 he finished his career with?

The other issue is that voters have had a difficult time sorting through the post-1950s first basemen. Only Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Tony Perez have been elected by the BBWAA (with Perez being one of its weakest selections), while the Veterans Committee selected Orlando Cepeda. Since 1958 (when Cepeda debuted), 16 first basemen have accumulated 50-plus WAR via Baseball-Reference. Here they are with other pertinent info:

1. Albert Pujols: 99.7 WAR, 560 HR, 1698 RBI, .312/.397/.581 (ACTIVE)
2. Jeff Bagwell: 79.6 WAR, 449 HR, 1529 RBI, .297/.408/.540 (ON BALLOT)
3. Rafael Palmeiro: 71.6 WAR, 569 HR, 1835 RBI, .288/.371/.515 (OUT)
4. Eddie Murray: 68.3 WAR, 504 HR, 1917 RBI, .287/.359/.476 (IN)
5. Wille McCovey: 64.4 WAR, 521 HR, 1555 RBI, .270/.374/.515 (IN)
6. Mark McGwire: 62.0 WAR, 583 HR, 1414 RBI, .263/.394/.588 (OUT)
7. Todd Helton: 61.2 WAR, 369 HR, 1406 RBI, .316/.414/.539 (NOT ELIGIBLE)
8. Keith Hernandez: 60.0 WAR, 162 HR, 1071 RBI, .296/.384/.436 (OUT)
9. John Olerud: 58.0 WAR, 255 HR, 1230 RBI, .295/.398/.465 (OUT)
10. Will Clark: 56.2 WAR, 284 HR, 1205 RBI, .303/.384/.497 (OUT)
11. Tony Perez: 53.9 WAR, 379 HR, 1652 RBI, .279/.341/.463 (IN)
12. Mark Teixeira: 52.4 WAR, 394 HR, 1254 RBI, .272/.364/.518 (ACTIVE)
13. Fred McGriff: 52.4 WAR, 493 HR, 1550 RBI, .284/.377/.509 (ON BALLOT)

14. Norm Cash: 52.0 WAR, 377 HR, 1104 RBI, .271/.374/.488 (OUT)
15. Jason Giambi: 50.4 WAR, 440 HR, 1441 RBI, .277/.399/.516 (NOT ELIGIBLE)
16. Orlando Cepeda: 50.3 WAR, 379 HR, 1365 RBI, .297/.350/.499 (IN)

Note: Frank Thomas played more games as a DH than a first baseman.

The better comparison for Verducci with McGriff wouldn't have been Mathews, but McCovey, who hit 521 home runs and won an MVP Award. He otherwise had similar career numbers to McGriff. McCovey made it on the first ballot. Of course, he played in a different era, when scoring was low. But that's sort of Verducci's argument, that you have to remove McGriff from his era and just appreciate his numbers.

It's an interesting list. Pujols will get in and Bagwell should get in next year, increasing the list to essentially one first baseman per decade: McCovey and Cepeda represent the 1960s, Perez the 1970s, Murray the 1980s, Bagwell the 1990s and Pujols the 2000s. That's standard Hall of Fame results: The best player at a position over a decade gets in.

The BBWAA rejected the cases of Palmeiro and McGwire due to PEDs. It quickly rejected the cases of Hernandez and Olerud, who lacked the power of the others players listed above but were superior fielders and posted high OBPs. Based on what's happened with Larry Walker, I'm guessing Helton doesn't have much of a chance.

Then there's Clark, a player who retired at 36 after hitting .319/.418/.546. Supposedly one reason he retired is he was fed up with all the PEDs in the game. Bill James touched on Clark a few years ago:

Is it fair to Will Clark to compare him to players who chose to cheat in order to move beyond that level? No, it is not. Absolutely, it is not. But the critical issue is, Is this cheating? If you choose to regard it as cheating, if you choose not to support the Hall of Fame candidacy of a steroid user because you regard it as cheating, I would not argue with you. I think that Will Clark has a perfect right to feel that he was cheated out of a fair chance to compete for honors in his time, and, if you choose to look at it from the standpoint of Will Clark, I don’t think that you are wrong to do so.

But at the same time, I do not believe that history will look at this issue from the standpoint of Will Clark. I don't see how it can. What it seems to me that the Will Clark defenders have not come to terms with is the breadth and depth of the PED problem, which began in the 1960s and expanded without resistance for almost 40 years, eventually involving generations of players. It seems to me that the Will Clark defenders are still looking at the issue as one of "some" players gaining an advantage by using Performance Enhancing Drugs. But it wasn't really an issue of some players gaining an advantage by the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs; it is an issue of many players using Performance Enhancing drugs in competition with one another. Nobody knows how many.

This is what's happened with McGriff: Voters have chosen not to look at the Hall of Fame from the perspective of Fred McGriff. If you do that, then you have to go through the roll call of every borderline candidate from the PED era and give them extra credit based on whether you believe they were clean.

I do believe McGriff was a better player than Tony Perez or Orlando Cepeda. I'm not sure he was better than Will Clark or even John Olerud. He won't get elected by the BBWAA, but a Veterans Committee down the road -- maybe Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are on it -- will elect McGriff.