Saturday, January 7, 2012
Fred McGriff on the Hall of Fame border
By David Schoenfield
I used to play my friend Dusty in a Pursue the Pennant simulation league, back when the game was still played with cards and dice. Our battles were famed for our Dennis Martinez-Nolan Ryan pitching duels, but Dusty also had Fred McGriff. He killed me. Considering I was stuck with fat, past-his-prime Kent Hrbek as my first baseman, I lusted to acquire McGriff. He was, after all, one of the premier hitters in the game -- although nobody seemed to give him much attention as such at the time, as he was kind of the quiet assassin plying his lumber north of the border.
Crime Dog has a pretty good Hall of Fame case, and it has nothing to do with his owning the last great nickname in baseball or even the Tom Emanski commercial. As Jim Caple once wrote, if McGriff ever makes the Hall of Fame, there should be no controversy over which cap he'll wear on his plaque -- he should just wear this one. He'd whip that bat through the zone, finishing the swing with a high-arcing flourish, his top hand coming off the bat, his bottom hand ending above his head. You always knew a Fred McGriff swing. It was a thing of unique, awkward beauty.
This will be McGriff's third year on the ballot and he hasn't done well so far -- 21.5 percent in 2010 and 17.9 percent last year. But check out his career numbers compared to the past three first basemen elected to Cooperstown:
Murray, with his long career and 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, soared in his first year. Cepeda was a Veterans Committee selection in 1999, which essentially forced the writers to finally vote in Perez the following year.
Let's look at two more numbers: career WAR and seasons in the top 10 of MVP voting.
McGriff: 50.5, six (best finish: fourth)
Murray: 66.7, eight (best finish: second two times)
Perez: 50.5, four (best finish: third)
Cepeda: 46.8, three (best finish: first)
So McGriff favors comparably with Perez and Cepeda, although to be fair, they are pretty soft as far as Hall of Famers go. On the other hand, Hall of Fame voters have been tough on first basemen -- only four Hall of Famers who played at least 50 percent of their career games at first base began their careers after 1936 -- Cepeda, Perez, Murray and Willie McCovey.
McGriff's career is a little tough to analyze, since he began in the reputed pre-steroids era and then played into the heart of the era of high-powered sluggers. So while his production remained fairly consistent, his value went down, in comparison to other first basemen. Here, let me show you. Here are his rankings in various categories among players who played at least 50 percent of their games at first base each season.
In 1989, a .924 OPS was good enough to lead the American League (and rank second behind Will Clark among first basemen). A .930 OPS in 2001 ranked only seventh. McGriff was one of the best first basemen in baseball from 1988 through 1994 -- a solid run of seven seasons. A mid-career dip and increase in offense around the majors lessened his value. By 2000, a first baseman who hit 27 home runs with an .826 OPS had little value at all; every team seemingly had a first baseman who could match that rate of production.
It doesn't help McGriff's case that he's not identified with one team. He did make four playoff appearances with the Braves (and one with the Blue Jays) and hit very well in the postseason -- .303/.385/.505 in 50 games -- but going from the Blue Jays to the Padres to the Braves to the Rays to the Cubs to the Dodgers seems to have sapped his legacy. Perez, for example, was a key component on the Big Red Machine. Having a label like that helps. For McGriff, his best seasons were performed in relative anonymity in Toronto and San Diego. His monster numbers from those early years don't look as impressive in comparison to the monster numbers of a decade later.
But they were. From 1988 to 1994, he ranked fourth, first, third, third, third, fifth and fifth in his league in OPS. How many Hall of Famers can claim a run like that?
In the end, however, McGriff remains borderline. The biggest problem is that there are three first baseman on the ballot who are better Hall of Fame candidates in Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. Obviously, there are complicating issues around those guys. Plus, there are first basemen such as Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark, who arguably had similar value to McGriff, albeit compiled in ways that didn't appeal to Hall voters (on-base percentage, defense).
For now, I say McGriff is just short. And that's not an easy assessment to make for a guy with 493 home runs and over 1,500 RBIs.