Fred McGriff was reassigned to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' minor league camp yesterday. Is the Crime Dog's 18-year run in the majors over? If so, is he worthy of the Hall of Fame?
Before you dismiss his case, please reach back into your memory bank beyond the past ten years and think about the 40-year-old first baseman's accomplishments with the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, and his first full year with the Atlanta Braves. Prior to the ball and players getting more juiced up, Frederick Stanley McGriff was one of the very best hitters in all of baseball.
Don't believe me? Let's take a look.
First of all, did you realize that McGriff finished in the top ten in the MVP voting for six consecutive years (1989-1994)? If you don't think that is an impressive feat, consider that Barry Bonds has never--I repeat NEVER--placed in the top ten in the MVP balloting six straight years.
Speaking of streaks, is ranking among the top nine in the league in slugging average, on-base plus slugging (OPS), and adjusted OPS+ for seven years in a row (1988-1994) any good? Get this, McGriff was actually in the top five in OPS each of those years. Over the 1988-1994 period, McGriff ranked third in the majors in OPS and fourth in slugging.
Was McGriff just a slugger? No, far from it. He also ranked in the top four in on-base percentage for four consecutive years (1989-1992).
Ahh, a rate stat guy, ehh? Wrong again, doubters. McGriff finished among the top six in total bases every year from 1988-1994 except in 1991 when he finished 11th of all things, one total base behind Bonds. The lefthanded-hitting first baseman was also third in Runs Created Above Average during this period.
All right, so the guy could rake a bit way back when. But a seven-year stretch does not a career make, you say? I dunno. You be the judge:
ALL-TIME CAREER RANKINGS:
Hits 81st Walks 33rd Runs 86th Runs Batted In 34th Extra-Base Hits 30th Home Runs 21st Total Bases 38th Times on Base 47th
Yes, folks, Fred McGriff ranks among the top 100 in every one of those major hitting categories and in the top 50 in all but hits and runs scored.
Rafael Palmeiro shows up at the doorsteps of Cooperstown. "Oh, you got 500 HR?" ... (sound of the gatekeeper whistling) ... "Hey, Ernie, make room for one more." Fred McGriff shows up. "You don't have 500? Sorry, bud, this place ain't for you."
If the voters ever decide to limit Hall of Famers to those with 500 HR, then I sure as heck hope they hand me over the plaques for Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Willie Stargell, Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Ralph Kiner, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, and Hank Greenberg (not to mention a slew of hitters who were not known for their slugging prowess). Boy, these plaques would sure look good in my collection, let me tell ya.
I can hear the naysayers now. "Yes, McGriff hit 491 HR, but he played in an era when they were so plentiful they didn't mean as much." Well, I'm not so sure about that.
The following table ranks the players by the difference in their career home run totals and the league average.
CAREER HOME RUNS (1900-2003)
DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Babe Ruth 622 714 92 2 Hank Aaron 457 755 298 3 Barry Bonds 426 658 232 4 Mark McGwire 405 583 178 5 Jimmie Foxx 403 534 131 6 Willie Mays 389 660 271 7 Lou Gehrig 377 493 116 8 Ted Williams 376 521 145 9 Mel Ott 373 511 138 10 Mike Schmidt 367 548 181 11 Harmon Killebrew 361 573 212 12 Mickey Mantle 346 536 190 13 Frank Robinson 337 586 249 14 Willie McCovey 333 521 188 15 Reggie Jackson 327 563 236 16 Sammy Sosa 317 539 222 17 Willie Stargell 305 475 170 T18 Eddie Mathews 285 512 227 T18 Dave Kingman 285 442 157 20 Ken Griffey Jr. 280 481 201 21 Ernie Banks 266 512 246 22 Rafael Palmeiro 262 528 266 23 Jose Canseco 254 462 208 24 Johnny Mize 252 359 107 25 Fred McGriff 251 491 240 26 Ralph Kiner 247 369 122 27 Juan Gonzalez 241 429 188 28 Joe DiMaggio 240 361 121 29 Hank Greenberg 239 331 92 30 Stan Musial 234 475 241
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Let me say that I'm not wild about Dave Kingman, Jose Canseco, and Juan Gonzalez appearing on the above list either. But the other 26 players are either in the Hall of Fame or bound to get there shortly after retirement.
With respect to Kingman, Canseco, and Gonzalez, I don't think anyone believes that the former is in the same class as McGriff. Kingman hit home runs and did very little else. As far as Canseco and Gonzalez go, I admit there are some similarities among these three. However, McGriff's counting stats are better than Canseco's across the board, and he has superior career batting and on-base averages as well. Canseco only nudges him out in slugging average (.515 to .511). With respect to Gonzalez, he may or may not end up with comparable numbers. It all depends on whether he can rejuvenate and prolong his career.
Who else is comparable to McGriff? According to Similarity Scores, a concept introduced by Bill James in his book The Politics of Glory (p. 86-106), the following players can be described as "similar" or "essentially similar":
Willie McCovey (889) *
* - Signifies Hall of Famer
Of the ten comps above, five are already in the Hall of Fame. In addition, Jeff Bagwell should be a surefire HOFer and Palmeiro appears likely to gain enshrinement as well. As such, seven of McGriff's ten most similar batters have or will soon have plaques in Cooperstown.
How does McGriff compare to his fellow first basemen?
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE
RCAA 1 Lou Gehrig 1247 2 Jimmie Foxx 985 3 Frank Thomas 770 4 Johnny Mize 667 5 Mark McGwire 665 6 Jeff Bagwell 663 7 Willie McCovey 606 8 Rafael Palmeiro 562 9 Hank Greenberg 549 10 Jim Thome 528 11 Harmon Killebrew 516 12 Dick Allen 511 13 Eddie Murray 490 14 Fred McGriff 486 15 Will Clark 473 16 Jason Giambi 445 17 Bill Terry 425
Note: The above list excludes three players who played more games at first base than any other single position, yet I feel should be classified elsewhere--Musial (OF), Pete Rose (anything but 1B), and Rod Carew (2B). It also includes Frank Thomas and Jason Giambi, both of whom may be considered more as DHs when their careers are all said and done. However, in the cases of Thomas and Giambi, they will each have enjoyed their greatest seasons as first basemen.
Other than Dick Allen, all of the players above McGriff are either in the HOF or likely to gain admittance once they become eligible. Furthermore, there are several others--including recent inductees Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez--who fall well below McGriff's standing and yet have made their way to Cooperstown.
I'm not suggesting that McGriff belongs in the inner circle of the Hall, but I think he is certainly worthy of inclusion based on his accomplishments and rankings. No, he is not someone who jumps out at you and screams "Hall of Famer" like another contemporary by the name of Mark McGwire. By the same token, I don't think McGriff is the type of player who can be rejected flat out like so many others.
In the meantime, McGriff needs to come to grips with his more immediate future. He ceased being a productive player last year and is unlikely to find an employer willing to give him another shot as he enters the fifth decade of his life. McGriff no longer hits well enough to warrant a job as a 1B or DH. In fact, Fred's bat has slowed to such an extent that his slugging average in 2003 was a career low and the number of times he struck out was more than double his walk count for the first time ever.
The bottom line is that it's time for ol' Fred to hang 'em up. McGriff wasn't just a good player, he was a great player. Unfortunately, the operative word at the moment is the three-letter word "was", as in the past tense.
Five years from now, the Baseball Writers Association of America will decide whether he was a good player or a great one. Put me squarely in the camp of being skeptical as to whether these voters can see beyond McGriff's failure to reach 500 HR, if that ends up being the case. Remember, it's these same voters who have penalized Bert Blyleven for coming up short of the 300-win magic mark despite career totals that place him among the all-time best in strikeouts, shutouts, and several other more advanced metrics.
Perhaps Blyleven will have made it to the HOF by the time McGriff becomes eligible. If so, Bert's inclusion could go a long way toward helping tear down certain statistical barriers to entry. If Blyleven hasn't made it in by then, McGriff will undoubtedly have a difficult time overcoming those missing nine home runs. And that would be a crime, dog.