Each January, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opens its doors to a new class. It is a time to honor baseball’s history by recognizing players who brought those moments to life throughout their storied careers. It is a time to celebrate the game.
Unfortunately, the case for some of baseball’s stars is seemingly lost in translation. The game continues to evolve, but our ability to appreciate the achievements of many men relative to their respective era still lags behind. That negatively affects players, fans and media members alike, though admittedly, not all are created equal.
One such player is Fred McGriff.
Initially, I sat down and thought about doing a piece that simply lays out McGriff’s case from a purely statistical standpoint. It would detail how he stacks up to the greats and why he is one of the more underrated and consistent sluggers of the modern game.
I will get to some fun with numbers before we part ways, but that is not the full story here. At least to me, there seem to be larger elements at play, working against McGriff and many other players from baseball’s recent history.
An unfortunate byproduct of the Hall of Fame’s quest to honor the game’s greatest players is the annual consternation for all involved that is produced by the voting process. You know, that largely subjective exercise that can exhaust and frustrate even those who deeply love and support the game, the players, the teams and even the Hall itself.
Granted, it is complicated. It is nuanced. But it is ultimately subjective.
For starters, there is the ballot construction issue that every voter faces. The arbitrary 10-player limit was put in place in 1936. That number can be rightfully debated and may have worked at the time, but today’s crowded ballot contains more than 10 worthy candidates on a seemingly annual basis.
And it's been that way for a while.
Though the backlog of candidates may unclog on its own over the next few years, some players found themselves unable to outdistance the field during the current 10-year window to gain election by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
McGriff was but one of those men.
It is not as though these players' statistics changed while they waited. Given that fact, why did it take years for some recent inductees like Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez to finally gain the necessary votes for election?
Again, it is complicated. Perhaps more than it should be.
Just look at what McGriff and others were competing with on the ballot over the last decade. It was a cavalcade of modern era All-Stars and standouts creating a deluge of statistics for voters to sift through. Not to mention, the all-time home run leader and several other sluggers remain embroiled in controversy, as is perhaps the greatest power pitcher since Nolan Ryan.
That made for some difficult choices and troubling optics for baseball purists.
The writers elected 24 men during McGriff's 10 years of eligibility. Over that time, his voting totals fell as low as 11.7 percent in 2014 before peaking at 39.8 percent in his final year on the ballot.
While voting for 10 players may seem like a big number and an actual 10-man class would certainly be shocking, that ballot restriction impacts the voters' capacity to simply judge the candidates on individual merits in a more simple "yes or no" fashion. Conversely, it can be argued that the limit creates some quality control through necessary debate in order to weigh the accomplishments of each player against both his contemporaries on the ballot and those already enshrined.
This is the part where we could bicker about "small Hall" and "big Hall" while all making salient and meaningful points for both. Let's pass on that. With just 1.2 percent of the major leaguers ever to play the game securing a spot in the Hall of Fame, I think that gatekeeping component will always be in place to some degree. It is not a bad thing, but the fact that twice as many members of the Hall of Fame began their careers prior to 1950 paints a fairly damning picture of how the current greats are judged against the backdrop of history.
We must recognize that the game has and will continue to evolve.
In no way, shape or form am I lobbying to elect every candidate with a moderately compelling case. The Hall of Fame is special. Contrary to the belief of some, it will not become watered down if 1o deserving players went in next year or any subsequent year. Of course, that hypothetical will not happen. Not every man appearing on the ballot has the credentials to earn a spot in Cooperstown. However, there is a contingent of deserving players falling through the cracks due to systemic voting flaws.
In essence, I'm merely saying that limiting the Hall's potential membership with the "rule of 10" has, at times, created several competing narratives. The so-called "strategic ballot" concept wars with the prestigious first ballot election honor and contributes to the ensuing handwringing over individual voting percentage. Others surmise that "if you have to think about it at all, then the player is obviously not a Hall of Famer."
Allow me to retort with one of my favorite quotes from General George S. Patton:
"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
It's exhausting and no wonder it took so long to get a unanimous selection.
Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history, received 100 percent of the 425 ballots cast in 2019 to earn that distinction. Despite his sterling résumé, there are some that bemoan the fact that a relief pitcher became the first member of the Hall to be unanimously elected. In truth, Rivera should not have been the first but rather the latest in a long line of players to garner 100 percent of the vote.
This is why we can't have nice things.
Let's get back to McGriff. With his 10 years on the writers' ballot elapsed, only 18 players currently enshrined in Cooperstown hit more career home runs than McGriff’s 493. That total is top 30 all-time, tied with Lou Gehrig for 28th most. The strike of 1994-1995 came during a career-year and likely cost McGriff roughly 67 games and his shot at the 500 home run club. If you're into such milestones, which most people are, he hit another 10 homers in the postseason. Add those to the 493 he belted in the regular season and you have a 503 career home runs.
That's a Hall of Fame number, but one that has been diluted over time.
Regardless, it is hard to imagine that McGriff would have struggled to gain the necessary support for election if he had the nice round number of 500 home runs on his résumé. That put aside the fact that simply having seven more home runs would not move him past a single player on the all-time home run list.
I don’t want to get lost in this next part of the debate, but there’s simply no way around it.
There are nine players not in the Hall of Fame with more home runs than McGriff: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Gary Sheffield.
Of those men, only Pujols has not faced founded allegations, been strongly linked to or actually been disciplined by Major League Baseball for use of performance enhancing drugs. However, he did have to defend his name when former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark accused Pujols of using PEDs on his since-canceled radio show in 2013. That matter was settled out of court.
All of that aside, the steroid era forever changed the way home runs are perceived. That ultimately does a disservice to a player like McGriff, whose home run exploits would be celebrated in virtually any other time in the sport’s history.
A few years ago, Ken Rosenthal wrote an outstanding piece that explained why he decided to vote for the likes of Bonds, Roger Clemens and other suspected PED users on the ballot. That article provided keen insight into what many, if not most, writers are facing internally when it comes to public outcry for moralizing and policing the sport in hindsight.
For thoughtful, respectful, dedicated scribes like Rosenthal, it is a lose-lose proposition that has become an unfortunate reality in the voting landscape.
Now for some statistics, because it is not like McGriff's candidacy is leaning solely on home runs.
His .509 slugging percentage is 84th best in baseball history (minimum 3,000 plate appearances according to Baseball Reference) and on par with the likes of Hall members Willie McCovey (.514), Eddie Mathews (.509) and Harmon Killebrew (.508). Only 36 players currently in Cooperstown own a higher slugging percentage, 10 of which are listed as primary first basemen. Overall, McGriff ranks 26th all-time in slugging percentage among first basemen with at least 5,000 plate appearances according to FanGraphs.
McGriff's 134 OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentage normalized for league and ballpark in which a player played) is identical to Al Kaline and better than Dave Winfield, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Rickey Henderson, Johnny Bench. Kirby Puckett, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks to name a few Hall of Famers (minimum 3,000 plate appearances according to Baseball Reference).
McGriff's traditional OPS of .886 would rank 43rd among Hall of Famers, just behind McCovey (.889), just in front of Mathews (.885) and Killebrew (.884) and well ahead of Reggie Jackson (.846), Murray (.836) and Banks (.83o), all members of the 500 home run club.
Would you believe that McGriff's .377 on-base percentage is higher than Hank Aaron (.374), Paul Molitor (.369), George Brett (.369), Craig Biggio (.363), Murray (.359), Clemente (.359), Winfield (.353), Lou Brock (.343), Robin Yount (.342) and Cal Ripken Jr. (.340), all members of the 3,000 hit club?
Well, it is.
Additionally, only 35 players enshrined in Cooperstown drove in more runs than McGriff's 1,550 and just 28 current Hall of Famers topped McGriff's walk total of 1,305. Put it all together and you get the makings of a pretty sound Hall of Fame case.
The notable detraction for McGriff is his career 52.6 bWAR (Baseball Reference's version wins above replacement). That total is negatively impacted by the defensive component and falls below the average batting Hall of Famer (69,0). It would rank 112th among the 175 hitters currently enshrined. Some of his notable Cooperstown contemporaries around that WAR mark would be Stargell (57.5), Tony Perez (54.0), Puckett (51.1), Orlando Cepeda (50.2), Ralph Kiner (49.4) and Brock (45.3).
Did that collection of stats or any other make McGriff the greatest player on the ballot in any of his 10 years of eligibility?
Do those same stats make McGriff the greatest first baseman of all-time?
Do those stats make McGriff worthy of election to the Hall of Fame?
They absolutely do.
So, where does all of this leave McGriff?
Well, if recent events are any indication, the answer could be found in the revamped Veterans Committee. Rebranded and split into Eras Committees, the hope is that these groups will be able to better evaluate candidates from various times in the game's history that were passed over by the baseball writers or simply never got due consideration. The Modern Era Committee's somewhat puzzling election of long-time designated hitter Harold Baines surprised the baseball world and could bode well for other candidates on the bubble.
Though I do not expect Baines' good fortune to turn the tide or open the floodgates, it should benefit McGriff and several other overlooked stars of the 70s, 80s and 90s who were the victims of the steroid era, crowded ballot, voter negligence and a variety of other factors.
The irony is that falling off the writers' ballot may be the best thing to happen to McGriff's Hall of Fame chances. He should receive the call to the Hall sooner than later once the Modern Era Committee has the opportunity to consider his case.
It will still be the greatest honor bestowed on a truly deserving player.
Even if McGriff waited longer than expected.
Editor's note: This article was not subject to the approval of Tom Emanski, coach of back-to-back-to-back AAU national youth championships, with whom McGriff will be forever linked.