JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Fred McGriff
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
As outstanding a hitter as he was, Fred McGriff had a hard time standing out. Though he arrived in the major leagues the same year as Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and was the first player to lead each league in home runs since Deadball Era outfielder Sam Crawford*, he never reached the career accomplishments of either of those two men, finishing short of round-numbered milestones with “only” 493 home runs and 2,490 hits. The obvious explanation may be that he didn’t have any pharmaceutical help that others did. While that may be true, it was just one of many ways in which McGriff’s strong performance didn’t call as much attention to itself as it might have merited.
Which isn’t to say that McGriff went totally unnoticed during his heyday, but some of the things that garnered him attention were decidedly . . . square. Early in his major league career, he acquired the nickname “the Crime Dog” in reference to McGruff, an animated talking bloodhound from a public service announcement who urged kids to “take a bite out of crime” by staying in school and away from drugs. He appeared in the longest-running sports infomercial of all time, endorsing Tom Emanski’s Baseball Defensive Drills video, a staple of insomniac viewing amid SportsCenter segments on ESPN since 1991.
That those distinctions carry some amount of ironic cachet today is evidence that he might have been just too gosh-darn wholesome a star for an increasingly cynical age. On the other hand, I’ll wager that if you’re going to be remembered for pointing a finger, better it be in the service of a timeless baseball fundamentals video than accompanying sworn testimony in front of Congress.
|Avg HOF 1B||62.3||40.7||51.5|
A native of Tampa, Fla., McGriff grew up just four blocks from Al Lopez Field, the longtime spring home of the Reds, giving him plenty of access to baseball from a young age. He was a ninth-round pick by the Yankees out of high school in 1981, but like so many Yankee farmhands of the era, he never got to wear the pinstripes. Just 18 months after he was drafted, and less than two months after his 19th birthday, he was traded to the Blue Jays along with Dave Collins, Mike Morgan and cash for Dale Murray and Tom Dodd. He made slow progress through the minors, in part because he was blocked by the popular Willie Upshaw at first base in Toronto’s lineup.
McGriff debuted in the majors on May 17, 1986, though he only stuck around for a three-game cameo and didn’t crack the Toronto lineup until 1987. Serving as the lefty half of a DH platoon with Cecil Fielder, he hit .247/.376/.505 with 20 homers — the first of 15 times he would reach that plateau — in just 356 plate appearances. Alas, that was the year the Blue Jays lost their final seven games to fumble the AL East flag into the hands of the Tigers.
The next year, McGriff began a string of seven straight 30-homer seasons, showing amazing consistency with his output: 34, 36, 35, 31, 35, 37, 34. Those first three 30-homer seasons came with the Blue Jays; he led the AL in 1989 while hitting .269/.399/.525 in a season worth 6.2 WAR, and delivered a strong 17.2 WAR over the 1988-1990 period. Nonetheless, he found himself on an outbound flight as part of a star-studded December 1990 trade that sent him and Tony Fernandez to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. The move helped the Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, but McGriff missed out on those parties. Nonetheless, he picked up where he left off in San Diego, and in 1992, led the NL in homers with 35, making him the first modern player to lead each league (McGwire would become the second).
The Padres were a .500-ish team for McGriff’s first two seasons, but when owner Tom Werner ordered a salary purge in 1993, McGriff — the team’s highest-paid player at $4 million — was on the move again, traded to the defending NL champion Braves in July. Atlanta was 53-40, eight games behind the Giants in the NL West, when the deal went down but would go a remarkable 51-18 the rest of the way, winning the West before losing to the Phillies in the NLCS. Settling in as one of the cornerstones of a dynasty, McGriff hit .310/.392/.612 with 19 homers in 291 plate appearances with the Braves, and set a career high with 37 homers overall in 1993. He followed that up by hitting .318/.389/.623 with 34 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, his seventh straight top-five finish in the league in homers.
Following the strike, he was part of three straight division champions from 1995-97 and back-to-back pennant winners in the first two of those years, though his production took a significant dip, and with below-average defense at first base according to Total Zone, he was worth just 2.6 WAR in that span. Even so, he hit a pair of homers and slugged over .600 in each of those World Series; the Braves beat the Indians in 1995, but lost to the Yankees in 1996. Throughout his career, McGriff excelled in October, hitting .303/.385/.532 with 10 homers in 50 postseason games.
After a 1997 season in which he slumped to 22 homers, −7 fielding and 0.0 WAR, the 33-year-old Tampa native was traded to the expansion Devil Rays. He spent three and a half years with the awful team, enjoying a mini-renaissance in 1999 (34 homers, 3.7 WAR) but otherwise merely clocking time in front of sparse crowds while the likes of Bobby Witt and Ryan Rupe were torched. After some initial resistance via the exercise of his no-trade clause — he had two young kids at home, and was playing in his hometown — he was swapped to the Cubs in July 2001, and while he again hit well upon switching teams, he couldn’t spur them to the postseason. Following his 10th and final 30-homer season in 2002, he spent a year with the Dodgers and then another with the Devil Rays, hanging up his spikes when he couldn’t find a landing spot for the 2005 season.
McGriff finished his career with the same home run total as Lou Gehrig, but times had certainly changed. Not only did he fall just a bit short of 500, he played during an era where that mark’s cachet as an automatic qualifier for the Hall of Fame was obliterated, due not only to the rise of performance-enhancing drugs but also expansion into high-altitude venues (Arizona as well as Colorado) and changes in the ball itself. Through 1997, 15 players reached 500 homers, with nearly all of those players gaining entry to the Hall of Fame in short order; since the BBWAA returned to annual voting in 1966, only Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews needed more than one year to be elected. Since 1997, another 10 sluggers have joined the club, but thus far both McGwire and Palmeiro have failed to gain entry due to their connections to PEDs, and the same may hold true for Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield once the voters get through with them.
McGriff stands apart from all that, as a player who was never accused of any PED-related wrongdoing; indeed, he was notorious for his aversion to weight-lifting early in his career; in a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, Blue Jays teammate Lloyd Moseby noted, “You know that highlight reel that shows the Willie Mays catch and then switches to the fan, who grabs his head with his hands in amazement? Fred McGriff does that to you when he hits a home run. Taking nothing away from [Jose] Canseco and [Mark] McGwire, but everybody knows they lift weights. I wish I could get Freddie to lift weights. The only things he lifts are candy bars.”
Despite the lack of 500 homers, McGriff’s case for Cooperstown appears to have some merit; he scores 100 (“a good possibility”) on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor for his five All-Star appearances, two home run titles and postseason performances, and 48 (slightly below average) on James’ Hall of Fame Standards metric, which similarly credits him for career accomplishments relative to players already in the Hall. That said, he never won an MVP award, and had just one top-five finish in the voting, and didn’t add anything with his defense.
He’s in worse shape with regards to advanced metrics, a full 14 wins below the career WAR standard among first basemen and seven wins — one per year — below the peak standard. His JAWS falls 10.8 shy of the standard for first baseman, good enough for 28th on the all-time list, two notches below Hall of Famer Tony Perez (50.1/35.0/42.6, not to mention a prominent spot as part of the Reds’ dynasty) and two above Orlando Cepeda (46.1/32.2/39.2), but ahead of just three other enshrined first baseman.
As with Dale Murphy, it would make for a nice moral to the story if McGriff were to gain entry to Cooperstown while those connected to PEDs remained outside, but as it is, he just doesn’t quite have the numbers. It bears remembering that at least via JAWS, it’s not against the McGwires and Palmeiros he’s being measured, it’s the Perezes and Murrays, the Greenbergs, Foxxes and Gehrigs. It’s not enough, alas. The voters apparently feel the same way; in three years on the ballot, McGriff has gotten a high of just 23.9 percent support, less than one-third of what he needs for enshrinement.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that McGriff was the first player ever to lead both leagues in homers, but Crawford led the NL in 1901 and the AL in 1908.