Posted December 22, 2012

JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Fred McGriff

Fred McGriff, Hall of Fame, JAWS
Power and consistency were the two hallmarks of Fred McGriff's outstanding career. (AP)

Power and consistency were the two hallmarks of Fred McGriff’s outstanding career. (AP)

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.

Player  Career Peak JAWS HR  SB  AVG OBP  SLG  TAv
Fred McGriff 48.2 33.2 40.7 2460 2490 493 72 .284 .377 .509 .304
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.

14 comments
r p
r p

"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."

 

Ignorance is contagious.  What writers like Jaffe never understand is that numbers alone do not describe a Hall of Famer. McGriff is, these writers never will be.

 

From someone who knows a whole lot more about baseball than you Jaffe:

 

"Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination." - Vin Scully

mjhellund
mjhellund

If you really think McGriff belongs in the HOF, fire up the campaign for Wes Parker. And seriously, anybody that thinks steroids had anything to do with HRs is an idiot that probably believes in the GOPer line of putting more faith in demonic possessio than in climate change. And the next time you yahoos want to talk about the size of Barry's squash, tune in an NBA game and take a look at Magic.

kcsimons
kcsimons

Sam Crawford, not Fred McGriff, was the first player to lead both leagues in homers.

KB14
KB14

This article points out many points as to why McGriff is absolutely a Hall of Famer. Yet he gets it wrong in the end. By 1993, (the real start of the steroid boom), McGriff had already lead both the NL and the AL in HR's. From 1988-1996, he was third in total HR's, barely behind McGwire and Bonds. His postseason numbers are stellar, has a World Series ring, and led five teams to the playoffs. Jayson Stark of ESPN writes:

"McGriff also had that seven-year streak of 30-plus homers (1988-94), it equaled something only eight others had done: Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Ralph Kiner.

They’re all in Cooperstown.

It was 1993 when the steroid era really kicked in. So how come nobody seems to notice that, in the five seasons before that, McGriff won two home run titles, and was the only player in baseball who finished in the top four in his league in homers, home run ratio and OPS in all five seasons?

Over the decade that followed, McGriff’s numbers (290/.373/.506) looked remarkably similar to his numbers from 1988-92 (.283/.393/.531). And that’s as clear a sign he was clean as any voter could ask for. His problem was that pre-1993, those stats made him league-leader material — but afterward, they relegated him to being just another name on the lineup card. So … was that his fault? Really?

Consider this question very seriously before you dismiss him: How many players in history have appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot with as many home runs as McGriff, as many hits and that high an OPS and NOT gotten elected? That answer is none. Ever."

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

How is this guy NOT in the HOF? 30 home runs in TEN seasons, hit .300 during several of them, and damn near won the division by himself for the Braves in 1993. I don't get it, the guy was a stud. The ball seemed to just jump off his bat.

Nobody Asked Me
Nobody Asked Me

strangest swing follow through I ever saw - he would be looking straight down at his feet with his bat in right hand horizontally over the top of his head. Nice guy. No Hall of Fame. He was good, but not great. Don't think that Niekro, Sutton, Perez and others who had long careers, and were good not great belong in the Hall either. 

EdwardLHatemJr.
EdwardLHatemJr.

Arguments like this just kill me.  On the one hand we can't allow McGwire into the hall because of steroids and lying, but we also won't let McGriff in because he doesn't stand up to the steroid era numbers.  Look guys, can you just punish one group or the other?  Not everybody is going to be Ken Griffey Jr. and be PED free AND have amazing stats.  Especially since the PED guys tended to crowd out the non PED guys from many of the awards that you use as criteria for people's Hall of Fame bid.  Either let the PED crowd in or go back and revisit all the batting average, RBI, homerun, and MVP candidacies of the 80s and 90s so that people like McGriff aren't penalized for being just good in an era of genetic re-engineered greatness.

gcdangerfield
gcdangerfield

Funniest part of the SI article referenced from 1989 - "Nobody's comparing McGriff with the Babe, at least not yet. However, Toronto's lefthanded ace, Jimmy Key, has suggested that McGriff could hit 50 home runs this year. "He might," says Key. "I don't think he will, but he might. I don't know if anybody will ever hit 50 in a season again. Pitching's different—better, deeper. But Fred's a hitter, too." Indeed, at week's end McGriff was batting .315, with 17 RBIs and 14 walks."

thatmanstu
thatmanstu

They still play in Arizona and Denver,players are still bigger,faster,stronger than pre-80's,the ball may or may not be as hard as it was in McGriff's day,but it is harder than it was when Bob Gibson could put a wrinkle in the cover with his fingers.So where did all the HR's go? Why is power down and pitching and defense a part of the game again?   Why is it so damn hard for people to just admit that the from late 80's on the game was a comic book and it was due to steroids? Clearly 25 more feet on a fly ball does wonders for HR totals as well as a couple of extra hits per week.... apparently. Steroids didn't make mass groups of pitchers throw 120mph and win 30 games at historical levels(they may very well have extended a lot of pitching careers).The much whined about  greenies did not make the ball fly out of the park or make stolen bases explod,but they did grind down a lot of teeth.. All the equivocating apologists can whine all day about greenies and segregation and small parks and better players and pitchers using,but the fact is that HR's exploded during the steroids and the game suffered.And now it has stopped.

Josh_B_N
Josh_B_N

I know you mentioned it in Larry Walker's write up, but of all the players hurt the most by the 1994 strike I think Fred McGriff is that player.  He lost around 60 games between the 1994 strike and the shortened 1995 season which would have easily put him over 500 homers.  I know it's stupid, but if he had 500 instead of 493 I think people look at him more favorably.

mjhellund
mjhellund

 @EdwardLHatemJr. Bonds was better than everybody before alleged PEDs. He was better than everybody else post-PEDs Nobody has ever come remotely close to showing the effectiveness of PEDs for baseball. And the topical cream Bonds is alleged to have used? Yeah, right. And horse liniment works. Most of this is holier-than-thou, self-righteous BS with no roots in science nor reality. Before anybody ever heard of steroids, the cream, or the clear, Barry Bonds was the best ballplayer anybody had seen since Willie. Until somebody proves scientifically that steroids improve bat speed and hand-eye coordination or tht muscles are a key ingredient for HRs, I'm ignoring this nonsense. Far as Crime Dog is concerned, his major HOF problem is Atlanta Braves over-inflation by Skip Carey. I mean every single Brave was better than a counterpart on every single team they ever played. Now, Skip should be in the HOF. Most obnoxious homer ever.

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

 @thatmanstu greenies also have a massive effect on numbers going up, not from an "it helps you steal a base, or helps you hit a home run", general basis (like steroids, which directly help you hit the ball further, no matter what any moron says to the contrary), but on more so in that it allowed the players to have more "peak" at-bats/games played. In 162 game seasons, there is inevitably a few games in which the player simply mails it in, or takes the day because they are simply exhausted- both mentally and physically. The greenies bring the player up to the peak performance energy levels, allowing them to produce, even though the should be completely drained. I agree with your general premise: steroids entered the game and two things happened: A) Home runs went through the proverbially roof, and B) other parts of the game that were once valued became diminished (base running, defense, bunting for hits, well executed hit-an-run, and all the other beautiful facets of the game that do not involve bulking sluggers swinging for the fences), thus the overall game suffered greatly. But steroids are not going to wake you up if you flew into a city in the early morning hours, you get two-three hours of sleep, then have to play a 9 inning game, and gear up to hit a 95 mph fastballs.  Pop a few greenies however, and you can wake up and focus those steroid-fueled muscles to be at optimal performance for all 162 games.

mjhellund
mjhellund

 @BryanCustard  @thatmanstu So you know about some scientific proof that steroids produce longer fly balls? Most research suggests the opposite, that larger muscles from lifting diminish bat speed, the second most important physical aspect of HR hitting, after hand-eye coordination, which only a moron would think enhanced by using anabolic steroids.

MF1980
MF1980

 @mjhellund  @BryanCustard  @thatmanstu 

So it must be just a more skilled era than the one before.  And yes steroids do help with eye hand coordination!  They also improve focus.  More testosterone = More focus.  Also we are talking about the nineties.  By that time you could get steroids that would probably help you win a game of chess.  They had become much more specialized.  If you don't believe me about the effects of roids try to find the old SI article about the late  Ken Camanetti.  He was one of the first people to come out of the "steroid closet"  and he gives a very interesting and informative first hand account about the effects, benefits and problems with steroid use.

 

 

AND IF THAT'S NOT ENOUGH, ASK YOUR DOCTOR