Posted December 12, 2013

JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: Fred McGriff

Fred McGriff, Hall of Fame, JAWS
Fred McGriff

Fred McGriff finished his career with 493 home runs and was never connected to PEDs. (John Iacono/SI)

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year’s voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.

Despite being an outstanding hitter, 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 the Deadball Era, 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 — that he didn’t have the pharmaceutical help that others did — may be true, but 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 also 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, it’s better to be remembered for pointing a finger in the service of a timeless baseball fundamentals video than accompanying sworn testimony in front of Congress.

Player Career Peak JAWS H HR SB AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
Fred McGriff 52.6 36.0 44.3 2490 493 72 .284/.377/.509 134
Avg HOF 1B 65.7 42.3 54.0

A native of Tampa, Fla., McGriff grew up just four blocks from Al Lopez Field, the longtime spring home of the Reds, providing 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 — a move that ranks as one of the worst trades in franchise history.

McGriff made slow progress through the minors, in part because he was blocked by the popular Willie Upshaw at first base in Toronto’s lineup. He debuted in the majors on May 17, 1986, though he only stuck around for a three-game cameo and didn’t crack the Jays’ 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 in ’88 and he led the AL in ’89 while hitting .269/.399/.525 in a season worth 6.7 WAR. From 1988-90 he delivered a strong total of 18.1 WAR. 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 ’93, 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 player since Hall of Famer Sam Crawford (in 1901 and ’08) 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 ’93. 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. His production, however, took a significant dip, and with below-average defense at first base according to Total Zone, he was worth a total of just 3.3 WAR in those three seasons. Even so, he hit a pair of homers and slugged over .600 both the ’95 and ’96 World Series’; Atlanta won the former by beating the Indians but lost the latter to the Yankees. 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 0.2 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, 4.0 WAR) but otherwise merely clocking time in front of sparse crowds while his team was routed. 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 back 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 (Colorado and Arizona) and changes in the ball itself. Through 1997, 15 players reached 500 homers, with nearly all of them 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 McGwire, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds have failed to gain entry due to their connections to PEDs, and the same may hold true for Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez 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 he didn’t add anything with his defense.

He’s in worse shape when it comes to advanced metrics, where his subpar baserunning (-22 runs), defense (-34 runs) and propensity for hitting into double plays (-13 runs) back the notion that he was a fairly one-dimensional slugger. In all, he’s 13 wins below the career WAR standard among first basemen and 6.3 wins — nearly one per year — below the peak standard. His JAWS falls 9.7 shy of the standard for first baseman, good enough for 27th on the all-time list. That’s one notch below Hall of Famer Tony Perez (53.9/36.5/45.2, and a prominent part of the Reds’ dynasty) and three above Orlando Cepeda (50.1/34.4/42.3) but ahead of just three other enshrined first baseman.

While 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, as it is, he just doesn’t quite have the numbers. It bears remembering that at least via JAWS, McGriff isn’t being measured against McGwire and Palmeiro but against those already enshrined at his position, such as Gehrig, Perez, Eddie Murray, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx.

Alas, it’s not enough, and the voters apparently feel the same way. In four years on the ballot, McGriff’s highest share of support has been the 23.9 percent he got in 2012, less than one-third of what he needs for enshrinement, and he dropped to 20.7 percent last year as the ballot grew more crowded. He’s not going to gain any ground this year, and his best bet may be an overly generous Veterans Committee to be named later.

11 comments
Disbott3000
Disbott3000

Man, I love McGriff. He was a remarkably consistent hitter with the kind of character attributes that many HOF hopefuls cannot ever lay claim to. Having said that, he had a wonderful career, but I have to admit that his stats kind of put him on the fence, somewhere between really great player and Hall of Famer. I'm not saying he shouldn't get in, as there are certainly players already in who have less impressive numbers, just that he may have to wait for a year when there are not so many more obvious hall of famers on the ballot. I certainly hope that he makes it in one day though, 'cause he's the Crime Dog. The nickname alone should be worth 10%!

SoxArmy
SoxArmy

Something else I forgot to mention: not only were his stats being compared to players who were juicing, he was also facing pitchers who were juicing.

2001mark
2001mark

I grew up with McGriff my 1st fav baseball player, thus I do have some personal bias.


He'd always been a straight shooting genuine nice guy who played hard, & quietly finished top 5-10 in AL HRs, a heady feat imo.


I always want to stand up for his All Star appearances & lack of writers' votes awards like MVP.  We're talking about a quiet player, playing in Canada, at the logjammed of logjam positions- AL 1B.  Please have McGriff's accolades framed by those circumstances... he wasn't the face of baseball for anyone anywhere except Toronto in the summer, & even that is arguable because of how quiet he was lols.


I think Fred's glove, while obviously not statistically great, was solid.  He seemed to play 1B the way say a Mario Lemieux or Mats Sundin handled a hockey puck- their physicality/body makeup made what they were doing look a lot easier than it probably was.  Fred's long lean body was a sight for his HR swing, but appearing to play the bag with such leisurely gait I think is a deception. 


I would probably vote for Fred in another 2-3yrs, hoping to put him over the minimum bar to become a HOFer... but I also fully understand how this works & I'll never feel cheated if he's not induced.  He remains to this day one of the best people to play sports in the city of Toronto & needless to say I'm still a fan of the man from Tampa lols.



DanDeeley
DanDeeley

The Jays could have won the WS with McGriff instead of Carter had the deal been Fernandez for Alomar straight up. He was a legit power hitter and had MLB been clean, perhaps he has 3 or 4 HR titles and many more All-Star appearances (which he was screwed by poor voting and the need for every team to be represented). Add Exhibition Stadium & Turner Field being tough parks for HR hitters, he could have breezed to 500+ in better hitting parks. My vote is a yes for HOF.

jwillmaps
jwillmaps

McGriff is a classic borderline Hall of Famer, although if Tony Perez is in, I don't see how the Crime Dog gets left out.  On another note, classifying Phoenix as "high altitude" is preposterous.  Atlanta and Minnesota have been playing at roughly the same altitude (a paltry 1000' or so) for decades.

mikalrod
mikalrod

Sorry, Fred. You should have had numbers like Mazaroski! 

Callaway
Callaway

Fred deserves to be in the Hall hands down.  He was clean, a heck of a hitter, a great role model and a philanthropist.  He's a baseball lifer, as seen by his SiriusXM fantasy baseball show as well.  Its a shame that he's not going to get in because he didn't cheat.  What a terrible example to set. I'm biased as a Braves fan, but its sad that there's no room in Cooperstown for he and Dale Murphy, two great ballplayers who did it the right way.

matt37
matt37

The suspected/proven/admitted dopers can't get into the Hall of Fame.  Yet their skewed numbers seem to be the new standards for what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame.

Everyone involved with the sport is to blame for this debacle.

SoxArmy
SoxArmy

While true McGriff's JAWS numbers are only being compared to currently enshrined players, his overall JAWS numbers suffered because while he accumulated them the WAR standards were skewed by the likes of McGwire, Canseco, Palmeiro, etc..  From 1988-92 he was, generally, a 5-6 WAR player.  His numbers remained consistent throughout most of the 90s, but his oWAR absolutely plummeted thereafter.  Example:


1988-92: .280/.393/.531, 34 HR, 94 RBI, 157 OPS+


1993-98: .290/.369/.502, 28 HR, 96 RBI, 125 OPS+


From where I'm standing, particularly taking into account the 94-95 strike, the latter numbers are not so far off the former, yet results in a 32-point dip in OPS+ because the league average and, where JAWS would be concerned, the replacement level, both went WAY up.  Take those same numbers into the non-steroid '80s, and his oWAR probably skyrockets.  Yes, McGriff was a limited player, but he's also a fine example of how the steroid era keeps hurting the clean players.  At the very least, he should be a borderline candidate, not outright dismissed, given the uneven playing field during his prime years.

Disbott3000
Disbott3000

@mikalrod Mazeroski had that one, "No one will ever forget" home run going for him. Other than catching the pressbox on fire the day he reported to the Braves (I know he didn't start the fire, just kidding) McGriff had 100's of excellent moments, but none that every baseball fan in America knew about.

Disbott3000
Disbott3000

@Callaway Everyone knows Dale Murphy was a drug cheat. He drank Gatorade during every game, which gave him extra electrolytes. Actually, knowing him, he probably just drank purified water. Does that count?