Had a fun time conversation on MLB Now with Brian Kenny. I guess my pal Bill James was there too though he didn’t get in on the conversation until the very end … it was Brian and me. I like arguing with him. He’s smart and passionate, and we have some good bouts.
This time, he hit me with something a bit surprising. He made the argument that the steroid guys — by hitting SO many home runs — have hurt the Hall of Fame chances of Fred McGriff because now his 493 home runs don’t look nearly as impressive.
I guess I’ve heard this argument before, but I probably didn’t pay much attention to it because I felt a little caught off-guard. He wanted me to respond, and I had to think of something to say. Something about what he was saying struck me wrong. Is McGriff getting overlooked because we are no longer impressed by 493 career home runs? I suppose it’s possible, but at that moment, I felt the exact opposite was much more likely.
So, off the cuff, I said the exact opposite. I said that, rather than hurt guys like McGriff (and Jim Rice and Andre Dawson), the PED-infused home run numbers have HELPED those guys. Why? Because the voting constituency is desperately eager to find steroid-clean candidates they can feel good about. Jim Rice was a power hitter with 382 career home runs, and in 1999, he was getting less than 30 percent of the vote. Then, as the steroid story unfolded, Rice’s numbers rapidly rose until he was elected. Jim Rice was a hero that voters could believe in.
Fred McGriff, I said, is a favorite candidate of quite a few voters precisely BECAUSE he is presumed clean. Brian powerfully disagreed with me — even using the line I once used on Mad Dog Russo, “I disagree with everything you just said” — and I listened for a bit after my segment was up and heard Jon Heyman also disagree. Jon is a big McGriff guy. I get that. McGriff was a terrific player. And I certainly could be wrong.
But I will say after pondering: I think I’m right.
Fred McGriff has 52.4 career WAR according to Baseball Reference, which places him ninth among first basemen not in the Hall of Fame. Now, this list does include Mark McGwire, who admitted using PEDs, Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive, and Jeff Bagwell, who has had to shake the unsubstantiated whispers. So let’s not talk about them for a moment.
The list also includes Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, and John Olerud. All three of them have at least four more wins in their careers. I think you could make a non-sabermetric argument that all three were at least as good and arguably better players than McGriff. And yet none of them have done nearly as well in the Hall of Fame voting. Keith Hernandez stayed on the ballot for nine years but never broke 11 percent. Will Clark fell off the ballot after one year. John Olerud got four votes.
But there’s more. By WAR, Norm Cash had essentially the same career value as McGriff. He played in a dreadful hitting era, which dampened his numbers, but he was a fine player who had one legendary season and a few more very good ones. He got six votes his one year on the ballot.
What about Carlos Delgado? He hit about as many homers as McGriff (493 to 473) with a 40 more doubles, a higher on-base and slugging percentage and OPS+. He fell off the ballot after one year.
McGriff has been treated better than all that. There were a couple of years — when the ballot was overstuffed with candidates — that he fell a bit in the voting. Maybe that’s what Brian and Jon mean. But he has spent most of his time in the 20 to 24% range, which is just where he was this year. That’s not bad for a borderline Hall of Famer. It’s better than Dale Murphy did, better than Vada Pinson, better than Don Mattingly, better than Kenny Boyer, way better than Reggie Smith or Dwight Evans or Lou Whitaker or Bobby Grich or Jim Edmonds or Bobby Bonds or Graig Nettles or a whole bunch of other good baseball players.
Those are also, I might add, higher percentages than Rafael Palmeiro or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Gary Sheffield received, even though all of them have many more home runs. They are connected to steroids. He is not. That is the point. He’s getting support they did not get.
There is a sense among some that McGriff preceded the steroid era, that he is from a time gone by. His career began before, yes, but he played all the way through the era. He hit more than half of his career home runs from 1994 to 2004. I make this point not to connect him to the time but to point out what people seem unwilling to accept: The steroid era was CONDUCIVE TO HOME RUNS, even beyond the PEDs. The balls were jumpier, the bats were harder, the strike zone was smaller, the ballparks had shorter fences and some new ones were at altitude, the hitters got to wear armor. The game was wildly tilted toward the hitter then, and McGriff was able to take advantage of that. This isn’t to diminish McGriff’s home run total but to try and put it in context. He spent the bulk of his career in a prolific offensive era, for PED and non-PED users alike.
McGriff was a fantastic player, an absolute borderline Hall of Famer. But he is that: A borderline Hall of Famer. Brian and John want 493 homers to mean something again, and I get that. But I would argue that as a number, it means too much, not because steroid guys hit a bunch of homers but because the game was so angled toward the home run hitter.
Look: Frank Howard whacked 382 home runs in dead-end ballparks in the worst hitting era of the last 90 or so years. From 1967 to 1971 — the worst time for hitters — Frank Howard hit more homers than anybody, including Henry Aaron.
What does it mean? Baseball Reference has a little conversion chart that’s fun to use. Let’s convert Howard’s career numbers to, say, the run context in 1999 in Tampa Bay — when a 35-year old McGriff hit .310 with 32 home runs. Do you know how it comes out?
Suddenly Howard’s career slash line is: .318/.403/..579 with 477 career home runs. What do you know? That would have made him one of the greatest players in baseball history.
Frank Howard got six votes his one year on the ballot.
I don’t think Fred McGriff is getting overlooked at all.