No. 51: Ken Griffey Jr.

There are probably a dozen or so players in baseball history who, when they turned 30, had at least a passable argument of someday being in the discussion for greatest ever. Ken Griffey Jr. was one of these players.

Everything about Junior was set up for baseball immortality. He was born in Donora, Pa. — same town as another wonderful left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder named Stan Musial. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Griffey was born on Nov. 21 — which so happened to be the same day as Musial. He was named for his father, a superb player who played in three All-Star Games and hit second for the Big Red Machine, perhaps the best team ever put together. He went to Moeller High School, which not only has one of the great football high school football traditions in America* but is also the baseball school of Barry Larkin and Buddy Bell (and John Boehner).

*One of the oddest sports stories of my lifetime is hardly ever talked about: For 18 years, Gerry Faust was the high school football coach at Moeller and his record there was one of those insane things: His teams went 174-17, won five state championships, four times were named national champion and so on. And in 1980, he was hired to be coach at Notre Dame. Notre Dame. Right from high school. Could you imagine what would happen now if Notre Dame or one of the other big football schools hired a HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH to take over their team? Twitter wouldn’t just explode, it would set off like a Big Bang creating a new social media universe.

In the supermarket parking lot next to where I lived in Cincinnati, there was an X cut into the concrete. This, I was told, was where one of Ken Griffey’s home runs landed. He was that kind of legend. He was just 17 when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 1987 draft. He promptly went to low-A ball where he hit .313 with 14 homers in 54 games. The next year he hit .325 and slugging .557 in Class A and Class AA. The next year, at age 19, he was the starting center fielder for the Seattle Mariners.

Junior was an interesting young player. Unlike his father, he was not that fast. He looked fast because he was so wonderfully graceful — has any young player had such a perfect looking swing? — and because he played center field and because he had that Griffey name. Ken Griffey Sr. had been a slashing player — he almost won a batting title his second full season — and he is convinced that if the Reds had let him go he could have led the league in stolen bases.

But Junior was a different player from his father right from the start. He never did steal 25 bases in a season. He was bigger, stronger, slower, had a much better arm and an innate and glorious ability to pull the ball. Was there anything in sports quite as awe-inspiring as watching the young Griffey pull a home run? He hit more home runs as a 19-year old (16) than his father hit in his first four seasons. He hit 22 home runs each of the next two seasons and then 27 homers. Then he hit 45. As a 24-year-old, he was more or less Roger Maris’ 1961 pace when the season ended for the strike.*

*On what turned out to be the last game of the 1994 season, Griffey hit his 40th homer. Through 111 games in 1961, Maris hit 41 home runs. Could Griffey have hit 61? Maybe. People forget that the Mariners were on a TWENTY-GAME road trip when the strike happened. Yeah, 20 games. They had been forced on the road because some heavy tiles had fallen from the roof of the Kingdome. So Griffey was challenging the record even though he couldn’t get home to his home-run friendly ballpark. He OWNED the Kingdome — in 44 games there in 1994 he hit 18 home runs and slugged .771.

**One other fun part of the long road trip — because of the Kingdome problems, the Mariners played what were considered “home games” at Fenway Park. The first one was rained out — this is the only home rainout in Mariners history.

Junior was such a joy to watch play baseball as young player. He had this youthful exuberance, he exuded joy (he wore his hat backward, which drove the get-off-my-lawn grumps insane but was for people of his generation just about the coolest look ever), and there was that singular grace he played with — the way he ran after fly balls, the way he moved on the bases, the way he would turn on even the best fastballs, all of it just seemed impossibly lovely. That’s the word that comes to mind. Lovely. They used to say that Fred Astaire just standing against a building looked like a dancer. Junior standing outside waiting for the team bus looked like a ballplayer.

Such athletic beauty comes with benefits and pitfalls. Junior won 10 straight Gold Gloves in center field … he was not always that good an outfielder (as evidenced, in part, by the fact he never won another one after he turned 29). He was widely viewed as the best player in baseball, even though he was not — the young Bonds always got on base more and ran the bases better and stole more bases and was probably a better outfielder too

On the other hand, he couldn’t win an MVP for years — he somehow lost the MVP to Frank Thomas in 1993 though it’s difficult to see quite how that happened (not only did he not win the MVP, he finished FIFTH). Griffey hit more home runs than Thomas, scored more runs, gave up just eight points of OPS, was obviously a better base runner and was a Gold Glove center fielder while Thomas was a liability at first base. The difference in Wins Above Replacement (Griffey league-leading 8.8, Thomas 6.2) was not close.

Griffey was one of numerous more qualified players who somehow lost the MVP award to Juan Gonzalez in 1996 (Griffey finished fourth), though he hit more homers than Gonzalez, had about as many RBIs, had 25 points in OBP and won a Gold Glove in center field while Juan Gone was such a liability in right that the Rangers played him at DH 32 games. The difference in Wins Above Replacement (Griffey league-leading 9.6, Juan Gone 3.8) was a joke.

Basically Griffey had to hit 56 home runs, lead the league in runs, RBIs and slugging, plus win a Gold Glove in center field to finally win his award, which he did in 1997. The next year, he hit 56 homers again, won another Gold Glove, drove in 146 RBIs … and the voters felt it was important to give Juan Gonzalez his second MVP instead.

When Griffey turned 30, he had 398 home runs — 50 more than Hank Aaron had at the same age. He had 1,742 hits — 200 more than Pete Rose had at the same age. He had more runs scored than Rickey Henderson at age 30, more RBIs than Hank Aaron at age 30, had more WAR than Willie Mays at age 30 to go along with 10 Gold Glove Awards. He had been voted to start in eight All-Star Games, and he was the face of baseball before such things were decided with online voting. With a second half as good as his first, Ken Griffey had a chance to be the all-time home run champ, the all-time RBI champ and very much in the argument for greatest player ever.

And, basically, it ended right then.

Ken Griffey’s career didn’t end, of course. He played more than 1,100 more baseball games, pumped his career home run total to 600-plus, made three more All-Star Teams,won a Comeback Player of the Year award and so on. But he pressed for a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds in three months after he turned 30 and he hit 40 home runs in his first year back home. And he was never again a great player. Injuries mounted. Years slowed him down. His unparalleled baseball grace bloated and limped and gained weight.

After 30, Griffey hit .262/.355/.493 with 232 home runs — good numbers for a 30-something mortal, but the flight for greatest ever is in light and rarified air. Griffey, like Jimmie Foxx, like Alex Rodriguez, like Cal Ripken, like Carl Yastrzemski, perhaps like Albert Pujols (all glorious players) could not stay in that air long enough. It always struck me as kind of sad that there was a generation of kids who saw only THAT older Ken Griffey play and always associated him with those years rather than the 10 years when Griffey was young and brilliant and as thrilling a player as has ever been.

Late in Griffey career, there was a report that his manager couldn’t use him as a pinch hitter because he was napping in the clubhouse. There was never any real clarity about the report but less than a month later, Griffey retired in the middle of a road trip. You got the sense baseball had lost its joy for him some time before; his infectious smiled had grown wary. It seemed a sad ending, but you know what? A great baseball career will always end in sadness. Sometimes, the sadness comes from saying good bye. Sometimes the sadness comes from a career cut short. Sometimes the sadness grows out of the dismay of seeing a player who once soared just plugging along with rapidly fading skills.

Always, the sadness is about passing years. The great careers always end too soon.

174 thoughts on “No. 51: Ken Griffey Jr.

  1. bobdd

    In the discussion for greatest ever? I sure do not remember it that way at all. He was good enough to get compared to Willie Mays, but that was as far as it ever went that I recall – and that was quite an accomplishment, but not seriously greatest ever.

    Reply
    1. bobdd

      I want to clarify that – when I said compared to Mays I meant but with a lot of ifs added on that the comparison could someday become legit if this and if that, but it never came off.

      Reply
    2. Andrew W.

      I remember Griffey seriously being discussed as making a run at the “top-10 players ever group.” He was voted to the All-Century team before he turned 30, Hank Aaron was predicting that he’d eclipse his home run mark, and the comparisons to Willie Mays were endless.

      Reply
      1. Geoff

        Even at the time, Griffey’s selection to the All-Century Team seemed like kind of a joke, almost like something Bud Selig would insist on. The fact that Griffey and Nolan Ryan made the list, while Bonds and Seaver didn’t was an embarrassment.

        Reply
        1. Andrew W.

          I didn’t necessarily say the selection was deserved, but I think it shows there was definitely a conversation going on about where Griffey would end up amongst the all-time greats.

          Reply
        2. Andrew W.

          I also would probably have dropped McGwire before Griffey. McGwire wouldn’t have even sniffed the team if not his 98 season still being extremely fresh on the mind.

          Reply
          1. Geoff

            Yeah, I didn’t really give it much thought, but you’re right. Jackie Robinson is kind of a ridiculous pick, too, if your goal is to pick the best players. Foxx was a no-brainer as the second 1B.

        3. DM

          I’m of two minds regarding Jackie Robinson’s selection. Unless I overlooked someone, there were only 2 second basemen selected (Hornsby and Robinson). I would tend to take Collins and Morgan over Robinson for their careers.

          However, it’s interesting to note that when you compare other second basemen over a comparable slice of their careers (that is, taking age 28-37 seasons, which is all that we have of Robinson at the major league level), they’re all pretty comparable.

          Using fWAR, you get this:

          Rogers Hornsby 65.2
          Nap Lajoie 65.0
          Joe Morgan 63.5
          Charlie Gehringer 58.5
          Jackie Robinson 57.2
          Eddie Collins 56.0

          Using bWAR:
          Nap Lajoie 69.4
          Joe Morgan 63.4
          Rogers Hornsby 62.8
          Jackie Robinson 61.6
          Charlie Gehringer 58.6
          Eddie Collins 57.5

          Obviously, we’re missing what Robinson may have done prior to age 28 due to circumstances beyond his control. However, based on the time that he was able to perform in the Majors, I think he stacks up pretty well. Again, not saying that, if you’re only going to pick 2, that he should be one of them….but I think he’s in the discussion.

          Reply
      2. Simon

        I remember this too.

        I grew up with the young and healthy Griffey on the field. It’s amazing that a career with 600+ home runs and all the accolades can be seen as a bit of a disappointment, but that is how it feels to me. It feels like all of his injuries and missed time robbed him and all of us of the chance to see him get into that top 10 or top 20.

        Once he turned 31, he was able to get only 7.6 more rWAR, with almost half of that coming in his age 35 season. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see another 20 or 30 WAR during that time. There are 162 hitters with 20+ WAR after age 30, and 65 with 30+ WAR.

        But, that’s how it goes.

        The top 10 of the 31 and over rWAR leaders are 9 of the top 11 in career rWAR:

        Rank / Player / Age 31+ rWAR (total, rank)
        1. Barry Bonds 88.9 (162.5, 2nd)
        2. Honus Wagner 83.2 (130.6, 7th)
        3. Babe Ruth 82.7 (163.2, 1st)
        4. Willie Mays 79.2 (156.1, 3rd)
        5. Hank Aaron 62.3 (142.4, 5th)
        6. Tris Speaker 56.6 (133.9, 6th)
        7. Nap Lajoie 56.4 (107.2, 17th)
        8. Stan Musial 54.2 (128.1, 8th)
        9. Ty Cobb 53.5 (151.1, 4th)
        10. Ted Williams 50.5* (123.2, 11th)

        *Another 0.9 rWAR puts Williams into 10th; another 3.9 into 9th. He missed most of 5 seasons fighting in wars. So it’s not the worst to say basically 9 of the top 10 are the top 9, plus Nap Lajoie.

        I see at least two effects at play:
        1. You have to be a truly great ballplayer to begin with in order to be a great OLD ballplayer.
        and/or
        2. In order to be VIEWED as one of the all time greats (by both statheads and otherwise), you have to be productive well into your 30s.

        Here are the top 10 of the up-to-age-30 rWAR:

        1. Ty Cobb 97.7 (151.1, 4th)
        2. Rogers Hornsby 90.3 (127.0, 9th)
        3. Mickey Mantle 90.2 (109.7, 15th)
        4. Alex Rodriguez 85.0 (115.7, 12th) – probably complete
        5. Albert Pujols 81.0 (93.0, 27th) – incomplete!
        6. Babe Ruth 80.6 (163.2, 1st)
        7. Mel Ott 80.2 (107.9, 16th)
        8. Hank Aaron 80.0 (142.4, 5th)
        9. Jimmie Foxx 79.7 (96.5, 21st)
        10. Tris Speaker 77.4 (133.9, 6th)

        13. Ken Griffey 76.1 (83.6, 34th)

        35. Miguel Cabrera 54.7 (0.0 – 2014 is his age 31 season)

        494. Mike Trout 20.8

        This list is not bad – if any of these players stopped playing after their age 30 season they would have no-doubt hall of famers. Tris Speaker’s 10th place 77.4 rWAR would put him 42nd on the all-time leaderboard, just ahead of Robin Yount.

        I suppose my point is that in order to ascend into the pantheon of baseball:
        1) yes, you have to be great
        2) but, you have to also be great when you’re old
        3) and, you have to stay healthy (and sober?)

        What you do in your 20s certainly matters, but if you don’t stay great?

        Reply
    3. DevilsAdvocate

      If you’re good enough to get compared to Willie Mays, by definition you’re in the conversation for greatest ever.

      Reply
          1. bobdd

            I like it when you argue against my good arguments, but it smarts when my bad arguments get demolished. You better give me the benefit of the 10-run rule next time I flail like that.

        1. DM

          The interesting thing about Andruw Jones was his ability to combine power and outstanding defense at an up-the-middle position. No, he didn’t turn out to be Mays…..he fell well short of that standard.

          In some ways, the story on Jones started out somewhat like Griffey because we became aware of him at a very early age (hitting 3 HR’s in his first WS at age 19), and he got a lot of attention early on as a tremendous prospect as he was coming up through the system, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that his offensive strength was basically his power, as he was mostly a .260 avg. / .340 OBP -type hitter. There was some hope early on that he could be an outstanding base stealer too, but that skill basically disintegrated by the time he was 24. So, his offensive game was pretty one-dimensional.

          But, how many other 400-HR hitters were also outstanding (emphasis on “outstanding”) defensive players? And, by outstanding, I really mean that the evidence (both reputation and statistical) tends to agree. Really, there are very few. Mays, Schmidt, Yaz, and Ripken come to mind. Kaline had 399 HR’s, so I’d include him as well. Barry Bonds? Guess you’d have to include him too based on his early defensive resume. A-Rod? I don’t think he stacks up as a truly great consensus defensive player. If you loosen the HR standard a little, we would also include players like Nettles, Bench and Dwight Evans that came up just short of 400. Maybe you even cut DiMaggio some slack given the years missed due to the war.

          But, really, other than Andruw, only Mays and Ripken (include Bench too, as he just came up short of 400 HR’s) have been able to achieve the dual status of 400 HR’s and outstanding up-the-middle defense. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to put him in the HOF, and I’m not arguing that he’s an all-time great. I do think it’s a fairly unique and interesting combination of accomplishments, though.

          Reply
          1. :-)

            Great point. We don’t tend to celebrate all-around players or those who excel at multiple things and also tend to discount defense when it comes to HOF. I had not thought of it like that before, but you make a strong argument for Andruw for HOF.

          2. DM

            Hi Mr. Sideways Smiley Face,

            Thanks for the reply. My goal there was not to make a HOF argument for Andruw Jones, but just to mention that his combination of accomplishments in those two specific areas (power and stellar defense at an up-the-middle position) at that level is pretty rare. I’m really not pushing him for the Hall of Fame. I think he deserves consideration, and there’s a case for him, but ultimately I wouldn’t endorse his candidacy. If he had been able to better utilize his speed on offense, if he had been able to develop the ability to get on base a little more often, I might feel differently. But the power was pretty much his sole strength on offense. Now, to some, if you’re the best defensive player ever at a key position (which I’m not saying he is….but you know some people do consider him that) and you can make a decent offensive contribution, that’s enough for them. In my opinion, he’s got a reasonable case, but I personally would have him well down my list for the HOF. I wouldn’t vote for him.

          3. largebill

            Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame case is seriously hurt by his best years being a distant memory by time he’ll reach the ballot. The second half of his career, which help his counting stats a little, just scream scrub. The second half obscures how great he was his first decade in the game.

          4. matt.

            so griffey doesn’t count as one of those guys when he had 600 HR , and 10 straight gold gloves.

  2. Geoff

    Okay, everyone…now’s the time! If you’re interested in entering the Poz 100 (well, technically Poz 50) prediction contest, please send an email to poz100contest AT gmail DOT com. I will send everyone a spreadsheet to fill in with their respective pics, and try to send out periodic updates (or just post them in the comments). You have until Joe posts #50 to submit your picks, so Joe, if you’re reading this, maybe give us til the end of the weekend!

    Here are the rules:

    *Everyone starts with 1000 points.
    *For each spot in the rankings that a pick is off, you lose one point. E.g., if you have Al Kaline #50, and Joe ranks him #42, you would lose eight points for that pick.
    *Picking someone who isn’t on Joe’s list is a 25-point deduction

    If you have any questions, just post them here. Otherwise, send a quick note to the email above and I’ll add you to the distribution list.

    Thanks, everyone…looking forward to seeing how this goes!

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      We’re currently up to 21 entries…let me know if you want to participate!

      Planning to send out the template at 5pm EST, but if you email me after I’ll send it to you individually.

      Thanks!

      Reply
        1. Geoff

          Correct…you don’t get penalized twice. Including someone that Joe didn’t means, by definition, that you’ve missed someone on Joe’s list.

          Also, the calculations on this thing are fairly complicated (I still need to figure it out), but if I can I’ll try to include a multiplier to make the higher rankings more important, which someone suggested when I first brought this up). Here’s what I’m thinking:

          31-50 (no multiplier)
          11-30 (2x)
          1-10 (3x)

          This means that if Joe has Mantle 8th and you pick him 11th, you would lose (11-8)*3=9 points.

          What do people think?

          Reply
          1. bobdd

            I do not care for the multiplier because having such a increased difference between 10 and 11 being switched than over 11 and 12 or 31 and 32 seems an artificial penalty as if certain numbers/rankings are extra magical. I do not want being wrong on number 10 being penalized 50% more than being wrong on number 11. Also, there are too many players than could legitimately go in a range of half a dozen places. Seems to me that normal points are enough.

            Of course, if I am the only one to get the first six in perfect order I do reserve the right to brag all out of proportion for several days.

            Oh, and I am predicting right now that the name with the greatest spread of high and low predictions is Satchel Paige.

            And if Joe makes a tie so he can get in 51 players, I predict that tie would be Clemente/Kaline.

          2. Which hunt?

            Kaline! Crap! the article Joe did on his passing wasn’t part of this series. That’s one I missed.

  3. George

    Thanks for setting this up, Geoff. Should be fun. I’m curious if you can send us the workbook with everyone’s list once it’s ready? Really interested to see where a handful of players wind up on everyone’s list.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      Yep…I’ll send out the workbook with everyone’s picks. I’m interested to see how other people play with the data.

      Reply
  4. Logan

    As a kid growing up in Kansas City, I had two posters hanging right above my bed. One was George Brett. The other was Ken Griffey, Jr. For kids of a certain generation, he was definitely the athlete you looked up to.

    Also, I spent countless hours playing Ken Griffey, Jr. Baseball on the Super Nintendo. I even played the season mode where you played all 162 9-inning games, which took forever. But that was an awesome game.

    Reply
  5. David Gardner

    I remember well the surprise when Gerry Faust was hired to be head coach at Notre Dame directly from high school. Sadly, his record at ND pretty much guarantees that a high school to Div 1 hire will NEVER be tried again.

    Reply
  6. George

    Brett vs Griffey is a helluva comparison. Basically dead even in games played, OPS+ and wRC+. Brett has a little higher career WAR, Griffey a little better peak. From what I’ve gathered of Joe’s methodology, I think Brett’s coming up real soon on this list.

    Reply
  7. Carl

    Joe,

    You know why Griffey came in 5th in the 1993 MVP voting. The Mariners came in 4th. The White Sox came in 1st, as did the Blue Jays, who had Olerud (who led the league in OBP and OPS) & Molitor, both of whom finished ahead of Junior. Olerud should have won.

    Reply
  8. professorbohn

    This almost makes me wonder Griffey was a little like Jeter

    Joe makes the case that Griffey was the face of the game (something I’ve seen Jeter called many times), that he was probably not as good as he was perceived to be while at the same time being undersold in MVP balloting for many years.

    Reply
    1. Karyn

      That’s interesting–hadn’t noticed that before. Also, not as good a defender as was sometimes made out to be. Won a couple of Gold Gloves he didn’t quite deserve, etc.

      Reply
      1. bookbook

        Yeah, but Griffey won his ten gold gloves as an average CFer. Jeter won his five as arguably the worst defensive shortstop with a starting gig in the game.

        Even without PEDs, Griffey seemingly could have managed a better back half of his career with a bit of exercise (maybe yoga to preserve the darn hamstrings?)

        Reply
  9. EnzoHernandez11

    I know the comparison has been made before, but today’s post reminds me just how much Griffey vs. Bonds parallels DiMaggio vs. Williams. One beloved, the other despised. Both great, but there should have been no question who was the better player. Instead, Griffey makes the All-Century Team over Bonds, while DiMaggio spends his dotage labeled “The Greatest Living Ballplayer” even though Ted Williams–not to mention Mays and Aaron–is still quite alive. And in the case, the lesser of the pair faded early, while the superior player played great baseball pretty much throughout his 30s.

    Will Barry someday get the sendoff that Teddy got? I doubt it–the younger generation today seems even angrier about steroids than their elders (probably because we remember greenies and greaseballs). Plus, Barry was never a war hero.

    Oh well, I guess it’s ok as long as we don’t see Griffey shilling for Mr. Coffee in ten years.

    Reply
    1. bobdd

      The old Williams vs. DiMaggio competition probably seems silly now to lots of people, but back then the “decider” about greatness was sportswriters and now it’s statistics – whole new ballgame. Some people still haven’t gotten over it.

      Reply
  10. Geoff

    Here’s a dark sports “what-if,” as told to me by Ken Griffey Sr:

    Back in 1969, when Sr. was finishing up HS, he had to decide if he should sign professionally or go to college. Largely due to his grades, he didn’t get a lot of attention from college baseball programs. In fact, the only school seriously interested in him at the time was Marshall University, which was recruiting Griffey to play both baseball and football, where his cousin was (if I recall correctly) was a linebacker on the team. Griffey wound up being drafted by the Reds in the 29th round and, of course, decided to sign and became a key cog in the Big Red Machine.

    As you probably already know ($1, Poz), the entire Marshall football team was killed in a plane crash in November of 1970.* Ken Griffey Sr. would have been a sophomore on that team. Ken Griffey Jr. was nearly a year old at the time of the crash (and had already been conceived by the time Sr. was drafted), so he obviously would have been born. However, it’s safe to say that his life would have been quite different had he grown up without a father. He likely doesn’t move to Cincinnati and play at Moeller, and he obviously doesn’t get the benefit of having a big league dad to throw him BP every day (he always credited his ability to hit lefties with getting to face his dad so much), not to mention the experience of growing up in Major League clubhouses.

    *Amazingly, the cousin was kicked off the football team a short time before the crash, saving his life, as well.

    It’s certainly possible that Jr.’s talent was so great that that he would have ended up being a big leaguer (and maybe even the #1 pick in the ’87 draft) regardless, but I think there’s a good chance that had things been just a little different, most of us never hear the name “Griffey” at all.

    Reply
  11. Cathead

    Joe says that it makes him sad that there was a generation that only saw the older, slower Griffey. True, that. But that same generation also only saw a PED-bloated Barry Bonds who set the records which Griffey failed to do. That, too, makes me sad.

    Bonds and Griffey are inexorably linked. Both were sons of MLB all-stars. Bonds was a little older, but their careers basically paralleled. As good as they were, between them, they only played in one World Series. I remember there was controversy over which one of them was going to make the “All-Century Team” when that came out in 1999. Griffey won out, perhaps because he was more likable.

    However, the parallels ended after 2000 when Griffey got traded and injured, while the full effect of PED’s took hold of Bonds. You could make the case that they were the contrasting images of what happens with and without PED’s with regard to the natural aging process.

    Joe puts Griffey at No. 51. I am a little surprised he’s not higher on the list, but that’s ok. What bothers me is that Joe will put Bonds on the list somewhere — maybe in the top 10 — and it will inevitably be higher than Griffey. That, to me, is truly sad.

    Reply
    1. Chris M

      The sad thing for Griffey is that he had a fairly typical aging curve relative to MLB history, but had the misfortune of playing in an era when players were blowing up the aging curve thanks to PEDs. Griffey was basically a poor mans Mays, ending up with career stats that were fairly similar (slightly lower BA/OBP/Slg & 30 fewer homers). Take away steroids, and Griffey is probably only the 4th guy to hit 600 HRs. I wonder how much higher on the list he’d be if his peers hadn’t gone absolutely nuts in their late 30′s.

      Reply
    2. Cuban X Senators

      “You could make the case that they were contrasting images of what happens with and without PEDs with regard to the natural aging process.”

      You could, perhaps, if you could prove the negative.

      Go back to 1999 and ask someone what they’d expect a steroid-using 20-something ballplayer’s 30s to look like & you’d get a description of Junior’s 30s.

      Reply
    3. Doug

      I think it’s difficult to attribute the length of Barry’s career solely to steroids. The truth is that we just don’t know. Barry’s late-career statistics are spectacular and exceptional, but Bonds was an exceptional player and exceptional things do happen from time to time. More to the point, even comparing their careers up to the point when they turned 30, I would argue that Bonds was a significantly better player (as Joe alludes to) – he was a better hitter and probably overall a better fielder and baserunner.

      I think they were both fantastic players and I guess the unfortunate downside of a project like this one is that it inevitably leads to putting players next to each other and downgrading one or the other. But I don’t think it’s truly sad that Bonds will be ranked higher than Griffey; that’s just the way it goes, and I would be hard-pressed to see a justification for doing it any other way. Although I am a massive Barry Bonds fan so not exactly disinterested here!

      Reply
      1. bellweather22

        73 HRs at age 36 is pretty “exceptional”. But, not something that happens from time to time. It happened once, and the cause of that happening is well documented. You can like Barry Bonds, if you want. But let’s not put on the rose colored glasses when discussing it.

        Reply
      2. Johnny B

        Bonds, McGwire and others ruined baseball statistics for me. Every time someone like Cabrera or Chris Davis (both of whom could be 100% legit) puts up Lou Gehrig numbers, a red flag goes up. I used to love Bonds, but am glad the HOF voters seem to be keeping the known PED users out.

        Reply
        1. invitro

          Are you glad they’re also keeping the suspected (without evidence) PED users, like Bagwell and Piazza, out? :(

          Reply
        2. Geoff

          I still can’t fathom how anyone really gets bothered by this stuff. Do you not watch NFL games since there’d be red flags all over the field any time you were watching? Does the fact that in 1930 MLB was basically played inside pinball machines ruin Hack Wilson’s RBI record for you? The context in which baseball statistics are produced is constantly evolving, so to to pretend that a certain high-scoring era somehow invalidates everything that happened during that time period seems pretty silly.

          I think it’s even more ridiculous to keep guys like Bonds and Clemens out of the HOF, but it doesn’t bother me that much; those guys still live in big houses and eat steak whenever they want to. Plus, the people who come out looking the worst are the moralizing clowns who write about it every year to justify why they’d vote for Dale Murphy and Jack Morris, but not some of the greatest players of all time.

          Reply
          1. DM

            Hi Geoff,

            I think one of the interesting things about Murphy is that, while he was playing, I think it was widely assumed at the time that he was destined for the HOF. Sure, the heart of his career was 30 years ago and everyone evaluated things much differently then, but by the time he had his last good year at 31 (1987), his “basic stats” were basically looking a lot like Reggie Jackson’s at the same age, minus the post-season resume, of course. Through 31, they were both at just over 300 HR’s, just over 900 RBI’s. Jackson was .268/.360/.508, Murphy .279/.362/.500. Looking back, of course, Jackson’s adjusted totals were superior (for example, OPS+ 150 vs. 132), but obviously things like that weren’t part of the discussion at the time.

            When you consider the 2 MVP’s (even though MVP awards don’t always reflect the best choice) and the fact that he was so visible through cable, I think most people assumed he was HOF-bound. His defensive skills were overrated, so that helped him as well. He and Andre Dawson, who were exact contemporaries, were both considered to be on the HOF track. I remember Bill James referencing on more than one occasion that Murphy was a solid bet for election. The Black Ink/Grey Ink/HOF monitor tools still show him to be a viable candidate, which isn’t surprising given the weight put on MVP (and MVP-type) seasons. When Murphy was still in his prime, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that he could be a top-10 Center Fielder by the time he called it a career.

            Of course, we know now that he did very little after that point. Jackson posted another 250 HR’s before his career was done, Murphy only 88. He came up just short of 400 HR’s. Dawson separated himself from Murphy. In the years since Murphy’s last good year in ’87, we’ve had many other Center Fielders come along that I think clearly surpassed him (Griffey, Beltran, Lofton, Puckett, Edmonds, maybe even Andruw Jones) and he just doesn’t stack up anymore when compared to all the others. I think, even given the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard pressed to make a good argument for him anymore as even a top-20 CF. Talk about falling off a cliff….. :)

          2. Geoff

            I don’t think there’s any question that Murphy was on a HOF track following the his age-31 season. To steal a line from Bill James (about Billy Southworth, maybe?), on Opening Day 1988, Murphy had one foot in the Hall of Fame and the other on a banana peel. He was overrated even then (his first MVP award was ridiculous), but he still had 41.4 WAR, and probably needed 2-3 more good seasons and a relatively normal decline to wrap up a spot in Cooperstown. Even a fairly steep decline in which he had averaged, say, 3 wins per year from 32-36 probably would have been enough, given his reputation.

            Unfortunately, as James would say, all his weight went on the banana peel.

          3. DM

            Regarding Murphy’s 1st MVP in 82….Agreed there were others that upon reflection, knowing what we know now, were probably better players, but with the Braves coming out of the gate 13-0, improving from a sub-.500 season the year before, winning the division, and with Murphy finishing 2nd in HR and leading in RBI’s….it’s easy to understand why, at the time, they voted for him. It was one of those years, where the better players like Schmidt, Carter, Dawson, Guerrero, etc., didn’t end up on on the division winners, which were Atlanta and St. Louis. St. Louis’ best player was probably Lonnie Smith, who was the runner-up, and I don’t think that would have been any better. If this happened today, Carter would surely be higher than 12th. Guerrero and Schmidt would probably have fared better. But, given the team performance and how much emphasis they put on that…..not really too surprising that he was the one that got it.

          4. Chris M

            I don’t really care about the steroid stuff as regards the HOF, but I can understand how those who do would differentiate it from the 1930′s or the deadball era or the 1960′s or whatever: those era’s were the same for everyone playing. If some guys used steroids and others didn’t, the ones that did were playing on a different playing field (so to speak) than the ones who didn’t.

            I’m willing to give a little mental bump to guys I don’t believe used (Griffey, Maddux, Rivera, etc.) while downgrading a bit the guys I’m pretty sure used (Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, etc.). I still think Bonds was the best player of his generation, but put him significantly behind the Ruth/Williams/Mays group. The steroid thing knocks Clemens a bit behind Maddux for me, but not nearly far enough for him to not be a Hall of Famer.

  12. tombando

    One more guy who had a ridiculous 20′s and just ‘good’ 30′s, Al ‘Not going to be in the top 100 because Joe prefers Whitaker, Irvin and Blyleven’ Simmons. At least the ESPN guys got that part of their list right.

    Reply
      1. Patrick Bohn

        Winfield was the absolute definition of a compiler.

        His rate stats are nowhere near elite, and this wasn’t because of a lengthy decline phase. As a hitter, Winfield got all the benefits of an insanely long career with regard to his counting stats, and none of the drawbacks with regard to his rate stats.

        His career batting average was .283 but was never higher than .289 at the end of any year during his career. His career OBP was .353 and never higher than .357. His career SLG was .475 and never higher than .483. (Compare these drops to the ones Griffey experienced)

        And while there’s something to be said for longevity and consistency, he still finished tied for 594th all-time in OBP, 224th all-time in slugging, and 130th in OPS+. For a power-hitting corner outfielder, this is hardly monumental. And considering his defensive numbers—even accounting for the positional adjustment—are poor, the offense is what he has to go on. He was worth about 38 runs on the bases, but again, that’s over 22 seasons

        Reply
        1. Geoff

          Patrick, my comment was totally tongue-in-cheek…next time I respond to Tombando, I’ll make sure to be a little snarkier so that’s clear. :-)

          Reply
        2. Cuban X Senators

          Love “The Compiler” meme.

          Is there a way to collect 3000 (or 500) of something across 20+ years without compilation?

          Reply
          1. Patrick Bohn

            Cuban,

            It’s absolutely possible to get to a total without being labeled a compiler. By doing it in less time.

            Using Winfield as an example, he hit 465 HRs in 22 years.

            Mike Schmidt got to 465 in his 15th season. So did Mantle. Manny did it in his 14th. So did Eddie Matthews and Hank Aaron. Pujols did it in 12. And so on. Plenty of players got to 465 HRs in a lot less time than Winfield.

            Another example, using pitcher strikeouts. Tom Glavine got to 24th all-time in strikeouts with 2,607. It took him 18,604 opponent PAs to get that total. It took Randy Johnson 9,381 to get to 2,693. So the totals are unique, and the way those totals were accrued were completely different. One guy was striking out 150 hitters a season, the other was striking out 300.

          2. Cuban X Senators

            It is absolutely possible, you’re right, because the term has no standard & can be applied by any and all to any and all.

        3. bpdelia

          This is wrong. I don’t know where you got your numbers but in 1984 Dave Winfield hit .342. He also had years of .322, .308, .308, .294 and .290. In OBA he had years of .398, .395, .393, .377. SLG HE had years of .560, .558, .530, .515, .513.

          Winfield isn’t an all time great but he wasn’t a total compiler. He was a very very good player who spent his prime in a bad park for RH power hitters.

          Not being a jerk but did you look at the wrong page or something. In 1984 winfield and mattingly had one of the best ever teammate batting aaverage races ever.

          He led the league in ops+ once, was 130 for his career and had basically a 16 year run as a hitter with ops+’s between 135 and 160 every year.

          Winfield was allowed to compile those numbers because he was a remarkably durable and consistent player who was around 30-40% better than the league average hitter for 20 years.

          Reply
          1. Stephen

            I believe the claim is not “Winfield never hit above .289,” but “Winfield’s career batting average never stood above .289.” IOW, by the time Winfield had those higher BAs he’d pretty well established himself as a .270s, .280s hitter, and those average in the .300s didn’t do much to improve that.

            If your point is that it’s a somewhat strange way to view a player, I’d agree. But never-hitting-above-.289-in-any-season wasn’t the original claim.

      1. Which hunt?

        He clutched the ever-clutchin’ hell out of a game once. If I had to clutch a pitcher for just one clutch it would be Jack Clutching Morris on clutchday.

        Reply
  13. Fin Alyn

    Bonds might have had better range for a LF compared to others who played LF, but he had a below average arm with below average accuracy. Not sure how this makes him a better OF than Griffey.

    Reply
      1. Geoff

        Exactly. And if Alex Rodriguez had been a better shortstop than Derek Jeter he would have played shortstop for the Yankees. Oh, wait…

        Bonds was an above-average CF who got moved to LF in his second season because the Pirates traded for Andy Van Slyke. Had this trade not happened, Bonds likely stays in CF until at least his late 20′s.

        The position guys end up at is largely a function of the talent around them, not to mention the decision-making skills of their managers/GM’s. Just ask Pokey Reese. Or Mike Trout. Or Manny Machado. If the Mariners had drafted Kenny Lofton, Griffey would have been playing RF by age-22.

        I don’t think it’s obvious that young Bonds was better defensively than young Griffey defensively, but you certainly can’t make a definitive judgement based on the number of games each played in CF.

        Reply
        1. Chris M

          To be honest, I didn’t know Bonds ever played Center. I thought he came up as a left fielder (his debut was ever so slightly before I started following baseball, which, as a Mets fan, sucks…). So that’s my bad

          Reply
        2. Stephen

          Of course, Van Slyke wasn’t a CF in St. Louis, for that matter, because they used Willie McGee instead. So McGee > Van Slyke > Bonds.

          Or, you know, not.

          Reply
      2. Cuban X Senators

        Not so. If Bonds was a better CF than Andy van Slyke, he would have been a CF. This really oughtta be a point that comes up more when defensive spectrum/dWAR stats get trotted out. If a player is shifted along the spectrum because Garry Maddox is on the roster, that’s not a reflection on that player.

        If I bat 7th for the ’27 Yankees I’m getting fewer at bats, but can put up the same rate stats. If I’m shifted along the defensive spectrum because I’m come up to a team that’s got (I dunno) Belanger & Brooks my dWAR can’t make that up.

        And then of course there maybe situations like, “if ARod was a better SS than Vizquel, he’d have played SS in NY.”

        Reply
        1. Spencer

          @Cuban X

          Bonds was a better center fielder than Van Slyke. We didn’t have the same understanding of defense then as we do today. Sometimes, for whatever reason, teams play suboptimal fielding arrangements. Rodriguez and Jeter in NY was brought up and it’s a great example. It’s entirely possible that in a few years those same Pirates will have Starling Marte in LF, Andrew Mccutchen in CF and Gregory Polanco in RF. They’ll essentially be playing 3 center fielders and their worst outfielder may be an older Mccutchen.

          Bonds was simply a better fielder than Griffey. I can’t believe this is up for debate. Griffey was average, Bonds deserved his gold gloves.

          Reply
          1. Chris M

            The Jeter-Rodriguez example really doesn’t fit at all. Everyone knew ARod was a better SS, but he volunteered to move off the position so that he could go to a winning tam. Legendary amazing supertaculare leader of all leaders Derek Jeter, being the incredible leader and teammate that he is, refused to move off a position that he wasn’t as good at.

            With the caveat that, again, I wasn’t paying attention to baseball in 1986/1987, I would imagine the Pirates just told Bonds they were moving him to Left to accommodate the new guy, and being the young player he was, he just did it.

    1. Ian R.

      FWIW, Bonds’ dWAR – that is to say, his defense plus positional adjustment – through age 30 was 11.9. Griffey’s was 11.0, and that’s in 255 more games.

      Give Bonds a significant penalty for playing an easier position, and he still comes out slightly ahead just because he played left field so well. I don’t think that’s definitive proof that Bonds was a better outfielder than Griffey, but at the very least they’re comparable.

      Reply
  14. Daniel

    The enduring image I have of Griffey and the joy he got in playing baseball early in his career is right after game 5 of the ALDS with the Yankees. He had just scored the winning run in what was a great game. The Mariners had spilled out of the dugout and were mobbing Griffey at home plate. The camera had a quick shot of him looking up with a huge grin on his face. To me, the smile he had on his face while being mobbed by his teammates exemplified to me the pure joy of baseball.

    Ironically, one of the Mariners who was in that mob was A-Rod who had just come up to Seattle permanently in August of that year.

    Reply
    1. Rick Rodstrom

      Griffey absolutely destroyed the Yanks in that Series too, with a 1.488 OPS, 5 home runs in 5 games. To see him with that beautiful swing tailor made for Yankee Stadium makes you wonder what kind of unbelievable numbers he would have put up with the Yanks.

      Reply
      1. gcuzz

        If Griffey had come up through the Yankees system at that time, I’m sure Buck Showalter would have forced him to write a one-page essay on why it’s disrespectful to baseball to wear your cap backwards during batting practice. ;)

        Reply
      2. bellweather22

        The Kingdome, aka The Homerdome, was pretty good to Jr. 312 down the line and 362 ft to the RF power alley…. And by power alley, I mean pretty far towards CF. I’m not sure there would have been any advantage to moving to Yankee stadium.

        Reply
  15. Chris Smith

    Man….watching him hit a home run was magnificent. They may not have been the towering bombs of some of his contemporaries, but they just looked so easy. He would swing, drop the bat, and watch it fly. No little Sosa stutter step or anything….just a crack and wait for it to fall.

    Even when he was approaching 40, that swing looked the same. It didn’t have the same speed, but man it was awesome. Went to a Reds game and sat in the right field seats when he was here with Adam Dunn and, I think, Austin Kearnes. Those guys could really swat, and every one they hit landed in the right field seats. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see one that day, but the excitement was palpable in our section when they got to their part of the order. The right fielder for the Dodgers (Green maybe?) was playing darn near the track when they came up. You could see the eyes in his shoes he was backed up so darn far. :)

    Reply
  16. Chris H

    Another lovely article, and great stuff in the comments, too. Thanks all. I’ll add re: Thomas winning MVP in 1993, that Thomas was also second in the league in RBI, one behind Albert Belle (who was never going to win an MVP vote even if he hit .800, and certainly not on the ’93 Indians). So: RBI leader on the division winner, or runs leader on a mediocre team? Yep, thought so.

    Reply
  17. KHAZAD

    Griffey is one of the few first ballot hall of famers left from the PED era. I can’t help but wonder, if he had continued greatness in his 30s, instead of falling off, would there be whispers about him as well? Would he have less of a chance despite having a better career? Or is there just something about his charisma and his hero status that makes people want to believe he is the one example of clean greatness?

    Reply
    1. Which hunt?

      I wonder stuff like this all the time. People say that Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux and Derek Jeter are “clean” players, but Bags and Piazza are juicers. Is it just personality? Would Petitte be in the squeaky clean club if there was no smoking gun? I think he would, and I find it troubling that we seem to cherry pick with no actual evidence.

      Reply
    2. Jason Cline

      KHAZAD, that’s an interesting point. I do think if he’d not experienced the kind of decline he had, there would be whispers (see Bagwell, Jeff; Biggio, Craig). As far as “is there just something about his charisma and hero status that makes people want to believe he is the one example of clean greatness’, well, that’s hard to say. I was kind of surprised to see Frank Thomas get in on his first try. Not because I didn’t think he deserved it, but because of the whispers about the B’s that cropped up when election time rolled around. My gut tells me a healthy older Griffey, with the all-time HR and RBI record (that he was on pace to get when he was 30), would get in 1st ballot, mainly because his body ‘appeared’ to age like the rest of us. As he got older he didn’t get all ‘muscle-y’, he got kind of doughy around the middle, like most of us do. I’m not saying that’s any sort of scientific indicator or anything, but I think that’s the public perception. On the other hand, for some of us fans, he’ll always be ‘the kid’, and even if he was juicing (and no, I don’t for a second think he was), we’d be in denial until proven otherwise.

      Reply
  18. Geoff

    Prediction contest update: I just sent out a spreadsheet to everyone that emailed me. If you haven’t done some already, just send a quick note to poz100contest AT gmail DOT com, and I will send the doc to you. Submissions are due whenever Joe posts #50 on his blog, so get them in as quickly as possible!

    Reply
  19. DM

    Little late to the party, as I’m just catching up on the post, but regarding the discussion about Griffey potentially being among the greatest ever…..I definitely remember that viewpoint. I think the key to this was the fact that he got off to such a strong start at such an early age. Very few players can hit Major League pitching with any kind of authority beginning at age 19, as Griffey did. It’s the same reason we’re fascinated with Trout and Harper today, because they are successful at a very early age.

    From the beginning, Griffey impressed us, as he got off to a great head start, especially in power. In his age 19 season, he hit 16 HR. Only Tony Conigliaro, Bryce Harper, and Mel Ott have hit more at that age.

    From that point on, he was always among the top in CUMULATIVE, career-to-date HR’s through each age:

    Age 20: Griffey was 5th, behind Ott, Conigliaro, Harper, and A-Rod (of course, at the time, Griffey would have really been 3rd, since Harper and A-Rod came along later, but you get the idea)

    Age 21: He slid a bit to 7th (5th at the time) , behind Ott, Conigliaro, Eddie Mathews, F. Robinson, A-Rod, and Trout (A-Rod and Trout coming later, of course)

    Age 22: Slid a little further, but still tied for 9th (7th at the time) (with Bench), behind Ott, Mathews, A-Rod, Conigliaro, F. Robinson, Giancarlo Stanton (came later), the “Buddha” Bob Horner, and Ted Williams

    Age 23: Surged back up to 5th (4th at the time) (on the heels of a 45 HR season), behind Mathews, Ott, A-Rod, and F. Robinson

    Age 24: Slid back to 6th (5th at the time), as a couple of guys named Mantle and Foxx leapfrogged him. Mathews, A-Rod, Ott are 1,2,3)

    Age 25: Slid to 9th (7th at the time) as he had a bad season and also missed some time. 1 through 8 are A-Rod, Foxx, Mathews, Ott, Mantle, F. Robinson, and 2 “newcomers”, Pujols and Cepeda. At the time Griffey was this age, Foxx was the leader with 222, and Griffey had 189, so he wasn’t that far off.

    Age 26: 8th (6th at the time), A-Rod, Foxx, Mathews, Pujols, Mantle, Ott, and F. Robinson are ahead

    Age 27: Surged to 4th (3rd at the time) with his first of two 56-HR seasons. A-Rod, Foxx, and Mathews still ahead.

    Age 28: His 2nd straight 56-HR season leapfrogged him to the top (at the time). A-Rod has since surpassed him (381). At this age, Griffey is now at 350, with Foxx at 343 and Mathews 338.

    Age 29: Another league-leading total (3 years in a row) of 48 HR pushes Griffey up to 398, putting some distance between him and Foxx (379), Mantle (374), and Mathews (370). A-Rod, coming along later, posts is at 429 at this age.

    So, that’s 11 years in the majors, at which point the big move to the Reds occurred, and despite the decent initial season in Cincinnati, it pretty much headed downhill pretty quickly after that.

    So, with the exception of a Bob Horner here and a Tony Conigliaro there, the list of top career-to-date HR leaders by age are players that are among the all time greats. In addition to Griffey, the names that consistently appear from the early ages are names like Mathews, Ott, Foxx, F. Robinson, Mantle, Pujols, and A-Rod, all of whom are clearly going to be top-50 players on Joe’s list (and possibly WELL UP the list)

    So, I’m with those that remember that Griffey, because he entered our consciousness at such a young age and got off to such a great start, clearly was being touted as one of those special players that could be (emphasis on “COULD”) one of the all-time greats. And, when you think about it, what separated him from most of the other players mentioned above that preceded him, was the fact that he was considered to be a very good defensive player at a key defensive position. Mathews and Foxx were slugging corner infielders, and Ott and Robinson were slugging corner outfielders. Of the players that came before him, only Mantle played an up-the-middle position, and I suspect most people would consider Griffey to be the superior defender (not saying that it’s definite, just that I think it would be the prevailing opinion).

    As someone mentioned earlier…..it’s something when you hit 630 HR’s and all anyone thinks about is “what might have been” :)

    Reply
    1. Face

      “…and a Tony Conigliaro there”, Conigliaro hit 20 homers in 95 games in ’67, what “COULD” have been great players has you lumping him in with Bob Horner? I don’t agree with that, sir.

      Reply
  20. doncoffin64

    Just for grins, I took the Baseball Reference lists of career WAR [rWAR] (for which they have the 1,000 top listed both for position players and for pitchers). The (combined) top 100 consists of 70 position players [Babe Ruth (163.2) to Manny Ramirez (69.1)] and (obviously) 30 pitchers [Cy Young (170.3) to Old Hoss Radbourne (73.5)]. Of the pitchers,11 finished their careers before1930 (including 4 of the top 5 pitchers–Young, Johnson, Alexander, and Nichols). Among the position players, only 9 finished their careers before 1930.

    My immediate takeaway is that early pitchers are somewhat advantaged by rWAR. It’s hard for me to believe that nearly 40% of the best pitchers in MLB history came from the earliest years. (Actually, I think that rWAR advantages hitters from that era as well; over 15% of the highest WAR numbers are for players who completed their careers before 1930.)

    If you want the spreadsheet, email me at don[nospace]coffin at aol dot com.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      The right way to think about this is to say that WAR disproportionately benefits guys that played when the talent spectrum in MLB was widest.

      Reply
      1. doncoffin64

        Which is another way of saying that today’s “replacement” level player is *much* better than 1920′s “replacement” level player. I suspect that’s absolutely correct, but it means that using WAR to make comparisons across very long time periods is not a good idea. (As most of us already knew, right?)

        Reply
        1. Ian R.

          Potentially. Another argument is that today’s replacement player is better in part because of better conditioning, better medicine, better coaching, video study, standardized equipment, etc. The stars benefit from those things just as much as the marginal guys.

          Anyway, having 15 percent of the top position players be pre-1930 guys doesn’t seem that far off to me. Certainly it’s not impossible for modern players to reach those heights – Bonds is #2 all-time, A-Rod is #12, Rickey Henderson is #14, and Pujols will almost certainly break into the top 20 before his career’s over (he just needs 7 WAR to do it).

          Reply
        2. Ty Sellers

          “but it means that using WAR to make comparisons across very long time periods is not a good idea.”

          I’m not sure that’s right. WAR is a measure of value compared to a replacement level player. Using WAR shows how much more valuable Babe Ruth was compared to a replacement level player than, say, Miguel Cabrera is. WAR isn’t trying to tell us who the “better” player was/is, so in that sense, if you are using WAR you are using it incorrectly.

          Reply
    2. Ian R.

      WAR significantly favors old-time pitchers because they pitched so damn many innings. Young isn’t widely viewed as the greatest pitcher of all time (though he’s usually in the conversation somewhere), but he’s #1 than WAR because he pitched a thousand more innings than anyone else ever.

      But yeah, Geoff has it right. The spread between great players and not-so-great players was much, much larger in the old days than it is today. You don’t even need WAR to tell you that – a look at plain ol’ batting average will do it.

      Reply
  21. Rick Rodstrom

    Despite all the stats, I really believe that I can only judge players that I’ve actually seen play. I never saw Mays or Mantle or DiMaggio or Cobb or Speaker or Oscar Charleston play center field. Any one of them might very well be the best ever. I couldn’t say. The best I ever saw was Ken Griffey Jr. What he did or didn’t do in his 30′s doesn’t diminish him all that much to me. The 30′s are your compiling decade, while your 20′s are your amazing decade, and Junior was as amazing as they got. The things I saw him do on the baseball field, and the joyous flair with which he did them, are some of the best memories I’ve ever had as a baseball fan. It transcends WAR or VORP or any stat you want to list. I want Griffey on my team the way I want Jeter on my team—you can have your A-Rod and Bonds.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      You should have watched more carefully. Both A-Rod and Bonds were even *more* amazing in their 20′s than Griffey was. Sorry you didn’t enjoy watching them play as much as most of us did.

      Reply
        1. Geoff

          You’re right, you should have. Frankly, how often players smile or wear their caps backward during BP has exactly zero bearing on how much I enjoy watching them play.

          I enjoy seeing watching the very best players perform, and Bonds was better than anyone else I’ve ever seen.

          Reply
      1. Patrick Hogue

        Geoff, for me there was not much enjoyable about Bonds or McGwire being intentionally walked. Especially, when the reason they were being pitched around was because of the unfair advantage they had due to PEDs. Pitchers and managers just didn’t know what to do with a guy who hit 70 HRs. This is where “greatness” and “value” diverge. Yes, those walks, and not making an out, has value in WAR, OPS+ but the value of those walks but that doesn’t equate to greatness in my mind.

        The value of a walk to a Henderson, Raines, Morgan, or even an early career Bonds, has more value then one to an older Bonds or especially a McGwire. A guy like Henderson or Morgan seemed to earn their walks and could do more with them once they got on first.

        To be fair, Bonds and McGwire both had great discipline before the PED explosion and I would rank Bonds higher than Griffey but I can’t take WAR for some of they PED guys at face value. Especially the component of WAR attributed to the insane walk totals.

        Reply
        1. ftghb

          barry bonds led his league in intentional walks for seven straight years from ’92-’98 (before his purported steroid use).

          also by 1998, bonds was the only member of the 400-400 club, closing in on 500-500. So I’d say he could do “more with them once (he) got on first”

          If you weren’t really watching him play, at least take a gander at the actual statistics before making up stuff.

          Reply
          1. Patrick Hogue

            OK, smart guy, looking at the stats right now and my opinion has not changed.

            What, exactly did I make up?

            I agreed that Bonds pre-PEDs had a great eye, was valuable on the bases and was a better player than Griffey.

            His career high in IBB was 43, or so the stats say, prior to 1998. His career high was in 1993. 9 years later in 2002 (age 37) his IBBs jump to 68, then 61 then 120!! Nothing wonky there at all, nope! And I’m sorry for suggesting the his PED fueled 73 home run season had anything to do with that…

          2. ftghb

            “Geoff
            March 1, 2014 at 4:41 am
            You should have watched more carefully. Both A-Rod and Bonds were even *more* amazing in their 20′s than Griffey was. Sorry you didn’t enjoy watching them play as much as most of us did.”

            “Patrick Hogue
            March 1, 2014 at 7:34 pm
            Geoff, for me there was not much enjoyable about Bonds or McGwire being intentionally walked. Especially, when the reason they were being pitched around was because of the unfair advantage they had due to PEDs”

            Geoff makes the point that bonds was amazing in his 20′s, before his steroid use. You seem to be operating under the impression that Bonds got his massive walk totals largely because of the PEDs, which i’m telling you is simply not true. Worse yet, you go on to state that others “earned” walks and “did more with them when they got to first” and I’m contending that Bonds did more with those walk opportunities, given his ridiculous SB totals.

            As if IBBs are worth less than a ‘tough it out walk’. They were intentionally walking Bonds more than anyone else BEFORE he ever got on the stuff, and that’s on top of the great plate discipline you acknowledged.

        2. Geoff

          You’re right…watching great players get intentionally walked sucks, and I’d be all in favor of eliminating intentional walks from the game (I like the idea of allowing the batter to take 2B). But it’s certainly not Bonds’ (or McGwire’s) fault that managers chose to walk them. Not to mention that like it or not, all those walks were incredibly valuable to their teams.

          Reply
    2. bellweather22

      Another factor is that Griffey patrolled some pretty small centerfields in Seattle and Cinncinnati, which allowed him to make some spectacular wall banging plays that people remember. Mays played in the huge Polo Grounds and Candlestick, with a fixed wire fence that allowed no wall banging. But we do have the WS catch on tape. Griffey got a lot of SportsCenter play which helped his reputation.

      Reply
  22. Carl

    While debating who was better in their 20s Griffey or B Bonds, how about debating their dads? Who was better Griffey Sr or Bobby Bonds over their careers?

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      Senior was a nice player, but this isn’t even close. Bobby Bonds had about 85% of a Hall of Fame career…It’s like comparing Gary Sheffield and Terry Puhl.

      Reply
        1. Geoff

          Well, to give yourself a good shot at being inducted as a RF, you need a JAWS score of around 55. Bonds’ JAWS was 49.3, which is 89%.

          Reply
    2. doncoffin64

      Bobby, by a fair amount. Considerably higher OPS+ (129 to 118). Roughly equal OBAs, although Senior has a better BA–Bobby walked a lot more. Bobby had more power, more speed (more than twice as many SB with a better success rate). A better fielder. As measured by rWAR (I know, I know), Bobby’s at 57.6 to Senior’s 34.5.

      Senior’s advantage comes in that he got into a lot more post-season games than did Bobby (20 to 3), but it helps to have played with Bench, Morgan, and Rose…

      Reply
    3. Ian R.

      The elder Griffey had a very good career. The elder Bonds had a better career than several guys in the Hall of Fame. If you prefer peak value, Senior Griffey topped out at 4.6 WAR in 1976. Bobby Bonds beat that mark seven times, including 7.7 WAR in 1973.

      Griffey hit for a higher average and was a tad better at getting on base, but Bonds hit for much more power, stole more bases and was a better fielder. There’s really no comparison.

      Reply
  23. Will3pin

    I was in Oakland in 1990 and caught an afternoon game between the A’s and Mariners. Griffey went 3/5, two doubles and single off of Dave Stewart. Impressive line – but it was the way he hit them – deep looping drives to the alleys,- that made you take notice. That 1990 A’s lineup had some considerable star power, but sitting in the stands that day it was Ken Jr. who generated the Oohs and Ahhhs. That was a 1-0, 11 inning game with both starters going 10+ innings. Whole game took just 2 hours 38 mins….Don’t see that much any more.

    Other fave Griffey memories: watching him in the HR Derby during the ’98 All-Star game at Coors field, and his amazing Home Run robbing catch of Jesse Barfield. (you can find it on MLB.com). The sheer joy on his face as he runs back to the dugout. THAT was Junior.

    Who wasn’t rooting for Junior back then? Somewhat reminds me of Kevin Durant now. Freakishly talented, unlimited potential, playing on emergent team with the potential to dethrone the evil dynasty.

    Reply
    1. invitro

      “Who wasn’t rooting for Junior back then?”

      I wasn’t. I never liked him. “Sheer joy” doesn’t do anything for me.

      I do like Durant, although he doesn’t have “unlimited” potential, and the Heat aren’t “evil”.

      Reply
  24. Chris K.

    That feels overly harsh..

    I’m not saying that, amongst the media anyway, he didn’t have a reputation for being a bit of a primadonna — he did. The “Kid” was often an opt moniker.

    That said, for the fans of a team mired in two decades of, frankly, below average baseball (And that’s generous, putrid might be a more apt description), his play was the only reason to go to the ballpark. And scoring the game winning run in the ’95 ALDS against the Yankees, when Edgar roped that double into the left field corner, remains THE iconic moment in Mariner history. Perhaps the only one.

    (By the way, the first guess by legendary announcer Dave Niehaus, and subsequent play by play call, STILL brings me goosebumps to this day)

    It would be an exaggeration to say (as some have) that Ken Griffey Jr. “singlehandedly” kept the Mariners in Seattle. But not much of one. It could be reasonably said that his headfirst slide into home plate laid the foundation for Safeco Field and helped vault a moribund franchise into (at least temporary) relevance.

    It was a sad day for Seattle when he “maneuvered” his way to Cincinnati. But I harbored no bitterness toward him. Merely sadness for the way his career petered out in the end..

    Reply
    1. adam

      I grew up in Seattle….

      Do people really say he “singlehandedly” kept the Mariners in Seattle? He was hurt most of that year. If anyone did, it was Randy Johnson or Edgar Martinez.

      Ken Griffey Jr. in the early years was a beacon of hope for a franchise that took 15 years just to have a winning record, and later was a big part of their phenomenal front-line talent in the late ’90s. Unfortunately that team had horrendous depth, especially in the bullpen. The dream of a championship never happened. (nor did it happen with the far more balanced 2001 team).

      There was a discussion earlier about Griffey being considered in the Willie Mays class. I remember those discussions. In his 20′s his potential was viewed as unlimited. Sure, he did have “weaknesses” in his game – he was a slight notch below the Bonds/Pujols/Thomas class of hitter (so was Mays), he was not fast although some pretended he was, which means he really couldn’t have been much above average as a CF and I think the numbered bore that out. I had no confidence in him when he got to 2 strikes, but I haven’t checked the numbers to see whether he was worse than anyone else.

      He dealt with a lot of pressure – there is a story about him attempting suicide while in the minors. He may have been more of a prima donna behind the scenes than the writers would let on. But he was a solid role model for the Seattle kids who adored him. I believe he didn’t even drink,

      I recall sometime in the ’90s Bill James wrote about the staggering injury rate in the Cincinnati Reds organization. When he was traded there, I wondered about how he would hold up, even though his injuries in Seattle had been of the fluke variety (broke hammate bone on swing, crashed into wall and broke arm). We’ll never know for sure what his injury rate would have been had he stayed or been traded somewhere else. What we do know is that if he had more of a gradual decline phase, he probably would be ranked somewhere between 15 and 25 on the list.

      I certainly never would have guessed that 15 years after the super-talent laden Mariner’s teams of the late ’90s, that Griffey would only be the third highest rated player of that team on someone’s top 100 list.

      Reply
  25. Chris K.

    As an aside, and not related to his on the field exploits — One of my most poignant Ken Griffey Jr. memories remains the summer when, after spending most my lawnmowing revenue for months, I FINALLY obtained his Upper Deck (those packs cost a fortune!!) rookie card. I had despaired of ever getting one..

    My grin went from ear to ear.

    Besides the Dale Murphy (my TBS childhood hero) error card, I remember it being the most highly sought after commodity in the middle school black market.. =)

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      I’m pretty sure “poignant” is not the word you were looking for. “Fondest” works a little better.

      Reply
  26. Azure Ray

    I’m disappointed (though not surprised) that Griffey Jr is ranked this low. He’s in my Top-25. I’m anxious to see who Joe ranks higher than Jr…

    Reply
      1. DM

        I had also anticipated him a little higher (maybe about another 10 spots or so), but the bar is set pretty high at this level, so I agree it’s not overly surprising. It also goes to show just how deep and star-studded the CF position is. Griffey, as great as he was, is likely going to be only the #7 CF on this list, behind Mays, Cobb, Mantle, Charleston, Speaker, and DiMaggio.

        Reply
    1. Ian R.

      Well, let’s see. Griffey is 56th all-time in WAR. Now, obviously Joe isn’t ranking the top 100 by pure WAR: several guys with more than Griffey – Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Bert Blyleven – have been ranked below him. Still, I’d say at least 40 of those 55 guys are going to go ahead of Griffey on Joe’s list.

      Then you can throw in some Negro League guys – Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige – who obviously won’t show up on the WAR list but will make Joe’s list. Then you throw in guys like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio who will definitely make the list even though they have less WAR than Junior. It’s not too hard to come up with 50 guys who could be reasonably ranked ahead of Griffey.

      Reply
  27. doncoffin64

    Off-topic. Does anyone know when Joe is going to post the results of the Springsteen song survey? Or did he post it already and I missed it?

    Reply
  28. Uncle Willy

    I just sent back my top 50 picks. Harder than I thought it would be. There’s going to be some great players left out of the top 50 (and therefore out of the top 100 as well).

    Reply
  29. DM

    Geoff,

    Regarding the spreadsheet you sent out for the top 50 contest…..

    Nice touch having Duane Kuiper included in the drop-down selection. I almost clicked on it, but I was afraid my computer would explode.

    Reply
    1. Which hunt?

      I almost clicked Bobby Gritch, but I knew Joe wouldn’t leave MannyBManny off his list either….

      Reply
      1. DM

        I would be very surprised if Manny made the top 50. His poor defense, his relatively low WAR, his other “baggage”….. if he were going to appear, I think it would have had to have been much earlier than this.

        Reply
  30. Alejo

    Junior was an artist. An artist of baseball. Very few players have produced this perception of beauty and harmony. Koufax, Mays, the young Bonds… I haven’t seen his equal in artistry since his younger days.

    Reply
  31. Richard

    The coolest thing about the Griffeys is that they were both on the Mariners at the same time in 1990 and 1991 (and even once hit back-to-back home runs). As a kid, it’s always fun to play baseball with your dad. Ken Jr. got to do it for real…..

    Reply
  32. Adam

    I believe the best way to measure the Negro League players against their MLB contemporaries is as follows; Imagine without the benefits of radio, television, and newspapers, who are the top 10-20 MLB players we would know from the period of say 1900 to 1946? For if the well read MLB fan may only be able to name 5-10 Negro League stars,imagine who we would list as the best 5-10 players from the same MLB era? I understand this is generally empirical evidence, but the point is this puts the likes of Paige and Smokey Joe in line with say Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, since one is trying to make a comparative list of the best 5-10 players over a 50 year stretch in the MLB and Negro Leagues

    Reply
  33. Adam

    I also have a motion pending to ban Joe from the Sons of Poland Association unless Al Simmons appears on the list!

    Reply
  34. Adam

    “Alois Harry Szymanski” aka Al Simmons is who Connie Mack prefered over every other player he managed/owned during his 50+ years in baseball

    Reply
    1. DM

      Is this referring to the quote about Mack, who, towards the end of his managerial tenure, was asked who would add the most value to a team, and reportedly said “Give me a team of 9 Al Simmons”? In the context of trying to identify the greatest players of all time in 2014, how much weight do we really want to give to something said probably 65 years ago by the guy’s own manager?

      Look, I do think Al Simmons has a case to be included among the 100 greatest players of all time, and he has an argument to be maybe one the top 10 left fielders ever, but in either case it’s not a clear cut or obvious one.. You can make a case for him. When I was growing up, I certainly would have had him listed in the top 100, but that was a long time ago. I would personally have him outside the top 100 now.

      Think for moment about how many all-time great players likely won’t make this list. Phil Niekro, Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Sam Crawford, Fergie Jenkins, Ed Plank, Jim Palmer, Harry Heilmann, Paul Molitor, Jim Thome, Luke Appling, Richie Ashburn. If they haven’t been mentioned by now, it’s hard to see them getting mentioned now. For several picks now, the consensus among most readers seems to be that, at this point, there won’t be room for great catchers like Carter, Dickey, Rodriguez, Fisk, Cochrane, and Piazza. Maybe one of them will be mentioned….but the competition’s getting pretty tough right now. There are so many players that are deserving and really so few spots. The top 100 from way over a century of play is a pretty high standard. There’s no shame in missing the cut.

      Reply
  35. Adam

    And Sid Breams moment of fame negates any hope Barry Bonds being remembered for anything but a below average arm for a LF

    Reply
    1. DM

      So anyone making a mistake deserves to be judged by that? Boy, that Mariano Rivera was a real idiot for blowing the 2001 World Series, both with his horrible throw and having the nerve to be on the mound and letting 2 runs score. What a bum.

      And Babe Ruth, ending a World Series by getting thrown out trying to steal 2nd. What a loser.

      And Dennis Eckersley giving up homers to Gibson and Alomar. What a jerk.

      Just because players don’t perform to what we think they ought to, just because they don’t execute perfection upon demand, that doesn’t mean we all have to go along with the mob mentality of pigeonholing them as losers or inadequate. Nobody makes the play all the time. Nobody executes perfectly every time.

      I’m not here to defend Barry Bonds, but coming to the conclusion that he had an inadequate arm because he failed on one occasion to throw out one particularly slow baserunner with the pennant on the line is a pretty narrow mined conclusion.

      Reply
      1. DM

        Oops…that should have read “narrow minded”, not narrow mined. Guess if I’m going to put a thought like that out there, I should have checked for spelling first….

        Reply
  36. Adam

    I agwee with you! My larger point was merely to mitigate the overly generous assessment of Bonds Jr’s throwing arm, which is the lone below average skill, on the field.

    Reply
    1. DM

      Perhaps….but your first point was to use one specific play to illustrate it. Now, if you’re saying that the Bream play overrides everything in people’s memories, that that single play is the sole image of people’s impression of his arm, I can see that, unfair though it may be. I think if you ask many people what they thought of his arm, that single play is what’s going to come to mind. In their minds, that’s “proof” of a weak arm, even if they have no other evidence. Well, again, it was one throw, and if it had been a different baserunner, probably nobody would have thought twice about it. The fact that it was Sid Bream blew it way out of proportion in people’s memories, and maybe that was part of your point too. But that throw was no different than a thousand throws that we routinely see. I’ve heard it described as Bonds “dribbling” the throw. Really? Dribbling? Well, I’ve seen it, and it looks like a one-hop throw that’s offline. Again, you see that type of throw all the time. Absent that one throw, what would people’s thoughts be?

      You mentioned scouting reports on his arm. Do you have any of those to share?

      Reply
  37. Adam

    And that assessment of his arm is based off watching him play during his Pittsburgh days…great range, below average arm, a 40 on most scouting reports

    Reply
  38. Adam

    I missed your post about Mack/Simmons, and yes it was. I do understand this is Joe’s list, and I do enjoy the back and forth of who will and wont make the list…its fun. However, I think for everyone following this great blog, it brings to mind 2 things, whom we think is/are the best players are comprising the top 100, and to be genuine, who we have a sincere affinity for. For example, I believe based upon my readings, that Oscar Charleston is likely the best CF of all time, and Tris Speaker is who I would have loved to have seen in action, but for all the CF’s I’ve seen play, Willie McGee and Kirby Puckett are more than worth the price of admission.

    Reply
  39. Adam

    But I didn’t manage to save all my Athlon Sports mags from the late 80′s, so I don’t have those scouting reports on Barry Bonds, but I don’t need them, Bream is the empirical evidence.

    DM, it appears we differ on much. So I will put it all on the table. Willie McGee looked like he was tip-toeing across glass when he was walking, and then at the crack of the bat, he would transform in a moment into a graceful stroke of lightning…unexpected and riveting.
    Incomparable to watching Barry Bonds play a hyped version of beer league softball in San Francisco(walk, strut, swat).

    Or watching Kirby Puckett, who looks more at home on a pool table, making an over the wall catch…again…unexpected and riveting.

    So we differ on who we appreciate, that is no crime.

    Reply
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