No. 90: Mark McGwire
So, I’m finding, I’m writing two kinds of essays for this 100 greatest baseball players project. The first kind of essay tells the story of the player, what made him special, what made him fun, what made him unforgettable. In the second kind of essay, I spend most of the time explaining WHY I ranked the player in my Top 100, why I ranked him in this particular spot.
The first kind of essay is a lot more fun to write.
Most people probably agree that Mark McGwire would be in the Hall of Fame today if he had been exactly the same player but without using steroids. I guess that’s both obvious and illogical (could he have been the same kind of player without steroids?). But I make the point because, as the record books stand, Mark McGwire was the most prolific home run hitter in the history of the game.
No, of course, he didn’t hit the most home runs. He just hit them at the highest rate. McGwire homered once every 10.6 at-bats. That rate is higher than Ruth, higher than Bonds, higher than Kiner or Killebrew or Ted Williams or anyone else. It isn’t just higher than all those players, it’s MUCH higher than all those players. Ruth is second, averaging one homer per every 11.7 at-bats.
Per 500 at-bats, Ruth averaged 43 homers.
Per 500 at-bats, McGwire averaged 47 homers.
Like I say, not particularly close.
McGwire, though, did use steroids which invalidates (or, certainly, deeply devalues) his performance in the eyes of most Hall of Fame voters. His first year on the ballot, he received just 23.5% of the vote and he stayed at that percentage for four years. Since then, he has admitted steroid use, apologized for it, come back as a hitting coach and tried to make amends by speaking out against performance enhancing drugs. This actually has led to his percentage going down — it’s down to 16.9% now — and as the ballot gets more and more stacked, I would say there’s a pretty good chance he will fall off the ballot entirely before long.
I’ve written plenty about McGwire, why I think he should be in the Hall of Fame, why I think his apology was sincere, why i think steroid use before drug testing should be viewed in a different light from steroid use now. Some agree. Many don’t. That is not the point here. The point of this list is to rank my 100 greatest baseball players. Mark McGwire is one of those.
You might remember that McGwire, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, went through a stretch of three years where he had dreadful batting averages. To be exact, he hit .231, .235 and .201. He was an All-Star all three of those years, funny enough, but he was basically an Adam Dunn kind of hitter. He homered. He walked. He whiffed. As injuries piled up, he didn’t even homer that much. In 1991, he didn’t slug .400. He was a subpar first baseman (though he won a Gold Glove in 1990) and he couldn’t run a lick, and there was a sense that maybe he was going to play his way right out of the Major Leagues.
McGwire says that getting that close to the brink forced him to demolish and reassemble his hitting approach and style. He insists that if you look at the way he hit in his early years (and, remember, McGwire hit 49 homers as a rookie), it is nothing like the way he hit from the mid 1990s on. He can go through all the specifics for anyone interested, but he is also aware that most people are not interested. Most seem to think he took steroids and got a lot stronger and this, most of all, was what made him the home run machine. I sense he’s tired of fighting back. I sense he’s resigned to people believing what they want to believe.
In 1992, his batting average jumped 67 points, his slugging percentage jumped more than 200 (he led the league in slugging and OPS+), and he hit 42 home runs. Then, he went through two injury prone years and these are the years he said he took steroids to come back. Again, some believe him, some don’t. What is undeniable is that when he got healthy, he hit home runs like no one ever had.
In 1995, he hit 39 home runs in 317 at-bats. That’s one every 8.1 at-bats. He did not get enough at-bats to qualify for but if he had, that would have been the highest home run percentage in baseball history.
In 1996, he hit 52 homers in 423 at-bats. That’s also one every 8.1 at-bats. That WAS good enough to quality, and so he became the record holder for highest home run percentage in a single season.
In 1997, he hit 58 homers in 540 at-bats. That was a mere one homer per every 9.3 at-bats … a drop. It was still higher than every season in baseball history up to that point except Babe Ruth in 1927 and Babe Ruth in 1921.
Then in 1998, you might remember, he hit 70 home runs in 509 at-bats, that was one per 7.3 at-bats, which was officially ridiculous.
These weren’t normal home runs either. Mostly they were titanic, soaring, majestic bombs — home runs that routinely measured close to 500 feet — the kind of home runs that even pitchers couldn’t help but take some perverse pride in.
It would be hard to describe the Mark McGwire 1998 season to people who weren’t around to see it. Every single game was a show. It began in batting practice. People would gather around just to watch McGwire hit batting practice homers. You would have thousands and thousands of people in the stands just watching to see him hit batting practice pitches out. Then, during the game, the roar would begin as McGwire walked toward the plate. Any game. He was battling with Sammy Sosa for the home run record, and it was one of those rare duels where fans generally rooted for both men — even with one a Cardinal and the other a Cub — and it was an astounding show. I thought McGwire, in particular, was less a baseball player in 1998 (the Cardinals weren’t any good) and more like one of those great magicians of the 1900s — a Harry Houdini or Howard Thurston — who came to your town and performed miracles.
McGwire distinctly did not like being the magician in the middle. He’s a generally taciturn man when not around his friends, and he did not like the media attention, did not like the pressure of hitting home runs starting in batting practice, did not like the way it was all about him. But there wasn’t too much he could do about it other than grumble a bit, which he did. Baseball had seemed in this semi death spiral ever since the 1994 strike. McGwire’s and Sosa’s home runs put the game back on the front page.
One year after hitting 70 home runs, McGwire hit 65 in 521 at-bats, one every eight at-bats. I guess that was the year the magic started wearing off. Almost everyone was pretty happy with the 1998 party, but at some point parties end and everyone is left with the mess and the hangover. Too many people were hitting home runs. Too many muscles were bulging. When Barry Bonds got in on the act — well, nobody liked Barry Bonds in the first place. There was a a major backlash. There was a congressional hearing. There was … well, you know all that.
McGwire was hurt in 2000 — he still managed 32 homers in 236 at-bats — and he was done in 2001.
McGwire has said that the biggest thing steroids did for him was allow him to get healthy and play baseball. People tend to scoff at that — and I certainly don’t mean to underplay the strength steroids helped him build up — but I don’t know that his point has been appreciated. I think McGwire compares extremely well with, say, Harmon Killebrew. They were both extremely strong men who couldn’t run, weren’t much good at defense, struck out quite a lot (and had relatively low batting averages because of it), walked a lot (and had high on-base percentages because of it) and hit a lot of home runs.
Killebrew, though, was able to stay in the lineup. He technically played 22 years in the big leagues, but at the core of it was 12 seasons where he was able to get 500 plate appearances — and in those 12 seasons he hit 488 of his 573 home runs.
McGwire, even with steroids, managed just 10 seasons where he able to get 500 plate appearances. Other people have said that without the strength steroids gave him, McGwire’s home run numbers would have looked a lot more like Killebrew’s. He would have had 50-homer power instead of 70, hit 45 homers instead of 65. Maybe that’s true. But would he have gotten enough times up to have a Killebrew career?
These are things we’ll never know. McGwire’s Hall of Fame case seems lost now. And I guess people will be arguing the authenticity of his home runs were for years to come. But, for the point of the Top 100 I can say this: He was the greatest home run hitter I ever saw.