By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

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.

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71 Responses to No. 90: Mark McGwire

  1. McGwire belongs in the Hall. I’m sick and tired of the voters having this “holier-than-thou” attitude when it comes to PED use. How come it’s OK to take a cortisone shot but not anabolic steroids? What about players like Aaron and Mantle freely admitting to using greenies? It’s OK for them to do it but not a current player? The HoF is a museum. You can’t just pick and choose the parts you want to ignore because you didn’t like the outcome. I mean if we are going to start doing that, then I guess the Yankees won the WS in 2001. I didn’t like Luis Gonzalez getting the winning hit off Rivera. Is it really that difficult to put Big Mac in the Hall and acknowledge on his plaque that he used PED’s while playing MLB?

    • Greenies were wrong, but nobody ever hit 70 HRs because of greenies. And nobody is being “holier than thou”. People just look at steroid users numbers and don’t see them as legitimate. If the numbers aren’t legitimate than they can’t be considered for the HOF. In addition, “integrity” is noted as a key element of HOF votes. What kind of integrity moves a player to work with unsavory characters to illegally obtain steroids to boost their production? What kind of integrity causes a player to continue to deny and lie about their usage…. Several even lied to Congress and are lucky they’re not in jail.

      Now, you can legitimately argue that greenie users should not be in the HOF. You just have to link the greenies to increased performance…. Or, you could reasonably argue against their integrity. I have no problem if you want to go that direction. The performance link is easy with steroids. It’s well documented when Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Clemens started using and the results are stark. I don’t think the greenie performance link is as clear, but again, make the argument if you like and I may agree with you. But throwing out the word greenie without attaching it to specific examples of performance enhancement makes for a pretty weak argument.

      All that said, I’m opposed to excluding players from the HOF where the “proof” of steroid use is rumor based or guilt by association…. I.e. Piazza has bacne and Bagwell was or big and knew Caminiti.

      If you want steroid users in the HOF, that’s your opinion. But those of us that oppose them, oppose them based on solid evidence that they used…. And that their PED usage clearly resulted in a drastic improvement in performance. And, The Clemens and Bonds argument aside (which is interesting) that without PEDs, most players would not have generated the numbers for a compelling HOF case. Btw, I still oppose Clemens and Bonds based on their lack of integrity in their attempts, not only to cheat, but to continue to deny that they did so in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. McGwire chose silence until he wanted to be a hitting coach and was forced to come clean, otherwise he’d still be out of sight and would never have admitted anything. I’ll give McGwire this though… At least he didn’t brazenly lie to Congress on national TV like several others did.

      • Anon Ymous says:

        Bellweather: “It’s well documented when Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Clemens started using and the results are stark.”

        My response? To the best of my knowledge, Sosa’s use of steroids is not well documented at all. Compared to the other 3, his is 90% guilt by association and physical changes, and only 10% him being on the pseudo-anonymous list and other things. Not that I think Sosa is innocent, but outside of the 3 guys you named and Palmeiro, there isn’t a lot of documented evidence on use, and lots of players who have been named.

        Also, there are plenty of players we don’t think used steroids (Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez) who also put up historically incredible numbers in the same time period.

        Also, there are TONS of players who took steroids and didn’t see any significant gain from them.

        I agree with you on Matt’s argument being a poor one to argue. And while I have no problem with steroid users pre-enforcement being in the Hall of Fame, I understand those who do. But careful … Sosa is a lot closer to Piazza and Bagwell (and very very similar to Ortiz) in terms of factual evidence, and it’s been (probably correct) inference on why he’s deemed in the same boat as Bonds, McGwire and Clemens. And while many record breakers have been linked to steroids, lots of other top players in the same period haven’t been, and lots of other players who used didn’t achieve big results, leading the claim that steroids definitely enhanced performance to require far more in depth look that just saying it’s obvious.

        • I think that Sosa being on the leaked list of 104 players and on the Grimsley affidavit, plus the physical changes is substantial evidence. It’s in a completely different ballpark from the evidence against Bagwell and Piazza. I think both of them used too, but there isn’t any substantial evidence that can be used to confirm as there is with Sosa.

      • Hungus says:

        I think you could make a compelling argument that any numbers put up before segregation ended are not legitimate. These players played against actively worse players at the exclusion of many good athletes, both in the Negro league as well as internationally. I think playing against this diminished competition would have as much impact on a player’s performance as steroids (although I have literally no evidence to back that up). But I think if “legitimate” numbers are what you are looking for, I’m not really sure where you begin to include or exclude players.

        • By your logic, all stats aren’t legitimate because many talented Cuban players are currently being prevented from playing here. Stop with the silly arguments. Earlier desegregation would have changed HOFer numbers very little, (great players are great players, it would have dropped the marginal players out of the game, though) and it would have given more legitimacy to HOF arguments for black players by adding a statistical basis for their induction…. Instead of from stories….. True and myth.

      • Ah. Medical science gives us steroids, some players use them to gain an edge, and you think that means they should be kept out of the HOF.

        But what about arthroscopic surgery? Tommy John surgery? Contact lenses? Steroids used routinely to reduce inflammation under a team doctor’s prescription? Better training methods, better diet? What about guys who will have laser surgery to correct their vision to 20:10 to hit better?

        If I had enough talent so that improving my game by steroids would be the difference between never hitting the major leagues and a five year career, and I had no significant other job skills because, until I hit Triple A, ball skills were enough, wouldn’t I consider trying them? Same scenario but drive a five year utility career to a ten year starter career? Same answer. The guys we’re talking about are driving careers worth tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars. I am certain more than half of all MLB players at least tried steroids. For many, such as speed based players, steroids won’t help much if at all; I suspect junkballers are in the same category. For many others, adverse reactions, or the realization that it takes hours of weight lifting daily to leverage steroids into a competitive advantage, or even the decision that they didn’t want to cheat, changed their minds.

        The thing is, lots and lots of folks were using them. For every hitter who got a bit more bat speed, there was a pitcher who put a couple more MPH on the speed gun. Players like (IMO) Barry Bonds were falling behind by not using. It was pandemic. Will we ever know if Maddux or Pedro used, just because they were thin. Maddux is brilliant, maybe he was just smart enough to never raise suspicion (and no, I don’t mean to accuse him, I’m just saying that as my sister used to say when she was in the D.A.’s office, “We don’t catch rocket scientists.” Will we ever know for sure? How can we?).and as one friend believes, was one of the 90+% of all ball players who at least tried steroids.

        It might be unfair to the clean players, but they’ll avoid all kinds of health issues for the rest of their lives. It’s definitely unfair to the clean players who lost their chances to dirty ones. But we can’t change the past. I see no way to exclude most of an entire class of HOFers because medicine advanced faster than testing and regulations. Give them an asterisk, like Maris got, but put them in the HOF.

      • Elder Fan says:

        Do you really think Pete Rose would have had all those hits without the help of “greenies” after his wild nights? “Greenies” didn’t increase power, they were powerful stimulants that increased focus. How can use say that didn’t dramatically increase performance?

      • If greenies didn’t enhance performance, then why did players use them? Would Aaron have hit as many home runs without using them? We’ll never know. All we know is that he hit a lot while using them, which is pretty much the same argument as with steroids.

    • Anon Ymous says:

      Matt: “How come it’s OK to take a cortisone shot but not anabolic steroids? What about players like Aaron and Mantle freely admitting to using greenies? It’s OK for them to do it but not a current player?”

      My response? A cortisone shot is usually legal when prescribed by the doctor and not against MLB rules, while anabolic steroids, even when unenforced, where both illegal how most players used them, and against MLB rules. Greenies, while making it easier to perform at your best, do not enhance your upper-end ability and perform beyond your natural limits.

      Matt, I’m all for McGwire being in the HOF, and I’m as bewildered by you on how this is affecting HOF voting … but the only argument that needs to be used is the “MLB was complicit in not enforcing their rules, and this whole generation can be compared to itself when deciding HOF voting”. Your arguments aren’t apples to apples with cortisone or amphetamines.

      • There was a lot of blame to go around, so I do understand your argument. When the powers that be are looking the other way, and especially when usage become wide spread, it’s understandable if a player sees the circumstances as a “green light” to do what everyone else is doing.

        So, I don’t advocate for drawing and quartering, jailing or even expelling them from baseball. I just think that their numbers aren’t legitimate and therefore not HOF worthy. I argue against their integrity, since integrity implies doing the right thing even if others are not, but the illegitimate numbers are my main concern.

        BTW: I have no problem with a well reasoned argument on this topic. I just have no patience for arguments that compare steroids to greenies or cortisone or basically state that nobody’s perfect and therefore we have no right to judge anyone…. Or there are already bad guys like Anson and Cobb in the HOF so what’s a few more?

      • Brian says:

        “Greenies, while making it easier to perform at your best, do not enhance your upper-end ability and perform beyond your natural limits.” That’s a silly statement. Of course it helped players perform beyond their natural limits. Natural limits would include getting tired and feeling sluggish and not being about to go out and hit two home runs the day after drinking all night. Players with less energy do not perform as well as when their energy was artificially enhanced; without greenies the players taking them would have hit fewer home runs, stolen fewer bases, struck out fewer batters etc . . . And like steriods greenies were illegal at the time. I have no problem with steriod users or pill poppers in the hall but I understand those who do. However, if you’re going to make a case against steriod users be factual and consistent.

        • Spencer says:

          Precisely. I’m befuddled that greenie use is glossed over. I firmly believe this is a generational, nostalgic, good old days attitude. Sportswriters, players and hall of fame voters of an older generation can’t come to grips that their imperfect heroes also cheated and will perform mental gymnastics to validate their heroes. Athletes of every generation cheat. But it’s an abhorrent thought that the difference between Willie Mays and Jose Canseco is far less than we think.

          Which is kind of terrible, they get to keep their perfect childhood heroes while trashing mine. I’m aware of my childhood heroes’ faults, warts and all.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      There is no double standard. If the only thing McGwire was suspected of what the usage of greenies, he would be in the HoF right now.
      As far as cortisone shots, that is a type of medicine that is given to injured players. It is given by doctors for its approved use. It is not taken by perfectly healthy players in order to improve performance.

      • frightwig says:

        “There is no double standard. If the only thing McGwire was suspected of what the usage of greenies, he would be in the HoF right now.”

        So if McGwire had only taken this other kind of illegal drug that’s known to boost performance by helping players feel sharper, less tired and sluggish during the long season, then HOF voters would have shrugged. But, steroids are an absolute no-no. That sounds just like a double standard.

        “As far as cortisone shots, that is a type of medicine that is given to injured players.”

        The same could be said of steroids, which is often prescribed by doctors to help a patient recover from injury or illness. It’s the claim McGwire makes for himself, actually. He said that he took steroids only to help recover from injuries. Other players might be interested in trying steroids for similar reasons: a player suffering from a sore arm or a nagging knee sprain might struggle through the season with the injury, or maybe it could even threaten his career. If the promise of steroids is that he might recover from the problem more quickly, and save his season or career, I can see how it would be an attractive option, at least.

        And I get the impression that cortisone “medicine” doesn’t really heal a player so much as mask the pain from an injury, so that he can play at a level which he otherwise could not. If that doesn’t fit the basic definition of a “Performance Enhancing Drug,” then I don’t know what does.

        • KHAZAD says:

          Cortisone, is of course, a steroid. It is just one that has been approved for use for many years, and has been used by your favorite athletes since the 1950s.

    • DjangoZ says:

      “How dare people be upset that someone cheated!”

      Wow. Well, we know where your ethics lie.

    • wogggs says:

      You can put him in the HOF, and probably should, but I don’t think you put PEDs on the plaque. It’s a museum to celebrate great accomplishments, not present an even keeled picture of every inductee. I don’t recall, but I don’t think Ty Cobb’s plaque says he was a jerk, or Mickey Mantle’s says he was a drunk.

  2. Bryan Adams says:

    Really, really enjoying this series, and enjoying both types of entries.

    I’m very interested in the thought that went into making this list. Obviously you did not just stack-rank by WAR or JAWS or something (though that may have been a starting point). As you go on, I’d be interested in hearing more about what other factors, particularly non-statistical (or counter-statistical?) that influenced your ranking.

    • Ross Holden says:

      I’m hoping at the end that Joe shows the full list of 100 with WAR and/or JAWS next to each name, and then maybe a sentence for any players that are far off of their WAR order.

  3. BobDD says:

    C’mon now, how many guys have a power statistic better than the Babe’s, and for more than one season? Two? Three?

    This Babe guy must’ve been pretty good himself.

  4. johnq11 says:

    It’s interesting the hypocrisy of not voting for McGwire in the HOF because of steroids yet voting in Tony La Russa unanimously on his first shot.

    The baseball HOF seems to exist in some dimension where basic logic and consistency doesn’t exist.

    1-La Russa was elected to the HOF because he won a lot of games.
    2-La Russa won those games while benefitting from having admitted steroid users on his roster.
    3-Even players suspected or rumored of having used steroids haven’t been elected to the HOF. On the contrary, they’re vilified and chastised as some of the worst people in the sport.

    So from there you elect & celebrate a person who was the manager who did nothing and said nothing while all this steroid use was going on???

    You can apply the same logic to Joe Torre as well.

    • I’m not a LaRussa fan at all, but holding him, or other steroid era managers, responsible for policing steroid usage when the Commissioner, the owners, the Players Union, the team Presidents and GMs would not, is unfair, and way off base IMO.

      • johnq11 says:

        I’m not holding him “responsible,” I’m saying there is a huge inconsistency/hypocrisy in selecting and honoring a manager who greatly benefitted from players on steroids yet at the same time vilifying and not selecting admitted or suspected steroid users.

      • KHAZAD says:

        By the same token, holding people accountable who used steroids during the 1990s, and especially (I have certainly read enough of your stuff on this issue to know that you do this) unilaterally condemning players who don’t even have any allegations of them using, holding the player responsible for using steroids when the commissioner, the players union, the team presidents and the GMs as well as the managers did not, is unfair and way off base IMO.

    • cohnjusack says:

      You could also apply this to Bobby Cox. Gary Sheffield, John Rocker, Mike Stanton, David Justice…

      EVERYBODY had a lot of steroid users on their clubs.

    • Ian R. says:

      The simplest counterargument is that those wins were obtained by beating other teams that also had steroid users. The La Russa/McGwire Cardinals, for instance, were in the same division as Sammy Sosa’s Cubs.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical to draw a distinction between the players who actually used steroids and the managers who were secondary beneficiaries of their use. I don’t think we SHOULDN’T judge the managers either – that’s a legitimate point of view – but I don’t think it’s illegitimate to support one but not the other.

      Also, the BBWAA has voted on McGwire (and Sosa and Palmeiro and Bonds and Clemens). The Expansion Era committee voted in La Russa (and Cox and Torre). Those are two entirely different groups of voters. How can that constitute hypocrisy?

      • johnq11 says:

        That logic doesn’t make much sense, “Everybody else was doing it so why penalize La Russa.” Well if that’s the case why isn’t the same standard applied to McGwire???

        You can even make a case that La Russa was more at fault considering that he held a a supervisory position in the sport.

        And that’s not the case with La Russa’s A’s with Canseco. Few players were doing steroids during the late 80’s. If anything Al Russa had a huge competitive advantage during the late 80’s-early 90’s.

  5. To be fair, Torre could have made it as a player.

  6. BadHand says:

    Everyone, and I mean everyone -fans-players-owners-managers-Hall of Fame-BBWAA- during the Steroid era were complicit. Steroids, while grotesque and incomprehensible now, saved baseball.

    You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

    • Maybe, but then you’re argument is essentially that the end justifies the means. Certainly that’s what Jack was arguing in your quote. But, in the end, there is always fallout from that kind of thinking. In the movie it was Santiago’s death, which exposed a very dark culture promoted by a corrupt man… And the fall of a great, but flawed leader Not unlike Colonel Kurtz in Apocolypse Now. In baseball, the fallout is a loss of integrity and fan cynicism, evidenced by all the whisper campaigns that surround extraordinary accomplishments…. And the HOF voting issue which is not only going to effect users, but also clean players who may well fall off the stacked ballot without a fair hearing.

  7. Joe did a great job touching on this already, but I wanted to emphasize how McGwire’s games/at-bats in 1998 truly became EVENTS.

    When my dad and I saw the Twins play the Cardinals at the Metrodome, the place was nearly full just to watch Big Mac take batting practice, and man… what a show. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. I can still hear my dad laughing in disbelief as a ball landed two rows beneath us. We were sitting maybe three rows from the end of a section in left field. Unreal.

    I honestly never gave a crap about the steroid aspect of it, because it’s entertainment. I think Joe’s magician analogy fits well. I was thoroughly entertained by McGwire’s “Come See: Huge Guy Smashes Ball!” act.

  8. chuck says:

    Things that increased McGwire’s home runs that don’t appear connected to steroids:
    1) A revamped swing, going from an already high ratio of 50% fly balls to batted balls to 55% in 1991 and 58% in 1992. 58% is extremely high. He increased his chances of hitting the ball out, when he hit it.

    2) A juiced baseball. Between 1988-1992 the AL average was a 6.6% HR/fly ball ratio. In 1994 it was suddenly 9.6%, and the average from 1994-97 was 9.7%. That’s an increase of 47% across the league, but was present in ’94, not a steady growth, as one might expect to see if more and more hitters were taking steroids. 1993 was a sort of hybrid year for the AL (a rate of 7.7%), while in the NL the jump occurred right away that season.
    McGwire’s HR/fly ratio in 1992 was 17.4%. From 1994-97, it was 25.2%: an increase exactly that of the league, 47%.

    3) The revamped swing made him a much better low ball hitter. His HR-to-batted ball rate against ground ball pitchers went from a lowly 5.4% in 1988-92 to 14.6% in 1994-97. His rate vs fly ball pitchers rose also (from 7.3% to 10.8%), but not nearly to the same extent. I don’t know of a steroid that selectively gives one the ability to hit one type of pitcher better than another. Notice that he was better against fly ball pitchers in the earlier period, but then better against ground ball pitchers in the latter.

    4) This ties in with the switch to the NL, where there were more ground ball pitchers. In 1997 the ground ball pitcher / fly ball pitcher ratio of batter plate appearances was 1.10 in the NL; in the AL it was just .63, far less.

    5) Oakland is almost at sea level while St Louis’ altitude is 535 above, not to mention the midwest is a hell of a lot hotter in the summer, which is when McGwire arrived in ‘97.

    Not surprisingly from all the above, his HR to batted ball rate went from 12.5% in the first 2/3rds of 1997 to 20.9% after he was traded. Anyone know of a steroid that works that fast? (A moot question, if he was already taking them.) And in 1998 his rate stayed there, at 19.6%.
    Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.

  9. Rudy Gamble says:

    FWIW, if one’s HOF position on steroids is performance-driven vs morality-driven, I think McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield, and Kevin Brown are four cases where their HOF-worthiness based on WAR is borderline enough (<70 WAR, not catchers) that I can see why a voter would lean no. Palmeiro is in the neighborhood as well. I'd vote for all 5 (with an unlimited ballot) but I think it's possible to probable they don't reach the standard without their suspected PEDs.

    Bagwell and Piazza aren't borderline candidates in my opinion. That's a bigger PED penalty to keep them out.

    Bonds and Clemens are, obviousy, in another stratosphere.

  10. Alejo says:

    I will only say this: There are people in MLB history who honestly worked their way up the lineup every single day without cheating in any way.
    Take Omar Vizquel. He was small, couldn’t hit at all (he hit less than .200 in Venezuelan winter baseball) and was generally considered a lost case at the home plate. This guy worked on his hitting like a madman and collected 2500-plus hits during his MLB career. Besides that, he made good of his talent, defence, winning more than ten Gold Gloves. No muscles, no steroids, no funny stuff. Just hard work.
    Plenty of people like that in MLB history. I hope you mention several of them above this uni-dimensional, steroid-fuelled fraud.

    • Steve says:

      This is part of what’s irritating about steroids. There’s no way to know whether Vizquel took steroids versus any other person who never tested positive. Not everyone who took steroids bulked up. Not everyone was a power hitter. Many, many pitchers took them. Steroids were taken to fend off aging, to recover from injury, etc., as well as to get stronger. Anyone at all is a candidate, including Vizquel.

      • Alejo says:

        Listen, Steve, I will give you a piece of advice: do not justify known faults by pointing at imaginary ones. McGwire was an obvious doper and he later admitted as much. Vizquel did never show any of the signs associated to steroids or HGH. Pointing at him is completely arbitrary.
        Forget about Vizquel. What about Aparicio? Ozzie Smith?
        Plenty of people played clean. McGwire didn’t.

        • Karyn says:

          Let me give you a piece of advice, Alejo: Read what Steve actually wrote. Not everyone who took steroids bulked up. Not everyone who used were even hitters–many were pitchers, especially in the minor leagues. Jason Grimsley didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a roider, but he used them. So did a lot of ‘little’ guys.

          No one’s accusing Omar Vizquel of anything. But what Steve is saying is that you can’t look at him and say–No, not him, not that guy, no way. We don’t know.

          • Alejo says:

            Could you please name these supposed steroid users who didn’t bulk up?

          • Chris M says:

            The very first person to get suspended for steroids was the “massively bulky” Alex Sanchez, who was 5’10, 180 pounds and hit a whopping 6 HR in his career. More recently, Everth Cabrera got busted, another little guy who has speed and no power.

            Vizquel played a TON of games during the very height of the steroid era, and was exam mates with some known steroid users and other guys who are often suspected (Manny, Thome, Belle). It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he used.

  11. Mike says:

    Alejo, while I have always had a tremendous respect for Vizquel, we have no idea whether or not he cheated. What we do know is that many players used “performance enhancing” drugs, there are undoubtedly players who used them that have never been publicly identified, there are likely players who have been accused of using them that never actually did, and that it isn’t really known what type of impact steroids and the like actually had on the numbers. The entire steroids debate has been filled with speculation and assumptions, which is what really drives me crazy about the current HOF debates.

  12. Steve says:

    McGwire took steroids. He also completely re-vamped his swing. Of the two, I think the second was more important to his success.

    That swing he had in the late ’90s was the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never watched anyone who seemed like they were going to hit one out on literally every swing. It was like he was a guy with “90” power on Baseball Simulator 1.000 (8-bit Nintendo). It was quick and compact and absolutely devastating. And a completely different swing than what he had in the late ’80s.

  13. cohnjusack says:

    It’s a damn shame that nothing can be writtin about Mark McGwire without 95% of the comments being about steroids. This is true for McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and Clemens…and virtually no one else.

  14. Well I mean if you are going to say voters need to uphold the integrity of the game, then why are guys like Kirby Puckett, Ty Cobb, Cap Anson etc. in the Hall of Fame? I mean, you can’t have it both ways. Like I said earlier, you can’t pick and choose the parts you want to ignore.

    And to whoever said it’s OK to take cortisone because it’s legal, you are missing the point. It’s STILL a steroid!

  15. Paul says:

    McGwire, before he began cheating with steroids, was on a career track similar to Dave Kingman, with a four-year stretch in which his batting average was ..260, .231, .235, and ,.201.. No way is he a Top 100 player, let alone a Hall of Famer.

    • Ian R. says:

      Batting average? You’re saying McGwire looked similar to Dave Kingman because he had a mediocre batting average?

      McGwire’s on-base percentages from those same years: .352, .339, .370, .330
      Dave Kingman’s best on-base percentages (min. 100 games): .343, .336, .326, .321

      McGwire at his absolute worst was still comparable to Dave Kingman at his absolute best.

      Also, if you believe those years were before McGwire started cheating, you’ll also have to acknowledge that his excellent rookie year (49 home runs, .370 OBP, .618 SLG) was before he started cheating. Pre-steroid McGwire flashed some serious talent. It’s not at all unusual for a talented player to struggle in his mid-20s before putting it all together later in his career.

  16. NevadaMark says:

    I think Joe secretly loves stirring the steroid pot for his readers.

  17. Phil says:

    Haven’t read all the comments, but I think it’s great that the first one comes from the guy who almost broke Maris’s record four years before McGwire did.

  18. Chad Meisgeier says:

    I wouldn’t have McGwire in my top 100, but nothing to do with ‘roids.

    My No. 90 would be Red Ruffing.

  19. Dave Gilland says:

    I still respect your writing, even if you did include McGwire in the top 100 baseball players of all time. But I am disappointed.

  20. Stu Burton says:

    I would include him just for the fact that he, in a stretch, hit over 450 home runs without hitting a single triple … that’s impressive!

  21. Completely agree with the choice, for all the reasons you mentioned.

    A quick anecdote. I was ten years old in 1998. Every summer before school started my family would make a pilgrimage to Wrigley from our home in Iowa. That year the trip fell on August 19, when the Cardinals happened to be in town. Going into the game, Sosa and McGwire were tied at 47 homers apiece. We couldn’t believe our luck. In the fifth Sammy crushed one, his 48th, to seize the lead. The crowd was just crazy that day, and we were rooting for Sosa and the Cubs, of course. But we couldn’t shake the feeling (which was not entirely unpleasant) that McGwire wasn’t finished. The Cubs had the lead going into the eighth. Then McGwire hit a towering shot to tie it (both the game and Sosa). We all groaned the way fans do, but there were lots of smiles and wide eyes, like people had almost wanted it to happen. McGwire went on to win it in the tenth–off of Terry Mulholland–with another home run, his 49th. (Here’s the box score:

    Still one of the more remarkable games I’ve ever seen or read about. I can still remember how deeply in awe we all were that day. Of course I was ten, but still … it’s a feeling that hasn’t dulled one bit despite the aftermath.

  22. Patrick Hogue says:

    I’m surprised to see McGwire in the top 100. Like Joe, I’m a fan of WAR but don’t use it exclusively. In McGwire’s case, Joe doesn’t mention it. Why? Mac’s career WAR is 62.1, very respectable; 158th all-time and 106th for position players. Throw in a dozen or more Negro Leagues and he will rank even lower.

    OK, that is not the only way to look at it, how about peak seasons; 7.5, 6.5, 6.4. Again very good, but not off the charts. Of course 7.5 is his 70 HR season where he was 3rd best position player in the league, 4th overall.

    Consistency? No! Great post season stats? 217/320/349 in 151 PA… No! Joe likes HRs/AB in this case and the batting practice show which is fine because these articles are great and he really does tell some good stories and give good context about Mac and all these players. But a great story does not make the Top 100 for me.

    Then there are the steriods…

    Even minus the roids consideration Big Mac is not close to my top 100. Probably closer to 200 if you add Negro League players. I have a top 20 ranked at each position and he didn’t make my list for 1B/DH

  23. I was on a cross country bike tour in 1998 (Vancouver to Tijuana), so I spent all day on the bike, and evenings (mostly) camping out. But we would usually be staying at/close to a town, and a bunch of us would ride into town most nights to find out what had happened with McGwire and Sosa. Sometimes we would be able to catch one or the other on a tv game that night. Only the summer George Brett was chasing .400 comes close for baseball excitement for me (I lived in Kansas at that time).

  24. Dave Gilland says:

    It seems to me that the list of top 100 players should be good at baseball. To be in the top 100 all time, considering all of the great players over the years,
    you would need to be excellent at all aspects of the game. McGwire didn’t play good defense, he didn’t hit for average. He only had one baseball act that he was good at. He hit home runs, but had help doing it. How much further the ball went because of the PED’s we’ll never know. Would he have hit 30% of his total legitimately, or 50%, or give him the benefit of the doubt and say 80%? Whatever it is, it’s not enough to be in my top 500 players of all time.

    • John says:

      Frankly, this is really, really shortsighted. Ted Williams wasn’t exactly known for his defense. Should he be left off the top 100 also? McGwire actually did two things well. As Joe points out, he hit homers (PEDs or not) at a higher rate than anyone in the history of baseball. He also got on base a lot, drawing lots of walks. There’s a lot of ways to be “good at baseball.” It doesn’t necessarily require all-around talent if a player excels at a couple of important aspects (like getting on base and hitting home runs). Now, all that being said, one can certainly argue whether McGwire is one of the 100 best players of all time. I’m sympathetic to Joe’s position, but I’m not going to go crazy if someone else left him out. But make some better arguments than “he wasn’t good at baseball because he didn’t have the all-around game that Willie Mays did.”

      • John says:

        Oh, I just realized that you said that McGwire isn’t one of the FIVE HUNDRED best players of all time. I’m not even sure how to respond to such a ridiculous assertion. His WAR right now is 158th. Safe to say that, at the very least, he’s one of the 200 (let alone 500) best players of all time.

  25. Evan says:

    While I almost invariably find myself on the side of sabermetrics people, steroid use is one topic where we part ways. In my mind, the beauty of advanced stats is the way it allows you to appreciate the continuity of the game, adjusting for different eras, park factors, etc. And what is so troubling to people like myself with a more or less 0 tolerance for steroids is that, for a game that treasures and enshrines numbers more than any other, nothing has undermined the game and its continuity more than steroids. There’s really nothing comparable. Say what you will about greenies, spitballers, corked bats, etc., steroid use is on a different level entirely. Now, steroid defenders (I know this is a bad term: obviously, no one ACTUALLY defends steroids) claim that, given the extent of steroid use over a fifteen year period, drawing a line in the sand is a fundamentally an anti-stat, blunt, useless endeavor. I disagree. Hopefully, we will get a better picture over time of how pervasive steroid use really was; hopefully, we will get a better sense of how it affects performance. Yes, our picture is foggy no, but that’s the way science works. You study something and get a better picture over time. I had expected the stats people to understand this, but I was wrong. All I can hope is that there will be a paradigm shift within the sabermetrics community over time.

  26. Two points:

    1. One of the most remarkable, yet unremarkable, things about the players who have been caught using steroids and then admitted to use is that they, with almost no exception, never admit that they used to improve their performance. They generally fall into two categories: 1) I only used once or twice but realized it was wrong and stopped using, or, 2) like McGwire, they confine their steroid use to simply recovering from injury.

    In his post, Joe finds McGwire to be sincere. I’m an appellate criminal defense attorney. I have read and/or watched hundreds upon hundreds of confessions from clients. And generally, when people are caught doing something wrong, they minimize their culpability, even when admitting to doing something. I think it’s no different

    2. I think the reason so many of us can’t agree to overlook steroid use in the case of players like McGwire, Bonds, etc. is because, regardless of juiced baseballs, changed swings, new ballparks, etc., their numbers don’t pass the smell test because of how they defied the normal patterns of baseball aging. It’s not that they merely avoided the decline phase — it’s that they, after the age 30, saw their stats climb to the stratosphere. As Joe details in his post, McGwire didn’t merely resurrect his career, he kept getting better as he aged, while hitting massive shots on a consistent basis. For a lot of us long time fans, this doesn’t gibe with reality. A career like Frank Thomas’s, with a recognized peak and then an up-and-down decline as age and injuries took effect is more the norm.

    Yes, many ballplayers in that era did amazing things. But when the amazing things seem to defy the natural order, understandably, some folks are going to have a hard time accepting it.

  27. Tom Wright says:

    McGwire’s 2001 season is one of the strangest batting lines I’ve ever seen. Take a look:

    23 singles, 4 doubles, 29 home runs, 56 walks, 110 K’s in 364 PA

    He more home runs, walks, and strikeouts than most players would have in a season – and he only played 97 games. Just bizarre.

  28. blahblahblah says:

    Mark McGwire was a tremendously fun player to watch. Even as a rookie,he stood at the plate so tall, all red haired and huge like a baseball viking, the bat looked spindly in his hands.
    When he was young, he had the shortest sweetest swing,reminded me of Paul Molitor. As he aged, he started uppercutting everything,hitting moonshots.
    Never saw anyone hit balls as far as often.The only player I’ve ever shown up early just to watch take BP.
    He’s the greatest slugger in history. That he took roids doesn’t bother.I think most players of his era did.The point is that he dominated. The man should be in the Hall.

  29. Matt says:

    I’m perfectly fine with drawing a line and saying everything up to a certain point is acceptable, but now that we’re against it, doing it now is not okay. What’s so wrong with that? You normalize stats across eras, don’t you? We don’t say the top 10 best pitchers ever all threw in the deadball era, so we don’t say the top 10 batters all hit in the steroid era. You can’t pretend the era never happened. You ought to pick SOMEBODY to represent the best of the era. If you want to exclude steroid players, then your top 30 list of the era might have some great players, but it probably gets thin really fast. I bet before you hit the bottom of the list, the absurdity of trying to ignore a steroid user becomes self evident. If you make a top 30 list of the era, you have to throw in known or accused steroid users.

  30. JaLaBar says:

    I have one issue: If we are going to keep them out of the Hall of Fame, why can’t we keep them out of the record books too. I mean, as mentioned, the HoF is a museum for FAMEous baseball players. Would I be personally offended if Mac or Bonds were in. Not really. But when I look at the MLB record books, and I don’t see the names Maris and Aaron at the top of those two categories, I get personally offended.

    Hell, why not a PED wing of the HoF? For all that either admitted or were caught using. That way Bonds and Mac have a place. Maybe guys like Sosa would come out and admit their use if there was an avenue to the Hall.

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