OK, I apologize in advance. I don’t want to make Fred McGriff my new Jack Morris. For one thing, I think McGriff has a substantial Hall of Fame case, better than Morris’. For another, I shake my head when I think back to how often I wrote about Jack Morris. He was an excellent pitcher, and he didn’t need my yammering about his fine career.
But, well, Brilliant Reader Jason pointed out an article by one of my favorite writers, Tom Verducci, who is leading the charge on McGriff. Tom wrote quite a bit about how McGriff’s getting jobbed here and I admire his enthusiasm for an excellent player. But, no, I can’t help myself: Man oh man does he pull off some statistical jujitsu when making his case. As someone who has committed plenty of statistical crimes and misdemeanors through the years, I feel well qualified to say that.
I want to focus on two charts. In the first, Tom compares McGriff to Eddie Mathews, but leads with a spoiler: The Crime Dog, he says, is the “spitting image” of Mathews.
McGriff: 2480 games, 2,490 hits, 493 homers, 1,550 RBI, .284/.377/.509, .886 OPS
Mathews: 2,391 games, 2,315 hits, 512 homers, 1,453 RBI, .271/.376/.509, .885 OPS
Yep, those split lines do look very, very similar. In fact, McGriff has a higher average and more hits and RBIs and even one more point of OPS. Spitting image, indeed. I guess we can go on to the next thing …
Only, wait a minute. If you look closely, you will notice that chart does not include all the stats. I do realize that for space purposes, you cannot include all every single statistic, I mean with grounded into double plays and sacrifice hits and all those new-fangled stats the kids are talking about.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything else.
Huh, isn’t that a pip! That doesn’t seem especially close, especially with Mathews playing in 90 fewer games. I wonder how that got missed. But, you know, that could have been an oversight …
Oh. Yeah. Shame that there wasn’t room for that in there. Oh wait, what’s that?
Huh. What do you know about that? How in the world is Eddie Mathews’ WAR FORTY-FOUR wins higher than McGriff’s when they are spitting images of each other? I guess it could be because WAR is a badly flawed statistic.
Or, just spitballing here, it could be that Mathews played in a much lower run-scoring time and in one of the worst hitting ballparks in baseball history. It could be that Mathews played a fair-to-good third base while McGriff was a well below-average first baseman. It could be that Mathews, while no faster than McGriff, was considerably better on the bases.
If I believed in Fred McGriff’s case, I also would make passionate arguments on his behalf. I just don’t think comparing him to Eddie Mathews does him any favors.
The second chart shows that from 1987-93, McGriff hit 228 home runs and that was tops in major league baseball. That’s impressive. I will add on McGriff’s behalf, though it’s not in Tom’s chart, that McGriff also led from 1988-94 and 1989-95. But I think Tom was trying to make a steroid-related point, which is why he came up with the 1993 cutoff line. Let’s see if I’m right.
Yep. The next part of the chart shows that 1994-2004, McGriff hit 265 home runsm and this was just 28th in major league baseball.
This chart was intended, I think, to make the point I was arguing with Brian Kenny about: That, in Tom’s words, the steroid sluggers “made McGriff look like just another hitter.”
Where to begin. OK, for one thing, Tom cheats on the ranges. The first range, 1987-93, is seven seasons. But the second range, 1994-2004, is 11 seasons. I have absolutely no idea why he does this unless he’s trying to give the illusion that 265 homers in 11 seasons is somehow the equivalent of 228 homers in seven. There’s some inconvenient math that seems to be avoided.
From 1987-93, McGriff averaged about 33 homers a year.
From 1994-2004, McGriff averaged about 24 homers a year.
Put that way: Would you expect someone averaging 24 homers a year to lead all of baseball or come especially close?
A second point is even more obvious: McGriff was in his physical prime from 1987-93. That was from age 23-29. When you break down home run leaders in seven-season increments like this, you will almost ALWAYS come up with a good hitter who happened to be in his prime.
From 1983 to 1989, the home run leader was: Dale Murphy. Not in the Hall of Fame.
From 1984 to 1990, the home run leader was: Darryl Strawberry. Not in the Hall of Fame.
From 1986 to 1992, the home run leader was: Jose Canseco. Not in the Hall of Fame.
From 1990 to 1996, the home run leader was: Cecil Fielder. Not in the Hall of Fame.
The reason those guys are not in the Hall of Fame is because, after their prime, they slowed down considerably or, in some cases, just stopped. McGriff kept hitting homers. But, and this is my point about all this, what Tom and others don’t want to concede is that for all the talk about the PED bombers, the era did not HURT McGriff. It HELPED him. All the elements were there in the 1990s for home run hitters like McGriff to keep piling on numbers. The rules were geared toward home runs. The ballparks. The equipment. And yes, sadly, there was no drug testing — but this too was part of baseball’s hunger for the long ball.
Bill James has written this about Henry Aaron. When you look at Aaron’s raw career statistics, you see staggering, superhuman consistency, especially with the long ball. He hit 44 homers at age 23. He hit 44 homers at age 29. He hit 44 homers at age 32. He hit 44 homers at age 35. He hit 47 homers at age 37. He hit 40 homers at age 39. It’s like Aaron never aged at all.
But he did age. Everyone ages. Even though Aaron WAS the most remarkably consistent player in baseball history some of this statistical uniformity is an obvious illusion. Aaron as a young man played in a terrible hitting ballpark (see Mathews, Eddie). This suppressed his numbers.
But as an older player, he was in the launching pad that was Fulton County Stadium. This inflated his numbers. Fulton County was where Joe Torre hit his career high 36 homers, where Rico Carty hit .366, where Davey Johnson somehow hit 43 homers and so on. Aaron’s 40-plus homer seasons in Fulton County Stadium, while amazing achievements, were not equivalent to the years he had as a young man.
And so it is for Fred McGriff. His 30-homer seasons with Tampa and Chicago toward the end of his career are just not the same as his 30-homer years in the late 1980s. They are a sign of the times.
Tom does make one final point that has some merit: He points out that McGriff was having a superb 1994 season but it was ended abruptly by the strike. He estimates that McGriff lost 16 homers in the process, and that seems fair enough to me. Those 16 would have pushed McGriff over 500, and that would have given him the adulation he deserved.
He’s right. We do love round numbers. I suspect that if McGriff had 500 home runs, as silly as this sounds, he would be in the Hall of Fame right now. See, hitting 500 would have set off a chain reaction. For one thing, he would have done it, presumably, in 2002, which would have been BEFORE Sammy Sosa did it, before Alex Rodriguez did it, before Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield and even Ken Griffey did it.
In other words, it would have been a big deal, and it would have gotten quite a bit of coverage. During that coverage people would have said all sorts of nice things about McGriff and, I suspect, called him a future Hall of Famer. There probably would have been a live cut-in for his 500th homer at-bat. Lots of people would have remembered his Tom Emanski commercials, his cool finish on his swing and other great things.
Once that happened, it would have been a fait accompli. McGriff would have come on the ballot with 500 homers just as the steroid stuff was raging, writers would have viewed him as one of the last clean 500-home run guys, and I do believe he would have been elected quickly and without much fuss.
That’s a very strong argument for McGriff because at 493 homers he’s the same player, he would have been with 500.
But it’s also a bit of a cynical one. McGriff with 500 home runs — especially with so many of them coming in the home run era — would still be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate with the same positives and negatives his case has now.