The Case for Cooperstown: Fred McGriff

With the release of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, Waiver Wire writer Greg Kaplan will explore the candidacy of numerous names on the ballot. Points for and against induction will be presented, and we’re forcing him to make a decision at the end of each post to decide if that player should be placed alongside the immortals that have played baseball throughout history.

Previous Cases – Jack MorrisJeff BagwellLee SmithTim RainesAlan TrammellEdgar Martinez

fred-mcgriffFred McGriff

Year(s) on ballot – 4th (received 23.9% of vote last year)

Credentials – 19 years in MLB (parts of five seasons spent each with the Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Devil Rays), career .284/.377/.509, 493HRs, 1,550RBI, 2,490 hits, five-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger

The Case For:

Throughout his career, Fred McGriff hit a lot of home runs. His career total of 493 is still good enough for a tie for 26th with Lou Gehrig. Even more impressive, McGriff got to 493 in his career without once hitting more than 39 home runs in a single season. 10 seasons, McGriff finished with 30+ home runs, twice leading the league (’89 with Toronto and ’92 with San Diego). McGriff also turned his elite power into eight seasons compiling 100+ RBIs.

The Case Against:

You’re probably asking yourself, “Greg, dude, that case for was really short. What’s your beef with The Crime Dog?”

Well, intelligent reader of mine, I have nothing against Fred McGriff. In fact, he was the first player in my early childhood that put fear into the heart of the young Mets fan that I was. However, in hindsight, yes, McGriff was a threat in the middle of the line-up and someone who could hit a ball out of any ballpark. But, he was never elite, and that’s the most important qualification in terms of Hall of Fame credentials.

For example: six times in McGriff’s career did he finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting for that season. Sounds pretty impressive, right? However, did you know that only once in those six years, Fred McGriff was the highest vote getter on his own team. Take a look:

1989: George Bell (TOR) finished 4th, McGriff finished 6th

1990: Kelly Gruber (TOR) finished 4th, McGriff finished 10th

1991: McGriff (SDP) finished 10th, Tony Gwynn finished 16th

1992: Gary Sheffield (SDP) finished 3rd, McGriff finished T-6th

1993: David Justice (ATL) finished 3rd, McGriff finished 4th (his highest finish in his career, and another Atlanta teammate Ron Gant would finish 5th in the voting)

1994: Greg Maddux (ATL) finished 5th, McGriff 8th

Something else that underlines the notion that McGriff was a very good player but not elite was that during this stretch from ’89-’94, easily the most successful run in McGriff’s career, he played for three different teams. Twice, McGriff was traded in-season, once from Toronto to San Diego (for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, mind you), then from San Diego to Atlanta. Also during this stretch, McGriff made only two All-Star appearances.

All of this is backed up by McGriff sporting a career WAR of only 48.2. By no means is that a poor number, especially for a player that managed to extend his playing career to the age of 40. But, only twice in his career did McGriff sport a single-season WAR over 6 (1988-89). Only one other time in his career did McGriff even reach 5 (1990).

Simply put, Fred McGriff was never on the same level with the elite players during his era. He played for a long time, was very good late into his career and amassed large home run totals because of the years he played in the league. However, hitting a lot of home runs doesn’t get you into the Hall of Fame.

He never got to that “next level” that is required to reach Cooperstown. It’s that simple.

16 thoughts on “The Case for Cooperstown: Fred McGriff

  1. MVP voting is not the only barometer for an elite player. McGriff was third (behind Bonds and McGwire), in HR’s for almost a decade (1988-1996). He also reached base more than anybody during that period behind Bonds, Paul Molitor, & Wade Boggs (two of which are in the Hall of Fame). He currently ranks 17th all-time in intentional walk. Many of the players who garnered MVP support were steroid users whose numbers were obviously inflated. Here some other stats aside from McGriff’s homerun totals (courtesy of Tom Verducci of SI):
    -When McGriff retired in 2004, his career OPS of .886 ranked 17th among all players who retired with at least 8,000 at-bats. All 16 others are Hall of Famers, most of them inner-circle icons.
    -McGriff has the most 20-homer seasons of any first baseman (14), played the third-most games at the position, has better on-base and slugging percentages and more 100-RBI seasons than Eddie Murray, and posted a .303 average and .917 OPS in 50 postseason games.

    McGriff also ammassed 2,500 basehits and 1,500 RBI’s, which is impressive for a guy who hit cleanup his entire career. He was a great post-season player, won a World Series, three silver slugger awards, led both leagues in HR’s and was the centerpiece of two blockbuster trades, (one that included a HOFer and World Series MVP). I’d call McGriff’s career elite. Numbers don’t lie.

    • First off, appreciate the input. Always fun to debate baseball.

      Second, I still don’t think longevity = elite. Yes, Fred McGriff was a very good baseball player for a much longer peroid of time than the majority of those that play the game. However, so were players like Tommy John. Like McGriff, John fell just short of reaching a career milestone that would have “locked” him into Cooperstown (McGriff, it was home runs, John, it was wins).

      For me, to be elite, part of the equation has to be career numbers, like you pointed out. But, another significant portion has to be the ability to pull a single-season stat line, compare it to the greats of the game and have it stack up accordingly. Fact of the matter is very rarely, in any given season, McGriff was not viewed as the best first baseman or even the best player on his teams. Something has to be said about McGriff being traded twice in season in the very prime of his career and not spending more than 5 seasons with any given team, one of which were the inaugural Devil Rays teams.

      Fred McGriff was a very good player, and he should be remembered as such. Putting him in the Hall of Fame, to me, seems like a miscalculation of his career as a whole.

  2. McGriff’s stats do stack up accordingly to the “greats of the game”. In fact, his numbers compare very favorably to Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Willie Stargell. He did have several great seasons where his numbers stood out above everyone in baseball. He was the AL HR champion and top power hitter in the AL with 36 HR’s and led the Blue Jays to an AL East division title. He led the NL in HR’s in 1992. He won 3 Silver Slugger awards which are specific to an individual’s single season accomplishments. I think your totally off on the trades as well. It should be noted that McGriff was good enough on his own to be traded for a future Hall of Famer in Robbie Alomar and a World Series MVP (and very good player in his own right), Joe Carter. The mid-season trade to the Braves was due to a San Diego firesale. It had nothing to do with McGriff’s ability, and everything to do with his contract. The trade also completely turned the Braves around and led them to the division title that year (he came in 4th in MVP voting that year despite only being with the Braves for half of the season). It should also be noted that McGriff’s best year may well have been the strike shortened season, posting a .314 BA and 34 HR’s before the season was cancelled in August. McGriff was one of the most feared hitters in the game for a long, long time (he ranks 17th all-time in intentional walks, if want statistical proof). You cannot argue his production numbers. He was the centerpiece of a World Series team and led a couple of different clubs to the playoffs, (and unlike Jeff Bagwell, for example, McGriff was extremely productive in the clutch and in the playoffs). He became the “forgotten slugger” when steroids became rampant in the 1990′s, but McGriff’s numbers still hold up. I believe that you may indeed be miscalculating McGriff’s career.

    • I got 2 problems with you using the trades as defense points for why McGriff is a Hall of Famer. First of all, getting traded for two great pieces that helped a team eventually win a World Series doesn’t immediately make you a great player yourself. It worked out for the Padres that McGriff was able to produce, but I don’t think you’ll find one person that would say “The Padres became a better team because they turned Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter into Fred McGriff.”

      Second, as I pointed out in the post, yes, McGriff went to Atlanta, had a great half-season and received a lot of MVP votes for it. But, he wasn’t solely responsible for that team’s climb and turnaround. First of all, David Justice, McGriff’s Braves teammate, finished 3rd in the voting that year. Second, Ron Gant, another McGriff Braves teammate, finished 5th. While we’re at it, we should recognize that Greg Maddux finished 13th, Jeff Blauser (Jeff Blauser?) finished T-16th and Tom Glavine picked up votes to finish 24th. That pretty much means the Atlanta Braves that year were pretty ridiculous, and yet McGriff still was not the best player on that team.

      And yes, McGriff won a couple Silver Sluggers, but winning 3 Silver Sluggers with years that would not be anywhere near the top years by a 1B in the history of the game doesn’t earn you admittance to the Hall. It doesn’t help Don Mattingly that he’s won 3, or either Jack and Will Clark that they’ve won two. In my opinion, the fact that Keith Hernandez won two and 11 Gold Gloves yet didn’t even get enough votes to remain on the ballot is more a travesty than any case you could make to put McGriff in the Hall.

      Again, he was a very good player. There is nothing wrong with being a very good player. But Fred McGriff was never one of the elites. Cooperstown is reserved for the elites, or at least it should be.

  3. So he gets no respect for being traded for a Hall of Famer in Robbie Alomar and another really good player in Joe Carter? Really? In fact, many writers at the time thought that Toronto was crazy for trading McGriff! And it also worked out for the Padres that he won a home run title in 1992. According to you, he also should receive no credit for helping the Braves win their division in 1993 simply because they had some other good players. Interesting. That 1993 trade for McGriff is still considered one of the biggest blockbuster trades in the history of the game. It was a trade that had an incredibly significant and immediate impact on the Atlanta Braves season that year, and in years to come when they won the World Series. I also never said that the trades make him a Hall of Famer. I just don’t believe that they should be considered negatives when viewing his candidacy. History is not written in absolutes. One must examine the circumstances surrounding significant actions.

    I also don’t think MVP voting, especially during the second half of his career, can be used as a fair barometer of defining “elite”, as you put it. He finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times and won two home run titles. I challenge you to take a good look at MVP voting from 1993-2004 and stark marking how many of those candidates are linked with steroids.

    Courtesy of baseball historian Jayson Stark:

    McGriff also had that seven-year streak of 30-plus homers (1988-94), it equaled something only eight others had done: Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Ralph Kiner.

    They’re all in Cooperstown.

    It was 1993 when the steroid era really kicked in. So how come nobody seems to notice that, in the five seasons before that, McGriff won two home run titles, and was the only player in baseball who finished in the top four in his league in homers, home run ratio and OPS in all five seasons?

    Over the decade that followed, McGriff’s numbers (290/.373/.506) looked remarkably similar to his numbers from 1988-92 (.283/.393/.531). And that’s as clear a sign he was clean as any voter could ask for. His problem was that pre-1993, those stats made him league-leader material — but afterward, they relegated him to being just another name on the lineup card. So … was that his fault? Really?

    Consider this question very seriously before you dismiss him: How many players in history have appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot with as many home runs as McGriff, as many hits and that high an OPS and NOT gotten elected? That answer is none. Ever.

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