I have always been a fan of Fred McGriff and an advocate of him as a worthy member of the baseball Hall of Fame but it has become increasingly clear that, if he is to ever get a plaque with his face on it in Cooperstown, he will have to be voted in by his peers and not by the BBWAA. Dubbed by ESPN’s Chris Berman as the “Crime Dog,” a nickname that sticks to this day, McGriff first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2010 and received 21.5% of the vote (not even a third of the way to the 75% required). In the seven years on the ballot since then, McGriff still hasn’t even surpassed 25%.

The Crime Dog finished his career with 493 home runs (the same total as the immortal Lou Gehrig) at the end of his final season in 2004, a total that was 21st best in baseball history at the time. But the McGriff’s 493 taters, which in another era would have punched him an automatic ticket to Cooperstown, all of a sudden has seemed rather ordinary. Ahead of him, in the top 20 on the all-time HR list, were his contemporaries: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Ken Griffey Jr. Today 493 home runs puts him in 28th place on the all-time list.

Cooperstown Cred: Fred McGriff

9th year on the ballot (received 22% of the vote in 2017)

  • 493 career home runs
  • 1,550 career runs batted in
  • .284 average, .377 OBP, .509 SLG, .886 OPS
  • .303, 10 HR, 37 RBI, .917 OPS in 50 post-season games (won World Series with Atlanta in 1995)
  • 30 or more home runs 10 times in his career
  • OPS+ of 140 or more 9 times in his career
  • 6 times in Top 10 MVP of voting
  • 5-time All-Star
  • 52.4 career WAR

Career Highlights:

Fred McGriff was originally drafted by the New York Yankees at the age of 17 in 1981 but, after the 1982 season, was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.  McGriff debuted in Toronto in 1986, beaome a part-time player in ’87 (his rookie season) and a star in 1988 at the age of 24. McGriff was the best first baseman in the AL in both ’88 and ’89 even though he was not rewarded with an All-Star berth either season. After the 1990 season, McGriff was part of one of the boldest blockbuster trades in baseball history, going along with Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar.

Talking Chop

McGriff is best known for his years with the Atlanta Braves, to whom he was traded mid-season 1993. His arrival in Atlanta fueled a Braves’ surge that resulted in a 3rd straight division title in one of the great pennant races ever. When the Crime Dog arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were 9 games behind the San Francisco Giants in the N.L. West. Led by McGriff’s 19 home runs, 55 RBI and 1.004 OPS, Atlanta went 51-17 in their final 68 games, finishing with 104 wins, just one ahead of the Giants.

After leading the Braves to the ’93 playoffs, McGriff played a key role for their title team of 1995. In the ’95 post-season, McGriff hit .333 with four home runs and a 1.065 OPS in fourteen games.

After an off year in 1997, the Braves decided to part ways with McGriff and he spent the next six years playing in obscurity with the the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the not-bound-for-the playoffs Cubs and Dodgers. With McGriff sitting on 491 career home runs, the Devil Rays re-signed him prior to the 2004 season, hoping to get an attendance boost from his pursuit of 500 home runs. Unfortunately, the Crime Dog was no longer on the case, his days as a productive hitter finished. After hitting just .181 with two home runs in 81 plate appearances, the Devil Rays released him on July 28 and McGriff’s career was over.

The Hall of Fame Case for Fred McGriff

Perhaps more than any other player, the Crime Dog has been collateral damage in the Cooperstown conversations during the steroid era.  His 493 home runs just don’t look as good as they would have before the plethora of PED-fueled sluggers took to the diamond.

McGriff was at his best in the first eight years of his career. Here is how he ranked in key statistical categories for those eight years.

Fred McGriff ranks vs other MLB players (minimum 3,000 PA)
Fred McGriff1987-1994RankBehind listed players (with min 3,000 PA)
Home Runs2621st
RBI7108thCarter, Sierra, Puckett, Clark, Canseco, Murray, Bonds
Slugging %.5422ndBonds
OPS.9312ndBonds
OPS+1532ndBonds
WAR36.511thBehind Bonds, Clark & 8 Hall of Famers
Courtesy Baseball Reference

The statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) represents perhaps the biggest weakness of the Crime Dog’s Cooperstown resume. His ratings for fielding and base running are below par and WAR is punishing to first basemen. Still, at his best (from 1987-94), he was one of the best. For whatever you think of WAR, his middling 11th place ranking from 1987-1994 puts him behind Bonds, Griffey, Will Clark and six Hall of Famers. It puts him ahead of Hall of Famers Puckett and Gwynn in their primes.

Say what you will about all of the different statistics one can use to analyze an offensive player, there’s nothing that counts more in my book than the home run. This is the Hall of Fame and, as we used to say in the 1990’s, chicks dig the long ball. When you’re a slugging first baseman, you’re not paid for your defense or your base-running ability metrics, you’re paid to hit and hit with power.

Here’s a fifteen year view (from 1987-2001) of the players who hit the most home runs in baseball:

Courtesy Baseball Reference
RankMost HR (1987-2003)HR
1Barry Bonds642
2Mark McGwire580
3Sammy Sosa539
4Rafael Palmeiro525
5Fred McGriff491
6Ken Griffey Jr.481
7Juan Gonzalez429
8Jose Canseco424
9Jeff Bagwell419
10Frank Thomas418

How the Steroid Era Has Impacted the Viewpoint on Fred McGriff’s Career

Since Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro (the four ahead of McGriff on the list) all have links to PEDs, Fred McGriff deserves credit for being a premier clean home run threat during the height of the steroid era in which he played. He’s listed on his Baseball Reference profile as 6’3” and 200 pounds and that sounds about right for his entire 19-year career. McGriff showed wiry power as a rookie in 1987 and as a 40-year old veteran in 2004.  Unlike many of his contemporary sluggers (steroid tainted or otherwise), he didn’t turn into the Incredible Hulk over the course of his career. Look at these two photos of McGriff, one from early in his career in Toronto and his physique as a member of the Dodgers in 2003 at age 39.

Compare these “before and afters” to Sammy Sosa, owner of 609 career home runs, first with the Chicago White Sox early in his career and then with his cyborg-level physique with the Cubs during the home run boom.

 

Because McGriff was universally respected as a clean player, it’s fair to say that the media attention accorded to a milestone 500th home run might have served him well in his Cooperstown quest. The Crime Dog was in his prime during the 1994-95 players’ strike and he almost certainly would have hit seven long balls during those missed games. But that’s not what happened and, unfortunately, 493 home runs just isn’t sexy anymore.

For any excellent player in the “close but no cigar” category with respect to the Hall of Fame, McGriff’s career has two big “if only’s” regarding his final home run total of 493. The first is that he never got a chance to play with the team that drafted him, the New York Yankees. McGriff was traded so young that being blocked by Don Mattingly wasn’t even an issue yet but, if he had remained a minor leaguer with the Yankees, his only path to a full-time job in Yankee Stadium would have been as a designated hitter. Still, imagine McGriff and his left-handed power taking aim at that short porch 81 times per year. In 50 career games as a visiting player, McGriff hit 13 home runs in the Bronx, which translates to an average of 42 over 162 games. If the Crime Dog had even spent two or three seasons with the Bronx Bombers, his career total would almost certainly have eclipsed the magic number of 500.

The second “what if” is the 1994 players’ strike, which robbed McGriff of 48 games during what was his most prolific home run season. He had 34 in just 113 games before the strike ended the season. He could have gone into a deep slump but, considering that he hit 7 taters in just 10 games before the strike, I think it’s fairly safe to say that he would have managed 7 more in 48 team games.

The Verducci Argument for Fred McGriff

One of McGriff’s greatest Hall of Fame advocates is Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. In his Hall of Fame piece before the 2017 vote, Verducci made a couple of excellent points. For me, the most poignant is this: in the history of baseball, there are 39 players who have posted an OPS+ of 129 or greater over the span of at least 10,000 plate appearances. All of them who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame and not tainted by PEDs are in the Hall except for Fred McGriff (who had a career 134 OPS+).

Among the players with 10,000 plate appearances and a career OPS+ of less than McGriff’s 134? A whopping 35 Hall of Famers, including 400+ home run guys like Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks.

Verducci’s point is that consistent production at that level for such a large number of plate appearances is a rare thing. Despite the endorsement from a writer with the high esteem of Verducci, McGriff isn’t going to make it. There is no precedent in Hall of Fame voting history of a player rocketing from less than 25% to over 75% with just two years remaining on the ballot. If you’re a writer and you’re feeling the crunch of being limited to 10 Hall of Fame votes, you have to decide if it’s worth it to cast a ballot for a player who has no chance, especially since there are way more than 10 qualified players to choose from (and more than 10 qualified players who have not been linked to steroids).

How the PED Era and the BBWAA Ballot is Squeezing Fred McGriff

When it comes to the PED era, there are three types of Hall of Fame voters:

  1. PED hard-liners, who will not vote for any player with even a taint of a link to any performance enhancing drugs. This group does not vote for Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens and (mostly) did not vote last year for inductees Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, who were suspected users but never linked.
  2. Vote for PED user or suspected users sometimes. This group of voters generally will vote for the “whisper” candidates (Rodriguez, Bagwell and Mike Piazza) and sometimes also vote for Bonds and Clemens with the rationale that they would have been Hall of Fame players even if they had never used any illegal drugs.
  3. The “pretend it didn’t happen voters” who don’t take PEDs into consideration at all when voting; they just go by the numbers.

Personally, I’m in the second group. If I had a vote, I would have put I-Rod and Bagwell into the Hall last year and I would vote for Clemens and Bonds this year. I would not vote for Sammy Sosa (his career is inauthentic), Manny Ramirez (flunked two drug tests) or Gary Sheffield (only because I couldn’t say for sure that he is one of the ten best players on the ballot).

Unfortunately for McGriff, there are two many players who fit categories #2 and #3 on the current ballot. There are 15 or 16 Cooperstown worthy players on a ballot that limits each voter to 10 names each. Absent their PED links, Bonds and Clemens would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame five years ago (see my piece on the Bonds/Clemens saga). But they’re still around, year after year, sucking two votes out of ten on the majority of writers’ ballots. However, it would be inaccurate to say that the Crime Dog has been squeezed by the presence of Bonds and Clemens.

Of the first 184 votes to be reported by Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, only 20 voters who have not voted for Bonds and Clemens checked McGriff’s name on their ballots. About two-thirds of the voters who did not vote for Bonds and Clemens did not vote for McGriff either. In addition, there are plenty of non-Bonds/Clemens voters who didn’t check 10 names on their ballots. There’s psychology involved here. The PED era makes McGriff’s 493 career taters look paltry. Therefore, in the minds of many, he’s not a Hall of Famer because of his paltry numbers. At the same time, the players whose PED use made McGriff’s numbers look insufficient aren’t worthy either in the minds of these voters because they cheated. So, for this group (the #1 group), hardly anybody measures up.

What Happens Now

By the way, I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimate arguments against Fred McGriff as a Hall of Fame candidate. He was a somewhat one-dimensional player, not adding a lot of value defensively or on the base paths, hence his relatively low career 52.4 WAR. I’m not moved by that. To me, his offensive value as an authentic slugger in an era fueled by chemically enhanced players is worthy of a Cooperstown plaque.

Anyway, the Cooperstown will not be calling anytime soon. After the 2018 and 2019 votes, the Crime Dog will no longer be eligible for the Hall of Fame through the writers but through the Today’s Game “Era” Committee (which was for a long time called the Veterans Committee). Unless the Hall of Fame’s Board changes the timelines, the earliest McGriff would be eligible for that process is in December 2021 for potential induction in 2022. We can hope that his name is called then and I think he’s the kind of player who be looked upon kindly by a committee that features his peers, existing Hall of Famers who competed against him or played with him.

Verducci said it best in his pre-2017-vote piece with this line: “When it comes to Hall of Fame voting, nobody has been more harmed by the Steroid Era than McGriff.”

That’s a crime and a shame.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

One thought on “True Crime: Fred McGriff’s Disappearing Cooperstown Chances”

  1. I have a hard time with the Crime Dog’s candidacy for similar reasons to the ones mentioned in this article. But as big a problem for McGriff was the fact that He never dominated the game even for just 1 season. His numbers look Hall Worthy until you examine them more closely. For example he drove in 100 runs 8 times. and in the 2 seasons affected by the Players Strike he had 94 & 93 RBI’s respectively.If the Strike had not happened he easily would have had 10 seasons with 100 RBI’s or more which would qualify most players. But McGriff’s top season in RBIs was 107 in 1996. Usually you have to admire consistency but in this case the monotony alone condemns the Crime Dog. Guys all around him were driving in 130 to 150 and his peak season was just 107?And certainly he would have topped the 500 homers mark if the Strike had never occurred. He hit 30 bombs 10 different seasons leading the league twice. But the microscope shows that the 37 he managed in 1993 was his peak. That said he was probably a lock to hit 40 in 1994 when he hit 34 in 113 games before the strike. But In an era where guys were hitting 34 by the All Star Break his max of 37 seems low even without Steroids. McGriff was very good but that is not enough to earn a spot in Cooperstown. Of course one could argue that his 1994 numbers would have caused him to be seen in a different light if the seasons final 49 games had happened. He was on pace to score about 116 runs hit 49 homers and drive in 133-135 runs. But lacking a time machine we can not take all the players back to august of 1994 and even if we could too much time has passed for the skill levels to be unaffected. But the counter side of this argument is that Matt Williams ,Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell and others were having far better seasons in 1994 than McGriff .

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