Player Narratives, and the Hall of Fame
Do me a favor. Take a look at these final career numbers, and tell me if you think the player who compiled these numbers is probably in the Hall of Fame or not. Do not try to guess who the player is, because we’ll come back to that later. Please allow the numbers to speak for themselves:
493 Home Runs (27th)
1,550 RBI (42nd)
4,458 Total Bases (50th)
1,704 Runs Created (49th)
Triple Slash Line: .284 / .377 / .509
1,447 Assists (10th at his position)
1,775 Double Plays Turned (5th at his position)
I’m choosing not to include this player’s WAR because it has become too easy to simply go directly to that one statistic and form one’s judgment based on that stat alone. I will tell you that it is better than some HOF’ers, and not as good as some others.
At this point, you are probably withholding your final judgment based on who the player is. I would probably do the same. But why do we do that? Why does the player’s identity matter so much in our final evaluation as to whether or not he belongs in The Hall? Shouldn’t the numbers speak for themselves?
The truth is, we tend to place a great deal of weight on the player’s particular narrative. Did he play for one team his entire career? Was he beloved by millions, or was he a surly jackass who alienated press and public alike.
Certainly, we want to know, too, in which era the player performed. Were his numbers special for their time, or were they more representative of a good but not necessarily a great player?
What about intangibles such as playoff performance, overcoming significant personal or professional handicaps, being a suspected cheater, or suffering a tragic, career-ending injury at a relatively young age?
What position did he play? Historically, more offense has always been expected from outfielders and first basemen than from middle infielders or catchers.
If I told you the numbers listed above belonged to Duke Snider, (they do not, but they plausibly could have), you, too, would probably choose to enshrine the well-respected slugger from the legendary Boys of Summer. The Brooklyn narrative and the lure of baseball’s so-called Golden Era would be too strong to resist. Mickey, Willie and The Duke, and all that.
Similarly, if I told you those are Willie Stargell’s numbers, (again, they are not), once again, you would allow that those statistics are sufficient to make the case that “Pop” Stargell, the lifelong Pirate and spiritual leader of the 1979 We Are Family championship ball-club, belongs in the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, if I told you that these numbers belonged to Dick Allen, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, or Joe Carter, for various reasons, you might very well come to an opposite conclusion regarding their HOF-worthiness.
The truth is, when it comes to whom we deem to be HOF-worthy, we love our narratives. We tend to work backwards, I think, and use statistics to rationalize our preconceived prejudices regarding who does or does not belong in The Hall.
Certainly, there are a handful of players who obviously belong in The Hall, are there not? Lou Gehrig comes to mind. Gehrig slugged 493 home runs, (as many as the player whose stats are listed above.) He died young and tragically, and was a fabled member of the ’27 Yankees.
Mike Schmidt also comes to mind. A dominant player in his era, Schmidt compiled 54 fewer total bases than did the mystery player joining us today.
No one I’ve ever heard of has ever argued that Willie “Stretch” McCovey doesn’t belong in The Hall. A tremendous run producer, McCovey drove in just five more runs in his career than did our soon-to-be revealed player. McCovey topped 30 homers seven times. Our Mystery Player accomplished that feat ten times in his career.
Here’s another example. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s, it was clear and obvious to all of the neighborhood boys that Catfish Hunter was a Hall of Famer long before he became eligible, while Bert Blyleven was merely a fine pitcher, but not a particularly interesting one.
For those of us now in our early 50’s, that narrative remains powerful to this day. While more recent stats point to Blyleven being far more valuable than Hunter, all I remember about Blyleven is that he pitched in Minnesota for lots of bad Twins ball clubs. It wasn’t until later that I became aware of his reputation as a great prankster, though I doubt even that information would have been enough to sway my opinion of his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.
I now see that as far as his numbers are concerned, Bert Blyleven does belong in the Hall of Fame. Yet, although I recognize that Hunter’s numbers may ultimately appear to be lacking, his narrative remains superior. He was the mustachioed ace of first the great A’s clubs of the early ’70’s, then the ace of the fine Yankees teams of the later ’70’s. He had a great nickname, was always good for a quote, won at least 20 games five consecutive seasons, and died relatively young at age 53.
Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that there’s room for both pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Sometimes, if we remain open-minded enough, life can be a win-win.
O.K., enough of that. Who is our Mystery Player?
He is none other than Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff.
Fred McGriff was well-respected, and generally well-liked, and his numbers appear to be worthy of HOF induction, but there are a few problems with his narrative.
For one thing, unlike Schmidt, McCovey, Gehrig, Gwynn, Ripkin, Kaline, Clemente and so many other Hall of Famers, it is difficult to associate McGriff with any one team. He started out as an extremely productive Toronto Blue Jay, became a highly productive Padre, then moved on to become a reliably productive Brave. Once he left Atlanta, he moved on to Tampa Bay, where, now in his mid-30’s, he provided solid punch in their batting order.
At age 38, clearly his best years behind him, all he did was slam 30 homers, drive in 103 runs and slug .505 with the Cubs. He hit his 490th home run as a Dodger, then retired as a Devil Ray at age 40 in 2004.
McGriff also had the misfortune to have his best seasons in the first half of his career (pre-1994), when hitting 35 homers per season still meant something. By the time he got the opportunity to play before a national audience on TBS with the Braves, every third player seemed to be enjoying 30 homer seasons. His production began to be viewed by that point as ordinary, the norm of what a first baseman should be producing.
That McGriff finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times, that he reached an OPS+ of at least 140 in ten seasons, and that the first time he went on the Disabled List was in his 18th season at age 39 (talk about an Iron Man) is apparently no match for the overall lack of gripping drama, personal tragedy, or single-uniform predictability that sports fans love.
Fred McGriff has now been on the HOF ballot five years. Last year, he was named on just 11.7% of all votes cast. At this point, it seems unlikely that McGriff will be voted into the HOF anytime soon. You, too, may believe that McGriff just doesn’t quite belong in the Hall of Fame.
But if that’s the way you feel, ask yourself this. Is it the numbers or is it the narrative that prevents you from considering him to be a worthy Hall of Famer?