The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

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:

2,460 Games

2,490 Hits

441 Doubles

493 Home Runs  (27th)

1,550 RBI  (42nd)

1,349 Runs

1,305 Walks

4,458 Total Bases (50th)

1,704 Runs Created (49th)

Triple Slash Line:  .284 / .377 / .509

OPS+    134

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?

Tampa Bay Devil Rays first base coach Fred McG...

Tampa Bay Devil Rays first base coach Fred McGriff during a Devil Rays/New York Mets spring training game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




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12 thoughts on “Player Narratives, and the Hall of Fame

  1. idraft2012 on said:

    The obscure teams didn’t help Fred, but I think the fact that the drug fueled offensive explosion came right after his best years really hurt him. Thirty to thirty five home runs doesn’t look so great when guys start hitting 70.

    His timing was bad.

  2. I was a teenager as Fred McGriff had very good seasons for my Blue Jays. Actually, I was more of an Expos fan, but rooted for my home country Blue Jays almost as much. It is not so much that Crime Dog’s career numbers don’t speak to me as HoF, but they do seem borderline. I prefer peak season value rather than career and I do think Mac, Bonds, Clemens belong in the Hall, so I do have my biases. As mentioned, McGriff never had that great season, he had a bunch of very good seasons and he never was considered best in the league. He was merely average or worse in the field and he wasn’t a great runner, so that doesn’t help his case. I’m tired of career narratives, I could care less if a player was a nice guy, stayed with his home team, classy, a great spokesperson or gracious to the media or the opposite. I want to see greatness well above the rest of the league. I believe Bagwell is a similar case, similar career numbers in less seasons though he does step into that post 94 era. I believe he has a stronger case and belongs. Context of era is so important. You mention Mccovey like there is even a comparison. Mccovey had that big year or 2 and played at a higher level longer. McGriff peaks at 165 OPS+. Gehrig, Stargell, Mccovey, Schmidt, Snider and similar era guys like Brett, Boggs, Bagwell, Mac all exceeded 165 OPS+ for multiple seasons and had that big season. There are some missteps already in the Hall, but I don’t believe in adding to them. McGriff is a long way down the list on what I would consider HoF snubs.

    • Hi, You make many very nice points. Actually, I wasn’t so much advocating for McGriff to be elected into The Hall as I was wondering if it is his numbers, or his lack of compelling narrative, which has kept him out. Personally, I could go either way regarding his HOF-worthiness. McCovey was better than McGriff, but I wouldn’t say that a comparison of the two is unwarranted. McCovey’s triple slash line was .270 / .374 / .515 with an OPS of .889. McGriff’s is .284 / .377 / .509 with an OPS of .886. McCovey slugged 28 more homers, but McGriff had more hits, runs and doubles. RBI’s and Walks are very close. Sure, I’d take McCovey over McGriff, but it’s not like we’re comparing Jimmie Foxx to Lyle Overbay.
      I also agree that there are several other players I’d put in The Hall before McGriff. But I chose to write about McGriff because he seems to have been so quickly written off.
      Thanks for the comment, and for reading. Much appreciated,

      • Admittedly, I may have been a bit harsh on McGriff. He is a quality player and as I say, I prefer to see great peaks. McGriff did not have a peak like McCovey. Over 200 OPS+ in a season is truly elite, plus a few more seasons that top McGriff’s best. McGriff’s best is not close to McCovey’s best or Bagwell, or Boggs or Brett in a similar era. I think another quality I look for is excellence in a particular tool. It is not always pure numbers as I’m a big Raines for the Hall supporter, though it is largely based on him being one of the great base stealers and lead off hitters, but only a very good hitter over all. Maybe a little Expos bias thrown in as well. I enjoy the discussions you bring up and I’m glad you look at the game beyond simply the narrative and mythology, yet not only the numbers. I like narrative and mythology in the telling of baseball, but cannot stand it when it comes to evaluating players. Narrative is why the Jack Morris case stretched out so long, when there were worthier pitchers that were cast off the ballot.

      • I certainly agree with you on the Jack Morris front. To me, one great game does not make a HOF-career. I, too, think Raines should be in the HOF, and I like your point about excellence in a particular tool. McGriff was a very fine player, but for several reasons that you and I (and others) have mentioned, he probably falls a bit short of HOF-greatness. It would be too bad, though, if his achievements went largely ignored, overshadowed by the offensive explosion that came a bit late in his career.
        Thanks again, I enjoy your comments,

  3. Adding a couple notes on McGriff’s relative obscurity: playing for San Diego and Tampa, two franchises with very little identity and even less mythology, did not help his image. And he left Toronto before their two titles, then was one of “the other guys” on the Braves. If he had been on the Cubs in ’03 and they had reached the Series (not necessarily even winning it), he’d have had a great way to round off his career, and fans would think of him differently.

  4. Like you say, The Crime Dog has a whole bunch of things working against him: no one team to associate with or great teams that are his hook, plus he had his big seasons right before the Xbox stats of the mid-90s, so, as you say, they don’t look so go in comparison. He was indordinately consistent (bill James once said that trying to figure out McGriff’s best seaons was like trying to determine the best episode of Gilligan’s Island, and that actually hurts him in a sense– he never had that big, big year like Mantle in ’56, or Fred Lynn in ’75, Stargell in ’71. I can personally go either way on the in/out for McGriff–after ’94 I think he was mostly comprising bulk numbers as opposed to being a top-tier player, but you can say that about a lot of guys who are in Cooperstown. If you’re trying to justify why a guy doesn’t deserve a plaque, I think you have to do better than “Gee, he just doesn’t seem like a Hall of Famer to me.”

    • As for your last sentence, my thoughts exactly, though I hear it all the time. Love the Bill James quote, too. I think if he’d won a single MVP award, that certainly would have made a difference as well. You have to wonder if even 500 homers would have put him over the top, given his narrative.

  5. I’ve advocated for McGriff for a long time, saying his numbers got lost in the steroid era shuffle (just as did Andre Dawson’s).
    I think part of McGriff’s problem is that he won two home run titles (1989 AL with 36 and 1992 NL with 35). Since the 1981 strike, those are the two lowest totals to win titles. Kind of makes him look like he won because others had down years (although he did win the OPS title in ’89).
    In the last couple of years, I’ve left him off my fake HofF ballot because of the 10 man rule, but I still consider him a quality player who ought to be elected.
    However, I’ll never forgive him for those awful little league drills commercials he did back in the ’90s. Fred, don’t quit your day job.
    Nice job reminding us how good he was, Bill.

    • You must be referring to those Tom Emanski Little League drill commercials. I remember those. I doubt they helped his case for The Hall.
      As always, thanks for the kind words.

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