Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The McGriff Line

While reading my favorite blog, I got to thinking about one of my favorite players from childhood, Fred McGriff. There are two things that stand out when I think of McGriff.

First, I think of the countless tennis instructors I used to irritate with my McGriff impression. If a ball came in high toward my normally two-handed backhand, during a routine drill, I would yell, “CRIME DOG!” Then I would release my top hand and belt the tennis ball on to the roof of the gymnasium behind the fence. As far as I know, my parents were never billed for those balls.

Second, Fred McGriff is not going to get into the baseball Hall of Fame. Sure, he hasn’t even made it to the ballot yet, and I haven’t polled any Hall voters, but some things you just know. I know McGriff isn’t getting into the Hall of Fame. If you know it too, please continue.

At peace with McGriff’s inevitable quick slide off the ballot, I’ve decided to try to immortalize a personal favorite in an unconventional way. So, as I lay out a case for McGriff’s candidacy, rest assured, I am not turning this into a Bert Blyleven campaign or a Davey Concepcion campaign. Blyleven belongs in the Hall and Rich Lederer’s campaign for him has become quite influential. Davey Concepcion is a more borederline candidate, with a campaign whose influence will only be seen when Omar Vizquel—a lesser candidate than Concepcion—gets in.

McGriff has credentials that can make him the poster boy for reversing an ugly trend. Voters are very fond of voting for a player because he’s better than a player already in the Hall of Fame. As a fan of stricter Hall of Fame standards, I’d love to convince voters to use the negative side of that logic. Don’t vote for Player A, because he was not better than Player B and Player B is not in the Hall of Fame. Fred McGriff makes for a perfect Negative Player B.

Here are a few things that fairly hurt McGriff:

*He played during the same era as better first basemen (Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Will Clark and later Thome, Helton, Giambi).
*His defense was horrible, no matter what Tom Emanski would have you believe.
*He held on too long to reach 500 home runs in a transparent attempt to cinch up a spot in the Hall—and came up short. He isn’t the only Hall of Fame level player who hung on too long to compile counting stats. I’m convinced that Craig Biggio was a lock for the Hall of Fame five years ago, but he too decided to go “all in” on his Hall chances by hanging on way too long to reach a milestone that will guarantee him a spot.

The unfair part of McGriff’s case is due to a career that spanned two eras. Like his most direct peer at first base—Rafael Palmeiro—McGriff came up in the relatively punchless 1980s and played through the offensive explosion of the ‘90s. Unlike Palmeiro, McGriff put up his best seasons before the offensive explosion (1988-1992). Therefore, while McGriff’s numbers were very strong relative to the league he played in, they are not nearly as gaudy as the home run and RBI totals of Palmeiro. If you compare the two using Baseball Prospectus’ Equivalent Average, you have Palmeiro with a career EQA of .308 to McGriff’s .307.

A few years ago there was sentiment that a voter couldn’t vote for Palmeiro without also voting for McGriff—the traditional “If Player A then Player B” logic. Then two things happened: Palmeiro badly outplayed McGriff during the last few years of their careers and Palmeiro was disgraced by a positive steroid test. Considering Mark McGwire didn’t get elected with stronger credentials and never failed a drug test, Palmeiro shouldn’t hold his breath.

The collateral damage here is McGriff, who will come up for election in an era when some players might not get into the Hall of Fame because writers can’t decipher who did or didn’t use steroids. McGriff will be the first guy that nobody suspects of steroid use to have his candidacy trashed because of someone else’s use. Being almost as good as a contemporary, who now won’t get in because of confirmed steroid use, is a tough spot to be in.

So, Fred McGriff becomes Negative Player B. If you look closely, he’s perfect for the job. Three of my favorite standards for judging Hall of Fame candidates are Jay Jaffe’s JAWS and Bill James’ HOF Standards and HOF Monitor. Here’s how McGriff stacks up:

McGriff: 82.1
Average Hall of Fame first baseman: 84.5

HOF Standards
McGriff: 47.9
Average HOFer: 50

HOF Monitor
McGriff: 100
Likely HOFer: 100

Like I wrote before, I know Fred McGriff isn’t getting into the Hall of Fame. But let’s immortalize him as a bridge between the insular stathead community and the insolent BBWAA (I flipped a coin over which group got which adjective. They should really share both). Sure, some writers are coming around to things like HOF Standards, HOF Monitor and maybe even JAWS. But for those who don’t come around, Fred McGriff provides a familiar, human face.

Which do you think you’re more likely to read from your local member of the BBWAA?

I’m not sure I can vote for Player A because his JAWS score is only 81 and the Average HOF first basemen is 84.5.
I’m not voting for Player A because he was not better than Fred McGriff and Fred McGriff is not in the Hall of Fame.

And just like that, the Crime Dog becomes the Guard Dog for the Hall of Fame.