Hall of Famer? The Great Debate

January 25, 2019


To be, or not to be in the Hall of Fame - that is the question. 


It's the time of year when baseball announces who their writer's association has deigned to acknowledge as a Hall of Famer. This year, the association elected one member unanimously, Mariano Rivera, who was no doubt a fine closer, but probably not the first man ever deserving of universal acclaim to what is held as the highest of all sports Halls of Fame. 


But then, they left out Fred McGriff, who garnered less than 40% of the vote in his last year of eligibility on the writer's ballot. Will McGriff be added by the Veteran's Committee in two years, when they meet again? I'm not so sure, but I wouldn't bet against it, either. 


See, this is the beauty and frustration of Halls of Fame in the first place. By their nature, they are subjective. Today, we look at Gabby Hartnett and wonder why he is included in the list of most august and esteemed players, whereas in his time he was viewed as the mightiest of hitting catchers. It's not his fault that shortly after he retired, the arguably greatest hitting catcher ever began his career in pinstripes. 


(And yes, even in the heart of Reds country and as a 40-year fan of the Reds, I can make the argument Yogi Berra was a better offensive player than Johnny Bench. And as the kids say, don't @ me about Mike Piazza, unless it's with the clip of Clemens throwing the bat at him.) 


Look at the numbers, and you'd say it's no comparison: Yogi was superior across the board. 


Hartnett's numbers are above, Berra's numbers are below. In most categories, Berra is clearly the better hitter, and despite his defensive liabilities early on, he became a great game-caller and developed rapport with his pitchers that they claimed helped them in tight situations. 


 But the Hall of Fame also needs to be applied in context. Hartnett was, for a time, as great a hitting catcher as there was. Then the position evolved into one that was about more than just not letting the ball roll to the backstop, and became an offensive contributor. Just as further comparison, let's look at Ernie Lombardi's career numbers. 

 Lombardi didn't have the power that either Berra or Hartnett had, but hit for a bit more average. From a pure numbers standpoint, he somewhat falls in between the others, which makes sense as his career overlapped each of them. 


Those numbers, while nice, aren't quite at that level. His career WAR is closer to Darrell Porter's 40.9 than either of the other catchers listed - and Porter was a career .247 hitter. 


What does all of this have to do with Fred McGriff? Glad you asked. 


The Crime Dog was known for being a potent bat in the middle of some solid lineups, including a World Championship Braves team. He was a respected hitter in the juicing era that was never accused of juicing himself. He led each league in home runs, and finished his career with the same number of home runs as Lou Gehrig. 


Here are McGriff's career numbers. 


The problem is, a 52.6 WAR would be good for solid inclusion as a catcher, but at first base, it's about 14 points off the average of the 21 first basemen currently enshrined. It's even further behind recently-elected DH Edgar Martinez, who posted a 68.4 WAR while playing roughly 71% of his career games without a glove. 


It's said that baseball players hit their peak between 27-31. Baseball-reference.com, the whole reason the internet was invented, lists McGriff's comparable players by age as Carlos Delgado through most of those years, his age 27 season as Adrian Gonzalez, and his age 28 season as ... Richie Sexson


Look, I don't know about you, but I don't feel like someone is a slam-dunk HoF'er if you're comparing them to Richie Sexson. Hell, I'd be hard-pressed to argue the case for a player you're comparing to Adrian Gonzalez unless it was followed with this exact phrase: "But for five (or more) years longer." 


Now, as for McGriff's chances of being voted in by his peers when the writers failed to do so, I would say they're above average. Although he certainly benefitted by having friends on the committee, I will submit Harold Baines as Exhibits A-Z in this argument. 


Based on that as the criteria, Cooperstown needs to expand. Those are similar numbers to a lot of players that make you think, Good, but not great. 


And the Crime Dog was ... very, very good. 


I don't know if he was great.  


I'm not denigrating what McGriff accomplished as a ballplayer. I'm merely using him as a case study as to why this system might be broken ... and why, with all its idiosyncrasies and flaws, it just might still work. 




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