The Hall of Fame Case for Atlanta Braves Slugger Fred McGriff
Another year, another chance on the Hall of Fame ballot for one of the best non-nonsense players ever to put on a uniform, Fred McGriff.
In a 1989 Sports Illustrated story, Toronto Blue Jays teammate Lloyd Moseby said about Atlanta Braves‘ favorite Fred McGriff,
"“You know that highlight reel that shows the Willie Mays catch and then switches to the fan, who grabs his head with his hands in amazement? Fred McGriff does that to you when he hits a home run. Taking nothing away from Canseco and McGwire, but everybody knows they lift weights. I wish I could get Freddie to lift weights. The only things he lifts are candy bars.”"
The Crime Dog stands little chance of making it into the Hall of Fame via the BBWAA and could fall off the ballot in the near future. He’s already had six chances, with 23.9 percent being his high-water mark. In 2014 his voting total fell to 11.7 percent. And then last year, things began to look brighter for the former slugger as he bumped up to 20.9 percent. But that still wasn’t nearly enough momentum, and with crowded ballots on the horizon, his chances are fading, and that’s a crime.
Allow me to first explain the title of this column. Yes, I know that Fred McGriff played for seven different teams during his career and yes I know that only five years of his 19-year career was spent in Atlanta. But, McGriff was the Braves premier slugger during my formative years and I still have a Fred McGriff poster in my man cave. The Crime Dog helped the Braves win a World Series in 1995 and, by God, if I want to remember him as a Brave then I’ll do it. It’s a free country.
McGriff is now a special assistant with the Braves’ baseball operations department. He’s involved in player scouting and mentoring across the farm system. While covering some Rome Braves games this past season, I saw him in the dugout a few times and I just couldn’t maintain my professionalism. I remember interviewing guys like Mike Soroka and even talking with Dale Murphy, while the Crime Dog was sitting on the other side of the dugout talking with Bobby Moore.
But I couldn’t approach him. He was the Crime Dog. What if I said something stupid? What if the Crime Dog didn’t like me? I knew that if I talked to him I would just tell him how awesome I thought he was and probably freak him out. I digress. Back to Fred’s Hall of Fame case.
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Fred McGriff’s Hall of Fame candidacy, to me, is very simple. If you are not going to vote for steroid users like Palmero and Bonds, then you must vote for McGriff for the same reasons you are not voting for those cheaters.
In a career that spanned 19 seasons (during the “Steroid Era”) Fred McGriff hit .284/.377/.509 (134 OPS+) with 441 doubles, 493 homers, 1550 RBI, 1349 runs, 2490 hits, and had ten seasons in which he hit 30 or more home runs.
That’s right. 493 home runs. And 500 is the “magic number” that gets guys much more love from the uneducated baseball writers.
Had the strike of 1994 not have happened, I’ve got news for you: McGriff (who ended that season prematurely with 34 homers) would have been over the magical 500 threshold, he would have had at least 2,500 career hits, Tony Gwynn might have hit .400, and Greg Maddux might have had the lowest single season ERA since Bob Gibson.
During McGriff’s early prime (1988-94) he hit a whopping 242 homers. The second best home run hitter during this seven-season span was a guy named Barry Bonds who hit 218. Only eight players had more than 175 during that span (full list here). For a long time, right before guys started juicing, Fred McGriff was the premier power hitter in baseball. And, if it wasn’t for steroids, he would have continued to lead every slugging category for years to come.
Up through 1997, only 15 players in baseball history had ever reached the prestigious 500 home run mark, with nearly all of them gaining entry into Cooperstown in very short order. Out of that group, only Harmon Killebrew (who had a measly lifetime batting average of .256) and Eddie Matthews needed more than one year to get into Cooperstown.
And should I mention that McGriff finished his career with the exact same number of home runs as Lou Gehrig? (Yes I’m aware that Gehrig’s career ended about 2-3 years too soon, but he wasn’t voted into the HOF because of what happened to his health.)
It’s also important to note that there are players in the Hall of Fame already who are inferior to McGriff (Orlando Cepeda and Frank Chance among 1Bs, to name a couple). Then there’s non-first basemen like Duke Snider and Ron Santo.
Fred McGriff‘s Hall of Fame case is probably most similar to Tony Perez and Willie McCovey. Now, by this logic, there are several other players throughout history who are also HOF worthy, but this column isn’t about them. This column is about Fred McGriff.
What about that “post season boost” that voters salivate over? In 50 postseason games, McGriff hit .303/.385/.532 with 11 doubles, 10 homers and 37 RBI. Not to mention he won a World Series ring in Atlanta in 1995 when he was the Braves’ cleanup hitter.
Most writers demand to vote for a “feared guy at the plate or the mound.” McGriff was the epitome of a feared guy at the plate. He was intentionally walked an MLB-best 26 times in 1991 and then 23 times in ’92. The man drew more than 90 walks each season from 1989-92 and his 1,305 career walks rank 43rd in baseball history.
Fred McGriff’s body never transformed into a hulk-type figure while his competition did just that. And, the man still had power late into his career. He was hitting 30 homers as a 38-year-old. Instead of seeing some weird spike in power numbers that can only be attributed to steroids, McGriff never saw a drastic spike in numbers. He was consistently great for almost two decades.
McGriff’s HOF Obstacles
Playing in the “Steroid Era” has certainly killed this premier power hitter’s chances of entering the Hall of Fame via the writers. But playing for seven different organizations hasn’t helped him either. Another obstacle McGriff has always faced, in my opinion, is the fact that he was a first baseman. Baseball writers have had a hard time sorting through the post-1950s first basemen. Only Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Tony Perez have been elected by the BBWAA, while the Veterans Committee finally selected Orlando Cepeda.
In 2015, Barry Bonds received 36.8 percent of the votes. Then, after a year of being soft pansies without consciences, the writers bumped him up to 44.3 percent. The writers who have not voted for Barry Bonds did so because of one simple reason – He cheated by using steroids. But, if you’re not going to vote for Barry Bonds because he used steroids, you have to vote for Fred McGriff because he did not use steroids.
Barry Bonds will get in. Writers are simply punishing him for being a cheater and for also being a giant jerk to the media during his entire career. But he’ll get in eventually because so many writers have the spine of a jellyfish. And if Bonds gets in without Fred McGriff getting in, well that would be a crime against baseball.
I do believe Fred McGriff stands a very good chance of getting in via the Veterans Committee down the road. Especially with guys like Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, and Greg Maddux on there. But for now, us baseball purists who don’t believe in condoning cheating will have to endure the PED guys getting their unwarranted accolades while guys like Ken Rosenthal write things like, “after some thought I have decided to vote for Bonds.”
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“The dudes who cheated the game cheated guys like McGriff, whose numbers had once been good enough to win home run titles and establish him as an elite power hitter but suddenly looked puny. If you divide McGriff’s home runs virtually in half—before and after steroid use exploded—you can see how the juiced sluggers who were pounding out 50 or more home runs made McGriff look like just another hitter.” ~ Tom Verducci