Is Fred McGriff Hall of Fame Worthy?

24 Oct 1995: Fred McGriff #27 of the Atlanta Braves hits a home run during a game against the Cleveland Indians at the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The Braves defeated the Indians 3-2.
24 Oct 1995: Fred McGriff #27 of the Atlanta Braves hits a home run during a game against the Cleveland Indians at the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The Braves defeated the Indians 3-2. /

Fred McGriff played 19 seasons in the major leagues, appeared in five All-Star games, won three Silver Sluggers, and hit 493 homers.  Despite his career accolades, however, the former Atlanta Braves first baseman is not in the Hall of Fame.

But that might change soon. The National Baseball Hall of Fame recently announced the 2023 Contemporary Baseball Era Ballot and Crime Dog is one of the eight players up for election. But is the former Atlanta Braves first baseman worthy of Cooperstown? Let’s take a look at the case for and against McGriff’s placement among the greatest of the great.

Why Fred McGriff shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer

McGriff only received 21.5% of voters’ approval on his first year on the ballot in 2010. falling far short of the 75% threshold needed for election. In 2011, he actually received fewer votes, appearing on only 17.9% of ballots. This was how McGriff’s Hall of Fame candidacy went on the BBWAA ballot for his entire ten-year stay, never falling below 11.7% and never rising about 39.8% (his final year on the ballot).

Of course, these results are why he isn’t in Cooperstown now, but not why he shouldn’t be. One reason why many players from McGriff’s era have been held back– guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens  –  is because of alleged steroid usage. McGriff, however, has never been accused of using.

So, if it’s not steroids, what is it? Unlike another former Brave, Dale Murphy, who had seven strong peak years followed by eight incredibly average or worse seasons, McGriff was a well-above-average hitter up until his final two seasons. He hit 30 homers with an .858 OPS as a 38-year-old with the Cubs in 2002. From his age-23 season until his age-38 season, McGriff never had a wRC+ below 110.

However, despite being a consistently above-average hitter for fifteen years, Fred McGriff lacked the elite hitting abilities other Hall of Fame first basemen have had in his generation.

McGriff’s career-high wRC+ of 162 came in his final full season with San Diego in 1992. He also had three seasons with a wRC+ of 156 and one season with a 157 wRC+. Being 55% better than a league-average hitter five times in your career is nothing to scoff at.

However, if you compare that with Frank Thomas or Jeff Bagwell, two 1B whose careers greatly overlapped with McGriff, McGriff falls short.

Thomas’s peak season wRC+ was 205. His wRC+ topped 160 nine times in his career. Bagwell’s wRC+ also peaked at 205, and his wRC+ topped 160 five times as well. More importantly, Bagwell’s wRC+ never fell below 131 until his second-to-last season in the bigs, while the Big Hurt’s wRC+ only fell below 126 once (which came during a 20-game sample).

If this is too much wRC+ jargon, here’s a TL;DR version: while McGriff was a great hitter, he wasn’t an elite hitter for a long duration like the first basemen of his era who did make the Hall of Fame.

It’s not like I cherry-picked slam dunk Hall-of-Famers, either.  While Thomas was a first-ballot HOFer, 17% of voters chose to leave him off their ballots in 2014. This was far more successful than Jeff Bagwell, however, who needed to wait until his seventh year on the ballot to get his Cooperstown plaque. Bagwell also had hardware that McGriff did not as he actually won an MVP and a Gold Glove.

JAWS, a system created to measure a player’s worthiness in the Hall of Fame, created by Jay Jaffe, compares a player to other players at their position. By JAWS, McGriff also falls short. His 44.3 JAWS is significantly lower than the 53.8 JAWS first basemen are projected to have to reach the Hall of Fame.

McGriff places 32nd out of all first basemen. Of the 12 players ahead of him who are not in the Hall, four were active in 2022 (Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt) and three had significant steroid allegations against them (Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Jason Giambi).

This leaves five remaining first basemen with higher JAWS who are not in the Hall of Fame. They are Mark Teixeira, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez, Todd Helton, and Will Clark.

Helton is currently on his fifth go-around on the ballot. In 2022, he received 52% of the vote. Like former teammate, Larry Walker, his candidacy is hurt because of the Coors Effect. Helton had a similar career length to McGriff and hit fewer homers, but is a part of the .300/.400/.500 club, something Crime Dog is not. His 54.5 JAWS is much higher than McGriff’s 44.3.

Keith Hernandez was an 11-time Gold Glover, MVP-winning first baseman. Power, however, was not his specialty. hitting only 162 during his 17-year career. By essentially every offensive metric McGriff is a better first baseman. Hernandez had the advantage in the defensive department, which is likely why Hernandez’s JAWS and WAR are slightly higher than McGriff’s. However, Hernandez never received more than 10.8% of voters’ approval and fell off the ballot in his ninth year.

John Olerud, like Hernandez, was known more for contact and defense than power. The helmeted-fielding first baseman never won a silver slugger but was a three-time Gold Glover and two-time all-star. He even managed to win the batting title in 1993. Interestingly, Olerud’s rise to the bigs is the reason why Toronto traded McGriff to San Diego after the 1990 season. Again, he was a great player, but BBWAA didn’t even blink when he appeared on the ballot in 2011, only receiving 0.7% of the votes.

Will Clark’s decision to retire after the 2000 season might have hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy more than anything. At only 36, the first baseman called it quits after hitting over .300 and finishing the season with a 146 wRC+. Clark’s counting stats were all lower than McGriff, but his overall wRC+ was higher by 2 points. Clark never had a season as a below-average hitter, yet when it came time to vote on his place in Cooperstown, he only lasted one year, falling off after appearing on just 4.4% of ballots.

The last first baseman who ranks ahead of McGriff and meets my criteria is another former Braves first baseman, Mark Teixeira. Teixeira’s bWAR is significantly higher than his fWAR, (50.6 bWAR compared to a 45.1 fWAR). Teixeira was a worse hitter and had worse counting stats. To be honest, I’m not sure why his JAWS is higher than McGriff’s. Hall of Fame voters gave him six votes earlier this year, eliminating him from future ballots.

Considering the threshold McGriff had to reach to make the Hall of Fame as a modern first baseman and considering how poorly other first basemen have done in voting who have a higher JAWS, is it a surprise Crime Dog isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown?

Why the Crime Dog should be a Hall of Famer

Of course, JAWS isn’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to who goes to Cooperstown and who doesn’t. Neither is WAR, whichever you prefer. There are plenty of first basemen, albeit not in the modern era, who have far worse WARs than McGriff who have a plaque.

But it’s not High Pockets Kelly and his 25.9 bWAR that makes the most compelling case for entering McGriff into the Hall. It’s a recent slugger who primarily DH’d and was just elected this past season.

David “Big Papi” Ortiz debuted at age 21. McGriff debuted at age 22. While McGriff quickly found his footing as a starter when he was 23, it took Big Papi until his age-26 season to truly be a regular. Both players had strong years up until their late 30, though Ortiz had one of the most dominant final years by a 40-year-old.

While McGriff had a quicker start and Ortiz had a stronger finish, by the end of their careers, they had similar levels of production. By fWAR, McGriff had a near six-win advantage,  56.9 to 51.0. This, of course, is mostly due to Ortiz primarily being a DH, a position that WAR penalizes for not playing both sides of the game.

Each played over 2400 games, and aside from Ortiz’s having 191 more doubles than McGriff, their differences were marginal. Ortiz had 48 additional homers, but McGriff also had to sit through a strike that wiped 66 games off the schedule that likely prevented Crime Dog from joining the 500-homer club.  Ortiz had the AVG/OBP/SLG advantage, while McGriff had more overall hits, triples, and stolen bases (as well as playing a lot more defensive innings).

While McGriff struggles to seize any type of momentum over his ten years on the ballot, all Big Papi had to do was show up, getting elected in his first-ever appearance on the ballot in 2022.

Of course, despite having overlapping careers, Big Papi and Crime dog played in different eras of baseball. McGriff’s peak years came as the steroid era was only beginning to take center stage.

When McGriff started his career in 1984, there were only 21 players who had 400 or more homers in their career. Dave Kingman was the only one of them who did not get a plaque in Cooperstown. When McGriff’s name first appeared on a BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot in 26 years later, there were 47.

Still, among the names of players who had fewer homers than Crime Dog’s 493 – amongst guys whose careers overlapped with his – are Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero Sr, Cal Ripken Jr, and Mike Piazza. While some of these guys accumulated significantly more fWAR, Guerrero had a lower fWAR and Mike Piazza only out-WAR’d McGriff by 6.8 (aka roughly Dansby’s 2022).

While these players were all elected through the BBWAA ballot, something McGriff was unable to do, there was one player who was elected through the Veteran’s Committee who the first baseman did laps around during their careers.

Harold Baines finished out his 22-year career with a 38.4 fWAR. His highest wRC+ was 140 and he finished out his career with a 119 wRC+. Baines, like Ortiz, was a DH for the majority of his career. Despite this, in 2019, he was elected into the Hall of Fame. If Baines is Hall of Fame worthy, a player whose only advantage over McGriff is total hits, isn’t McGriff as well?

Atlanta Braves’ legend Fred McGriff is…

The definition of an in-betweener. His ten years on the Hall of Fame Ballot showed that. Like Murphy, fans who watched McGriff live are probably far more supportive of preserving his legacy in Cooperstown.

While I did not have the honor of seeing McGriff live during the prime of his career, I lean towards his induction in the Hall. McGriff put up consistently well-above-average offensive numbers in the midst of the steroid era. Had McGriff hit seven more homers, something he likely would have been able to complete had it not been for the 1994-1995 strike, he would have joined an exclusive club where the only non-Cooperstown members are connected to steroid usage.

Is Fred McGriff Hall of Fame worthy? In my opinion, just barely. But being a fringe Hall of Famer is no knock. Hopefully, the Veteran’s Committee is able to make the right decision.

Next. We love Dale Murphy, but that doesn't mean he is a Hall of Famer. dark