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Who might be the Fred McGriff of the 2020 pandemic?

The 1994-95 strike probably cost the Crime Dog a spot in Cooperstown

2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft Photo by Paige Calamari/MLB via Getty Images

Last night, the 2021 Hall of Fame balloting was announced, with the writers not surprisingly pitching a shutout with no obvious first time balloters and the backlog of great players in recent years having been cleared except of high controversial cases where there’s little progress.

The cumulative effect was there was more “downballot” votes available for players who had really, really good careers, but are generally short of the average of median player in Cooperstown. Mark Buehrle got 11%, Torii Hunter 9.5%, and even Tim Hudson 5.2% to stay on the ballot whereas in recent years players of this calibre have generally been “one and done”. This marks a return to more of a historical normal, where 50+ WAR “Hall of Very Good” players have extended runs on the ballot.

One such player, and one of the last to hit the ballot (in 2009/10) before it got really crowded, was Fred McGriff. Arguably the most underrated slugger of the late-1980s to mid- 1990s, two years ago, the Crime Dog fell off the ballot after reaching 40% in his 10th year of eligibility. One of the reasons commonly asserted to put him in the Hall of Fame despite falling short of at least the established benchmark is that he was never tied to steroids, and was thus hurt by being a clean player in an era where powered exploded and was cheapened.

The issue there is that, as I examined six years ago in the above link, is that apart from the league wide power explosion in the late-90s, McGriff experienced an absolute decline in his own production that was far more significant. Setting aside whether that increased power output was mostly about steroids or some broader factors that benefitted everyone (new smaller ballparks, expansion, MLB changing the ball to draw more fan interest), had McGriff posted the exact same post-1994 production but in a league of pre-1993 offensive levels, it would only add 4-5 WAR to his career totals.

That would push his career total to high-50s bWAR/low-60 fWAR, and perhaps that’s enough to warrant induction if one believes in a “Big Hall”. One is certainly entitled to the belief (as long as it’s uniformly applied, not just to certain favourites), but it would well below the median Hall of Fame benchmark, closer to the 20-25th percentile.

But there is a better argument that Fred McGriff got screwed out of the Hall of Fame due to circumstances entirely beyond his control. 500 home runs has always is a hallowed milestone for the Hall of Fame, a guarantee of a ticket to Cooperstown prior to last generation of steroid tainted players.

McGriff finished his career with 493 home runs, tied with Lou Gehrig for the most all-time without getting to 500. It’s fundamentally an absurd notion that a player’s career is transformed by being on one side of an arbitrary number than another, that McGriff’s on-field accomplishments would be materially different had hit 10 more home runs (especially since he had another 10 in the postseason, so he hit 503 home runs in actual major league games).

But had he done so, I’d posit it’s virtually certain he’d be in Cooperstown, especially with the sympathetic tailwind of being considered a clean player who did it the right way in a dirty era. And even if a large enough bloc of voters would have kept him out, the Veteran’s Committee would have quickly waved him in (see: Morris, Jack).

McGriff tried to hang on to get to 500 home runs, and indeed after averaging 30 per year from 1999 to 2002 in his age 35-38 seasons appeared destined to get there. But amid missed time and slipping to a below average batting line in 2013 he hit only 13. Further slippage in 2004 resulted in a midseason release from his hometown Tampa Bay Rays after just two more, and an elusive seven short.

From 1988 to 2000, McGriff came to bat less than 600 times only once: in 1994, when he was an All-Star and finished 8th in MVP voting in posting an incredible .318/.389/.623 and 157 wRC+ line. He already had 34 home runs in 113 games when the strike brought the curtains down on the season after August 11th. Extrapolating to a full season 162 game would be another 14 HR for a career high 48 total.

It’s not quite right to assume a record pace, but even at his 1990-1994 average (0.28 HR/game), one would expect 11. The probability of less than seven, even assuming this lower rate, is about 5%. On top of that there’s 18 more missed games in 1995 from the late start. In other short, but for the strike, Fred McGriff almost certainly would have hit 500 regular season home runs, and consequently would be very likely be in the Hall of Fame. Arguably, no player was more hurt by the strike than Fred McGriff.

When it became apparent that a significant part of the 2020 season was going to be lost, I wondered if in 10 or 20 years we might end up with a similar situation, where an important milestone is likely missed due to a player losing 100 games in 2020. That is, who if anyone is could end up the Fred McGriff of the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s very likely the answer will be apparent only in hindsight, that it will be a player near the beginning or in the middle of his career for whom various milestones are hypothetically in reach. But one hitter who does stick out as a possibility is Mick Markakis, who entered 2020 with 2,355 career hits through his age 36 season. He was already a longshot to get to 3,000, having tailed off to 118 hits in 2019 from at least 161 in the six season prior, but a bit of a rebound and very good but not extraordinary aging in his late-30s would have given him a shot.

But with just 33 hits in 37 games in 2020 after initially opting out, Markakis is still over 600 short with his most productive expected year gone. In the last 100 years, 47 players have piled up at least 645 hits from age 36 onwards; only 23 have put up at least 612 after age 36. Markakis really needed another 150 hit season to keep on any type of pace. There’s a further parallel to McGriff in that with a career WAR around 30, it would be the only way he’s have a shot at Cooperstown.

Miguel Cabrera is 13 home runs shy of 500, but he should get there. The same is true for getting the last 134 hits he needs for 3,000, though if he really fell off and the Tigers were competitive it’s possible ~100 more in 2020 could make the difference. Regardless, he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer. None one else is currently particularly close to 3,000 hits or 500 HR, though Joey Votto can use all the counting stat help he can get to build his resume. Freddie Freeman had a career year, one wonders if losing over half of it might bite one day. Likewise, Bryce Harper (232 HR) really miss 20-25 more bombs in a full 2020?

On the pitching side, the traditional milestones are practically irrelevant. Justin Verlander (225 thru 36) and Zack Greinke (205 thru 35) were already exceedingly unlikely to hit 300 wins, and it’s essentially impossible now. Both should waltz into Cooperstown though, as will Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, the next two behind them. The more interesting cases might be David Price and Stephen Strasburg, each around 40 career WAR and needing to put in more quality seasons to have a good shot.