When the Atlanta Braves were mowing down National League East competition during the 1990’s; a big part of their success was slugging first baseman Fred McGriff. McGriff was much more than simply the protection for Chipper Jones in a dynamite lineup, as he himself was a phenomenal talent. By the time the sun had set on his 19-year major league career, McGriff had built himself a solid case to be enshrined in Cooperstown with an “A” emblazoned on the front of his cap.
A 9th round pick in the 1981 MLB draft, McGriff made a name for himself as a hulking slugger with an excellent eye at the plate. With a career .284/.377/.509 slash line, McGriff was truly one of the premier hitters of his day. He wasn’t a five-tool athlete in the vein of Ken Griffey Jr., a prototype that Hall of Fame voters traditionally drool over, nor was McGriff seen as the single greatest first baseman of an era. However, what the “Crime Dog” did have on his side was consistency and longevity; two traits which are absolutely crucial in getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
With a smooth left-handed swing and a gorgeous, matador-like finish, Fred McGriff became known for launching majestic home runs year in and year out. In fact, McGriff clobbered 30 or more long balls every year between 1988 and 1994, and ultimately compiled ten 30-homer campaigns during his time in the show. All told, he slammed 493 home runs over his 10,174 big league plate appearances, to go along with 441 doubles, 1,550 RBI and an outstanding 134 OPS+.To put it in perspective, over 10,000 trips to the plate, McGriff was 34% better than the average big leaguer during that span. This should put Fred McGriff close to Hall of Fame territory all on its own. It shows a truly remarkable ability to stay on the field over a prolonged period of time, while simultaneously providing offensive production that was head-and-shoulders above the competition.
The (almost) 500 Home Run Club
Many observers believe in the idea of “magic numbers” when deciding on a player’s Hall of Fame status. 3,000 hits and 300 wins immediately spring to mind, as do 3,000 strikeouts, and of course, the rarefied airs of the 500 home run club. Many of history’s greatest mashers, including Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols and the aforementioned Griffey have deposited 500 or more pitches into the outfield seats. Other all-time greats like Hank Greenberg and Stan Musial had their careers interrupted by military service before reaching the vaunted mark. While Fred McGriff does not have his name listed among the ranks of the 500 home run club, his 493 lifetime dingers leave him only seven short of the threshold for which slam-dunk Hall of Fame status is often ascribed to a player.
Had the 1994 season concluded naturally, rather than prematurely due to the players’ strike, McGriff would have assuredly smashed seven more round-trippers, making this debate almost unnecessary. This is not to make excuses, as 493 is indeed lower than 500, and nothing short of a time machine can add to that total. However, with such a negligible amount separating him from a mark that is deemed to signify true greatness, it is not unreasonable to posit that Fred McGriff was darn close to, if not at, the level of these other sluggers.
Analyzing Defensive Value
A facet of a ballplayer’s game that is much more difficult to quantify is that of defense. Seeing as how defensive metrics have only recently become reliable in the last decade or so, fielding prowess was often judged via the eye test. No one has ever made the claim that Fred McGriff was a defensive wizard, or even a viable Gold Glove candidate at any point in his career. Playing his prime in the 1990’s, the best indicator of McGriff’s value in the field is Baseball Reference’s total zone rating, which provides a decent estimate of how many runs a player saved, or cost his team.
Throughout 19,402.0 career innings at first base, McGriff posted a -32 total zone. While this may seem horrendous at first, as this means that he likely cost his team 32 runs that otherwise should not have scored, this number averages out to a mere -2 total zone per season. Allowing runs to score that should have been outs is never a good thing, and clearly McGriff was nowhere near the top of his class defensively. However, he was essentially an average contributor with the glove, and at a position where subpar fielders are often hidden by their managers, Fred McGriff’s complete and utter offensive dominance is more than enough to carry his largely lackluster defensive play.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has become an incredibly useful, catch-all statistic when evaluating a player’s overall career value. While no statistic will ever be perfect, WAR encapsulates all aspects of a player’s game, and spits out a number to accurately gauge how many wins his team gained from his contributions over the course of his career. While all-timers like Barry Bands and Mickey Mantle’s WAR’s sailed well north of 100, many Hall of Famers settled into the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when all was said and done.
With 2,460 big league contests to his credit, Fred McGriff posted a healthy 52.6 WAR. This number may seem a bit light at first glance, as a great deal of Hall of Famers posted numbers higher than McGriff’s. However, with a little digging it can be seen that his 52.6 mark places him above the likes of Waite Hoyt, Earl Averill, Bobby Doerr, Kirby Puckett, and even fellow first baseman Orlando Cepeda. Being more valuable than previously enshrined players is not exactly an airtight case for Fred McGriff to be voted into the Hall of Fame, but it does prove that his inclusion would not be diluting an otherwise exceptional pool of talent. On the contrary, placing him among baseball’s most prestigious players would only serve to strengthen an already existing paragon of greatness.
An often overlooked man who played in an era full of steroid abuse and larger-than-life figures, Fred McGriff exemplified what is wondrous about the game of baseball an ultimately, should reach the Hall of Fame. His fluid stroke made hitting home runs seem less like an exhibition of brute force, and more like the beautiful brushstrokes of a master painter. His clean reputation in a period soiled by chemically-enhanced giants make his contributions to the world’s greatest game that much more impressive. With five All-Star selections, three Silver Slugger Awards and a World Series ring in his trophy case, the only thing missing is a plaque in Cooperstown.