Why Fred McGriff falls just short of Hall of Fame Qualification

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In 2019, Fred McGriff dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot after 10 years of sitting between 20 and 40% of the vote.  Maxing out at 39.8% on his final try, the man known as “Crime Dog” fell well short of the 75% requirement needed for election. McGriff’s totals seem to indicate that voters were largely in consensus that his career was good enough for HoF consideration, but not good enough for admission.  However, support for McGriff remains strong in many circles, and he will be eligible once again for the hall in 2022 under the auspices of the Today’s Game Committee.  It’s fair to say that the debate over McGriff is far from over, and there is still much to be said before the powerful first baseman’s case is closed for good.

Before going any further, let’s lay out McGriff’s case.  It’s no secret that the Crime Dog’s impact was derived primarily from his skills with the bat, so we will focus on that area of his career.  In 19 seasons, he produced a .284/.377/.509/.886 slash line, with 493 HR and 1550 RBIs.  Amassing 441 doubles, 1305 walks, and 2490 hits as well, McGriff’s lifetime totals depict a hitter who was far from reliant on the long ball to produce for his team   For the more sabermetrically inclined, McGriff put up a WAR of 52.6 and an OPS+ of 134.

Many of these totals are very impressive.  There is no doubt that Fred McGriff was an excellent hitter, but baseball history is long and a great many players have produced consistent excellence without demonstrating the superlative greatness needed to join the ranks of the Hall of Fame.  McGriff’s numbers are not quite self-evidently Hall of Fame level, which is why we are having this conversation, yet self-evidence is not a requirement for the hall.  In light of this, McGriff’s career needs a deeper dive to make or break his eligibility.

Something that characterizes McGriff’s traditional statistics is a near-pervasive state of being a near miss on a lot of major milestones.  A hypothetical player with a .300/.400/.500 slash, 500 HR, 2500 hits, and 1500 RBIs would likely be considered a lock for the Hall of Fame.  However, McGriff is not that hypothetical player and he reached none of those plateaus save for slugging percentage and RBIs.  Moreover, McGriff missed few games from season to season, reaching or only narrowly missing 600 plate appearances in 14 of his 17 full seasons, accumulating 10174 in total. McGriff’s longevity and durability are the reasons he was able to approach these milestones at all, making it difficult to suggest that he would have reached them had things played out differently. 

Additionally, much of his WAR was generated with the bat, and yet his career 52.6 WAR ranks 173rd all time among batters.  For a little illustration, this ranks similarly with Lance Berkman’s 52 despite nearly 2200 additional plate appearances in McGriff’s favor.  Berkman received no serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, gaining 1.2% percent of the vote in his only year on the ballot, resulting in a swift exit.  Additionally, McGriff’s WAR totals pale in comparison to his position mates in the Hall of Fame.

Fred McGriff:

52.6 career WAR / 36.0 7yr-peak WAR 

Average HOF 1B:

66.9 career WAR / 42.7 7yr-peak WAR

Yet again, McGriff falls short.  A valiant effort, but a pattern is absolutely emerging.  The Crime Dog’s offensive numbers consistently fall short of Hall of Fame expectations, even if just barely in some cases.  Without a clear reason to give McGriff any “extra credit” in the vein of Mays’ military service or Gehrig’s losing battle with ALS, we must accept that perhaps “just short” is the most accurate summary of his Hall of Fame case.

Unfortunately for McGriff, there is more to baseball than hitting.  His best hope seemed to lie in his offensive production, but McGriff faces the unfortunate obstacle of playing a position at which many of the greatest hitters of all time have taken the field.  Beyond the bat, McGriff fails to stand out much in base-running or defense even among his fellow first basemen. 

While defensive statistics are somewhat difficult to use effectively, neither his career -17.3 dWAR (Defensive WAR) nor his -34 runs from fielding (both per Baseball Reference) indicates that he was a notable glove in the field.  Similarly, McGriff’s 65% stolen base percentage and -22 runs from base-running depict a below average runner as well.  It may be fair to suggest that first basemen are rarely expected to provide much value with the glove or on the base-paths, the fact remains that neither category moves the needle for McGriff, leaving us back at the same conclusion: that McGriff is a near miss.

None of this is to argue that Fred McGriff was anything less than an excellent baseball player.  It’s far from ridiculous for him to be in the Hall of Fame discussion, and that alone marks him as one of the best to ever take the field.  However, the unfortunate fact remains that of the many qualifications one can offer for a hall of fame player, Fred McGriff actually meets very few outright.  In spite of that sweet lefty swing and his clockwork excellence year in and year out, McGriff will remain one of the top players out of the Hall, rather than one of the lesser players in it.

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