Back in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were battling for the single-season home run record, I assumed that they represented the next phase of human evolution–one in which all men would have deep chests and arms the size of the thighs of 1930s heavyweight boxers. Imagine my disappointment to discover this was not a part of natural selection at all. Oh well, naiveté runs its course, one way or the other.
Anyway, while Sosa makes noises about returning to baseball, Hall of Fame ballots that include McGwire’s name for the first time were mailed out this week, and it has set citizen fan and paid observer alike to buzzing. Many voters have publicly stated they will not mark McGwire on their ballots because of enhancements he put inside his person, or, because such things weren’t banned at the time, they will overlook him because he failed to admit this transgression in the presence of our elected officials. Others dismiss his career as un-Hall-worthy on any account, enhanced or otherwise.
This is something of a major turnaround from the turn of the century, when one sometimes heard that McGwire had ascended to become the best first baseman of all time outside of Lou Gehrig. Is his career worthy? Can we create a before and after? Let’s take a look…
Number of seasons at top level
McGwire set the rookie record for most home runs with 49 and posted an 8.9 WARP3 in the process. It was the first of five or six Hall of Fame-level seasons for McGwire, depending on where one sets the threshold. (My personal benchmark for Hall of Fame caliber play is anything at 9.0 or better.) He did not get back to that level until his fourth year, when he posted a 10.0 WARP3, followed by a 10.1 two years later. His best seasons were:
These are fairly comparable to fellow first-time ballot-mate Tony Gwynn‘s best years: 12.1, 10.8, 10.2, 10.0, 9.3, 8.1 and 7.9.
In between his second- and third-best seasons was his prime year; McGwire was 27 in 1991, and he had a season that was generally perceived to be a disaster. bopping a meager .201/.330/.383 with 22 homers and 93 walks in 483 at-bats. It is said that his manager, Tony La Russa, kept him out of the lineup at the end of the year so that he wouldn’t run the risk of his batting average falling below .200 for the year. It never did, although McGwire walked a tightrope between .200 and .205 during the last month of the season. The collective fascination with batting averages and Mendoza lines never did McGwire any favors, especially while spending the first leg of his career in the ballpark with the most spacious foul territories in baseball. His batting averages usually suffered for it, but even with his batting average travails in ’91, McGwire posted an EqA of .281 in that season.
The main argument against McGwire’s credentials–apart from the obvious one–is that he was a “one-dimensional” ballplayer and should not, therefore, be elected to the Hall of Fame. The generates two questions:
1. Is this true?
2. If it is true, should it matter?
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James wrote: “…about 55% of McGwire’s career value is accounted for by his home runs, a high figure, but not as high as players like Dave Kingman and Steve Balboni.” There are two names you don’t want anywhere near your resume when presenting for Cooperstown.
We know this much: nobody in the 500 Home Run Club ever relied on homers to carry their game the way McGwire did. His ratio of homers to doubles-plus-triples is 2.26:1, putting him in a class by himself in that method of accounting among the 500s:
As a contrast, seven members of the 500 Homerers had ratios lower than 1:1, starting with Eddie Murray (.85:1) and also including Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Rafael Palmeiro, Jimmie Foxx and Frank Robinson. Willie Mays (660/663) was almost even. Furthermore, as a percentage of total hits, McGwire’s home runs account for 35.9%, a great leap forward from Killebrew’s 27.5% figure, which previously led the 500 Home Run Club.
So, does that make McGwire one-dimensional? Only if you don’t count walks. Any voter that mentions the phrase “batting average” in conjunction with McGwire has missed the point of the exercise that was his career. Going back to the 500 Homer Club, McGwire has the eighth-highest On-Base Percentage. Overall, he’s currently 78th all-time in OBP. So, there was a second dimension. There is also the matter of his Gold Glove in 1990. He did have two pretty good defensive seasons: that year and the year after (24/13 and 23/13 FRAR/FRAA respectively), but from that point forward he had a -51 FRAA, so pitching his defense is a hard sell at best.
If it’s one dimension, it’s quite a dimension
If pressed to call him a one-dimensional player, then I would define that one dimension as “putting runs on the scoreboard.” Very few in history were as accomplished at this as was McGwire. He currently ranks eighth all-time in EqA. The leaders:
That’s household name territory right there.
What does JAWS say?
Jay Jaffe‘s Hall of Fame predictive tool, known as JAWS, takes into account a player’s peak and career value. It works by adding the best WARP3 seasons to the player’s career WARP3 total and dividing the sum by two. The average Hall of Fame first baseman has a 106.1 career value, a 62.8 peak, and a JAWS of 84.5. McGwire falls within these tolerances with a 109.3/68.4/88.9 showing.
McGwire ranks 13th in JAWS among first basemen. His most comparable player is Keith Hernandez. The players above him who are in the Hall (in order): Lou Gehrig, Cap Anson, Eddie Murray, Jimmie Foxx, Roger Connor, and Dan Brouthers. The players above him who are not in are Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas, John Olerud, and Hernandez. All but Hernandez are not yet eligible. The first basemen who are below him and who have been inducted are Tony Perez, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Jake Beckley, Orlando Cepeda, George Sisler, Bill Terry, Jim Bottomley, Frank Chance, and the unfortunate George Kelly (whose plaque, at last report, was hanging in the basement men’s room at the Hall).
The average for all hitters is 112.3/65.0/88.6, which puts McGwire a bit below on career, a bit over on peak, and dead-on overall.
The What-If Machine?
Arguments about a more broad-based attack aside, there is no denying that McGwire’s claims to fame are his home runs. He hit them at the most frequent rate in history. There is a decided divide in that frequency rate, though, and it is what this implies that will keep him from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and in a worse-case scenario keep him from getting enough votes to even remain eligible. From 1986 to 1995, he hit a home run every 13.2 at-bats. From 1996 until the end of his career in 2001, he did so every 8.3 at-bats.
One hears it said about Barry Bonds that he was going to be a Hall of Famer anyway; that his late-career explosion and its alleged laboratory roots notwithstanding, he had already amassed a Cooperstown-worthy dossier. Can the same be said for McGwire? Using the dividing line of 1995/1996, had he done enough to make a case?
No. However, let’s do this: apply his pre-’96 home run rate to the latter portion of his career. Now he doesn’t have 583 home runs, but 468. Does a first baseman with under 2,000 hits and 468 home runs make the Hall of Fame? Probably not. Would McGwire have made it to 500 anyway, given the overall upsurge in power during that period? That can be argued.
Letting the dust settle
When it comes to the Closer Revolution, I’ve long been an advocate of letting the dust settle so as to get a better handle on what all those saves really mean before they go electing a dozen such pitchers into the Hall of Fame. Fortunately, the voter restraint in this area has been admirable. When recently asked about the controversial candidacy of McGwire, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com advocated the same approach for the power surge of the late ’90s and early ’00s. This certainly makes some sense. Of course, if too many voters take the wait-and-see approach, McGwire will disappear from the ballot right quick, and his fate will be left up to the Veteran’s Committee in the far future.
Clay Davenport and Jay Jaffe contributed data to this column.