Despite being an outstanding hitter, Fred McGriff had a hard time standing out. Though he arrived in the major leagues the same year as Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and was the first player to lead each league in home runs since the Deadball Era, he never reached the career accomplishments of either of those two men, finishing short of round-numbered milestones with "only" 493 home runs and 2,490 hits. The obvious explanation — that he didn't have the pharmaceutical help that others did — may be true, but it was just one of many ways in which McGriff's strong performance didn't call as much attention to itself as it might have merited.
That isn't to say that McGriff went totally unnoticed during his heyday, but some of the things that garnered him attention were decidedly ... square. Early in his major league career, he acquired the nickname "the Crime Dog" in reference to McGruff, an animated talking bloodhound from a public service announcement who urged kids to "take a bite out of crime" by staying in school and away from drugs. He also appeared in the longest-running sports infomercial of all time, endorsing Tom Emanski's Baseball Defensive Drills video, a staple of insomniac viewing amid SportsCenter segments on ESPN since 1991.
That those distinctions carry some amount of ironic cachet today is evidence that McGriff might have been just too gosh-darn wholesome a star for an increasingly cynical age. On the other hand, it's better to be remembered for pointing a finger in the service of a timeless baseball fundamentals video than accompanying sworn testimony in front of Congress.
|Avg. HOF 1B||65.9||42.4||54.2|
A native of Tampa, Fla., McGriff grew up just four blocks from Al Lopez Field, the longtime spring home of the Reds, providing him plenty of access to baseball from a young age. He was a ninth-round pick by the Yankees out of high school in 1981, but like so many of the team's farmhands during that era, he never got to wear the pinstripes. Just 18 months after he was drafted, and less than two months after his 19th birthday, he was traded to the Blue Jays along with Dave Collins, Mike Morgan and cash for Dale Murray and Tom Dodd — a move that ranks as one of the worst trades in New York's franchise history.
McGriff made slow progress through the minors, in part because he was blocked by the popular Willie Upshaw at first base in Toronto's lineup. He debuted in the majors on May 17, 1986, though he only stuck around for a three-game cameo and didn't crack the Jays' lineup until 1987. Serving as the lefty half of a DH platoon with Cecil Fielder, McGriff hit .247/.376/.505 with 20 homers — the first of 15 times he would reach that plateau — in just 356 plate appearances. Alas, that was the year the Blue Jays lost their final seven games to fumble the AL East flag into the hands of the Tigers.
The next year, McGriff began a string of seven straight 30-homer seasons, showing amazing consistency with his output: 34, 36, 35, 31, 35, 37, 34. Those first three 30-homer seasons came with the Blue Jays in '88, and he led the AL in '89 while hitting .269/.399/.525 in a season worth 6.7 WAR. From 1988 to '90, he delivered a strong total of 18.1 WAR. Nonetheless, he found himself on an outbound flight as part of a star-studded December 1990 trade that sent him and Tony Fernandez to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. The move helped the Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and '93, but McGriff missed out on those parties. Nonetheless, he picked up where he left off in San Diego, and in 1992, he led the NL in homers with 35, making him the first player since Hall of Famer Sam Crawford (in 1901 and '08) to lead each league (McGwire would later become the second).
The Padres were a .500-ish team for McGriff's first two seasons, but when owner Tom Werner ordered a salary purge in 1993, McGriff — the team's highest-paid player at $4 million — was on the move again, traded to the defending NL champion Braves in July. Atlanta was 53-40 and eight games behind the Giants in the NL West, when the deal went down, but it went a remarkable 51-18 the rest of the way, winning the West before losing to the Phillies in the NLCS. Settling in as one of the cornerstones of a dynasty, McGriff hit .310/.392/.612 with 19 homers in 291 plate appearances with the Braves and set a career high with 37 homers overall in '93. He followed that up by hitting .318/.389/.623 with 34 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, his seventh straight season finishing in his league's top five in home runs.
Following the strike, McGriff was part of three straight division champions from 1995 to '97 and back-to-back pennant winners in the first two of those years. His production, however, took a significant dip, and with below-average defense at first base according to Total Zone, he was worth a total of just 3.2 WAR in those three seasons. Even so, he hit a pair of homers and slugged over .600 in both the '95 and '96 World Series; Atlanta won the former by beating the Indians but lost the latter to the Yankees. Throughout his career, McGriff excelled in October, hitting .303/.385/.532 with 10 homers in 50 postseason games.
After a 1997 season in which he slumped to 22 homers, -7 fielding and 0.2 WAR, the 33-year-old Tampa native was traded to the expansion Devil Rays. He spent three and a half years with the awful team, enjoying a mini-renaissance in 1999 (34 homers, 4.0 WAR) but otherwise merely clocking time in front of sparse crowds. After some initial resistance via the exercise of his no-trade clause — he had two young kids at home and was playing in his hometown — he was swapped to the Cubs in July 2001, and while he again hit well upon switching teams, he couldn't spur Chicago to the postseason. Following his 10th and final 30-homer season in 2002, he spent a year with the Dodgers and then another back with the Devil Rays, hanging up his spikes when he couldn't find a landing spot for the 2005 season.
McGriff finished his career with the same home run total as Lou Gehrig, but times had certainly changed. Not only did he fall just a bit short of 500, but he also played during an era where that mark's cachet as an automatic qualifier for the Hall of Fame was obliterated, due not only to the rise of performance-enhancing drugs but also expansion into high-altitude venues (Colorado and Arizona) and changes in the ball itself. Through 1997, 15 players reached 500 homers, with nearly all of them gaining entry to the Hall of Fame in short order — since the BBWAA returned to annual voting in 1966, only Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews needed more than one year to be elected. Since 1997, another 10 sluggers have joined the 500 club, but thus far, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds have failed to gain entry due to their connections to PEDs, with Palmeiro falling off the ballot this past year and Sosa and McGwire likely to do so soon. First-year candidate Gary Sheffield is likely to have trouble gaining traction, and Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, both suspended for PED use, may never get in.
McGriff stands apart from all that, as a player who was never accused of any PED-related wrongdoing. Indeed, he was notorious for his aversion to weight-lifting early in his career. In a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, Blue Jays teammate Lloyd Moseby noted, "You know that highlight reel that shows the Willie Mays catch and then switches to the fan, who grabs his head with his hands in amazement? Fred McGriff does that to you when he hits a home run. Taking nothing away from [Jose] Canseco and [Mark] McGwire, but everybody knows they lift weights. I wish I could get Freddie to lift weights. The only things he lifts are candy bars."
Despite the lack of 500 homers, McGriff's case for Cooperstown appears to have some merit. He scores 100 ("a good possibility") on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor for his five All-Star appearances, two home run titles and postseason performances, and 48 (slightly below average) on James' Hall of Fame Standards metric, which similarly credits him for career accomplishments relative to players already in the Hall. That said, McGriff never won an MVP award and had just one top-five finish in the voting, and he didn't add anything with his defense.
He's in worse shape when it comes to advanced metrics, where his subpar baserunning (-22 runs), defense (-34 runs) and propensity for hitting into double plays (-13 runs) support the notion that he was a fairly one-dimensional slugger. In all, he's 13.5 wins below the career WAR standard among first basemen and 6.6 wins — nearly one per year — below the peak standard. His JAWS falls 10.1 shy of the standard for first baseman, good enough for 27th on the all-time list. That's one notch below Hall of Famer Tony Perez (53.9/36.5/45.2, and a prominent part of the Reds' dynasty) and three above Orlando Cepeda (50.1/34.4/42.4) but ahead of just three other enshrined first baseman.
While it would make for a nice moral to the story if McGriff were to gain entry to Cooperstown while those connected to PEDs remained outside, he just doesn't quite have the numbers. It bears remembering that at least via JAWS, McGriff isn't being measured against McGwire and Palmeiro, but against those already enshrined at his position, such as Gehrig, Perez, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Eddie Murray.
Alas, it's not enough, and the voters apparently feel the same way. In five years on the ballot, McGriff's highest share of support has been the 23.9 percent he got in 2012, less than one-third of what he needs for enshrinement, and he dropped from 20.7 percent in 2013 to 11.7 percent last year as the ballot grew more crowded. At this point, he appears fated to fall off the ballot before his 10 years of eligibility are up, with an overly generous Veterans Committee to be named later as his best bet for eventually getting a plaque in Cooperstown.