Baseball is a game of traditions. Steeped in traditions. Slathered in traditions. Sewn up in traditions. Stuck in traditions. Superstitioned in traditions. Sometimes even succumbing to traditions. Traditions in the summer. Traditions in the spring. And even some traditions in the off-season.
One of the more intriguing of the latter has evolved into a veritable open season… on second-guessing the yearly Hall of Fame balloting. Usually, this takes place in January – normally a down month for baseball between the Winter Meetings and Silly Signings Season and the start of Spring Training – when the BBWAA voting is announced.
But, for this year, the hot air started to blow long before January. It normally takes the results of the vote for the cognoscenti, and the not-so-cognoscenti, to start howling, “How could they not vote for Goose Gossage?” However, all it took for the potential 2007 class to raise a fuss was the announcement of the ballot… surely a first in baseball history.
You already know why there was such a hue and cry back in November. Heck, anyone who has been following baseball at all over the past two or three years could have guessed that without much trouble, because the first of the Steroids Era Sluggers was on the ballot. C’mon, did anyone really think they’d leave Mark McGwire off the ballot entirely? Well, for whatever reason, just seeing Big Mac on the HOF ballot apparently delivered a shock to numerous pundits, enough of a traumatic experience that some fairly notable writers (no names, please) seemed to have lost their minds.
While it’s not surprising that everybody and his brother jumped into the controversy as to whether or not they might vote for McGwire, what is surprising is one of the reasons put forth by these recalcitrant voters. While thoughtful voters like the Philadelphia Daily News’ Paul Hagen were pointing out that it’s not as though some permanent decision has to be made on McGwire (or Barry Bonds, or Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro) the first time such a name appears on the ballot – Hagen is wisely taking a “wait-and-see” what develops attitude – many others were jumping off the bandwagon with both feet, proclaiming they’d never vote for McGwire or anyone else who might be suspect. And that’s their prerogative. However, if you’re not going to vote for McGwire, do it for the right reason, and not because his play was supposedly deficient.
Maybe it’s a form of justification or rationalization. Maybe it’s a lack of knowledge or understanding of the true meaning of statistics. Maybe it’s for having been let down by McGwire. Maybe it’s a reaction to his testimony before Congress. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to let steroids rule the game. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. But, in the name of Hank Aaron, that 75% of you who didn’t vote for McGwire… don’t say it’s because he wasn’t good enough to get in the Hall… because he was a “one-dimensional” player.
First, the Hall already has one-dimensional players. Bobby Wallace… Ray Schalk… Bill Mazeroski… Chick Hafey… Rabbit Maranville… Tommy McCarthy come quickly to mind. Candy Cummings got in on even less than that, because he supposedly invented the curve ball. That’s about as one-dimensional as it gets.
More relevant to the discussion at hand, McGwire was not a one-dimensional player. Anyone who truly thinks that he was wasn’t paying attention from 1987 to 2001. And, wisenheimer comments to the contrary, the voters do have to consider McGwire’s past (or at least they have a responsibility to do so.) So, let’s review some of the salient facts of McGwire’s career. First, Big Mac by the obvious numbers…
G AB R H 2B
HR RBI W
K BA OBP SLG
1167 1626 252 583 1414 1317 1596 .263 .394 .588
(McGwire only had six triples and a dozen stolen bases in his career, but we’re not claiming he was a gazelle, OK?)
That’s over parts of 16 seasons – a pretty long career, except that, due to injuries, he really can only be said to have played 10 full seasons (130 games or more) and parts of six others. And, that’s immense production for less than 6200 at bats – but you knew that, didn’t you? Still, check out these at bat totals for his six top home run seasons…
If you care to combine his final two partial seasons – 2000 and 2001 – you’ll find he hit 61 home runs in 535 at bats… on one leg. If his one dimension was power, well, it was some dimension, since he’s seventh in career home runs, and 11th in career slugging percentage. But you knew that, too, didn’t you?
No, the point to be made isn’t that Mark McGwire could hit the long ball. It’s that he could do a few other things as well. First, check out his on base percentage… .394 is pretty good, 78th all-time to be exact. But, that really doesn’t tell the tale of his plate discipline and his willingness to take a walk. (And it was willingness… he received just 150 intentional walks in his entire career – less than a quarter of Barry Bonds’ inflated total and just 30 more than Bonds drew in 2004 alone.)
A better measure is his Isolated Discipline (ID)… obtained by subtracting his career batting average from his career on base percentage. As noted by your humble scribe in “Baseball: 1862 to 2003,” that’s an ID of .131, which stands eighth all-time, ahead of Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner and Frank Thomas.
So, it seems pretty safe to say that McGwire was also pretty good at getting on base. And, in fact, this is borne out by his career Adjusted OPS, a figure based on both his slugging and on base skills. McGwire’s figure of 163 is 11th all-time, ahead of, say, that same Frank Thomas, and Stan Musial, Manny Ramirez, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio. In case you’re interested, his career OPS, without the adjustment for having played a good bit of his career in a pitcher’s park, was still .982, 13th all-time.
Further along these same lines, his strikeout/walk ratio wasn’t that bad for a big-time power hitter. Compared to some of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries on the all-time home run list (again, leaving out Bonds and his inflated walk totals), his ratio was better than that of Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mike Schmidt or Reggie Jackson.
The harder point to make for McGwire is in the field… not that poor-fielding big hitters don’t already populate the Hall, the aforementioned Messrs. Killebrew and Kiner are prime examples of that. While not wishing to nominate McGwire for an ex post facto Golden Glove (although he did win a real one in 1990… when he only hit .235 with 39 home runs, so he may not have earned it entirely with his bat), his career numbers do seem to bear out an assertion that he wasn’t Dick Stuart in the field.
Fielding Percentage Range
Admittedly, fielding percentages at first base don’t vary much, and range factors can be misleading. Maybe he played with a lot of ground ball pitchers, leading to a lot of putouts at first. Maybe. But, in every single season but one? That’s right, with the exception of 1994, when he only played 40 games at first, McGwire’s range factor at first was better than the league average in every single season he played.
On the surface, these numbers would seem to indicate he was adequate at first at the worst. As an example, let’s take his biggest year offensively, 1998, when he also set the major league home run record with 70.
A total of 21 men (no women) played first base with some regularity in the National League that year. While McGwire was second in errors with 12 (Brad Fulmer of the Expos made 17), that’s partly because he was third in games played at first, and had more putouts than anyone except Kevin Young of the Pirates (1334 to 1326). And, his .992 fielding percentage was just .001 under the league average. In addition to being second in putouts, he was also third in double plays (128) and ninth in assists (92).
Add it all up, and he led the National League in range factor with 9.42. Only the slick-fielding Travis Lee (9.38), plus Jeff Bagwell (9.30) and Eric Karros (9.26) were even close to him, as the league range factor was just 8.01. A great fielder… a great fielding year? No. But not a terrible fielder and not a one-dimensional year, either. McGwire would seem to have at least held his own at first base.
Although not based so much on statistical evidence, it’s also worth noting that McGwire was a pitcher at maybe the best college baseball program in the country, USC, and came up to the majors in 1986 as a tremendous prospect – at third base.
OK, so he wasn’t a particularly good third baseman, but, still, there is a point to be made here as to anecdotal evidence to McGwire’s skills at something other than hitting home runs. Would a one-dimensional player, the classic description of a DH, have filled the DH “position” just 37 times in his career, most of which was spent in the American League?
Look, it’s OK not to vote for McGwire. If I had a vote, I’d have taken Hagen’s course and would have not voted for him… and would continue to follow such a course until we know more about him and just how level or un-level the chemical playing field was in the late 90s’ and early 00’s.
But, not voting for Mark McGwire on the excuse that he was a one-dimensional player is just like throwing him a fastball down the middle. It’s dumb.
A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, John Shiffert’s background includes serving as a sportswriter, as sports information director for Earlham College and Drexel University, and as publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File. He's been director of University Relations at Clayton State University since August 1995.