2023 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Fred McGriff

Fred McGriff
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2023 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been expanded and updated. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, use the tool above. An introduction to JAWS can be found here.

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 Dead Ball Era, he never matched 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 garner as much attention as it probably merited.

Which isn’t to say that he went totally unnoticed during his heyday, but some of the things for which he received attention were decidedly… square. Early in his major league career, McGriff 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 far 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.

2023 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Fred McGriff
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Fred McGriff 52.6 36.0 44.3
Avg. HOF 1B 65.5 42.1 53.8
2490 493 .284/.377/.509 134
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Born in Tampa, Florida on October 31, 1963, McGriff grew up in West Tampa, just four blocks from Al Lopez Field, the longtime spring home of the Reds. The location provided him with plenty of access at a young age. “I can’t remember going to my first game,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Ralph Wiley in 1999. “I mean, I was always at a baseball game. I lived at ball games. I always loved the game.”

The young McGriff would bring home cracked bats and scuffed baseballs. “They were like jewels to him,” recalled his mother Eliza, an elementary school teacher (McGriff’s father owned and operated a television repair shop).

In Little League and at Jefferson High School, McGriff pitched and played first base, at least until the presence of a bigger, stronger player forced him to try another position. Under coach Emeterio “Pop” Cuesta at Jefferson, he was cut from his sophomore team because “I was not a good outfielder,” as he recalled in 1995.

“The Fred McGriff that was here [as a sophomore] was about 5-foot-6, 5-foot-7 with glasses. I told him to hit the ball, I mean, he hit it, but it wouldn’t go very far,” recalled Cuesta in 2011.

Things came together for McGriff as a junior. He homered off Hillsborough High School’s Dwight Gooden and set school records that would soon be broken
by Tino Martinez, who was four years behind him. After graduating in 1981, McGriff was drafted in the ninth round by the Yankees; that same year, they chose John Elway in the first round, Eric Plunk in the fourth, and Mike Pagliarulo in the sixth. McGriff’s mother hoped that being drafted so low would steer him toward college, but he bypassed scholarship offers against his parents’ wishes and signed with the Yankees for a $20,000 bonus.

McGriff struggled mightily in his first taste of professional baseball, hitting .148/.255/.173 in 29 games for the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 1981. While playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League, he met Emanski, the director of a company called Baseball World that produced instructional videos. Emanski offered to videotape McGriff’s swing. “He slowed it down and broke it down on video, and I learned a lot about hitting from it,” McGriff recalled in 2003. It helped, as he improved to .272/.413/.456 while repeating the GCL the following year.

In December 1982, 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 still ranks as one of the worst trades in Yankees franchise history. Blue Jays director of Latin American scouting Epy Guerrero had recommended McGriff to general manager Pat Gillick after seeing the young first baseman hit a ball that went beyond the right field fence and a runway onto a clubhouse roof in Bradenton.

Upon joining the Blue Jays organization, McGriff climbed through two levels of A-ball in 1983 and entered the following season as Toronto’s second-ranked prospect according to Baseball America. He was anointed the team’s top prospect heading into 1985 after splitting the previous season between Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Syracuse, but a stress fracture in his right ankle limited him to just 51 games that year. He spent most of 1986 at Syracuse, hitting .259/.369/.447 with 19 homers, but did get his first taste of the majors when he played three games for the Blue Jays on May 17–20; he collected his first hit, a single off Cleveland’s Don Schulze, on May 18.

McGriff broke camp with the Blue Jays in 1987, which he spent as the lefty half of a designated hitter platoon with Cecil Fielder. He hit .247/.376/.505 (130 OPS+) 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 fumbled the American League East flag into the hands of the Tigers by losing their final seven games.

In 1988, McGriff began a string of seven straight 30-homer seasons, showing amazing consistency with his output: 34, 36, 35, 31, 35, 37, 34. The first three of those seasons came with the Blue Jays, a span during which he produced 18.0 WAR, ranking among the league’s top 10 all three times. In 1989, he led the AL with 36 homers and hit .269/.399/.525 en route to 6.6 WAR (fourth in the league); his 165 OPS+ also led the league. Despite his blossoming, 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, a move that helped the Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93. While McGriff missed out on those parades, he picked up where he left off with the Padres. His NL-high 35 homers in 1992 made him the first player since Hall of Famer Sam Crawford (in 1901 and ’08) to lead each league (McGwire would become the second). He made his first All-Star team in 1992 as well.

It was during the 1991 season that Emanski called in a favor: He wanted McGriff to film an endorsement for his new Defensive Drills video. He flew to Chicago, where the Padres were playing the Cubs, then drove McGriff to a Little League diamond near Wrigley Field, where the slugger proclaimed, “I’m so impressed with the instructional videos by Coach Emanski that I’ve given them my full endorsement. When you watch them, you’ll know why.” The endorsement helped make Emanski — who produced a line of nine instructional videos — a wealthy man. McGriff, who was working without a formal contract, only received a small percentage of the proceeds. Instead he got paid in a level of exposure that certainly raised his profile, though in 2021 he made a shocking admission:

Everybody on this ballot is connected to a scandal, right? I kid, of course…

The Padres were a .500-ish team for McGriff’s first two seasons. At $4 million, he was the team’s highest-paid player, and so when owner Tom Werner ordered a salary purge in 1993, McGriff was on the move again, traded to the defending NL champion Braves on July 18 for a three-prospect package whose most impactful player was Melvin Nieves. Two days later, in uniform for the first time, McGriff and the Braves had to wait out a two-hour delay caused by a fire at Turner Field. An unattended can of Sterno in a hospitality suite near the press box started a blaze that spread along the club level and to the press box, where it engulfed the radio booth and five other booths. The game against the Cardinals was played nonetheless, and in the sixth inning, McGriff clubbed a game-tying two-run homer off René Arocha:

The Braves, who had trailed 5–0 early in the game, came back to win, and they won again the next night as McGriff hit two more homers. Eight games behind the Giants in the NL West at 53–40 when the trade was made, the team went a remarkable 51–18 the rest of the way, winning the West as McGriff hit .310/.392/.612 with 19 homers in 291 PA; his total of 37 homers set a career high. In the NLCS against the Phillies, McGriff hit .435/.519/.696 with a homer and four RBIs, but the Braves fell in six games.

Settling in as one of the cornerstones of a dynasty, McGriff hit .318/.389/.623 with 34 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, his first of three straight All-Star seasons and his seventh in a row ranking among the league’s top five in homers. He helped Atlanta to three straight division titles from 1995 to ’97, with back-to-back pennants in the first two of those years, but his production took a significant dip; with below-average baserunning and double play avoidance (-16 runs) as well as defense (-12 runs), he was worth a total of just 3.2 WAR in those three seasons. Despite the downturn, he perked up in October, hitting a pair of homers and slugging over .600 in both the 1995 and ’96 World Series; Atlanta won the former by beating Cleveland 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 runs in the field, and 0.2 WAR, the 33-year-old Tampa native was sold to the Devil Rays on the day of the expansion draft. He spent 3 1/2 years with that awful team, enjoying a mini-renaissance in 1999 (34 homers, 4.0 WAR), hitting his 400th home run on June 2, 2000 (off the Mets’ Glendon Rusch), and making the AL All-Star team that same summer, his fifth and final selection.

McGriff called playing in front of his parents “really special,” but mostly he clocked time in front of sparse crowds while his team was routed; the Devil Rays lost 284 games in his three full seasons there. After over two weeks of deliberation regarding the exercise of his no-trade clause (he had two young kids at home and was playing in his hometown, after all), McGriff was swapped to the Cubs in a three-player deal on July 27, 2001. While he again hit well upon switching teams, he couldn’t spur them to the postseason.

With the Cubs, McGriff enjoyed his 10th and final 30-homer season at age 38 in 2002, then spent an injury-wracked year with the Dodgers, causing a “Countdown to History” sign in anticipation of his 500th homer to be mothballed. He returned to the Devil Rays organization near the end of spring training in 2004 but had to start his season at Triple-A Durham. He didn’t return to the majors until May 28 and played in just 27 games with two homers before drawing his release in late July. When he couldn’t find a landing spot for the 2005 season, he hung up his spikes.

​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 to the rise of performance-enhancing drugs, 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 in short order; from 1966, when the BBWAA returned to annual voting, until ’97, only Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews needed more than one year to be elected. Since 1997, another 13 sluggers have joined the club, but thus far, seven of them (McGwire, Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Sammy Sosa) have failed to gain entry due to their connections to PEDs; two others (Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols) were still active in 2022. Palmeiro fell off the ballot after just four years in 2014; McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa spent 10 years on the ballot without getting elected. Ramirez and Sheffield are heading into their seventh and ninth years of eligibility, respectively, and Rodriguez his second; so far, none of them has gotten 41% of the vote, let alone 75%.

McGriff stands apart from that mess 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 the aforementioned 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 Canseco and 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 falling short of 500 homers, McGriff has a reasonable case for Cooperstown based on his traditional stats and accomplishments. 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. That said, all seven of the other candidates on this ballot scored even higher, from Dale Murphy (116) and Don Mattingly (134) up to Bonds (340). Unlike those two, McGriff never won an MVP award, had just one top-five finish in the voting, and didn’t add anything with his defense.

He’s in worse shape when it comes to advanced metrics, where his subpar base running (-22 runs), defense (-34 runs), and propensity for hitting into double plays (-13 runs) cut into his value and paint a picture of a fairly one-dimensional slugger. McGriff’s 52.6 career WAR ranks 30th among first basemen, ahead of only five of the 23 non-Negro Leagues Hall of Famers at the position. All five were elected by committees, though McGriff is just below four BBWAA-elected first basemen: Hank Greenberg (55.5), David Ortiz (55.3), George Sisler (54.8) and Tony Perez (54.0). Similarly, McGriff’s seven-year peak score of 36.0 is tied for 31st, ahead of just six Hall of Famers. He’s 0.1 points below contemporary Will Clark — a two-time Today’s Game candidate who has 3.9 more career WAR as well despite nearly 2,000 fewer plate appearances — and 0.5 below Perez, but 0.4 ahead of Hall of Famer Frank Chance and 0.8 ahead of Ortiz, a designated hitter who’s classified with the first basemen.

Here’s a sortable table of select post-integration first basemen who are below the JAWS standard but either enshrined or eligible for this ballot (retired for 15 or more seasons), though not necessarily included on it:

The Crime Dog and Company
Player PA OPS+ Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield WAR WAR7 JAWS HOFM
Avg of 23 HOFers 65.5 42.1 53.8
Keith Hernandez 8553 128 284 -4 2 117 60.3 41.2 50.8 86
John Olerud 9063 129 333 -23 -15 103 58.2 39.0 48.6 68
Will Clark 8283 137 353 7 16 3 56.5 36.1 46.3 84
Tony Perez* 10861 122 267 -12 -30 13 54.0 36.5 45.2 81
Fred McGriff 10174 134 399 -22 -13 -34 52.6 36.0 44.3 100
Norm Cash 7914 139 336 -17 7 38 52.0 33.7 42.8 50
Orlando Cepeda* 8699 133 324 -10 -22 -11 50.1 34.4 42.3 126
Don Mattingly 7722 127 227 4 0 33 42.4 35.8 39.1 134
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = Hall of Famer

Hernandez, Olerud, and Clark were all bypassed for inclusion on the Contemporary ballot, and Mattingly is on here. McGriff has more playing time than all but Perez, leads the group in batting runs (the primary offensive component of WAR), and is third in OPS+, but is the worst defender here. Between that and his net negative with his baserunning and double play avoidance, he’s fifth within this group in career WAR, peak WAR, and JAWS, situated between the two Hall of Famers on that last count but below three absent players from the Contemporary pool.

Relative to all of the enshrined non-Negro Leagues first basemen, McGriff is nearly 13 wins below the career WAR standard, and 6.1 wins — nearly one per year — below the peak standard. He’s 32nd in JAWS, 9.5 points shy of the standard for first baseman, and ranked below 18 of the 23 Hall of Famers. He’s 0.9 points below the BBWAA-elected Perez and 2.0 above the Veterans Committee-elected Cepeda, who scores much better on the Monitor. All told, while Perez and Cepeda illustrate that the Hall does contain first basemen of McGriff’s caliber, most of his comps are outside, and I don’t think his case for inclusion is a particularly good one.

BBWAA voters certainly didn’t turn out in droves for McGriff. Debuting on the 2010 ballot on which Andre Dawson inched over the line in his ninth year of eligibility (77.9%) and both Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar come within single digits of election, he drew just 21.5%, the 11th-highest share. He fell below not just McGwire (23.7% in his fourth year) but also future Hall of Famers better supported by WAR and JAWS, namely first-year candidate Barry Larkin as well as Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, and Alan Trammell. Only once over the next six cycles did he top that, with 23.9% in 2012, and he sank as low as 11.7% just two years later as the ballot reached unwieldy proportions due to the PED-driven backlog; it was after that cycle that he and every other mid-tenure candidate had their eligibility windows cut from 15 years to 10.

McGriff got back to 21.7% in 2017, added a point and a half the next year, and got a modest surge in his final year, to 39.8%. The pattern vaguely recalls that of Trammell, whose last three shares of 20.8%, 25.1%, and 40.9% created a sense of momentum that may have helped him get elected two years later (2018) by the Modern Baseball Era Committee. That said, Trammell did have two years above 30% in 2012–13 before the backlog crowded him out, and he also ranked 10th in JAWS among shortstop.

Despite the tepid support from the writers, it’s pretty easy to see McGriff’s path to election in this context, on a ballot with eight candidates, three of whom are linked to PEDs (Bonds, Clemens, and Palmeiro), a fourth to character issues that stopped him short of election (Curt Schilling), and a trio of players who score better on the Monitor, albeit in shorter careers that left them below McGriff in JAWS (Mattingly, Murphy, and Albert Belle). Particularly with the easy 500-homer what-if and the clean reputation regarding PEDs (take a bite out crime, indeed), he seems almost engineered to draw support. If I were among the 16 voters on this panel, I wouldn’t include him on my ballot, but if I had to guess, I suspect he might draw the highest level of support from among the eight candidates. I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls short of 75%, or if he gets over the line.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Richard Bergstrom
1 year ago

If the baseball Hall of Fame was like the football Hall of Fame, McGriff would be in. Even Mark Grace would probably be in the Hall of Fame based on football’s standards. But to be fair, even though McGriff’s numbers are shy of the standards, there are also a lot of others who also should be in based on the numbers yet aren’t in the Hall. It’s hard to stretch the “big Hall” argument to get him in without including quite a few other candidates.

Also, thanks for the callback to the Extra Innings essay about changes to the ball which seems even more relevant these days.