I find this entire exercise utterly depressing.
My assignment is to fall on the grenade and explain why Fred McGriff doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. There have been harder rhetorical tasks, frankly. Proving why McGriff should buy his own ticket to Cooperstown is easier than keeping Franklin Pierce off Mount Rushmore.
But with McGriff teetering toward his 500th career home run -- the Tampa Bay local artifact has 493 -- talk has begun to stir that his following Ken Griffey Jr. into 500 territory would automatically cast his mug in Hall of Fame bronze; after all, the argument goes, every one of the 15 eligible retirees with that many homers has received the honor. Ever since Cooperstown's groundbreaking, a player hitting 500 home runs meant he could waltz into the Hall. Yet in today's power-charged era we were bound to come across a player who would still trip over the molding. His name is Fred McGriff.
Now, the disturbing part comes in the fact Fred McGriff has been a very good ballplayer for most of the past 18 years. For seven of them, 1988-94, he was one of the top five offensive forces in baseball. Explaining why he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame is like telling a Harvard magna cum laude grad, "What, you couldn't make summa?" Give the guy a break, after all.
However, Fred McGriff's feelings, and those of his several fans, need to be protected less than the majesty of the Hall of Fame -- which would be diluted, however slightly, by his inclusion. It seems to me that the Hall (gallery, not museum) exists to honor the best players of all time, with each era (the dead-ball teens, the homer-happy '30s) being fairly represented. To accomplish this, the "best" must be defined not just as the elite among all-time standouts, but among their contemporaries as well. This is where McGriff hits his ceiling.
Again, McGriff has had a very impressive career. Seems to me his qualifications for Hall of Fame inclusion should be the following, in order of significance:
1) (Presumably) 500 or more home runs. For better or worse, this remains a magic number. While we must be skeptical about modern home run totals, which have skyrocketed across the board the last decade, it should be remembered that McGriff enjoyed many of his best years before that inflation. With that in mind ...
2) He was a good all-around hitter, not just a longball guy. For seven seasons (1988-94) McGriff's combined .935 OPS was the third-best in baseball, behind only Frank Thomas (1.040) and Barry Bonds (.967). That's pretty darned good, something I was surprised to discover.
3) The players with the most similar statistics to him, according to the Bill James formula employed by baseball-reference.com, are, in order, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Rafael Palmeiro, Andres Galarraga, Billy Williams, Jeff Bagwell, Chili Davis, Eddie Mathews, Dwight Evans and Ernie Banks. Five of those 10 are in the Hall of Fame, with one or two more probably joining them in time.
4) He was a five-time All-Star, a two-time home run leader, a key player for one of the 1990's top two teams (the Braves), and was mentioned by Cosmo Kramer during a Steinbrenner rant.
So there's no denying that this was a very notable player. The problem comes when you investigate just how high he rose over his peers. Was he one of the best players of his time? Or did a rising tide raise him? With that in mind, consider the following:
1) McGriff was never once considered one of the top three players in his league, according to the MVP voting. He finished fourth only once, in 1993, and placed in the top eight just three other times. While this doesn't instantly KO his candidacy -- Richie Ashburn finished in the top 10 just twice, both times at No. 7 -- it remains a huge blow to his credentials.
2) The similarity scores that compare McGriff to McCovey and Stargell rely only on raw numbers, and take no account of the era in which the players played. McCovey and Stargell, both Hall of Famers, hit most of their thirtysomething homers a year in the 1960s and '70s, when high offensive totals were considerably harder to come by. McGriff started out in the pitching-heavy 1988-92 era but still padded his numbers after that.
3) How many first basemen from one era can go into the Hall? McGriff's career coincided all but perfectly with Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell. Each of those players will retire with better qualifications than McGriff. (We're not even counting Eddie Murray, who arrived before him, and the Thome-Delgado-Giambi-Helton group that followed.) Even if you grant that McGriff was the fifth best first baseman of his era -- and that's debatable -- that doesn't sound like a Hall of Famer to me.
Amateur scientists thrive in Hall of Fame arguments, brewing some of logic's more specious elixirs. Almost every player can be made to look Cooperstown-worthy if you look at only one category. In McGriff's case, some will tell you that he hit more home runs than Joe DiMaggio, had more RBI than Mickey Mantle and even a higher OPS than Harmon Killebrew. He has more World Series rings than Ted Williams and Ernie Banks combined. And, most of all, the guy went deep 500 times.
This basically comes down to how much stock you put in that one number -- 500 -- in terms of punching someone's Hall of Fame ticket. If McGriff finished with 472 home runs, the conversation would have no traction whatsoever. In this age of statistical understanding, should we allow one number to dictate a player's value and legacy? Of all the things we've learned about statistics these past 20 years, it's not just what they mean, but what they don't mean. And 500 homers don't mean enough anymore, even if they once did.
The Hall of Fame is not for outstanding players who flame out quickly. It isn't a rest home for very good players with longevity. And it isn't even about numbers.
It is about knighting the most elite players the game has ever seen, and Fred McGriff is not one of those. His magna degree will have to do.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is being published by St. Martin's Press in early July, and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.