Close, but not quite Hall of Famers
19. Fred McGriff (52.6 WAR, 20.7 percent) -- Here's a question: Do you think the Tom Emanski commercial has hurt McGriff's legacy? I mean, instead of remembering all those home runs or that beautiful left-handed tomahawk of a swing, we just keep seeing him in that goofy hat trying to sell a video on defensive drills, which is kind of ironic considering McGriff was hardly known for his defense.
Here's another question: Assuming McGriff was clean and didn't use PEDs, how much was he hurt by the offensive explosion in the mid-1990s? For example, compare his career numbers to Tony Perez and Eddie Murray, two Hall of Fame first basemen elected by the BBWAA:
McGriff: 493 HRs, 1,550 RBIs, .284/.377/.509, 134 OPS+
Perez: 379 HRs, 1,652 RBIs, .279/.341/.463, 122 OPS+
Murray: 504 HRs, 1,917 RBIs, .287/.359/.476, 129 OPS+
McGriff didn't quite match those two in RBIs, but he had the better career on-base and slugging percentages. Even while factoring in the high offense of McGriff's era, his adjusted OPS is higher than those two. Is McGriff being penalized by the monster numbers other first basemen put up later in his career? He led the AL with 36 home runs in 1989 and led the NL with 35 in 1992, but when he hit 32 for the Rays in 1999 he ranked just 17th in the league. McGriff's prime years -- 1988 to 1994, when he led all major leaguers in home runs (24 more than Barry Bonds) and ranked second to Bonds in OPS -- are now 20-plus years in the rearview mirror. McGriff had a seven-year run as one of the best hitters in the game. And then still hit 231 home runs after that. So, yes, I think the voters have short-changed McGriff's early dominance.
However, in career WAR, McGriff ranks just behind Perez (53.9) and significantly behind Murray (68.2). Much of that is due to defense. Baseball-Reference credits McGriff with -18.1 dWAR due to positional adjustments and defensive metrics. Perez, who spent several years at third base, is at -6.9 dWAR and Murray at -12.8. Murray, who won four Gold Gloves, is credited with +61 runs saved on defense, McGriff with -34. In the end, the difference between Murray and McGriff is almost all defensive. I think that's a fair assessment.
18. Sammy Sosa (58.4 WAR, 12.5 percent) -- If we remove the PED cloud, how clear would Sosa's path have been to Cooperstown? He's a complicated case. The 609 home runs (eighth all-time) scream pretty loudly, as do the 1,667 RBIs (27th), a total that includes four straight years with at least 138. His peak was fairly short for a Hall of Famer: From 1995 to 2002 he compiled 46.2 WAR, including a monster 10.3 season in 2001, one of just 10 10-win seasons since the divisional era began in 1969 (but overshadowed that year by Barry Bonds' 11.9 WAR). But outside of that eight-year period, he didn't do a whole lot else. Sosa had flaws in his game -- early in his career he didn't walk much so he posted poor-to-mediocre OBPs; later in his career, his once outstanding defense suffered as he bulked up and slowed down; his .273 batting average isn't anything special for an outfielder. Statistically, his 58.4 WAR is well below that 68-to-70 level that makes him a strong candidate.
Still, for a period of time Sosa was one of the biggest names in the sport, a guy who graced magazine covers, and fans paid just to watch him take batting practice. But those guys don't always get to Cooperstown. Steve Garvey didn't make it; Dale Murphy, who won two MVP awards, didn't make it; Dave Parker didn't make it. With those 609 home runs, however, I think Sosa clears the 75 percent hurdle, minus PEDs. With those allegations, however, he drew little support last year and is a good bet to fall off the ballot this year. That may not be fair, but I won't be too heartbroken about it.
17. Larry Walker (72.4 WAR, 21.6 percent) -- Speaking of fair, I do feel like I'm possibly treating Walker unfairly by putting him short of the Hall of Fame. His career WAR is well above 70, he was an outstanding two-way player, he won three batting titles and an MVP award and hit .313 in his career. In his case, it's the Coors Field cloud I can't escape. His career road batting line of .278/.370/.495 pales in comparison to what he did in Colorado (.381/.462/.710). He did have some good seasons on the road. In his 1997 MVP year, he hit 29 of his 49 home runs on the road, with a .346 average. But in 1998 he hit .418 at Coors with 17 of his 23 home runs; in 1999, he hit .461 versus .286 with 28 of 39 home runs; in 2000 he hit 100 points higher at Coors; in 2001, the split was .406 and .293.
But doesn't WAR account for the home park factor? Yes, it does. But Walker was so much better at home -- even compared to the average Rockies hitter -- that even park adjustments may not completely explain what was going on. The biggest problem I have with Walker's case is that he had teammates putting up all sorts of similar numbers at the same time: In 1996, Ellis Burks hit .344 with 40 home runs and Andres Galarraga hit 47 home runs with 150 RBIs; Vinny Castilla had three 40-homer, .300 seasons; Dante Bichette hit .340 and led the league in homers and RBIs in 1995 and hit .330 another year; Todd Helton hit as high as .372 and as many as 49 home runs. Coors Field was such an extreme hitters' park that even hitters like Castilla and Bichette were able to take unique advantage of it. If Walker had been a little more durable (he played 140 games just four times), I'd like his case a little more. He's just short for me.
So borderline I can't make a decision
16. Rafael Palmeiro (71.8 WAR, 8.8 percent) -- At one point, I wrote that I'd vote for Palmeiro if I had a ballot (that was before the ballot got so crowded). His career numbers are hard to ignore -- 569 home runs (12th), 1,835 RBIs (18th), 1,663 runs (32nd), 3,020 hits (25th), 5,388 total bases (11th), 71.8 WAR (87th). The durability and consistency were amazing, and I've said PEDs aren't an issue for me; of course, Palmeiro does fall into a different category there since he tested positive after testing began. The other issue: Isn't he kind of the Don Sutton of position players? Sutton did eventually make the Hall of Fame for being very good for a very long time. Like Palmeiro, he crossed one of those magic barriers (300 wins). But according to Baseball-Reference, Palmeiro ranked as one of the top 10 players in his league just once (eighth in 1993) and as a top-10 position player five times (topping out at fourth in '93). Here are his annual rankings among all MLB first basemen:
He was a top-three first baseman just three times. I'm not sure that's enough for me. He had five seasons of 5+ WAR, not a big total for a Hall of Famer. For now, I'd be inclined not to vote for Palmeiro. Like Sosa, he's also a good bet to fall off the ballot.
15. Jeff Kent (55.2 WAR, first year) -- I thought Nick from Clovis, Calif., made an interesting point in my Tuesday chat: "As a lifelong Giants fan, I was very surprised at how great Kent's stats ended up being; I don't believe there is one Giants fan that can honestly say that they felt like they were watching one of the greatest offensive 2B of all time or even a potential future Hall of Famer when he was playing and that is probably what hurts Kent most."
I mean, if your hometown fans are having trouble drumming up enthusiasm for you ...
Kent is an unusual Hall of Fame candidate -- most of his career value came after he turned 30: 40.7 of his 55.2 career WAR. He had his first 100-RBI season when he was 29 and followed that up with seven more, making him one of the best "RBI men" ever for a second baseman. He finished with 377 home runs, 357 of those as a second baseman (the most ever). He drove in more than 1,500 runs. He won an MVP award. He played in seven different postseasons. Those are a lot of positives. On the negative side: Only twice was he top-10 position player (2000 and 2002); his career WAR is well below our 68-to-70 level; his range, especially in his later years, wasn't great; his speed wasn't a factor.
Tough call. Matt Wilks on Twitter asked me to compare Ryne Sandberg to Kent. Here goes:
Sandberg: 2,164 G, 282 HR, 1,061 RBI, .285/.344/.452, 114 OPS+, 1,318 R, +60 fielding runs
Kent: 2,298 G, 377 HR, 1,518 RBI, .290/.356/.500, 123 OPS+, 1,320 R, -42 fielding runs
Sandberg also won an MVP award. Kent was a little better offensive player, Sandberg -- both by reputation and metrics -- was the superior defensive player. Sandberg could run, Kent couldn't. And the RBI total is a little misleading. Sandberg spent most of his career batting second in the National League, a terrible RBI slot. Kent spent his prime years with the Giants batting after Barry Bonds, meaning a ton of baserunners on in front of him. Sandberg had six seasons of 5+ WAR, four with 7+ (Kent had four and two). I think Sandberg was pretty clearly the more valuable all-around player. Put him behind Bonds and he, too, drives in a ton of runs. Take Bonds away from Kent and are we even having a Hall of Fame discussion?
As with Palmeiro, I'm on the fence with him. For now, I guess I say no, as focusing too much on RBIs is the easiest way to overrate a player. But I reserve the right to change my opinion.