The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.) So let’s run it for Fred McGriff…
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
No. In 1989, he was the best hitter in the American League, but some of the NL hitters were better, and when defense is taken into account he falls behind some other guys.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
There are two periods when he was. From 1988-1991, with the Blue Jays and (for the last year) with the Padres, he was certainly the best hitter and probably the most productive all-around player; he was passed by Sheffield in 1992. He was the best player — really, the only productive player — on the Devil Rays for their first three and a half years of existence, 1998-2001, but this is hardly high praise. He was the best hitter on the Braves from their acquisition of him in 1993 to the strike in late 1994, but Maddux was the clear star of the team.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
McGriff was the All-Star starter at first base in 1992 and 1995-96, and won the Silver Slugger in 1989 and 1992-93. I would say that he was the best first baseman in baseball, except when Will Clark was healthy, from 1989 to Bagwell’s emergence in 1994, the best in the AL from 1988-1991 and in the NL 1992-93.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
The obvious example here is 1993. When he played his first game for the Braves, on July 20, the team trailed the Giants by nine games with 67 to play. With McGriff filling a gaping hole at first base and hitting .310/.392/.612, the Braves made up the gap and clinched the division on the last day of the regular season. That’s a pretty big impact.
His impact was fairly large in 1989, when he was (as I said above) the best hitter in the American League and the Blue Jays, who spent much of the year in the second division and were as much as eight games back at times, only took the division lead in September and won by two games. It’s clear that in 1989 and 1993 his teams would not have won without him. He also played on division champions with the Braves in 1995-97, but those teams weren’t pushed. He and Dave Justice essentially were the Braves’ entire offense in 1994, and together with Maddux kept the team in contention, but the pennant race was cancelled.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
In his case, for ten seasons past his prime. His time as an elite hitter ended suddenly with the strike in 1994, though he had a couple of good late-career seasons. He wound up playing until 2004 and was productive in 2002, when he was 38.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
The best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame is Bert Blyleven. I think that McGriff is a better candidate than any hitter currently on the ballot, but you can certainly make an argument for Mark McGwire (see below, no. 10). However, he’d rank behind Tim Raines (entering in this, the 2008 cycle) and probably Barry Larkin (entering in 2010, same as McGriff).
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Most of the retired and eligible players are. The most-similar hitter to McGriff is, unsurprisingly, Willie McCovey, to whom he was often compared. A close second is Gary Sheffield (still playing). Four others in McGriff’s top ten (Willie Stargell, Billy Williams, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks) are in; three others (Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Andres Galarraga) aren’t yet eligible. Bagwell and Thomas should make the Hall easily, and there are good reasons to rank McGriff ahead of Sheffield and Galarraga, as well as Chili Davis, the only eligible player on the list rejected by the voters.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
McGriff meets 47.9 percent on the Hall of Fame Standards Test, which is a pretty good total, just slightly below the average (more below the first base average). He scores at exactly 100 on the Hall of Fame Career Monitor, on which anything over 100 is supposed to signal a likely Hall of Famer. There is a tendency to hold contemporary players to a higher standard than that, but this probably shouldn’t hold to players like McGriff whose career is centered pre-1993.
His Black Ink (9) and Grey Ink (105) scores are poor for a Hall of Fame candidate at an offensive position, as he had relatively few league-leading seasons or seasons among the league leaders. He won two home run titles, but his only other official league-leading season was in games played in the strike-shortened 1995 season.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Here’s the key point. McGriff, for whatever reason, was unable to take advantage of the elevated offensive environment of the mid-to-late-nineties, and in fact his raw numbers declined dramatically, especially his power numbers. After seven years of 30 homers or more, capped by 34 in an 113 game season in 1994, he hit 27, 28, 22, and 19 the following four seasons, a period in which home runs were up dramatically.
Now, a lot of people think that this period of home-run hitting was caused by a dramatic surge in steroid use. A lot of people don’t. If McGriff’s fading is due, at least in part, to playing clean (nobody ever accused him of cheating, and he didn’t look like a steroid abuser) then it may be a point in his favor, or at least a mitigating factor.
In his post-strike Atlanta seasons, McGriff had a problem with grounding into double plays, leading the league in 1997. His traditional stats in this period are already the least impressive of his career, but have to be discounted somewhat for this as well.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Noting that he’s not yet eligible… There is one eligible first baseman who has a legitimate argument here, Mark McGwire. McGwire is widely considered to be a cheater, but he hit ninety more home runs than McGriff, and for most of their respective careers was probably considered a greater player. On the other hand, McGwire had only 1626 hits in his career, which would be a remarkably low total for a Hall of Fame hitter; McGriff had 2490. McGriff, though he never had a giant RBI season, had more than a hundred more RBI and nearly 200 more runs scored. His career batting average is 20 points higher. The knee-jerk assumption is that if you think McGwire is clean/that he cheated but it doesn’t matter, that he was greater than McGriff. That’s not necessarily the case, at least in career value.
Jeff Bagwell, meanwhile, has to rate a lot higher than McGriff, as does Frank Thomas if considered a first baseman and not a DH.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
1989 is the one year when he had a serious MVP case, though it went to Robin Yount, who was almost as good of a hitter at a more important defensive position. Still, McGriff was the best hitter in the league on a team that won the division, which seems like an MVP to me, but he finished sixth. McGriff’s teammate George Bell finished fourth, even though he hit half as many homers (18 to 36) and had far lower on-base and slugging percentages. Guess who had more RBI, though.
McGriff has a weird sort of case in 1993. He didn’t play that well in San Diego, but was awesome in Atlanta, for just 68 games. Nobody was beating Bonds that year anyway; McGriff finished fourth, one spot behind Justice and one ahead of Gant.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
McGriff was chosen to five All-Star teams, three as a starter, which is a lowish total. It’s harder for contemporary players to make lots of All-Star teams unless they’re the perennially-voted-in-by-the-fans type because of the sheer number of teams that have to be represented.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
The Jays won the division in 1989, and the Braves in 1993, so I’d say yes.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Nothing to say here, unless you’re a big fan of those instructional videos. The Braves’ success in 1993 probably encouraged teams to make a bigger effort to make stretch-run trades.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
I’ve never heard any serious personal criticism. I’m reluctant to give anyone extra points for not using steroids until all the facts are in.
Using traditional Hall of Fame standards, Fred McGriff should be an inductee. However, his stats don’t jump out at you compared with players a few years younger than him. His best season, 1989, doesn’t look all that impressive by today’s standards — .269/.399/.525, 36 homers — but it was in fact a big year, a home run title, second in the league in slugging, fourth in on-base. His other home run title year, 1992, he was third in slugging, fourth in on-base. He had big years in 1988, 1990, and 1993-94, but never hit 40 homers (despite winning two home run titles). 1994, which could have been that big year (on pace for 49 homers, 135 RBI) was interrupted by the strike and overshadowed by Bagwell and Williams. He’s probably not helped by playing most of his best years off the beaten path in Toronto and San Diego.
I think that if Fred can stay on the ballot after his first season, he will eventually get in. It’s hard to tell, but the voters (both the writers and the players) are a conservative lot, and are likely to reward players they consider to be clean.
ADDENDUM TO #6: I left out Rickey Henderson, who should enter on the 2009 ballot and make it on the first try without a throw. I guess this is because I still half expect Rickey to make another comeback. Anyway, I rate the ballot entries of the 2008-10 cycle: