Friday, December 05, 2008

Zen Dayley: Will McGwire have to buy a ticket to Cooperstown?

Thank you, Mark McGwire, for giving me a reason to watch TV with my kids again. The endless image of the president hugging Lewinsky has been replaced by McGwire hugging his son, hugging the tear-filled family of Roger Maris, and hugging his rival, Sammy Sosa. Thank you, Mark McGwire, for giving us back the hug.
-- Letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, published Sep. 10, 1998

This should be fun.

Warm up the Keltner List Machine!

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?

Regarded as such? Maybe. He won the Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1998 and was named along with Sammy Sosa as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. He led the league in on-base average twice and slugging average four times, and should have won more MVPs than he did (zero). The entire SI staff loved him dearly and he was often portrayed as a proud California boy doin' good by God.

He wasn't the best all-around player, but it's possible that he went first overall in many fantasy drafts.

Was he the best player on his team?

It's tough to be the best when your teammate has 42 homers and 40 steals. Or is also eligible to go into the Hall. (Or is already there.) But once the A's got awful in the mid-90's, McGwire was definitely the best player on his team, and remained so until his final days in St. Louis.

Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Probably. Either him or Jeff Bagwell. Maybe Frank Thomas. But they're also Hall-worthy, so I'm not sure it matters.

Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

If that number is "four" then yes. Oakland went to three World Series in three years and McGwire, as one of the Bash Brothers, played a big part in getting them there. There's also 1992, when Oakland won 96 games and lost in the first round to some team from up north, but as he kept hitting, the A's stopped winning and that was about it for his pennant-race experience.

Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

We're hinting at the answer to a future question, but either he wasn't or he just chose to stop. McGwire only played two years after age 35 and didn't appear in 100 games in either. 35 is typically past the end of a player's prime years anyway, but McGwire's career path is...atypical.

Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No. Among eligible players, Rickey Henderson is ahead of him and maybe Tim Raines is too. (Tim Raines should be in the Hall. Write your MP.)

Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

This is where it starts to get nutty.

Whatever list you want to use, you'll find Harmon Killebrew as a moderate match and a bunch of other guys who don't really compare. His career was pretty much only possible in the era he played in, and he was far above most of his contemporaries.

I know what you are all thinking and we will handle that in a moment.

Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

McGwire could really, really hit. Home runs especially. Fifth-best all-time, by some measure, and second only to Barry Bonds in modern times. 583 isn't a small number. Top-ten in slugging average, too.

But, really, he's just a home-run hitter. A guy with his batting average can't possibly be a Hall of Famer.

...oh, please. Let's not be lazy. Because of his incredible home-run skill, he was able to achieve excellence in other areas. Like on-base average. His is higher than Rod Carew and Joe Morgan, two Hall-of-Famers primarily known for getting on base, and also better than recent Hall-of-Famer and noted singles hitter Tony Gwynn. But McGwire did more than hit singles. He outslugged and outhit many current (legitimate) Hall-of-Famers. His numbers meet the standards, full stop.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Just give me a second--the doorbell's ringing and I have to go let the elephant into the room...

Okay, let's consider the home-run-by-age graphs at Batter's Box here, and in particular how bizarre McGwire's career is. And how bizarre some of the other sluggers from this era look, relatively speaking.

Clearly McGwire played in an exceptional time and took advantage of it. There's no way his numbers would have been that good otherwise, right?


I hope you didn't believe that, or else I'd have to use the same rhetorical device twice in a row. But just to clear things up, McGwire is not Bret Boone. If you neutralize his stats at Baseball-Reference, he gets better. About 10 points are added to each of his averages, and he ends up with 610 homers instead of 583. Meaning, he was not an androstenic mirage. Or at least not any more than the average player was at the time. And I don't consider that to be an issue with his candidacy.

Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

Yes, indeed. His ranking in Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract is third among first basemen, behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, both inner-circle, absolute slam-dunk Hall of Famers.

How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Oddly enough, he never won the MVP award, even in 1998. He finished second that year, because Sosa's Cubs made the playoffs. In 1992 he finished fourth when Dennis Eckersley won the award for some reason. 1987, his rookie year, was MVP-like, and he finished fifth in 1999.

He probably should have won two or three of those awards and if he played on a winning team in '87 or '98 or '99, he would have.

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 to the Hall of Fame?

He was selected to start the All-Star Game six times and made the team six other times. Maybe two of those were undeserved, but six plus six is twelve and most of the players with 12 or 13 appearances are in the Hall. Everyone with at least 14 appearances is either Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, or some Hall of Famer.

If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

Past evidence says maybe, because he wasn't the best player when Oakland won (although he was close) and he was the best player when his teams didn't (but that was hardly his fault). There's no reason to believe that, if the A's had any kind of a supporting cast in the mid-90's, they would have been held back somehow by their power-hitting first baseman.

What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

Well, his impact on baseball history was enough for Stephen Brunt to stop sending in his Hall of Fame vote.

But McGwire didn't change the game; he just played it, in every sense of the word. If the discovery of androstenedione in his locker forever changed how baseball treats drug users, then it's pretty weird that Bonds not only managed to break McGwire's record but also packed stadium after stadium with fans wanting to see him sock a few dingers, don't you think? (The Giants' attendance dropped off dramatically last year, when Bonds didn't play at all.)

In other words, drug testing, which was long overdue, was not brought in because of Mark McGwire.

Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Depends on when you ask the question. If you ask it now, he's a lying bastard who embarrassed himself and the wonderful game of baseball in front of Congress.

But if you ask it in 1998, he's a classy athlete who actually cares deeply about eradicating child abuse. Who cares about over-the-counter drugs in his locker? He's allowed America to move on from Clinton and Lewinsky by being the front man for an historic quest "that reaches deep into our childhood souls." (There's lots, lots more, but ProQuest can only handle so much saccharine.)

Neither answer is entirely true.

Bottom line

Mark McGwire's Hall-worthy accomplishments were not derided and belittled at the time the way they are now. Choosing to punish him for drug use at a time when it was encouraged might be retroactively ethical, but not really what people are supposed to be voting for here. (And giving lame answers in front of a camera would disqualify every athlete, ever, so don't even bother with that one.) His induction cannot tarnish the reputation of the game if, a mere ten years ago, he was the one saving it.

Writers, hold your noses and put McGwire in the Hall. Give us back the hug.


Anonymous said...

Rob, as much as I hate the idea of moral grandstanding on this issue, I simply can't look just at the numbers.

McGwire should not be in the Hall. Period.

I'm really talking about moral consistency here. Let's face facts: even if baseball created the working conditions in which steroid use was rampant in the 1990s, which it was, endorsing McGwire for the Hall is sending a terrible message.

Pete Rose is banned from the Hall on the basis of gambling. Rose did make a terrible mistake, but really, if we're going to compare gambling outside of the unofficially sanctioned gambling that happens in every professional sport versus steroid use that tainted McGwire's records, there should be no comparison.

Drugs that artifically enhance an athlete's performance in sport is wrong. McGwire is a grown man, he knew what he was doing. Baseball should know better than to endorse a cheat and liar like him.

If he absolve him, baseball is acting at the height of hypocrisy.

Rob Pettapiece said...

I made my argument above, but I didn't address Rose because I didn't think his case was relevant.

Rose is banned from baseball for breaking a rule that everyone knows about, a rule posted on the wall of every clubhouse. He was found guilty of this specific offence through the damning Dowd Report. As a result, he is not eligible for induction.

McGwire is not banned from baseball (though he probably isn't invited to any parties). He was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report despite the presence of his buddy Jose Canseco. He was never suspended for using drugs. He is still eligible for induction.

The rules of the Hall of Fame may be capricious and arbitrary, but they remain the rules. It's like saying you're not going to vote for Hideki Matsui as rookie of the year because you think it's wrong to consider him a rookie, not because he wasn't the best first-year player. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.

As long as the rules are what they are, McGwire should be evaluated based on his accomplishments, as I did above.