Big Mac: Not Ready For The Hall

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 06, 2006
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If it weren’t for his alleged use of illegal performance enhancing drugs and his embarrassing testimony in front of Congress, Mark McGwire would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was the best power hitter of his generation and one heck of a nice guy. Hugging his kid while saving the game with his over-stuffed, suddenly English-deprived cohort and all that.

But for those who really matter, the self-appointed guardians of the game’s virtue, the Baseball Writers Association of America, Big Mac has sinned and will have to wait at least a year to fulfill his destiny. While it would be nice if McGwire spoke in his defense, he has gone completely silent following his promise to lead the fight against steroid use.

McGwire’s supporters say that even if he did use whatever substances, at no time did he break the rules of the game. Therefore, he should be judged solely on what he did on the field. Good point. For decades, baseball’s poorly kept dirty little secret was the open use of amphetamines. “Greenies” (dating back to the 1940s), “black beauties” and “beans” were common fish bowl accouterments in major league training rooms. If Willie Mays’ reported bottle of “red juice” didn’t stop his entry into baseball’s most exclusive club, neither should McGwire’s drug of choice. But life isn’t fair.

Big Mac is seventh all time in home runs, 10th in slugging percentage, 13th in OPS and No. 1 in at-bats per home run. Indeed, all great power numbers. It’s the rest of his game that is open to interpretation.

His lifetime batting average (.263) is a bit low but it’s one that puts him in company with Hall of Fame sluggers like Reggie Jackson (.262), Harmon Killebrew (.256) and Mike Schmidt (.267).

McGwire’s power - 583 home runs - was prodigious, but with all those long balls Mac is only 60th in RBI, meaning his ability to drive in runs was limited with the ball kept in the park. In fact, of the 20 members of baseball’s 500-home run club, McGwire is last in RBI. He is also 120 runs, 117 total bases and 779 hits shy of making baseball’s all time top 100.

He did win one Gold Glove in 1990, but was never considered anything more than just an adequate fielder.

Back to his homers. In McGwire’s rookie year, Major League teams hit 3,813 home runs and by his retirement, that number had exploded to 5,693 - an increase in production of 49 percent. The reasons for these increases have long been discussed: smaller parks, watered down pitching due to expansion, changes to the ball, better physical conditioning of hitters - including performance enhancers legal and otherwise. And while it would be absurd to suggest McGwire’s home run totals should be cut in half to compare him with past sluggers, there is no question that the era he played in helped to inflate his numbers. Comparing him to a similar player in the recent past may help.

During Jackson’s career, teams hit an average of 3,096 home runs a season (not including the strike-shorted year of 1981). In McGwire’s time, the number rose to 4,189 per. An increase of 35 percent proving that McGwire had a much better chance of hitting gopher balls than did Jackson. Applying such a large figure to adjust Mac’s totals seems extreme until it’s compared with the change in his at bats per home run increase between 1992 (11.1) and 1996 (8.1) - the seasons before and after his injuries. An increase of 37 percent. In 1992 he hit a home run once every 21.9 at bats. If we factor in a much more lenient, yet still speculative, 20 percent, his numbers drop by 116 home runs bringing his lifetime total to 467 and his ranking down to 28. An impressive total but shy of the standard 500-and-you’rein mark.

Another measure for Hall of Fame eligibility is 10 years - preferably consecutive - of superiority. In 1987 he seemed well on his way with 49 dingers, 118 RBI and a .294 batting average. But in four seasons his numbers dropped to 22, 75 and .201. At this point in his career, McGwire (178 HR, .243) was looking more like Dave Kingman (150, .228) than Hank Aaron (179 .322). He turned it around in ‘92 with 42 home runs, 104 RBI and .268, but injuries limited him to only 74 games in the next two seasons. He began his comeback in 1995 with 104 games and in ‘96 when he hit 52 home runs in just 130 games. From there, his home run totals were 58, 70, 65, 32 and 29. Good enough for long enough?

Regardless of the opinion of lay people, McGwire will make the Hall of Fame in the next few years. He won’t be a baseball pariah like Peter Rose and unlike Barry Bonds, who will get in because of his statistical mass, McGwire will be inducted if for no other reason than for a number of years, and one in particular, he captured the world’s attention. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro won’t be so lucky.

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