Monday, December 11, 2006

Unfinished Overlong post on Mark McGwire's HOF Candidacy

Jeff Gordon takes a look at the question of whether Mark McGwire will reach the Hall of Fame, and receives some responses.

To lay my cards on the table, I was here in St. Louis during McGwire's time. I enjoyed watching him. I remember visiting my parents when the Cardinals were in Philadelphia, and arriving early at a game and watching the show in batting practice -- I was practically giddy watching him spray balls into the upper deck of left field at the Vet.

At the same time, I don't think I quite got caught up in it as much as other folks did. I have enjoyed the Cardinals' recent run of success much more than the home run chase. I won't pretend that I always suspected something was amiss -- I didn't, it's just that McGwire didn't impress me as possessing a singular talent -- he was just a bit bigger and stronger than those who came before him, which I figured was due to improved conditioning techniques. He was the next evolutionary step, rather than a virtuoso. Impressive, yes, but not fascinating as someone like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods is. So, I can't say I was devastated when he dissembled his way through his congressional hearing, as many around here seemed to be,

Also, I am one of those who think that steroids are a big deal. Not so much because I don't want sacred records to be tainted, or I think someone like McGwire can't make his own decisions, but because if steroids become tolerated, they will in essence become required, and I think that will have all sorts of bad effects. But that's a whole 'nother post

I can say with coincidence that there is almost no chance McGwire will be elected on the first ballot this time around. No-brainers, and fan and press favorites Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken debut on the ballot, and I'm quite certain the writers are loathe to mar their election with steroid controversy if they can help it.

McGwire has two things going for him:

  • Massive power numbers
  • Looking impressive racking them up.

He's got literally nothing else going for him. He won a Gold Glove at first base (as did Rafael Palmeiro in a year in which he was primarily a DH), but was at best an average defensive first baseman. He won one World Series, but that was for a team that probably should have won more than one championship, and (though this is not McGwire's or his teammates' fault) there was a damper on that World Seriese win because it came in the aftermath of the earthquake. Other than the record-setting HRs, he never really had a signature moment. He was never identified as a particularly good teammate or leader. His relationship with Sosa during the chase was endearing, but is counter-balanced by how he seemed to regard the attention he received that year as a terrible burden. One of Gordon's correspondents notes that McGwire had some other impressive non-power numbers, notably on base percentage, but that is somewhat a secondary effect of his power. He got a lot of walks in part because pitchers were afraid that if they put it over the plate, McGwire would put it in the cheap seats.

The power numbers, in a vacuum, would put him in the Hall of Fame, easily. Single-season HR record, 10th all time, easily over the 500 mark. But it wasn't just that. Hank Aaron and Roger Maris broke home run records, too, and they did so before I was born, but I don't think there was the buzz about their home runs that there was about McGwire's. There weren't thousands of people in the ballpark early to watch them take batting practice. His home runs, at least during his Cardinals days were events. They had, as my wife said, a "flow" to them.

Unfortunately for McGwire, these skills are the ones most easily associated with steroid use, because they are associated with brute strength, and there was a noticeable up tick in them during the period of heavily suspected steroid use. Which is why I don't buy Buster Olney's argument (quoted by Gordon) that it is unfair to penalize McGwire because he was given a subpeona and other stars weren't. He was subpoenaed because he, more than anyone else, rose to prominence using skills that are linked to steroid use.

This may be unfair, and is kind of junk science. You still have to recognize strikes and hit them in order to hit home runs. It's not like someone with absolutely no skill could shoot himself up to become a major league caliber hitter. Besides, we don't know exactly what steroids do. Maybe they don't really help a batter hit baseballs further. Maybe they're more helpful in allowing a pitcher to throw the ball 95 MPH or make a ball curve. Maybe they allow a fielder to cover more ground. Maybe they help a catcher make accurate throws to second base, or a base stealer to get a better jump. Maybe they help a batter to take an outside pitch the opposite way for a base hit.

But we know what we know, and that is hitters in the late 90's seemed to be a lot bigger than they were before, and that home run totals went way up. Mark McGwire was bigger and stronger than anyone else, and put up the biggest numbers. So it seems reasonable that he would be a representative for the era, and receive the subpoena.

Thus, it seems reasonable to discount McGwire’s accomplishments relative to those who played in different eras. This is not to judge that McGwire cheated; rather it is to not assume that other players benefited from the homer-friendly environment (which may or may not have included steroids), and McGwire didn’t. If all the offensive accomplishments of the last 10 years are under suspicion, McGwire’s are no exception. And since McGwire’s accomplishments were pretty much exclusively confined to those areas that were generally booming in that era, it seems especially prudent. In other words, to not apply a discount would be to in essence assume that everyone except McGwire was using steroids, which strains credulity.

Gordon recommends discounting McGwire’s home run total by 100, to 483, and then evaluating his career in those terms (I suspect this would include discounting McGwire’s individual history-making seasons, since peak performance is a part of almost any Hall of Famer’s case – there’s a reason Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame in spite of unimpressive win and strikeout totals). That strikes me as a bit crude and arbitrary.

I propose that we look at McGwire’s performance relative to his peers, and compare that to other recent power hitters at corner positions who have or have not made (or are likely to or not likely to) make the Hall of Fame, and ignore the absolute numbers. In other words, Dale Murphy leading the league in home runs with 36 is equivalent to McGwire leding the league with 66. This isn’t entirely fair – 66 home runs have more impact on the team’s performance than 36, but I think this is offset by how McGwire’s high HR totals inflated his walk total, which in turn inflated his on base percentage.

Statistics come from Baseball Almanac

Mark McGwire led his league in home runs 4 times, and hit 58 dingers in 1997 split between the A’s and Cardinals, which would have led either league, so let’s call it 5. He led the league in RBI only once, in 1999. He also led the league in slugging percentage 4 times, and in on base percentage once.
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