The sports world is buzzing about the long simmering story of players associated with Steroids appearing on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. According to the story of the week with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons and Sammy Sosa all on the ballot for the first time the “steroid era” fallout will finally enter it’s final phase. These are the first generation of players who were known PED users and also put up slam dunk Hall of Fame numbers throughout their careers, and they will likely be denied entry for an act that many consider cheating, but was sort of technically not against baseball rules when they committed it. This meme completely ignores the fact that Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire have appeared on the HOF ballot already. Both are well documented PED users, and Palmeiro would have been a slam dunk HOFer without the PED controversy. With McGwire the conventional wisdom is that he wasn’t a real Hall of Famer anyways, he was a one trick pony who hit a ton of home runs but struck out a bunch and didn’t contribute enough in any other area to be Hall of Fame worthy. I don’t agree with this assessment at all. I think McGwire has an entirely valid case for the Hall if (big if) you don’t consider PED use.
The case that McGwire is a borderline Hall of Famer breaks into two parts: 1)That he was a good Home Run hitter who 2)didn’t do anything else. The one trick pony argument. The first part is kind of silly, really. He wasn’t a good Home Run hitter, he was an all time great Home Run hitter. His 583 Home Runs rank 9th all time, and of the top 25 Home Run hitters in baseball history McGwire and Palmeiro are the only 2 who are eligible for the HOF who have not been voted in. And lets be clear here, this isn’t some obscure stat cherry picked to show an anomalous contribution from an overlooked player. Hitting Home Runs is still the ultimate personal achievement in all of pro sports, and McGwire was one of the best ever at it. The second part is quoted by people who like to point out his low career batting average and high strike out totals. McGwire had a .263 career batting average and struck out 1596 times, slightly less than once a game over his career. The .263 average is often portrayed as abysmal, but honestly it’s sort of average-to-below average. Not HOF worthy, but well above the Mendoza line. The strikeouts are pretty bad, but while strike outs hurt this is only one piece of the puzzle.
McGwire’s career slash line (in the new sense of BA/OBP/SLG) is .263/.394.588. The first number is a very pedestrian .263, we’ve already covered that. But two things immediately jump out on the second number: .394 is fantastic in and of itself, and the split from AVG to OBP of .131 is an eyecatching number for a season. For a career it’s exceptional.
To put McGwire’s career OBP of .394 in perspective, it’s currently 74th all time. This may not sound like a world beater, but there are 9 players who were active in 2012 ahead of him on that list, so comparing him to ex players he is 65th all time. The Baseball Hall of Fame currently has 207 former Major League ballplayers, 62 of which are pitchers. This means McGwire’s career OBP would put him in the upper half of all current HOF position players. Better than Joe Morgan, Honus Wagner, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, among others. This is not a feat of a borderline player. He is also (thanks to prolific HR hitting) 9th all time in slugging percentage. His excellent OBP and top shelf slugging add up to make him 10th all time in OPS. Speaking of OPS, for me the magic OPS number is 1.0 or higher, a feat that signals a truly significant season by an all around great offensive threat. Mark McGwire had an OPS over 1.0 9 times, with 6 of them coming before the 1998 crazy home run season.
The point of this is that Mark McGwire is not a borderline Hall of Famer, he is a legit first ballot slam dunk type candidate. If you don’t consider PED use. Same as Rafael Palmeiro, who became a member of the 3,000 hit 500 HR club and still hasn’t been elected to the Hall. Also a confirmed PED user. Now, I don’t have a problem with these guys not making the HOF. I really don’t. If voters want to withhold recognition over PED use that’s a judgement call and they have been asked to make a judgement call when voting. In this case it’s a moral observation, one that may be based on faulty assumptions in many cases (not in McGwire and Palmeiro’s case, but others), but I am still OK with that. There are people in our society who will tell you that no one should be allowed to make a moral or judgement call. I am not one of those people. I think having the freedom to observe the world around you and make up your own mind about what is right and what is wrong is one of the most basic human rights, and I resent anyone trying to take that right away and replace it with a sense of obligation to make all decisions “by the book”. We executed the Nazi’s at Nuremburg for failing to take personal moral responsibility for their own actions, and I don’t have a problem with that either. I do have a problem with people claiming Mark McGwire wouldn’t deserve to be in the Hall anyways, even if you don’t consider PED’s though. That’s just silly, he’s clearly an elite career hitter who should be in the hall. Well, except…
So the meme that Sosa Clemons and Bonds coming up on the Hall of Fame Ballot for the first time is some kind of game changer is silly. It isn’t, this issue has been right out in the open and voted on by the electors for years already, and they are quite clear, the vast majority will not vote for any player they believe used PED’s. This does bring one less talked about issue related to PED’s up though—-I believe we are going to see more players Hall chances suffer, and less players elected for the next 15 years. The reason is simple. Mark McGwire got just under 20% of the votes after admitting to using steroids. Since he clearly deserves to be in based on accomplishment alone, we can assume 80% voted against him based on PED’s. Palmeiro only got 11%, but he had the double whammy of first year on the ballot and PED’s. If you use Mark McGwire’s 20% number and figure 20% of voters will add Palmeiro (in his 2nd year) and vote for Clemons Sosa and Bonds as well in future years then 20% of the ballots will have 5 names on them of players with no chance of making it in. Since voters can only select 10 players the pool of votes available will shrink dramatically while the number of votes required for inclusion remains fairly static.
PED users with massive padding of power stats and stat compiling totals have already made the Hall of fame more difficult to get into for non PED using players whose career numbers suffer by comparison. Alan Trammel is a great example of this, a fantastic offensive and defensive shortstop who looked a lot more like an average hitter at his position by the time the 90’s and PED usage were in full swing. Clogging up the ballots of 1/5 of the voters will be like doing the same thing all over again. The known PED users will be stuck in purgatory, and they will block the gates to Baseball’s holy land as long as they are there. This mess just never seems to quit, does it?
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