The Cooperstown gatekeepers have made their opinion of Mark McGwire clear enough ever since he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2007.
The former Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals slugger received 23.5 percent of the vote that year, and he was down to 19.5 percent in 2012. It takes 75 percent of the vote to get elected, meaning McGwire is actually closer to getting kicked off the ballot than he is to getting into Cooperstown.
My message to the esteemed Hall of Fame voters: Good job, guys. You're doing it right.
Big Mac is on the ballot once again this year, with the results for the 2013 Hall of Fame class due out in January. Just as they have for the last five years, the voters must sit down and ponder the same old simple questions about McGwire's candidacy.
Why? Why not? And of course, yes or no?
The answer has been no for five years now. It should be no again.
I'm not exactly taking up a contrarian position here. The majority of the voters don't think McGwire is a Hall of Famer, and many fans feel the same way. Those who want him out have darn good reasons to lean on, most of which have to do with McGwire's admitted steroid use.
I'm in the same boat, but for me, it's not a matter of whether McGwire hurt the integrity of the game by pumping performance-enhancing chemicals into his body and then slugging his way to 583 homers.
I have much more simple reasons for wanting McGwire out of the Hall of Fame. I'm nothing if not a numbers guy, and the numbers don't convince me that McGwire had a Hall of Fame career.
For starters, I'm unconvinced that McGwire is one of the greatest first basemen to ever play the game. By FanGraphs' reckoning, McGwire is only the 21st-best first baseman to come along in major league history in terms of WAR (everyone's favorite stat). Ahead of him on the list are Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell, who are also struggling to gain entry into Cooperstown.
By Baseball-Reference.com's calculation of WAR, McGwire ranks much higher on the list of the all-time great first basemen. He ranks ninth, just behind longtime San Francisco Giants great Willie McCovey.
However, McGwire is still behind Bagwell on that list, and he's barely ahead of Todd Helton and only slightly above John Olerud.
Yes, that John Olerud. The one who made only two All-Star teams and retired with only 255 career home runs. He showed up on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2011, got 0.7 percent of the vote and was promptly removed from the ballot.
That WAR does things like place McGwire below Palmeiro and Bagwell and in the company of Olerud is why many baseball fans remain unconvinced by it. But in this case, looking at McGwire's career through the lens of WAR reminds us just how truly one-dimensional he was as a player.
McGwire was never an elite fielder. Unlike Bagwell, he was much more of a base clogger than a baserunner. And while he certainly had a very good eye and knew when to take his walks, he wasn't a consistent .300 hitter like Bagwell or Albert Pujols (who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer).
McGwire's game was about power, and pretty much only power. He had six seasons in which he slugged at least 40 home runs, including four in which he slugged at least 50 and one in which he hit a then-record 70 homers in 1998.
Furthermore, his .588 career slugging percentage is one of the highest marks ever, and he holds a healthy lead on all other first basemen in ISO—a straightforward sabermetrics stat that measures a hitter's raw power.
McGwire has argued that his ability to hit home runs came naturally, but his power to hit so many of them most certainly didn't come naturally. He's admitted to using steroids on and off for almost a decade, and we knew even while he was chasing Roger Maris' home run record in 1998 that he was using Androstenedione, a substance that was banned in the NFL and in the Olympics.
Unlike with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, there's no gray area when it comes to McGwire's ties to the "steroid" part of the Steroid Era. They are clear, present and confirmed by the man himself.
As such, McGwire's absurd display of power in the four seasons between 1996 and 1999 requires a close and careful examination. In those four years, he averaged—and I stress averaged—61 home runs per season on his way to racking up 245 home runs in only 2,547 plate appearances.
That's one home run every 10.4 plate appearances. To put that in perspective, McGwire would have ended up with 737 home runs in his career had he managed to hit home runs at that rate from beginning to end.
And that's over a span of just 16 seasons, some of which weren't even full seasons. Cue the flashing red lights.
But wait, here's some more perspective. In 4,370 plate appearances between 1987 and 1995, McGwire racked up 274 home runs. That's roughly one every 16 plate appearances.
Had Big Mac held that home run rate throughout his entire career, he would have ended up with 479 home runs. Just sayin'.
Conventional baseball wisdom says that a slugger needs to hit at least 500 home runs to earn automatic induction into the Hall of Fame. If you finish your career with fewer than 500 home runs, you better have more than just home runs on your Hall of Fame resume to earn your speech.
If you disregard McGwire's home run total and look at the other stuff on his resume, his case is lacking. He never won an MVP. He only won one World Series. He only won one Gold Glove. Three of his four home run titles came in years in which he's admitted he was juicing.
McGwire thus fails to pass either test that should be used for all potential Hall of Famers from the Steroid Era.
One: Do we know for sure that he was juicing?
In McGwire's case, yes we do.
Two: Is there a reasonable doubt that he would have had a Hall of Fame career had he not been juicing?
In his case, yes there is. There's a very reasonable doubt.
It won't be this easy for every Cooperstown-eligible player from the Steroid Era. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, for example, both present extremely challenging cases. Clemens' ties to the Steroid Era are very shaky, and Bonds enjoyed at least a borderline Hall of Fame career before he ballooned to the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger and started hitting home runs at a superhuman rate.
Because there are no easy answers for either of them, their cases for entry will be hotly debated for years if they don't get in right away. They likely won't, but you have to think they will somewhere down the line.
By comparison, McGwire's case is pretty open and shut for yours truly. The voters have indicated strongly that they think it's open and shut too, and the progression of McGwire's vote totals suggest that they're not about to change their minds.
Rightfully so. Go ahead, voters. Do your thing.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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