Bonds v. McGwire

A recent article has pointed out that if a vote were to take place today among sportswriters, Barry Bonds would make the Hall of Fame, but Mark McGwire would not.

Now, I’ve been back and forth about McGwire in the past regarding the Hall of Fame, and I’ve got no issues with arguing his merit as a player, but the biggest argument against McGwire at this moment seems to be his use of “performance enhancers” during his playing career, namely during the latter part of his career.

Now, I’m not big on the whole steroid issue. I don’t want to see records be broken by players using steroids. The issue though with McGwire is that he has not admitted (and there is no proof) that he used anything that was illegal, whether it be by Major League Baseball’s rules or by state or federal law, during his playing career.

McGwire admitted to using Androstenedione during his career, which is now on the list of banned substances of Major League Baseball. At the time, andro wasn’t illegal, so even if the product came up in McGwire’s bloodstream, nothing could be said about it. McGwire retired after the 2001 season – andro wasn’t banned until the 2004 season. If you’re going to cast the finger of blame towards McGwire, you either have to determine that McGwire was using other suppliments during his playing days that were illegal. Whether or not McGwire would have continued using andro after it had been banned isn’t the issue. You can’t disqualify someone for doing something that wasn’t illegal, just like you couldn’t ticket a driver for going 60 MPH in a 45 MPH zone if the speed limit was 65 when he drove through it.

My bigger question is, after you throw out the steroid/andro question, does McGwire have the qualifications to be a Hall of Famer?

The problem facing Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, and later Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and possibly Jim Thome is that they were never the “best” player at their position – they were never standout players, like a Mantle or Mays were. How much of their success and statistical milestones can be attributed to longevity and the era that they played in instead of true “greatness”? McGwire doesn’t have that problem – from 1995 to 2000, Mark McGwire was not only the best slugging first baseman in baseball, but quite possibly the most dangerous hitter in the game. Batting near .300, averaging over 50 home runs, and a slugging percentage of around .700, McGwire’s numbers were several steps better than anyone else during that time.

The problem with that though is that we’re talking six seasons – technically a little more than five, if you consider that McGwire only played in 104 games in ’95 and 89 in 2000. When you look at the rest of his career, it looks something like this:

1986 (age 22) – cup of coffee (18 games total), 3 HR, .189/.259/.377
1987 (age 23) – Rookie of the year, 49 HR, .289/.370/.618
1988 (age 24) – sophomore slump, 32 HR, .260/.352/.478
1989 (age 25) – pitchers figure him out, 33 HR, .231/.339/.467
1990 (age 26) – a small step forward, 39 HR, .235/.370/.489
1991 (age 27) – the end of the line?, 22 HR, .201/.330/.383
1992 (age 28) – comeback season, 42 HR, .268/.385/.585
1993 (age 29) – lost to injury (27 games total), 9 HR, .333/.467/.726
1994 (age 30) – lost to injury again (47 games total), 9 HR, .252/.413/.474

Over the first nine years of McGwires career (technically six years if you don’t count the ’86, ’93, and ’94 seasons), McGwire was a .250/.362/.507 hitter, comparable to players like Cecil Fielder, Dave Kingman, and Norm Cash.

Of course, McGwire after that period was a different player – 345 HR, .278/.430/.683. So, does McGwire’s five years of mind-boggling offensive numbers allow us to overlook six years of mediocrity?

It’s possible, but there’s something else that might stop Mark McGwire more than that.

Albert Belle.

While McGwire, doing the math, had 5 very good seasons and 6 mediocre seasons, Albert Belle had 10 seasons where he was at least among the better players in baseball. Belle’s worst season (let’s say 1992) saw him hit 34 HR, .260/.320/.477. In his ten full seasons in the majors, Belle never hit lower than that .260, never hit less than 23 home runs, never slugged lower than .474, and never drove in less than 95 runs. In fact, putting the two head to head, the two round out the 90’s pretty even.

91: Belle
92: McGwire
93: Belle
94: Belle
95: Belle
96: McGwire
97: McGwire
98: McGwire
99: McGwire

But Belle doesn’t have the questions surrounding him regarding suppliments, and the Hall of Fame has leaned towards consistent performance over a few good seasons. While I don’t expect Belle to get into the Hall of Fame (he was never considered a popular player, especially towards the media), I think Belle has a stronger argument than McGwire, and if the two are put side-by-side, it may hurt McGwire’s chances.

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