His plaque in Cooperstown will read, “the man who saved baseball.”
What it will not say is that Mark McGwire made it into the Hall of Fame on the strength of a single statistic.
With the American public so enamored with the towering, majestic homerun, McGwire’s 583, the fifth most all-time, get him talked about as one of baseball’s greatest. Though if you take away the longballs, McGwire’s career numbers are hardly stellar, and in reality, only slightly above average.
One can hardly applaud McGwire’s career .263 batting average, and his 1,626 hits place him a whopping 403rd all-time on that list. What’s more, Big Mac struck out a staggering 1,596 times, a pace of nearly a punchout per hit. Only nineteen men in major league history have ever struck out more. Now while striking out may come with the territory for a slugger, McGwire struck out 200 more times than Hank Aaron in half as many at bats, and struck 70 times more than Willie Mays in roughly 5000 fewer at bats.
If you compare McGwire’s career numbers to those of the seventeen first basemen currently enshrined in Cooperstown, the disparity is remarkable. Only Harmon Killebrew (.256) has a lower batting average than McGwire, who also ranks dead last in hits, doubles, and total bases. His totals of 1,414 RBI and 1,167 runs scored are significantly lower than the averages of HOF first basemen, who produced 1,596.3 RBI and 1,390 runs on average. This is also a group where McGwire’s lofty homerun total of 583 is only slightly better than Killebrew’s 573, Jimmie Foxx’s 534, or Willie McCovey’s 521.
Forgetting members of the Hall for a moment, McGwire still falls short when compared to four of his contemporaries. Raphael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff, Andres Galarraga, and Will Clark all came into the league at the same time as McGwire, and again, with the exception of homeruns, each of the other four have statistical superiority. Only Galarraga has scored fewer runs (1,128 to McGwire’s 1,167), and all four have more hits, doubles, and a higher career batting average. Only Clark has fewer total bases with 3,562 to Big Mac’s 3,639, though “The Thrill” is ahead of Big Mac in average (.303 to .263), hits (2,176 to 1,626), doubles (440 to 252), intentional walks (155 to 150), and strikeouts (1190 to 1596).
Of the four, McGwire’s poorest comparison is to Palmeiro, who has a higher career batting average (.294 to .263), more runs scored (1,357 to 1,167), driven in (1,470 to 1414), doubles (488 to 252), and total bases (4,386 to 3,639). Palmeiro has also struck out just 1,073 to McGwire’s 1,596. With 447 career homeruns, Palmeiro is still a good distance behind McGwire, but also has plenty of years left ahead in his comfy Designated Hitter role, and should be able to close much of that gap before his career comes to an end. » Read more: Going, Going, Gone — How the longball will get McGwire into the Hall