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.
While McGwire was splendid in his rookie campaign, earning the AL Rookie of the Year award, and a Gold Glove a few years later, he soon grew slow and immobile, and was little more at first base than a huge roadblock. Without being much of a fielder, all that remains are the big fella’s homeruns, and even if he may not stack up against the game’s great first basemen, he must surely measure up with baseball’s great longball hitters. Not so, and in fact, the disparities get even bigger.
Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were two of baseball’s premiere homerun hitters, but unlike McGwire, were multidimensional as well. Together they averaged 2,118 runs, 3,527 hits, 573.5 doubles, 2,100 RBI, 6,461 total bases, 1,433 walks, 1,454.5 strikeouts, and a 303.5 batting average. Each of these averages beat McGwire’s career marks, as do each of their individual totals as well. Not to mention that both men were much better in the field than Big Mac, particularly Mays, arguably the most magnificent center fielder to ever put on a glove and take the field.
Leaving baseball with McGwire this season are Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, two immortals, true greats in their field. Though McGwire will likely be the marquee inductee into the Hall, both men also had far better careers in the field, and in many cases from the plate as well. Both men scored more runs than McGwire, are members of the exclusive 3,000 hit club, have more total bases, a higher batting average, and Ripken even has more RBI (1,695 to 1,414). Perhaps the most glaring difference comes in the form of McGwire’s inability to stay healthy, while anyone who has ever watched a single moment of baseball has heard of Ripken’s great streak of consecutive games played, despite an assortment of injuries.
Make no mistake, Mark McGwire is a wonderful man, and a very good ballplayer, though I am not convinced he belongs in the Hall of Fame for doing nothing more than hitting homeruns. If there were a statistic kept for having fans in awe, then perhaps the giant, soft-spoken redhead would lead that category too. Though by that token, he may still lose out to fan favorite Sammy Sosa, and I would actually not be at all surprised if in ten years or so, Sosa was the only one of the two that anyone talked about anymore. Mark McGwire was a great showman, and baseball’s best ambassador when it needed one most, but the time has come for this one-trick pony to head out to pasture.