In Makebelieve Land, Big Mac The Only Hall Of Famer

JUPITER, FL: Hitting coach Mark McGwire #25 of the St Louis Cardinals signs autographs before taking on the Washington Nationals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Mark McGwire hasn't fared well on previous Hall of Fame ballots, and isn't going to fare well this time around, either. But one writer thinks he's actually the most deserving candidate on the ballot.

Most Hall of Fame voters like to put check marks in a fair number of those little boxes. That's my impression, anyway. Which makes plenty of sense, because most years there are five or six worthy candidates. Granted, very few voters who punch more than a box or two actually restrict themselves to worthy candidates. I'm just saying the basic math actually works. I'd vote for a bunch of guys. Shoot, if I could get a ballot in 2014 I'd be pissed off about being restricted to only 10 candidates. It's going to be insane in '14.

But this year, not so much. I would definitely vote for four guys, with another four just missing (for me, for the moment, and yes I'm so very very sorry about that).

And then there's the Washington Post's Dave Sheinin:

My basic definition of what constitutes a Hall-of-Famer — "basic," in that I leave a little room for exceptions — has two components: A player had to have been the best player (or very close to it) at his position during his era, and he had to have been considered one of the dozen or so best players in the game overall during that era.

With that in mind, my (hypothetical) ballot contains only one name: Mark McGwire.

You gotta give Sheinin major bonus points for originality. Granted, he doesn't have an actual ballot. But if he did, I'd be willing to bet good money his ballot would be the only one featuring Mark McGwire, all by himself.

Now, leaving aside Sheinin's movement to come up with his own idiosyncratic version of the Hall of Fame, we should at least test the one candidate he's willing to support ... Was Mark McGwire the best first baseman (or very close to it) during this era? Was he generally considered one of the dozen or so best players in the game during that era?

McGwire's time runs from roughly 1987 (when he won a Rookie of the Year Award) through 2000 (when he missed much of the season but destroyed the ball when he did play).

McGwire finished in the top 12 in MVP voting five times in those 14 seasons. That's a league award, not an "in the game" award. I would say that McGwire probably was not generally considered one of the 12 best players in the game. Here and there, sure. But not consistently. Still, I suppose it's arguable. Sort of.

Was he the best player at his position? Or close?

Sure. McGwire was one of the three best first basemen of his era. All three are bunched up pretty good when it comes to Wins Above Replacement, so if he wasn't the best, he was very close to it.

Score one for Dave Sheinin!

Wait, what?

As for the rest of my ballot, five other players come very close to meeting my standards: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Dale Murphy and Tim Raines.

Good choices. Well, except most and perhaps all five of them satisfy Sheinin's criteria just as well as McGwire.

I'm not going to run through all of them. One should suffice. The most obvious one. Those three best first basemen of McGwire's era? Jeff Bagwell was one of them.

Granted, Sheinin does address the Bagwell issue:

Bagwell suffers from having played at the same time as McGwire, who outhomered and out-OPS’ed him on an almost annual basis. (McGwire ranks 12th all-time with an OPS+ of 162; Bagwell ranks tied for 34th at 147.)

I guess we might begin by applauding Sheinin for considering OPS+, but then we have to give him a big raspberry for completely ignoring defense and baserunning, where Bagwell has huge edges over McGwire.

But wait, it's actually a lot worse than this. McGwire's "era" runs from 1986 through 2001. But that leaves Bagwell at a big disadvantage, because his rookie season wasn't until 1991. If you consider each player's whole career, Bagwell goes way ahead of McGwire.

You can't define a player's "era" only by the particular spread of his career, because then he's going to win all these comparisons since his competition is missing some seasons. If we instead define McGwire's era as (say) 1980-2009, he's (again) well behind Bagwell, and roughly in a group with Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jim Thome.

It's one thing to make up your own definition for the Hall of Fame. I can sort of respect that, especially if you're not actually involved in the process that populates the actual Hall of Fame. But if you're going to play make-believe, it's a lot more entertaining if you've at least got some internal logic to guide your choices.

Otherwise it's all make-believe, and not really worth the newsprint and the ink.

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