In a few hours, Ken Griffey Jr will be announced as the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He may be joined by Mike Piazza, or he may end up going in alone, but there’s no question that Junior is going in. At this point, the only question is how many voters will leave him off their ballots, either for strategic reasons — thanks to the insane limitation on only being able to vote for 10 players — or because of some archaic notion of what a “first ballot” Hall of Famer is. But pretty much everyone who follows baseball agrees that Ken Griffey Jr belongs in the Hall of Fame.
What’s interesting about that near-unanimous agreement is that his career numbers are actually not that spectacular, or at least, aren’t the kind of numbers you’d necessarily expect from a guy who is considered a slam-dunk entrant to Cooperstown. Even though he played for 20 years, he didn’t get to 3,000 hits. His career wRC+ is 131, which puts him in a tie for 118th best among hitters with at least 5,000 PAs. His +78 WAR puts him closer to the tier of guys who are having a tough time collecting votes than the other guys who got nearly 100% support when they went on the ballot.
But, of course, the support for Griffey isn’t based on his career numbers; it’s based on what he did during the first 10 to 12 years of his career. And that stretch was spectacular. Here’s just the first decade of Junior’s career.
That +63.6 WAR? That’s the same as Roberto Alomar‘s career total. It’s higher than the career totals of Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, or Andre Dawson, all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown. By the time he finished his age-28 season, Griffey had already had a Hall of Fame career. And then he put up two more excellent seasons after that, giving him a dozen-year run at the kind of level that few players ever reach. The +74 WAR that Griffey put up from 1989-2000 ranked second only to Barry Bonds during that stretch, and the #3 guy on that list — Jeff Bagwell — wasn’t even within +10 WAR of Griffey’s total.
The first 60% of Griffey’s career was absolutely stunning. In graph form, here’s Junior essentially keeping pace with three of the best hitters baseball has ever seen.
Right up through age-30, Griffey played at an inner-circle Hall of Fame level. The last decade of his career was marred by injuries and significant decline, which dragged down all his rate stats and left his totals significantly shy of the other all-time greats, but Griffey is perhaps the primary example for why peak performance should matter more than longevity when discussing the best players in the game’s storied history.
Griffey was simply capable of things other players weren’t capable of. There have been better hitters than Griffey, and better fielders than Griffey, but the list of players who could impact the game on both sides of the ball to that degree is quite small indeed.
In the long history of the game, there have 12,711 individual seasons where a position player got at least 500 plate appearances. Of those nearly 13,000 player-seasons, a hitter has managed to accumulate +50 runs of offensive value in the same season in which they were at least an average defensive player (+50 OFF/+0 DEF) only 135 times; Griffey did it twice.
Others who have pulled off that feat multiple times include guys like Mantle, Mays, Musial, Horsnby, Wagner, DiMaggio, and more recently, Bonds, Rodriguez, and Trout. Griffey’s 1997 season — where he put up a +50 OFF/+17 DEF — puts him in a group of just 19 seasons (out of almost 13,000) where a player has ever put up a offensive season 50 runs better than an average hitter while also producing at least 15 runs of defensive value more than an average fielder.
That’s the player that people are voting into the Hall of Fame, not the guy who finished his career with bad knees and limited range. For a little over a decade, Griffey was a transcendent performer, and then his body broke down.
But should we really care that Griffey didn’t age well? His first 12 years pushed him across the Hall of Fame threshold pretty easily, and he did more in the first half of his career than most players could do in 20. Griffey established his greatness from 1989 through 2000; that he was unable to hold onto it from 2001 through 2010 does not eliminate the fact that said greatness existed in the first place.
Griffey is, in some ways, the Sandy Koufax of center fielders, only he was great from the get go, rather than taking some time to work up to elite performances. The difference, of course, is that when Koufax’s body broke down, he stopped playing; Griffey continued to take the field for another decade after his physical abilities began disappearing. But like with Koufax, the greatness is essentially unquestioned, even if the career totals don’t necessarily stack up with other players of similar repute.
We didn’t need to see Griffey be a decent player in his 30s to know he was a remarkable player in his 20s. For a 12 year stretch, Junior was about as good as a player can be, and that’s what the Hall of Fame will be honoring. And rightfully so.
Welcome to Cooperstown, Kid.
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