The Greatness of Ken Griffey Jr

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.

Griffey’s First Decade
Griffey PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ WAR WAR/600
1989-1998 5982 0.300 0.379 0.568 144 63.6 6.4

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.


Source: FanGraphsKen Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron

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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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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tz
Member
tz
4 months 25 days ago

Thanks Dave for reminding us that Junior wasn’t just a Hall of Famer, but an inner-circle HOF guy:

http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=547,327,255,1035

Careless
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Careless
4 months 25 days ago

I don’t see him saying that. He performed as that level of player for a while, but not for close to his whole career. 0 WAR over the last 7 years of his career.

bmarkham
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bmarkham
4 months 25 days ago

So he was such a good player his first ten years that it didn’t matter what he did after that. Albert Pujols seems like a similar player in that regard.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 25 days ago

Agreed. Andruw Jones might be the toughest case in that regard. If you just took his years in Atlanta, and had him retire early from glaucoma or something, he’d might already have a plaque in Cooperstown.

walt526
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walt526
4 months 25 days ago

I add Frank Thomas to that discussion as well.

And Tim Raines should be in that category as well, but too many HOF voters have their heads up their asses.

francis_soyer
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francis_soyer
4 months 24 days ago

Raines was only top 5 in the MVP vote once. He had a long, great career, but not up to the standards of other Hall of Famers.

Before you criticize this: This is not my personal opinion about Raines, I’m just pointing out one of the reasons writers use to leave people off their ballots.

Some writers look for excuses to leave people off of their ballots – that is the system. Only one top 5 MVP is a valid excuse.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 24 days ago

Which also sounds like the way folks justify not voting for Mussina, which is also ridiculous.

But at least that seems like an attempt to make a measured, objective rule of thumb for their voting. For too many of the voters, it seems like they use a slightly less meaningful rule, such as saves plus WS rings minus zits on former teammates backs.

walt526
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walt526
4 months 24 days ago

I wasn’t comparing Raines to all time greats, only pointing up that he accumulated all of his HOF credentials in the first half of his career. Like Thomas, Griffey, etc.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 months 24 days ago

I would also add that Mattingly and GarciaParra had similar, but much shorter periods, HOF careers before major injuries. Had both players even had the normal decline they would be slam dunk HOF’s too.

Ryan
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Member
Ryan
4 months 25 days ago

This is a really good career to keep in mind when I think about Trout – he is incredible and should be celebrated as much as possible now, because who knows if/when he starts to break down physically? Griffey was pretty much playing full seasons until, all of a sudden, he just couldn’t do that anymore.

Joser
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Joser
4 months 25 days ago

A lot of us who watched Griffey in the Kingdome will always wonder how much its hard turf contributed to his decline. Would Mays, say, or Aaron, have suffered a similar spate of injuries and diminished later-career performance if they’d spent a decade pounding their bodies on that unforgiving field?

tz
Member
tz
4 months 24 days ago

You know I keep forgetting about Griffey playing on that turf. I remember Fred Lynn constantly getting banged up bad playing the same kind of no-holds-barred defense, and he got to play on grass.

A lot has been said about how the turf in Montreal was hell on Andre Dawson’s knees (and probably caused Larry Walker to spend so much time on the DL). Those years in the Kingdome had to be a big factor in Griffey’s decline.

walt526
Member
walt526
4 months 25 days ago

Just to put Trout in historical context compared to Griffey and these other inner circle HOFers, he has 38.5 fWAR accumulated through his age 23 season. Well over twice as much fWAR as Bonds or Mays and 37% more than Griffey.

Just pointing it out because I don’t know that I fully appreciated what I was watching in Griffey until after he ceased to be a historically great player. Griffey was historically great, but Trout is even better.

kevintdame
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kevintdame
4 months 25 days ago

Here’s what Trout’s start looks like.

http://kevindamebaseball.com/index.html#!player=Mike%20Trout%20(hitter)

Crazy impressive and better than Griffey Jr’s start

Shirtless George Brett
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Shirtless George Brett
4 months 24 days ago

Griffey’s First Four Seasons – 19.7 WAR
Griffey’s Best Four consecutive seasons (1996-1999) – 30.7 WAR
Griffeys Best four seasons ever (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997) – 34 WAR

Trout’s first four full seasons – 37.8 WAR.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC
4 months 24 days ago

Griffey from 93 to 97 was basically a true talent 9 WAR player (8.5 if you want to be conservative). His WAR totals were 8.4 6.8 3.3. 9.7. and 9.0.

But if you unwrap that, the second number is the strike shortened 94 season, and Griffey was on pace to surpass 9 WAR easily (might have reached 10), and the third was the season he broke his hand (also slightly strike shortened) and played in 72 games. You absolutely can’t blame Griffey for the work stoppages, and the broken hand was an unfortunate byproduct of Griffey playing all-out.

That peak is still not quite as high as Trout’s peak, but it is a lot closer than these numbers indicate.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 24 days ago

If Trout loses 1 WAR per year over the rest of his Angels contract, he’ll enter his age-29 season with 71.5 WAR.

Leaving him just 6 wins behind Junior’s career total.

jlongrc
Member
jlongrc
4 months 24 days ago

I think it was in Trout’s 3rd season that I started to take anyone around me and get their attention when Trout was on TV. Look, this guy might be the best player of all time.

Now, I’m not saying that we should go ahead and crown the guy, but nobody has better positioned themselves in the past ~100 years to take that crown at this stage of their career. Soak it in, enjoy it while it lasts, because you might be telling your loved ones someday about how you watched the career arc of the best player to ever play the game.

kevintdame
Member
kevintdame
4 months 25 days ago

Here’s another visual that capture’s Griffey Jr’s greatness. http://kevindamebaseball.com/index.html#!player=Ken%20Griffey%20Jr.%20(hitter)

devo1d
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Member
devo1d
4 months 24 days ago

I don’t understand what the graph is showing. I mean that in all sincerity.

devo1d
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Member
devo1d
4 months 24 days ago

My apologies, I was wondering where Barry Bonds was, I failed to see him unless he was below Junior. I am an idiot.

Slippy
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Slippy
4 months 25 days ago

Not really sure it’s fair to point out that Bagwell was not within 10 wins above replacement of Junior between 1989 and 2000 since Bagwell didn’t play in the majors for 2 full seasons in that time interval. He was a rookie in 1991.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 25 days ago

If you look at 1991-2000, Bagwell was just 4 wins behind Junior, and 4 wins ahead of another first-ballot HOF stud:

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2000&month=0&season1=1991&ind=0&team=&rost=&age=&filter=&players=

It took just 10 years for Bagwell to assemble a borderline HOF resume. Looks like it will take more time than that for him to take his rightful spot in Cooperstown.

WARrior
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Member
WARrior
4 months 23 days ago

Yes, and even in that twelve year stretch, Griffey was just out of the top 10 in wRC+. Bagwell was fourth.

BigChief
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Member
BigChief
4 months 24 days ago

Here is a really nice way to graphically compare the two
http://www.fangraphs.com/community/the-bbwaas-hall-of-fame-graphically-speaking/

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC
4 months 25 days ago

I hope Piazza, Bagwell and Raines all make it, but it’s looking pretty good for the ones that don’t to make it next year, 2017, when there are no surefire first ballot guys, three new guys who’ll get major consideration (Manny, Vlad, and Pudge) and one guy who will get way too much attention (Jorge).

For the second straight year, there will also be fewer names on the ballot.

Jorge Posada
Member
4 months 25 days ago

What do you mean way too much attention?

Joser
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Joser
4 months 25 days ago

Says the guy who has been showing up at or near the top of every Fangraphs player search since forever.

Westside guy
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Member
Westside guy
4 months 24 days ago

Well until baseball finally does the right thing and starts giving retired Yankees a 50% baseline bonus when counting Hall of Fame ballots, it’s up to beleaguered Yankee fans to make sure their under-recognized and overlooked stars get at least occasional attention.

StinkyPete
Member
Member
StinkyPete
4 months 24 days ago

Ivan Rodriguez should be a no-brainer HOFer, but I’ve been saying that about Piazza for four years. I think the way he contributed on both sides of the ball and his lack of back acne will be enough to get him in the door.

Vlad Guerrero seems like an easy choice too, though I can see where he could suffer a similar fate as Raines. Like Raines he spent much of his prime playing in a small market for terrible teams, and his counting stats pale a bit compared to the video game numbers others put up in that era.

Manny was an exquisite hitter but I suspect his late-career pregnancy scare will have him on the outside looking in for several years.

Bigperm8645
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Bigperm8645
4 months 24 days ago

Vlad was a guy people went to watch. He played on the Angels long enough in a decent sized market, won a WS, and was a star. If he doesn’t get in I’d be surprised.

devo1d
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Member
devo1d
4 months 24 days ago

Vlad never won a ring. Got the Angels two years later.

Slippy
Member
Slippy
4 months 25 days ago

If you look at the 12 year period from 1991 to 2002, Barry Bonds is the only player ahead of Bagwell in WAR. I’m an Astros fan and that sentence still doesn’t look right to me.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2002&month=0&season1=1991&ind=0&team=&rost=&age=&filter=&players=

ashlandateam
Member
ashlandateam
4 months 25 days ago

As a Cincinnati Reds fan, I can tell you it looks right to me. By my recollection, Jeff Bagwell hit .857 with 23 homers every year against the Reds (my memory could be foggy, I admit). No one was more terrifying in the league for my money than Bagwell, who should have been a no-brainer on the first ballot.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 24 days ago

Bagwell and Piazza should be put into the Hall by executive order if the vigilante conspiracy theorists within the BBWAA keep doing what they’ve been doing. No-brainers, like Junior.

http://www.hardballtimes.com/a-hall-of-stats-shows-a-haul-of-omissions/#comment-73422

NeoShweaty
Member
NeoShweaty
4 months 24 days ago

The only reason Mike Piazza isn’t in the hall right now is because of rumors and fairly baseless ones at that. Same with Bagwell. It’s such BS.

Hopefully Piazza gets in today and goes to the Hall in full Mets regalia. The man was a beast. I was a kid so take it with a grain of salt but I remember thinking that whenever he was up at the plate and the Mets needed a run or a homer Piazza would deliver. He just had this magic with the bat.

Plus, there’s his homerun against the Braves after 9/11: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0A3hmASpDqg

francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer
4 months 24 days ago

All or nothing HOF voting leads to bizarre outcomes.

There are most likely going to be some voters who won’t vote for him because “if Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth weren’t unanimous …” or “I want Jeter to be the first unanimous selection, so I’m voting ‘no’ on Griffey”.

That’s ridiculous.

It’s time that the system change to some kind of point allocation system, so that people who don’t want to sully the names of Babe Ruth and Stan Musial ( or Jeter ) can just allocate 98 or 99 out of 100 to guys like Griffey instead of just voting “no”. This way, the writer isn’t exposed as a fool, and nobody gets unanimous entry.

TheGrandslamwich
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TheGrandslamwich
4 months 24 days ago

I think they should just make all ballots public. The writers are exposed as fools and hypocrites every year. Why should they be able to hide their idiocy?

Runaway Toaster
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Runaway Toaster
4 months 24 days ago

One of the best 5 players in my baseball-lifetime. That said, to be contrarian, even just counting their primes I would go: Bonds > A-Rod > Griffey > Pujols (Trout TBD)

Of course, Griffey had a big smile, was well-spoken, and had charisma, so of course he’s the best player of the generation! Don’t even get me started on Jeter…

Bigperm8645
Member
Bigperm8645
4 months 24 days ago

I’d swap Pujols for Griffey, and Trout can be better than A-Rod. Bonds, with the extended career, will be hard to top.

Agree on Griffey’s smile and backwards hat; and his Upper Deck RC didn’t hurt him.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
4 months 24 days ago

I remember pulling the Griffey ’89 Upper Deck card one Christmas when I was a kid. That was an awesome moment. It’s still one of my favorite cards.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 24 days ago

Congratulations to Griffey and Piazza, super deserving both!

Here’s hoping we keep getting more no-brainer HOFers in over the next few years. Piazza’s election is a good sign.

J2butter
Member
J2butter
4 months 24 days ago

Yet Bonds’ worst offensive season in the 90s came close to matching Griffey’s best.

Here’s Bonds

and here’s Griffey

J2butter
Member
J2butter
4 months 24 days ago

not sure why all that space didn’t work but it’s Bonds <<<>>>> Griffey.

devo1d
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Member
devo1d
4 months 24 days ago

Couldn’t agree more. Bonds was great at everything from 89-99

ashlandateam
Member
ashlandateam
4 months 24 days ago

Bagwell 15 votes shy. That looks good for him next year. Raines wasn’t far behind.

jdickerman
Member
jdickerman
4 months 24 days ago

I know this is about Griffey and he’s clearly super deserving. But I do want to point out your argument works just as well for Bagwell as for Jr.

When you break down ‘1989-2000 and point out that the 3rd place guy (Bags) isn’t in 10 WAR of Jr., it’s primarily because Bags’ rookie year wasn’t until 1991. Here’s the first 12 years of Jr. and the first 12 years of Bagwell:

Jr. (1989-2000) – 1680 gms, wRC+ 142, 73.9 WAR
Bags (1991-2002) – 1795 gms, wRC+ 154, 72.9 WAR

Like Griffey, year 12 was Bagwell’s last really good year. But the same argument you’re making, that his first 12 years puts him in the most elite company in baseball holds just as true for Bagwell. I know that you’re in the Bagwell should be in the HOF camp but it bothers me how people see don’t mention that it’s just that he’s deserving, it’s that his numbers stack up with almost anyone in the history of the game.

Steve Perry
Member
4 months 24 days ago

Great read, Dave.

I just loved watching Griffey play, and I feel like that again right now watching Trout.

jlongrc
Member
jlongrc
4 months 24 days ago

Let’s also mention that most everyone believes that Griffey did what he did while intentionally handicapping himself by avoiding the use of illegal drugs (I like to mention that steroids, with just a few not very strong exceptions, were and are illegal to use irrespective of the CBA). Nobody can say for sure who did what and when but the effects PEDs had on the game are undeniable. Griffey arguably matched his cheating peers while competing against cheating pitchers, if you buy that Griffey is clean. The biggest shame of all is the way the rampant cheating may have diluted the accomplishments of truly amazing talents like Griffey or Frank Thomas or whomever else you think might fit that bill.

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571
4 months 24 days ago

I couldn’t help but notice something funny about the Bonds portion of that four-HOFer graph. I wonder what it could be?

I found it funny when the opening noted that “even though Griffey played 20 years, he didn’t get 3000 hits”…that doesn’t matter so much when 630 of the hits he DID get were HRs.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 23 days ago

I love the fact that Hank Aaron got over 3,000 hits if you didn’t count ANY of his HRs. So easy to forget how ridiculously good his all-around game was.

barry6124
Member
barry6124
4 months 24 days ago

I know this is an analytical site first and foremost but it can’t be understated what Griffey meant to the game of baseball. I’m 32 and my entire generation knew Ken Griffey Jr. He had posters, video games, movie appearances, shoes, commercials, sponsorship galore. The man is a damn fashion icon, there isn’t a 90’s kid who didn’t turn their hat backwards and pretend they were Junior. I can’t speak for much before the late 80’s but I can’t imagine their were many players who had the mass popularity of the kid.

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