At the time of his being named to the All-Century Team, Griffey was 29 years old and seemingly in his prime. He was voted to this team by the fans and placed among the greatest outfielders in baseball history: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, and Pete Rose. Pete Rose was a controversial choice because he had been banned from baseball for 10 years for gambling on games. Also, Rose and Griffey were voted in ahead of other worthy players, including Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, and Rickey Henderson. One of Griffey’s contemporaries, Barry Bonds, finished 18th in the fan voting.
In hindsight, Rose was not the only controversial choice by the fans to be selected to this team. Mark McGwire had a record-setting 70-homer season in 1998 and followed that up with 65 home runs in 1999. He was voted in over Hall of Fame first basemen Jimmy Foxx and Hank Greenberg, among others. The quick end to McGwire’s career (he played just two more years after 1999) and his connection to PEDs has since sullied his choice for the All-Century Team.
After being so good for so long, Griffey did not go on to have many All-Star caliber years. He quickly became a shadow of his former self. From the age of 30 on, Griffey had just two seasons that were above average. He had seven seasons that were very close to replacement level. Over the final 11 years of his career, Ken Griffey, Jr. accumulated just 13.0 brWAR and 5.5 of that total came in his age 30 season.
Griffey’s value over the last 11 years of his career plunged in large part due to his eroding defensive ability, but he also hit worse and his playing time was hampered by injuries. The chart below shows Griffey’s average season over the first 11 seasons of his career versus the last 11 seasons of his career. The statistic wRC+ refers to the Fangraphs metric “weighted Runs Created.” This number is adjusted for park and league and shows how much better or worse a hitter is compared to league average.
This number does not include defense. A league average hitter will have a wRC+ of exactly 100. As a hitter, Griffey was 44% better than average in the first half of his career (144 wRC+), but just 14% better than average in the second half (114 wRC+). In addition, he played an average of 140 games per year during the first half of his career and just 103 games per year in the second half.
Despite the unimpressive second half of his career, Ken Griffey, Jr. will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame next summer. I believe he deserves that honor even though I don’t think he compares to the All-Century Team outfielders or even the outfielders mentioned who were not chosen at that time (Clemente, Musial, Henderson). In fact, there is one other player on the ballot who I believe is just as worthy as Griffey for the Hall of fame, Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell is getting closer to induction after five years without much progress. I believe he should have been inducted in his first year of eligibility. Finally, there is a current Major League player who has been as valuable as Griffey but isn’t looked upon in the same light, Adrian Beltre. Value-wise, there’s very little separating these three players.
Let’s look at the numbers. The following three charts show each player’s career numbers, their career numbers per 162 games played, and their career numbers per 162 games played adjusted for league and ballpark (Neutralized, courtesy of the Baseball-Reference website). Griffey and Bagwell had advantages over Beltre because of the time period in which they played (more of a hitter’s era) and the league and ballparks they played in. Remember that Beltre played in Los Angeles for the first seven years of his career, then played in Seattle for five years. That’s 12 years in pitcher’s parks, which kept his offense in check.
The following graph shows a comparison for these three players using Baseball-Reference WAR, which incorporates hitting, fielding, and base running. This shows each player’s brWAR by age.
The next graph shows the cumulative WAR for these three players.
When it comes to the Hall of Fame, I believe all three players are Hall of Fame players. Griffey and Bagwell are on the ballot this year. Beltre has one more guaranteed year on his contract with the Texas Rangers and is still playing at a high level. He’ll be 37 next year and only needs 233 hits to reach 3000. He has been the equal to Griffey so far and can add to his totals in the years ahead. I believe it is likely that Beltre will ultimately be worth more Wins Above Replacement than Griffey.
The following graph shows how these three players compare to the current Hall of Fame hitters who were elected by the BBWAA based on their seasons from best to worst. The gray zone represents the 25th to 75th percentile for Hall of Fame players and the black line is the median.
When it comes to the actual voting this year, Griffey will go in easily. On the publicly-known Hall of Fame ballots, he is at 100%. He is unlikely to be the first ever unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame because there are writers who will simply refuse to let that happen, but he should be in the 97-98% range. I also expect Jeff Bagwell to get very close to the 75% he needs. Bagwell received 41.7% of the vote in his first year on the ballot and has been between 54% and 60% in the ensuing four years, but is experiencing a large bump so far on the publicly-known ballots, where he is at 79.5%. If Bagwell doesn’t make it this year, he should get over the hump next year. When it comes time for Adrian Beltre to receive the recognition he deserves some years down the road, I hope he gets in on his first ballot, just like Ken Griffey, Jr.