The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2017 Today’s Game Era Hall of Fame ballot. It was originally written for the BBWAA’s 2013 Hall of Fame ballot and has since been updated to reflect additional research and recent voting results, including the expiration of McGwire’s candidacy via that route. For a detailed introduction to the Today’s Game Era ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Mark McGwire could hit home runs with a frequency exceeding even that of Babe Ruth. His prodigious shots won games and helped to heal the wounds caused by the first players strike ever to wipe out a World Series. After spending the summer of 1998 engaged in a home run chase involving not only Sammy Sosa but also baseball history itself, he was hailed as a hero for his ability to connect with the game’s past even as he surpassed Roger Maris’s seemingly-unbreakable single-season home run record that had stood for 37 years.
Years after McGwire retired, the meaning of the home runs that so many had cheered changed. Many of the same writers who once exalted him turned against him over suspicions that performance-enhancing drugs had fueled his exploits. As the game belatedly cracked down on the proliferation of PEDs in 2005, increased attention was drawn to his involvement with the drugs. For some voters, his appearance on the 2007 Hall of Fame ballot turned the task of filling it out into an arduous one, the beginning of a decades-long confrontation with the consequences of the industry’s reluctance to fix the problem in a more timely fashion. McGwire’s 2010 admission that he had in fact used PEDs during his playing days further fueled the furor. In July 2014, the Hall itself reacted to the negative publicity brought about by the increasingly charged debates over McGwire and other PED-connected but statistically qualified players—who began to crowd the ballot—by unilaterally reducing the length of each candidate’s stay on the BBWAA ballot from 15 years to 10.
Nobody has all the answers on how the Hall or its voters should deal with the question of PED usage among candidates. The institution itself is content to leave the issue in the hands of the voters; Hall president Jeff Idelson has pointed to the clause in the voting rules that refer to a player’s integrity, sportsmanship and character. That conveniently ignores, however, both the fact that the clause was penned by a commissioner who upheld baseball’s color line for nearly a quarter-century, and that it has been invoked so rarely that the institution long ago became a rogues’ gallery of sign-stealers, spitballers, racists, Ku Klux Klan members, Prohibition-era alcoholics, cocaine users, amphetamine users, spousal abusers and sex addicts.
Some voters have adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to PED-associated candidates, refusing to vote for players upon even the whiff of suspicion; actual evidence isn’t even necessary. For others, actual proof of the infraction and its timing matter. Still others are content to skirt the entire issue, viewing the so-called Steroid Era as a less-than-flattering part of baseball history just as segregation was and remaining focused on on-field performance under the prevailing conditions of the day. Within that range are many nuanced positions, all of which have in common an iron-clad guarantee that someone, somewhere disagrees with them.
Amid all of that, the consensus among BBWAA voters was that McGwire’s misdeeds are too much for Cooperstown. In his 10 years on the ballot, he never received even 25% of the vote, a third of what he would need for election. He peaked at 23.7% in 2010, just before his PED admission, then lost support in each ensuing round of voting until last year, when he rebounded from a low of 10% to 12.3%. With his eligibility on the BBWAA ballot having lapsed, his chances of enshrinement now rest in the hands of a 16-member committee of writers, executives and Hall of Fame players, which will vote on Today’s Game slates for 2017, ’19, ’22 and ’24 based on the schedule that was unveiled in July.
Considering that the Veterans Committee and its era-based successors haven’t elected any living ex-MLB player since Bill Mazeroski in 2001, nobody should expect McGwire to break through immediately. But his chances couldn’t be any worse than they were by the end of his BBWAA run, and he’s now clearly the best player on the ballot.
Born and raised near Los Angeles, McGwire starred at the University of Southern California and played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. He was the 10th pick of the 1984 draft by the Athletics and spent most of his two-plus years in the minors playing third base (with an .899 fielding percentage!). He manned the hot corner (poorly) during his late-1986 debut, but the A’s finally wised up and moved him across the diamond for his official rookie season. In a year where home runs spiked above 1.0 per team per game for the first time in history, he led the league with 49 and with his .618 slugging percentage, ranking seventh among AL position players with 5.1 WAR. He earned All-Star honors and was a unanimous choice for American League Rookie of the Year.
In tandem with 1986 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Canseco and under new skipper Tony La Russa, McGwire helped the A’s emerge from the sub-.500 doldrums. The slugging duo, soon nicknamed the Bash Brothers, led Oakland to three consecutive pennants from 1988 to ’90, though the impact of that dynasty was diluted by bookending upsets in the World Series—the first at the hands of the Kirk Gibson-inspired Dodgers, the last via the Nasty Boy Reds. The Athletics’ lone championship of the period came via a Bay Area series against the Giants that was interrupted by a major earthquake. McGwire earned All-Star honors in all three years, but his raw homer totals, rate stats and WAR values fell off until 1990, when he hit .235/.370/.489 with 39 homers (second in the league), 5.7 WAR (sixth) and even a Gold Glove for defense that was 10 runs above average, according to Total Zone.
Though he placed in the league’s top three in homers for five of his first six years, McGwire’s batting averages continued to decline. He bottomed out in 1991 (.201/.330/.383), with La Russa sitting him at the end of the season so he wouldn’t wind up below the Mendoza Line (a career .199 hitter himself, the manager knew the sting). McGwire rebounded to hit .268/.385/.585 in 1992, again leading the league in slugging percentage and ranking second in homers (42) and seventh in WAR (6.4), but foot and back troubles limited him to just 184 games from ’93 to ’95.
Finally somewhat healthy in 1996, he began one of the greatest sustained power runs since Ruth, bashing an AL-best 52 home runs in just 130 games and slugging a league-high .730. The next year, he made a run at Maris’s single-season record despite a midseason trade to the Cardinals (whom La Russa now managed) keyed by his pending free agency. McGwire hit 34 homers before the July 31 trade and reeled off 24 more in his final two months, but a 19-game drought on either side of the deal cost him the record.
Against the widely-held assumption that he would return to southern California for his next contract, McGwire chose to stay in St. Louis. Spurred by a challenge from Sosa and under intense daily scrutiny from the media (more on which momentarily), he set the single-season home run record with a jaw-dropping 70 in 1998. He also established a new National League benchmark for walks with 162 (21 were officially intentional, but you can be sure a lot of those “unintentional” walks were as well). His .299/.470/.752 line looked as though it came straight out of a video game, and only his lousy defense prevented him from ranking higher than third in WAR (7.5). He lost the MVP vote to Sosa, whose 66 homers helped the Cubs win the NL wild card but whose 6.4 WAR ranked just 10th.
McGwire followed up with 65 homers in 1999, but his struggles with plantar fasciitis soon took their toll. Though producing at a rate comparable to his 1998 season (.305/.483/.746), he was limited to 89 games in 2000 and hung up his spikes following a dismal ’01 (.187/.316/.492) in which he was reduced to watching pinch-hitter Kerry Robinson take his final plate appearance in Game 5 of the Division Series.
In some obvious ways, McGwire’s numbers are Hall of Fame caliber. His rate of home runs per plate appearance, 7.6%, tops even Ruth as the all-time best. His 583 career homers rank 11th on the all-time list, his .588 slugging percentage is seventh among hitters with at least 7,000 plate appearances, and his 163 OPS+ is tied for ninth (Albert Pujols surpassed him in homers but slipped below him in the aforementioned rate stats over the past two seasons). Add to that 12 All-Star appearances, four league leads in home runs and a whole lot more of what Bill James called “Black Ink“—leagues led in important categories—and you’ve got a pretty decent Hall of Fame case. Aside, that is, from his .217/.320/.349 line in 151 postseason plate appearances and a career total of just 1,626 hits, lower than any enshrined hitter whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era. Much of that was because McGwire also added 1,317 walks to that total (41st all-time).
Boil that all down via WAR and you get a case that’s less than definitive. Due to injuries, the 1994–95 strike and his retirement after his age-37 season, McGwire’s 16-year career featured just 10 seasons of at least 130 games played. Not surprisingly, his 62.0 career WAR is short of the Hall standard for first basemen by nearly four wins. His peak score is much closer at 0.6 wins below the standard spread out over seven seasons—less than one run a year, a negligible amount given the assumptions built into such valuation systems (such as the choice for how many years to incorporate into a park factor). Given both, he falls short of the JAWS standard by 2.3 points and ranks 17th all-time among first basemen, with 10 Hall of Famers above him and nine more below.
Under normal circumstances, you could make an argument that McGwire’s shortcomings regarding JAWS are outweighed by the honors and the league leads and the Black Ink and the fame, but with McGwire, the circumstances are anything but normal. The elephant in the room is his association with performance-enhancing drugs. His 1998 chase was interrupted when AP reporter Steve Wilstein noted the presence of androstenedione—a testosterone precursor that was neither banned by baseball nor declared illegal without a prescription until mid-2004—in his locker. “Everybody I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use,” said the slugger when asked about the substance. Pariahdom followed—for Wilstein, not McGwire. La Russa tried to get the AP banned from the Cardinals’ clubhouse for invading his players’ privacy. Fellow writers, some of whom called Wilstein “unprofessional,” accused him of “inventing a scandal” and creating “tabloid-driven controversy.”
Less than a week after Wilstein’s article ran, The New York Times ran an editorial expressing concern over “uncertainties about androstenedione’s impact on the body” and any view of McGwire’s potential record as tainted:
[S]ome have even suggested, not entirely in jest, that if McGwire beats the record he should have an asterisk next to his name denoting that he did so under questionable circumstances. Our view is that this is an unproductive line of argument, not so much because androstenedione is legal in baseball but because even the experts who believe the substance could build muscle strength also say there is no evidence that it improves the eye-hand coordination required of every successful hitter.
PED allegations continued to dog McGwire long after his career ended. Canseco’s 2005 book Juiced detailed stories of the two Bash Brothers injecting each other with steroids. Details of McGwire’s chemical regimen dating as far back as 1989—involving Winstrol and other steroids well beyond andro—turned up that spring via reports pertaining to an early 1990s FBI investigation called Operation Equine. The Congressional hearings that followed later that spring featured a tearful McGwire refusing to answer questions about his usage, declaring, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Not until January 2010—after the BBWAA writers had voted on his candidacy four times—did he admit to using steroids and acknowledge that he made a mistake. Even then, many weren’t satisfied with his explanation that he took the drugs for health purposes, not to hit home runs.
We don’t know the extent to which PEDs enhance baseball skill, because direct scientific studies on the effects of the drugs simply haven’t been done. Hundreds of players—far more than we will ever know—took PEDs over a period lasting longer than two decades before they were outlawed on the major league scene. Based on the names we do know (via positive tests, the Mitchell Report, law enforcement investigations and so on), no uniformity of effects have been found; scrubs who took them largely seem to have remained scrubs, and stars remained stars.
It is possible to theorize, via the literature of the studies that have been done with regard to strength training, how they might translate to baseball. In a 2007 paper for the American Journal of Physics, Tufts University professor Roger G. Tobin estimated that a 10% increase in an athlete’s muscle mass would correspond with a 10% increase in the force exerted by those muscles. That in turn would correspond to a 10% increase in the kinetic energy of the bat, assuming a batter’s swing and technique remained the same, and a 5% increase in bat speed upon contact with a pitched ball. Modeling the physics of what happens when ball meets bat, such a gain would produce a 3% increase in speed, which would wind up in a 30-to-70% increase in home runs per ball on contact—a huge gain resulting from just a few feet difference in flight, essentially turning 30-homer hitters into 40- or 50-homer hitters.
The startling thing is that the range of increase in home runs per batted ball that could result from a 10% gain in muscle mass is on the order of what actually occurred throughout the entire majors from 1993 onward. From 1988 to ’92—a very stable period of time for home run hitting—2.7% of batted balls were home runs. In 1993, that number jumped to 3.1%, then to 3.6% (36% above that five-year baseline) the following year. In every year between 1994 and 2010, the rate of homers per batted ball was anywhere from 31 to 56% above that five-year baseline. That period, not so coincidentally, was one of rapid change throughout baseball, featuring expansion, new ballparks, a crackdown in the enforcement of the strike zone and changes to the baseball itself. You simply can’t point to home run spikes and definitively declare them an effect of PED use; far too many other factors are at play.
That baseball took so long to institute a means of punishing and (hopefully) preventing PED usage was a product of a complete institutional failure. It seems rather clear that players who used them were violating both federal laws and baseball’s rules in addition to taking advantage of lax enforcement of those rules, all in an attempt (not always successful) to gain an edge on their competitors. They were able to do so in large part due to the reluctance of owners and the commissioner to enforce rules that had been in existence since the early 1990s, or to prioritize pushing for more stringent rules. Having been found liable for $280 million in damages related to their 1985–87 collusion—in which teams agreed not to sign each others’ high-profile free agents in an effort to suppress salary growth—the owners spent years trying to break the players’ union, eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap, matters that led directly to the ’94–95 strike.
After the strike, owners were more interested in winning back fans by any means necessary, and home runs became the big gate attraction. Writers who glorified the new power kings (the McGwires and Sosas) and failed to report the entirety of the story—whether via direct challenges such as Wilstein’s or more indirect means—were part of that institutional failure as well.
All of which is to say that the PED problem in baseball went well beyond individual players. Many Hall of Fame voters—who were among the reporters who were part of that failure—are now the ones who purport to sit in judgment of those players, applying a retroactive morality that ignores their own complicity in the story, as well as the timeline via which baseball actually began to crack down.
Having studied the matter extensively in the service of writing over 20,000 words for two chapters in Baseball Prospectus’ group book Extra Innings (some of which I’ve attempted to distill above), I’ve come to the position that timing matters. Before 2005, baseball was a mess for the way it battled the encroachment of PEDs in the game. Even as MLB began to pay lip service to cleaning up the sport, the incentives—higher salaries for players who produced more, greater attendance for teams and thus greater revenue for the industry—favored maintaining the status quo; some would argue that they still do. (Note that players who test positive for PEDs continue to receive contracts and even raises, with Melky Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon as a few recent examples.)
I’m not saying that we should reward players for using PEDs by uniformly electing them to the Hall of Fame. Instead, we should acknowledge that PEDs were part of the way the game was played for a long, long period of time, before the industry wised up. Voters should distinguish between use that came during baseball’s “Wild West” era—generally without proof, since systematic testing didn’t occur—and use that came after testing began and penalties were imposed. The focus shouldn’t be on who did which drugs and whether they helped, but on who the best players of the era were, and whether they stack up to the all-time greats as they played under the conditions of their time.
Via that, I’m comfortable in saying that the weight of the statistical record suggests McGwire is a borderline candidate. Among the more subjective criteria one might call upon to swing the decision either way are points that enhance his case, and points that detract from it. I viewed the latter as outweighing the former in the context of an overstuffed BBWAA ballot, where supporting him may have been at the expense of the Hall-worthy likes of Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, or Larry Walker (to name a few JAWS-approved candidates). But from here, there’s less harm in supporting him, particularly if it means not voting for an underqualified candidate such as Harold Baines or Albert Belle.
While I had hopes that time and distance from McGwire’s BBWAA candidacy would help us to gain a new perspective on his career as the voters begin to soften on PED-linked candidates, the lack of delay between that process and the Today’s Game one hasn’t afforded that, so he’s still a “no” on my virtual ballot. I suspect he will struggle for support in this process.
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