June 2, 2010
Ken Griffey Jr. Bows Out
Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement today, news that was almost instantly overshadowed by umpire Jim Joyce's blown call on what should have been the final out of Armando Galarraga's perfect game. Which isn't to say that Junior's retirement was poorly timed. The 40-year-old Griffey was hitting just .184/.250/.204, with two doubles and zero homers in 108 plate appearances, one season after a .214/.324/.411 showing supplied more than a subtle hint that his time had passed. The Mariners, with whom Griffey began his major league career back in 1989, re-signed him this past winter as much for his purported effect on the clubhouse atmosphere as for whatever was left in his bat, but with a 20-31 record and an offense that was averaging just 3.7 runs per game, there was little defense for carrying him on the roster, particularly after the recent Slumbergate controversy turned the Seattle locker room into a chest-thump-a-thon.
None of which should devalue what Griffey accomplished in the game. His 13 All-Star appearances, 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999), four home run crowns, and 1997 AL MVP award are a pretty fair haul as far as honors are concerned, and his performance in the five-game 1995 American League Division Series against the Yankees — five homers, followed by his scoring the series-winning run on Edgar Martinez's double off Jack McDowell in the bottom of the 11th inning — is credited with helping to save baseball in Seattle by spurring the construction of Safeco Field at a time when it appeared as though the franchise may be forced to move.
Between that amazing run with the '95 Mariners, his spectacular leaping catches at the wall, his sweet lefthanded swing and his infectious smile — not to mention his brief tenure as the teammate of his father, a supporting cast member of the Big Red Machine and a pretty fair player in his own right — Griffey would have left his mark on the game without being one of the preeminent sluggers of his era, but it's his homers for which he'll most likely be remembered. Griffey reached the 40-homer plateau seven times in an eight-year span between 1993 and 2000, a streak interrupted only by a broken wrist which cost him half of the 1995 season. His 630 homers rank fifth all-time behind only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. After hitting 56 home runs in 1997, it was he, not Bonds or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa who seemed like the obvious candidate to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61. Griffey hit 56 again the next year, but the spotlight shone upon McGwire and Sosa, and soon afterwards shifted to Bonds as they blew past 61 and into the stratosphere.
That latter trio of players, as we now know, has since been connected to the use of various performance-enhancing drugs, while Griffey has not. While we're still far from knowing the full truth about what happened during an era where illicit substance usage was all too common — we never will — the fact that Griffey was never connected to that endless scandal managed to paper over the last 10 years of his career, a span during which he averaged just 19 homers and 99 games a year while dealing with an endless litany of leg problems, instead of chasing Hank Aaron's home run record. Thus, the image of young Junior Griffey has been preserved as the innocent, smiling face of an era on which many observers have soured.
But enough on that tangent. The real question that's on your mind is how Griffey stacks up as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned. Not surprisingly for a guy with 2,781 hits, 630 homers and a stellar .284/.370/.538 line, it's pretty damn well (again, stats do not include 2010):
* BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer, ** VC-elected Hall of Famer
While the FRAA system views his defense —particularly his work in Cincinnati — rather unfavorably, Griffey nonetheless winds up sixth in career WARP, peak WARP (best seven seasons at large) and JAWS, well above the standard among Hall of Fame center fielders. Furthermore, his JAWS score ranks 58th all-time, and second among players chosen as the overall number one pick of the June amateur draft, a topic that will be on everyone's mind next week. Amazingly enough, none of those number ones has yet made the Hall:
In short, Ken Griffey Jr. ranks among the greats, and he'll almost surely gain election to the Hall of Fame in 2016, the first year he's eligible. See you in Cooperstown, Junior — we'll miss your smile and your sweet swing until then.