The Kid Bids Adieu

The Galarraga controversy almost obscured yesterday’s bigger news, the retirement of Ken Griffey jr. It was overdue by at least a month. One example: I had looked late last week at the ten players with the highest and lowest number of bases per hit in MLB with at least 100 plate appearances. You don’t really want to be on either of these lists – a good hitter should have plenty of singles to go with the extra base hits – but the guys on the low list are almost all punchless slap hitters. The results?
Top 10: Jose Bautista, Paul Konerko, Nelson Cruz, Andruw Jones, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Aaron Hill, Seth Smith.
Bottom 10: Cesar Izturis, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Theriot, Ken Griffey, Juan Pierre, Elvis Andrus, Luis Castillo, Julio Borbon, Jason Kendall, Lou Marson.
Plus, he was batting .183; this is why Griffey was slugging .204. If his career was a horse, we would have shot it. He should have hung it up after 2009, when he batted .214 but was still mildly useful and hit well at home; returning made him a four-decade player, but did nothing else for anyone and resulted in the ignominious controversy over Griffey allegedly taking a nap when he was needed for pinch-hitting duties.
Anyway, memories of Griffey’s 2010 can hopefully now be erased, and we can remember a guy who played the game with grace, joy, hard work and a world of talent. I’ve looked systematically before at Griffey’s place among the Hall of Fame slugging outfielders/first basemen who had around a decade-long prime (I counted Griffey from age 20-30), and ranked him offensively a bit below Albert Belle, Paul Waner, Duke Snider, Jim Thome, Bill Terry, Fred McGriff, Sammy Sosa, and Dick Allen – granting that several of those guys are rated on 9 seasons to Griffey’s 11, with only Waner (12) and Allen (11) matching the length of Griffey’s prime, even with Billy Williams (who was a lesser hitter but more durable) and a bit ahead of Al Simmons, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, Earl Averill, Minnie Minoso and Goose Goslin. Griffey would have ranked higher except that his spectacular 1994 season, when he slugged .674 and was on pace to challenge Roger Maris, was confined to a short schedule, and he missed half the 1995 season with a broken hand.
Griffey’s career went in stages. In 1989, he was a promising rookie, batting .264/.329/.420, impressive enough for a teenager in that era. In 1990-92, from age 20-22, he was truly The Kid: playing alongside his dad for the first two of those seasons, he hit his peak as a glove man (he won the Gold Glove every year of the 1990s) and hitter for average, but his power hadn’t come in all the way yet, batting .311/.376/.513 (146 OPS+), averaging 36 doubles, 24 homers and 94 RBI per year. From 1993-2000, covering age 23-30 and including his first year in Cincinnati, he was a monster: adjusting for the shortened 1994-95 schedules, his average season was .294/.387/.606 (152 OPS+), 46 HR, 112 R, 122 RBI, 15 SB, and 82 BB. Griffey was mostly durable aside from the 1995 injury, leading the league in homers four times and surpassing 700 plate appearances three years in a row and 600 plate appearances every non-strike-shortened season between 1990 and 2000. He did benefit from a home-field advantage at the Kingdome, slugging .605 there for his career (.555 at Cinergy Field in his later years in Cincinnati); between 1991 and 2000, Griffey hit .312/.401/.636 at home, 4th in the majors in slugging at home, but .287/.371/.547 on the road, 11th in the majors in slugging on the road (number one? Mike Piazza, at .350/.414/.616).
Griffey was often referred to, even by me, as the best player in baseball in those years. He was near the top, and contra Bill James he was better than Craig Biggio, but he wasn’t #1 even when you give him a leg up for his amazing glovework. Let’s take a back of the envelope look. For the 1993-2000 period, there were many comparable hitters. If you rank them by OPS, there were 21 guys with a 900 or better OPS over those years and more than 4000 plate appearances. We can drop seven of those guys from direct comparison, as they had fewer than 4400 plate appearances to Griffey’s 4896: Manny Ramirez, Thome, Gary Sheffield, Andres Galarraga, Juan Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, David Justice (McGwire falls even further short). Six more were below a 950 OPS to Griffey’s 993, and thus also not directly comparable: Mo Vaughn, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Salmon, Sosa, Bernie Williams and John Olerud. Thus, our direct comparisons:
Barry Bonds .303/.439/.626 (1065 OPS, 4885 PA, 180 OPS+)
Frank Thomas .320/.437/.590 (1027, 5147 PA, 166 OPS+)
Jeff Bagwell .311/.428/.583 (1011 OPS, 5172 PA, 164 OPS+)
Edgar Martinez .325/.441/.562 (1003 OPS, 4445 PA, 158 OPS+)
Ken Griffey .294/.387/.606 (993 OPS, 4896 PA, 152 OPS+)
Mike Piazza .330/.394/.584 (978 OPS, 4546 PA, 157 OPS+)
Albert Belle .305/.385/.587 (972 OPS, 5266 PA, 150 OPS+)
Bonds, clearly, was the game’s best player in that stretch; Griffey’s .387 OBP was good, of course, but not in the same class with Bonds, Thomas, Bagwell or Edgar, and Bonds was also an excellent fielder and baserunner. At the other end, Belle was a slightly lesser hitter and not a comparable glove man to Griffey, so he clearly rates slightly below the Kid during that period (my column rated him higher with the bat, but it included Belle’s 1991-92 and not 2000, although the other big difference was the edge Belle gets for durability).
The other four are closer calls. I’d rate Piazza ahead of Griffey, especially given his superior road numbers; Piazza being a passable catcher with the same bat was more valuable than Griffey being a great center fielder. I’d put Griffey ahead of Edgar, who missed a good deal more time and had zero defensive value. And when push comes to shove, I’d rather have Thomas and Bagwell’s superior on-base skills than Griffey’s better glove and speed, although it’s close.
After 2000, Griffey became an overpaid half-time player; even with the hometown discount he accepted to go home to Cincinnati, his contract killed the small-market Reds, while the Mariners – perennially disappointing in the postseason in the Griffey era – won an AL-record and MLB-tying record 116 games in 2001 without him, albeit ending in another postseason bust. He was still good, batting .277/.363/.533 (129 OPS+) from age 31-35, but averaged just 89 games a year.
In 2006-07, Griffey got a bit healthier, but his skills started eroding, despite a valiant comeback effort in 2007; he batted .266/.348/.492 (110 OPS+) over those years, averaging 126 games a year. Then the power went; at age 38-39, drifting through three teams, he hit .234/.340/.418 (99 OPS+). This year, reduced to .184/.250/.204 (28 OPS+) in 108 plate appearances, he was cooked.
Griffey could be whiny and self-centered a bit, and his smile hid more turbulence than you might guess (he attempted suicide semi-seriously in high school), but on the whole he was a joy to watch and a fun prankster to have in a clubhouse, took tons of batting practice, and is generally regarded as one of the few sluggers of his era who is above suspicion of steroids. We may never see another Willie Mays, but Griffey was a pretty good facsimile for the modern fan, finishing with 630 homers. It was a great ride.

6 thoughts on “The Kid Bids Adieu”

  1. Never realized Belle was that good. Those Indians teams with Belle/Thome/Ramirez (and Lofton/Alomar/others) were better offensively than I ever realized. Thanks.
    OT: I went and looked through some baseball-reference stuff, and thought Ramirez had won the Rookie of the Year award. Boy was I surprised when I found out some guy named Bob Hamelin had won it over him…

  2. Griffey was a great player. It was a shame that the Jim Joyce situation detracted from his retirement announcement. However Griffy did not make his statement in front of the cameras and instead just released a press release. If he had held a press conference it would have been a much bigger story.

  3. Being a Seattle guy, I watched Griffey his entire time with the Mariners. He was a joy to watch. He should be a unanimous first-ballot inductee. It wasn’t just his hitting. He had a true flair in centerfield. I still wonder how his career would’ve gone had he stayed in Seattle. It would’ve awesome to see him in his prime at Safeco Field.

  4. I attended a series of games in the Kingdome in summer of ’97. I don’t exaggerate when I say I did not see one ball fall in anywhere near centerfield. He covered a tremendous amount of ground, positioned himself wonderfully, and had the best first read of fly balls I’ve ever seen.
    I’d doubted his fielding prowess before those games. Not after. And he also had a CANNON arm.

  5. I would add that while Bonds numbers are “official” lets be honest-massive roid head cheater-what are the numbers for all other similar players at the ages his number suddenly went thru the roof. Griffey-never even a suggestion he used PEDS. In 2000, remember Griffey was voted on to that all time century team-not Bonds. The other guys while great hitters-played 1B or DH while Griffey was a great outfielder

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