The opinions I have on these players may not be the most popular. However, for sports card hobby fans, you may actually like my opinions on Mark McGwire, and why - like Roger Clemens - he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame anyway.
Warning, lots and lots and lots of “advanced,” “dopey,” “geeky” statistics to follow… :D
Mark McGwire Set HR Records Early On!
Mark McGwire was a star with the bat very early on, starring in college for USC and hitting 53 home runs in his three years there. Thirty-one of those homers came in his junior year in only 65 games. He also hit .388. Unsurprisingly, those 31 HR broke the USC single-season record set just the season before of 19 by, hey, Mark McGwire!
After being drafted 10th overall by the Oakland A’s and starring the 1984 Olympics, “Big Mac” would be underwhelming in his first minor league action. McGwire quickly made adjustments, of course, and promptly began crushing the minor leagues starting in 1985. After a strong showing at A, McGwire took AA and AAA by storm in 1986, resulting in a cup of coffee in late 1986. It wasn’t an exciting beginning to his career, but he did hit his first 3 of his 583 homers he’d eventually hit in his career.
Mark McGwire’s Massive Rookie of the Year Campaign
Obviously, McGwire blew away the competition for Rookie of the Year. But, beyond the baseball card stats, McGwire’s rookie season was particularly exceptional because of his ISO (Isolated Power) mark. ISO is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage to get an idea of that player’s true raw power display. With that .329 ISO mark, McGwire was truly dominating with the bat.
While McGwire would have a few more big seasons with the bat early on, it took awhile for “Big Mac” to replicate that raw power. Part of that is playing at the Oakland Coliseum, known as a park not all that friendly to home run hitters. It seemed over the next few years that McGwire was going to develop into a “true three outcomes” type of hitter: meaning whenever he stepped to the plate, you’d expect a walk, strikeout, or home run. Of course, that wasn’t a problem as long as he was producing, even when the batting averages began to dip.
That is, until 1991.
What Happened to McGwire in 1991?
The back of the baseball card tells part of the story: .201 batting average, only 22 HR and 75 RBI. Of course, the A’s weren’t too great in 1991, either. But, it was Big Mac’s first below average season. To save the humiliation of potentially having his average dip below .200, manager Tony LaRussa actually sat him for the last game of the season. Fortunately for McGwire, that poor batting average was in part because of a .214 BABIP, which obviously is extremely low. Mac’s strikeout rate didn’t rise all that much and his walk rate was still stable.
There were some other easy explanations for that dramatic drop in production. McGwire was having marriage problems that would inevitably end in divorce. He said he didn’t “lift a weight” all season, so conditioning was certainly a problem. But, McGwire also received vision therapy, something that would improve his already above-average plate discipline even more so in the second half of his career.
McGwire’s Bounceback Season of 1992
In 1992, the world pretty much forgot about his awful 1991 because he came back in a big way with a .268 batting average, 42 HR and 104 RBI. That performance was backed up by a .385 on base percentage and .585 slugging percentage, good for a 176 OPS+. Keep in mind that OPS+ is park-adjusted, and he played half his games in Oakland. That meant his performance was 76 percent better than league average. That’s pretty incredible. Most notably his ISO was back up to .317, his highest mark since his rookie year.
He would start to build on that rebound, too, until something happened in 1993 that likely changed the course of his career - for better or for worse.
The “Lost” Seasons of 1993 and 1994 for McGwire & the 1995 & 1996 Monster Years
The 1993 season got off to a fantastic start for McGwire who hit .333/.467/.726 in his first 27 games before foot injuries essentially ended his season. He’d try to come back in 1994, and hit “only” .252/.413/.474 in 47 games, still struggling to stay on the field. It was also during this time that McGwire started using more steroids. He’d started using them in the 1989-90 offseason, but started using them more so to recover from injuries. At least, that’s what McGwire claimed.
Something definitely happened, though, because when McGwire got back into playing full time in 1995, he hit a massive .274/.441/.685 (good for a 200 OPS+!) with 39 HR and a huge .410 ISO. In just 104 games, McGwire was worth 5.5 WAR. Then, in 1996, McGwire launched 52 HR with a crazy .312/.467/.730 batting line (196 OPS+) and a .419 ISO. In 130 games, McGwire was worth 6.4 WAR. Trouble was, both of those A’s teams were terrible. Also, McGwire’s contract was up after the 1997 season. So, what would the A’s do?
The Mark McGwire Trade and the St. Louis Years
In 1997, McGwire wasn’t slowing down. He hit .284/.383/.628 with 34 HR in 105 games. It wasn’t quite the same crazy isolated power... not yet. The A’s, needing desperately to inject some fresh blood into the team, decided to trade their superstar slugger to the St. Louis Cardinals for three pitchers. Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein never amounted to much, although T.J. Mathews pitched some decent innings. Of course, in retrospect, it was a very underwhelming trade.
McGwire went on to hit 24 more HR with a .253/.411/.684 batting line - and an isolated power of .431. I don’t think I have to say much about how ridiculous that is, but consider that old Busch Stadium was a lot friendlier to hit at than the Oakland Coliseum. In fact, in 280 career games at Old Busch Stadium, McGwire hit .286.450.726 with 119 HR. That’s compared to .252/.380/.535 with 166 HR in 654 games! Such is the difference a ballpark can make.
Of course, Busch Stadium helped, but in 1998, McGwire would take it all to a brand new level. While the A’s hoped that McGwire would return to Southern California, and hopefully the A’s, McGwire approved of his new Missouri digs and re-upped with the Cardinals. It would be a good decision.
The Record Year: McGwire Beats Maris, Sosa, and the World (‘til Bonds, of course)
Of course, from McGwire’s own admissions in 2010 of having used steroids, 1998 was the key year that he used performance enhancing drugs. At this point, St. Louis had suffered through some mediocre years and baseball was still reeling from the player’s strike just three years before. The 1998 Cardinals wouldn’t be a world beating team, but they would be a winning one. It’s fair to say a lot of it had to do with their first baseman.
It also didn’t hurt that the 1998 Cardinals were actually a decent hitting team, with Ray Lankford and Brian Jordan having fine seasons, along with Delino DeShields and a young third baseman named Fernando Tatis. (Yes, the dad of Tatis Jr.) Unfortunately, a young Matt Morris and still effective Todd Stottlemyre couldn’t save a mediocre pitching staff.
In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got into one of the craziest home run races in recent memory. It would end up becoming historic. Ken Griffey Jr. was in the hunt for awhile, but he’d match his 1997 total of 56 in th end. It would be Mark McGwire that would break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61, hitting his 62nd home run of 1998 against - most appropriately - Sosa and the Cubs. Of course, the Cubs and Cardinals being such major rivals made the home run race all that much more exciting. Sosa would finish with 66 HR. McGwire would finish with 70 HR.
Not only did McGwire finish with more home runs, setting the single-season record that would stand until Barry Bonds would eventually break it himself. McGwire just had a monster season overall, with a massive .299/.470/.752 batting line good for a ridiculous 216 OPS+. By contrast, Sosa would manage just a 160 OPS+.
Of course, it didn’t end there.
McGwire’s Final Years
1999 would be a step back for the St. Louis Cardinals, as they would go on to post a losing record. However, it was at no fault of McGwire, who would hit .278/.424/.697 for a 176 OPS+ with 65 HR. It would also be the year he’d hit his 500th HR, seemingly cementing his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
By 2000, though, as the Cardinals were getting better, McGwire’s body was breaking down. Incredibly, in 2000, McGwire still hit .305/.483/.746 with 32 HR in only 89 games. He’d also hit a big home run in the playoffs. The 2001 Cardinals would be extremely good, but unfortunately, it was also the end of the road for the 37 year old slugger. He’d hit just .187/.316/.492, although he’d add 29 HR to his final career total and still manage a league-average-ish OPS of 105+. Even at the very end, Big Mac was still all about the home run.
Of course, it’s pretty obvious now that McGwire had some help. Yes, the ballpark move helped. But, that’s a crazy power spike to come seemingly out of nowhere.
Yeah, we know now, there was a reason for it. But, was it all the steroids?
So, Would McGwire Have Hit 70 HR Without Steroids?
McGwire maintains that he only used steroids to recover from injuries, for health reasons, not just to bulk up. While there’s likely some truth to that, there’s absolutely no doubt that McGwire realized the benefits to using steroids for bulking up. So, of course, there needs to be some asterisks put on those massive numbers. But, as we learned later from Jose Canseco, the number of players using steroids was so many… so, did it really lead to an unfair playing field?
Many people are hardliners on the use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. I certainly was a hardliner at one point. But as the years have gone on, I now feel that there is perhaps a chance to give at least one of those steroid-era sluggers a chance. I’ll look at other cases such as Raffy Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds later. But, I really feel like McGwire should still get a plaque in Cooperstown.
I feel that Oakland Coliseum probably stole a few home runs here and there from McGwire. Since home runs have such a massive impact on slugging percentage (as they count as four total bases, which is how slugging percentage is figured), losing just a handful here and there makes a big difference in overall batting lines. Here’s the thing. If steroids actually added about 100 points to McGwire’s slugging percentage, would McGwire still have been a Hall of Famer?
McGwire’s career OPS+ is 163. If we were to regress his slugging percentages even 100 points in those monster seasons, it’s likely that the total decreases significantly. But even if you subtract 20% of his home runs 1998 forward, you still have a Hall of Famer. The point is that steroids may have helped, but…
Did McGwire Just Become a Better Hitter?
Mcgwire claims that he didn't need the steroids to hit more home runs. He says that his vision therapy, close study of pitchers, and shortening his swing is what led to the home run rampage. Are these difficult to quantify improvements enough to relax the impact of steroids and brute strength alone?
It has been proven time and time again if you are looking to hit home runs, and you have the raw ability to do so, you will hit more of them. Usually, however, there is a trade-off. Not with McGwire. Of course, steroids do not improve your plate vision. Hitting home runs, however, can indirectly improve your walk rate. That's because naturally pitchers are going to pitch around you more.
Yes, McGwire did have intentional walks. But not as many as you may think. He had 28 in 1998, which didn't even lead the league. He had 21 in 1999, which led the National League. But in 2000, he only had 12. Yes, he played only about half a season, but that’s still not a lot.
The point of this boring story, as Chris Bodig at Cooperstown Cred likes to say, is that those walks were more a function of those Cardinals teams not really being that great. He was by far the best hitter on the team. Even if he were early career Mcgwire, those intentional walks still would've happened I would argue. Sure, he got quite a few intentional walks but not an absurd amount of them.
The Launch Angle
So, yes, I believe that a good amount of Mcgwire’s home run hitting was skill. Also keep in mind that the great hitters of the era such as Mcgwire, Sosa, and Bonds all to some.extent figured out the launch angle. Griffey Jr was a natural at it. He had such quick bat speed that if he hit the ball at a decent angle, it was usually gone. Probably the best example of the perfect EV plus LA swing was Hank Aaron's natural stroke.
I've speculated for years why the “Bash Brothers” McGwire and Canseco started juicing in the 1989-1990 offseason as Canseco claimed in his book and McGwire later admitted. Of course, Canseco always claimed it was to beef up and hit home runs. Mcgwire said it was for recovery purposes. I think in fact they are both correct. After all, Mcgwire did struggle with a couple of essentially lost seasons. But, I think that the timing of the juicing is awfully coincidental.
Keep in mind that 1989 was the year that “The Kid” Ken Griffey Jr was unleashed on baseball. Also, keep in mind how pretty much everyone in baseball saw him smashing all the records. A lot of other players, especially the sluggers, saw what this kid could do. I wouldn't say it was out of jealousy. Griffey Jr. wasn’t truly exceptional until 1990. But, I'm sure there were many sluggers in the game that wanted to emulate what Griffey could do to a baseball. Who wouldn't?
As we know today, the key to hitting home runs is "barrelling" the ball by finding the sweet spot between batted ball exit velocity and launch angle. Steroids were some sluggers way to bulk up to get that extra oomph behind the ball. But even back then, it was clear that the long ball became more of a priority after Griffey arrived on the scene.
Looking back now, there was swing tweaking for sure and sluggers started working out and building muscle harder than ever. Remember,steroids are not magic pills. you still have to put in the work and you still have to be very talented with your sport. All they do is give you a bit of an edge.
In fact, had Mcgwire and canseco not spent so many years in Oakland, their home run numbers would undoubtedly have been significantly higher. Griffey Jr could hit a ball out of anywhere on pure.talent alone. So yes, I am insinuating that there was some compensation going on to keep up with one of the greatest raw talents baseball has ever seen. I'm sure there was talk behind closed doors.
Baseball is entertainment. Home runs are entertaining. If the whistle had never been blown by Canseco, we may never have known better.
So Why Should McGwire Be in the Hall of Fame?
McGwire’s feats probably saved baseball. Yes, steroids were bad for the game. It allowed a few guys to post video game numbers. But did the home run race destroy competitive balance? Absolutely not. The best team in 1998 was a New York Yankees team that win with pitching and a lineup that was more interested in working counts and taking bases rather than hitting lots of home runs.
(The elephant in the room here of course is Roger Clemens, who allegedly used steroids to extend his career. I will certainly get to the Rocket in a future article!)
The Cardinals were not a good team. The Cubs were good, and won 90 games, but having someone hit 65 home runs does not win you playoff games. Are steroids cheating? Yes. Do they destroy the competition? Looking at the teams who inevitably made the playoffs and made deep runs. I'd say most certainly not.
Also, I'm sure the list of steroids users is much longer than we know. I'm sure Canseco was right and the majority.of the game was probably juicing. In that case it's hardly unfair… The real issue, then, is how do these juiced numbers affect the record books, and just how sacred all those numbers?
We may never know.
Did Steroids Extend McGwire’s Career?
So, for me, the real argument against McGwire being in the Hall of Fame is this: did steroids extend his career? Without the steroids, would have McGwire's career instead petered out in Oakland? I'll spoil my Clemens article a bit by saying this, but I will say they likely helped a bit. But, we will just never know. Clemens certainly reinvented himself a bit as a pitcher in the second half of his career, and McGwire certainly showed great maturity as a hitter after the personal distractions and lost seasons.
I believe that with McGwire having opened up about his steroid use, and still being one of the most popular players of all time, I think Big Mac should get a chance to be in the Hall of Fame. If you choose just one of he, Bonds, and Sosa, to eventually get in, it seems the easy choice is Big Mac. I’m sure a lot of fans will agree.
Is that to say I don't think that Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, and other exposed steroid users should get in? Each of those players deserves their own in depth look. As for McGwire, it may take awhile. Still, for the sake of representing history, McGwire should be inducted, even if his records are forever tainted. He was fun to watch and made coming to the ballpark and watching his teams play a joy. After all, isn't that what baseball about?
Also, watching Pedro Martinez strike McGwire out at the 1999 All Star Game. That, too.