Ken Griffey, Jr., retired yesterday evening, mere hours before the Mariners were set to host the Twins. The announcement may have been unexpected in its timing, but the decision was not. Griffey just wasn't getting the playing time he expected and, in the little time he was getting, he just wasn't all that effective.
It wasn't always like this, of course. From his rookie year in 1989 through his first year as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, Griffey was widely considered one of the best players in baseball, if not the best. In 1999, when Major League Baseball and its fans chose their All-Century roster, Griffey was there, beating out the likes of Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson, to name a few. He was the face of baseball for a decade and, when he won his MVP award in 1997, it felt like he was certain to win many more.
But was Griffey ever truly the best player in baseball? After all, this was at the same time that Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson were doing things on the pitcher's mound that we hadn't seen in decades. It was also the time that Barry Bonds was putting together some of the finest all-around seasons ever, even before he bulked up to incredible sizes and started mashing record-numbers of home runs.
Earlier this year, over at Wezen-Ball, I revisited a project I had seen Bill James do to determine who the best player in baseball was for any given year. The idea was to average a player's last four years of production (on a 10-20-30-40 scale, with 40 being the most recent year) and compare him to his contemporaries. In Bill's original study, he used Win Shares; in my version, I used Rally's WAR.
You can find the full post here (it covered every year from 1904 through 2009). What I'm interested in focusing on here is the 1991 through 2009 years, or the "Bonds & Pujols Era".
Griffey debuts on the chart in 1993 (it is a four-year average, after all) as the second best player in baseball, with a weighted WAR of 6.94. Bonds is first with a 9.87 weighted WAR. (View the raw data here) The numbers are similar in 1994 (Bonds 8.57 vs. Griffey 7.0), but Griffey's injured 1995 drops him off the list. He reappears on the list in 1996 in the number four slot. Considering that the '95 season is weighted nearly as much as the '96 campaign, this is pretty impressive.
The 1997 MVP season brings Griffey closest to the "Best Player in Baseball" title that he'll ever be, with a weighted average of 8.03 WAR to Bonds' 8.86. Again, the injured '95 campaign is still a prominent component here. If he had been able to put up a healthy WAR value that year, we might have seen him steal the title from Bonds by now. He falls to third after the 1998 season, with Roger Clemens' second consecutive Cy Young season (and fifth overall) overtaking Griffey for the second spot. That's the last time he'll appear on the list, after his 48-home run, 139 OPS+ campaign in 1999 only netted 4.8 WAR.
According to this method, there was never a time where you could consider Griffey the best player in baseball. Of course, he had to compete against Barry Bonds every year of his career, and those mid-to-late '90s seasons from Maddux and Clemens and the like were killer. More importantly, Griffey's age-25 season was cut short by injury, ruining his four-year weighted average from ages 25 through 28. If his 3.5 WAR in 72 games were extrapolated to the full 140+-game season, he easily could have challenged Bonds for the top spot in 1997.
But just because Griffey could never be empirically considered the single-best player in baseball doesn't take anything away from him. Not only was he unlucky enough to be competing head-to-head with one of the top five greatest players of all time, he also had to compete against some of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. It's no sin to be considered the second-best player of your time when you have to work against that.
What's more, the nitpicking of comparing a four-year weighted average of 8.03 vs. one of 8.86, for example, will never take away our memories of a slick-fielding, sweet-swinging, charismatic clubhouse leader who took over the public consciousness at the age of 18 and didn't let go for 10 years. Griffey was a fantastic player and a joy to watch. I'm glad he was able to call it quits on his own.