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Ken Griffey Jr. to enter the Hall of Fame as all-time great center fielder despite strange career arc

Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the best center fielders ever, but comparing him to Jim Edmonds raises the question of how we evaluate peak versus career.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Mike Urban, Seattle P-I

This weekend, Ken Griffey Jr. will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Mike Piazza. As a child of the ‘90s, I marveled at Griffey’s prodigious talent. Had been a thing back then, I’m sure I would have frequently watched Mariners games to get a glimpse of the young phenom’s left-handed swing. As he is about to receive the greatest honor the game can bestow upon him, let’s take a look at some facts that highlight the greatness of Griffey:

  • 22 seasons, .284/.370/.538, 131 wRC+
  • 630 HR
  • League leader in HR four times
  • Elite defensive center fielder in his prime
  • Hit .290/.367/.580 with 6 HR in 79 PA in the playoffs
  • Best seven seasons average a 152 wRC+
  • Two seasons over 9 WAR, six seasons over 6 WAR, nine seasons over 5 WAR
  • 83.6 WAR/53.9 WAR7/68.8 JAWS
  • Ranked 5th all-time among center fielders by JAWS

Griffey debuted at the young age of 19 and was seen as something of a baseball prodigy in high school. Ask any scout who evaluated him and he will likely tell you that he was one of the greatest high school talents ever scouted. In his prime, he was basically a lesser version of Willy Mays. Had his career not been plagued by injuries after leaving Seattle, it’s not too difficult to imagine his career comparing even more favorably to the legendary Mays.

Not that I have to defend Griffey’s Hall of Fame merits, but he was elected based on his incredible peak. His best years in Seattle saw him as one of the best hitters in the game, one of the best defenders at a premium position, and a very good baserunner. The game has seen its fair share of players who can rake, but more often than not they played corner positions and played them average at best, not to mention that they were rarely good baserunners.

Hall of Fame candidates should be evaluated based on three criteria: Their peak, their career as a whole, and their longevity, which I believe is secondary to assessing a player's value for his peak and career. Rusty Staub, Harold Baines, and Jim Kaat are a few examples of players with extremely long careers who are absolutely not Hall of Famers. They were good players for a long time, but their peaks and careers fall well short of the Hall of Fame standard. Dick Allen has a better case than those three and he played in over 1,000 fewer games than Staub and Baines! Longevity is most important for defense-first players such as Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith, because you need to play a long time to accrue that much value.

Some players' longevity adds minimal value (or negative value) from hanging on too long. Dave Winfield, Craig Biggio, and Willie Mays are a few examples of this. Pete Rose and Omar Vizquel were terrible for the last six or seven years of their career. Ken Griffey Jr. is the most extreme example of this.

Griffey had a unique career for reasons beyond the obvious. He played 22 seasons and he stunk for almost half of it. Just flat-out stunk. He accumulated 83.6 WAR and 91 percent of that was in the first half of his career. He struggled with injuries from 2002-2004, playing only 206 games over that time period. He probably should have retired after three seasons of not being able to stay on the field and being 34 years old. At the very least he should've retired after 2006, but held on for four more seasons.

Personally, I would've looked at his career more favorably had he retired sometime in that 2002-2004 period, though obviously it’s still a pretty great as it happened.

Griffey had a reputation of being an excellent defensive center fielder while in Seattle. It's really more of a five-year run from 1993 to 1997. Unfortunately, his defense cratered after going to Cincinnati. He didn't go from excellent to passable either. He turned into a liability in the field. Had he been on an AL team he most likely would have been moved to the designated hitter spot.

I am reminded of these fun facts that were tweeted out after the Hall of Fame results were first announced:

Please understand that it was not the intention of this site to imply that Edmonds was just as good as Griffey. He certainly wasn't and we know that. They were just trying to make a point. It's a good one too.

It's stunning that Edmonds and Griffey were equal offensively for their careers. The fact that Griffey played five more seasons and had 3,324 more plate appearances is an important caveat, but is overblown. Obviously Griffey is a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. I'm not trying to say otherwise. His peak years were so strong, despite how ugly things got afterwards.

The one thing on which Edmonds has Griffey beat is consistency. His prime doesn't even touch Griffey's, but he was consistently very good for almost his entire career. In fact, his last season was actually quite good with a 127 wRC+, albeit in only 86 games. He walked away at the right time, and never accrued that minimum longevity-value.

Defensively, who was better in center field is much more of a debate than people realize, and even then you can only compare Griffey's best five seasons. Rumor has it that Griffey was jealous of Edmonds getting all the highlight plays on TV. What we can say for sure is that Edmonds delivered much more value than Griffey defensively over the course of his career. Edmonds has a career 37 fielding runs above average per Baseball Reference. Griffey has only three. The defensive metric used at Baseball Prospectus, FRAA, has a huge difference between Edmonds and Griffey. It has Edmonds at 123.5 and Griffey at -13.7! These numbers are emblematic of the fact that Edmonds was an elite defensive center fielder for most of his career, while Griffey was for only a small part of it.

I'm not arguing that Edmonds is comparable to Griffey on a legendary baseball player level. Even under the most optimistic evaluation from Baseball Prospectus, Edmonds is still 10 WAR shy of Griffey for his career, and Griffey destroys him on peak.

Griffey got 99.3 percent of the vote and Edmonds got only 2.5 percent. Given everything I've laid out here, do you think such a large gap is fair? Sure, the congested ballot is partly to blame, but most of the voters found room for the relievers on the ballot, all of whom are vastly inferior candidates. The media shoulders a lot of that blame. They ignored Griffey's awful, lengthy decline and allowed Edmonds to fly under the radar. Even if you don’t believe that he’s a Hall of Famer, he deserved more consideration than one year on the ballot.

It’s an extreme example, to be sure, but it raises the question of how much we should weigh a Hall of Fame candidate’s peak against his overall career. It is my belief that peak is more important, but that doesn’t mean we should be ignoring players who were consistently very good for most of their careers. Edmonds got ignored, but hopefully Mike Mussina — another player who was consistently very good and a stronger candidate than Edmonds — will not be.

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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChemTorres21.