Why Bobby Grich isn’t in the Hall of Fame

Here is an underrated Hall of Fame case for you: Bobby Grich. He was one of the best second baseman of his generation, making six all star teams, winning four gold gloves, and one silver slugger. He retired after the 1986 season, and was eliminated from Hall of Fame consideration after just a single vote. Here’s why Bobby Grich isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and why the voters got it wrong in 1992.

Conventional statistics

Why Bobby Grich isn't in the Hall of Fame
Bobby Grich was an underappreciated star during his playing days. But with no weakness in his game, he looks like a Hall of Famer by modern standards.

Bobby Grich stood out from 1970s and an 1980s middle infielders. His offensive numbers look like what we expect from middle infielders in the 2020s. And when it came to traditional statistics, he didn’t put up the traditional big numbers that get you automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. He didn’t hit .300 for his career, and in fact, only exceeded a .300 batting average once after he emerged as an everyday player, and that was in the strike shortened 1981 season. His career batting average was .266.

He also fell short of 3000 hits for his career. Pretty far short at that, with 1,833 career hits. His calling card was power. He led the American League in home runs in the 1981 strike shortened season, and in 1979 he hit 30 home runs, a rarity for a second baseman, especially in the 1970s. But he averaged 18 home runs in a full 162 game season, which amounted to 224 home runs in his career. That fell short of the 500 home runs that make induction more or less automatic.

The traditional statistics say he was good, maybe very good. And traditionalists say it’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good.

The other knock on Bobby Grich was that he was underrated during his career. If fame is a prerequisite, he doesn’t have that going for him.

The Hall of Fame case for Bobby Grich

Bobby Grich did a lot of things well. The only thing he didn’t do particularly well was play shortstop. But it’s not like he got the chance. Baltimore already had Mark Belanger, one of the greatest fielding shortstops of all time, at the position.

But he hit too well to keep him on the bench, so he moved to second base, where he became a gold glove defender. He still played shortstop occasionally when the situation called for it, but mostly played second base and was consistently one of the three best at the position in the American League for 17 years.

And he did the little things well. Strikeouts? He didn’t strike out excessively. Walks? He drew a good number of walks, so he had a high on base percentage. Power? He hit more home runs than a typical second baseman does, but he also hit a high number of doubles and triples. So his slugging percentage was good. Imagine Jeff Kent with better defensive ability, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the kind of player Bobby Grich was.

Modern analytics

His OPS+ was consistently well above League average, and his career OPS+ is over that of a good number of Hall of Famers. He didn’t hit nearly as many home runs as Jim Rice or Andre Dawson, but he collected enough extra base hits and drew enough walks that he was just as useful at the plate, if not a bit more useful than they were.

And he did this while playing second base, a more demanding defensive position.

When you look at WAR, the comparison is even more favorable, since Grich played a more demanding position and played it rather well. When you look at WAR, Grich exceeds Hall of Fame standards for a second baseman. The argument for many of his peers who played the outfield is that they are slightly below standards for their position, but they are close enough, so they belong in. Bobby Grich is close enough, but he exceeds the bar.

The knock on Ryan Sandberg when he was inducted was that he was too much like Bobby Grich. But the answer isn’t keeping Sandberg out. The answer is putting Bobby Grich in, because we didn’t appreciate him for what he was when he was active, and right after he retired.

Another time, another place

I think Bobby Grich would have put up better numbers if he had played today. First of all, ballparks are smaller today, so more of his hits would have left the ballpark. Secondly, the standards for shortstops are different today. He may very well have stuck at short if he came up today. Xander Bogaerts is an example of a modern shortstop who doesn’t field the position exceptionally well, but he is adequate, and having his bat at shortstop gives his teams more options at second and third base.

And modern analytics would have gotten Bobby Grich more opportunities. For example, in 1986, his final season, he was a part-time player. His OPS+ was 109, above league average. Yet he shared time at second base with Rob Wilfong, whose OPS+ was 52. Wilfong was playing in situations where Grich was at a disadvantage, but he wasn’t thriving in those situations. If Grich had played more often, he may not have had an OPS+ of 109, but he would have been much higher than 52.

Modern analytics also would have had Grich hitting higher in the order, which would have gotten him more at bats, and therefore more opportunities to collect base hits and more opportunities to hit home runs, and more opportunities to drive runners in. He spent some of his best seasons hitting eighth in the order. Modern managers would hit him second.

With more at bats and playing in smaller ballparks, his traditional statistics wouldn’t have been a problem. He bowed out after the 1986 season, at age 37. If he’d been approaching any of the traditional career milestones, he would have had ample opportunity to keep playing.

Baseball tends to give the glory to players who get the big hits, but there are any number of ways to win a game besides the home run. Bobby Grich hit a good number of home runs for a second baseman. But he did all of the other things in the field and at the plate very well.

Bobby Grich vs Dave Parker

Bobby Grich’s own teammate, Rod Carew, has said Dave Parker is the best of his contemporaries who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and should be. But Bobby Grich isn’t far behind him. Dave Parker was a better hitter, and Rod Carew is a better judge of that than anybody. But when it comes to a great all-around player who doesn’t get his due, I struggle to come up a bigger injustice from the 1970s and 1980s. His batting average and home run numbers suggest he was a three true outcomes player, but he didn’t strike out nearly as much as three outcome types do. And he wasn’t a liability in the field.

A good comparable for him is Ron Santo. The difference is Santo played in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field while Grich played in pitchers’ parks. Grich’s OPS+ for his career was 124 vs Santo’s 125. Park factors and hitting lower in the order explain the difference in their traditional numbers.

I think eventually the Veterans Committee will induct Grich, like they did Santo. I hope they do it while Grich is still living. He deserves it.

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