The (literally) painful truth about Ken Griffey Jr.

As a Mariners fan, I am obviously a big fan of Ken Griffey Jr. As if team allegiance really matters when speaking about someone of “The Kid’s” ilk. I would bet that if you surveyed every current MLB player on who their favorite was growing up, Griffey’s name would probably come up quite a bit, potentially the most. He is regarded as a superstar by fans and players alike, and likely a first ballot Hall of Famer when he reaches eligibility.

But because I am such a fan of Griffey, maybe even more than most, this is a tough thing to write. I cried like a baby at his induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame. When I was younger, and up until a couple of years ago when I started to discover objective analysis, I thought Griffey was one of the best to every play the game. That is how he was generally described, as a superstar. And he was a part of some of the more well-known moments in Mariners history, like the famed ’95 slide.

And despite what might be common thought, not all stat-guys like destroying all that is good and holy in the world. It just comes with the territory sometimes. But as much as I dislike having to criticize players who are heroes to so many, I dislike perpetual misinformation even more. I have my biases and subjectivities, as we all do. I just strive to eliminate them as much as possible when dealing with matters that are ultimately objective.

The idea seems to be that Griffey is, to varying degrees, one of the best baseball players of all-time, or at least of the last couple decades. Some may have him as the best of his era and even top 10-20 in any era. As hard as it is to accept, neither those statements can be said to be correct. His isn’t the best of his time, or top 10-20 all-time.

Junior ranks 36th all time in fWAR between Charlie Gehringer and Johnny Bench. WAR is likely the single best metric for looking at overall production and value, but let’s break it down further. His wRC+ of 131, used to measure overall offensive production relative to the league (100 is league average) while also adjusting for parks, ranks 142nd all-time, and places him even with Joe Mauer and Adrian Gonzalez.

Now, we know that defense matters, and early in his career he played great defense at a premium spot in center field. That 131 wRC+ is more valuable for Griffey than it is for a 1st baseman like Adrian Gonzalez (and now Joe Mauer for that matter). But WAR takes that into account also, and he has a -39.6 defensive rating for his career. He was positive in that regard for eight of his first nine seasons, including +76.6 from 1994 to 1997, but then negative every year on besides 2000.

Injuries definitely played a major role in his decline though. From his debut in 1989 through his first year with the Reds in 2000, he held a career 142 wRC+ and 73.9 fWAR, an average of over 6 wins per year. He was well on his way to being the guy everyone thinks of him as. Even if he averaged just 2.5 WAR over the final 10 years of his career, which would probably be a bit below a general decline, he would have finished his career just shy of 100 WAR, which would have placed him around 20th all-time with Joe Morgan.

Instead, though, he added just over 3 WAR total from 2001-2010, finishing up at 77.3. Injuries took their toll, his offense became inconsistent year to year, and his defense fell off a cliff even when he started to transition to right field. He was a superstar for his first 12 years or so, and for that part the praise is justified. But as unfortunate as they were, the injury-ridden years simply can’t be ignored. That’s half of his career where he was essentially a replacement level player, and that hurts his value.

Looking at strictly 1989-2010, Griffey’s tenure, he comes in 31st in wRC+ and 6th in WAR among players with at least 4000 PA. There are times when we can try to give a little more credit to the offense than the defense and make the player look better, but that isn’t the case here. His last few injury-ridden seasons dropped his offensive totals to levels that guys like Brian Giles and Bobby Abreu were able to best.

I am perfectly comfortable with saying that Ken Griffey Jr. was a top 40 player all time. I might even be okay with slipping him him into the top 30 because of how talented he truly was, and where he could have been had injuries not destroyed that. If he had stayed relatively healthy and even declined like a normal player — let alone a superhuman talent like he was — he could have easily jumped into the top 20 or better.

But as much as it hurts to say it, we can’t give him credit for things he didn’t do. We can make educated guesses and dream about what might have been, but unfortunately he got hurt, a lot, and those injuries ravaged what could have been a truly special career, rather than a special first half of a career.