The recent controversy over whether Ken Griffey Jr., who at age 40 would be within striking distance of 3,000 hits and fourth place on the all time home run list if he played beyond this year, did or did not miss a pinch hitting opportunity because he was sleeping in the clubhouse was a tragicomic twist in the long decline of Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey’s decline has been going on for at least a decade and may be the longest such decline in baseball history.
Since 2000, Griffey has had very tough time staying healthy, playing more than 140 games only twice with one additional season where he played more than 120 games. Injuries, however, only are part of his steady decline. Griffey’s career OPS+ has declined every year since 1998 when he was 28 years old. By contrast, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays, the two players who, according to baseballreference.com are the most similar to Griffey, peaked in this area at 33 and 34 respectively. Moreover, Griffey’s career batting average and on base percentage have declined every year since he was 27, while his career slugging percentage peaked at age 29.
Another way to see this is that from 1989-1999 Griffey was a .299/.380/569 hitter with an OPS+ of 149 and nine gold gloves. From 2000 to the present, by contrast, Griffey has hit .263/.356/.495 with an OPS+ of 117 and no gold gloves. Other statistical measures reveal similar trends. During the first period of his career Griffey averaged 36 home runs and 15 stolen bases a year, but from 2000-2009 those numbers have fallen to 23 and two. For the first half of his career Griffey was like a young Frank Robinson with gold glove defense in centerfield, but for the second half of his career he has been Gus Zernial. Zernial was a valuable player who had two or three good years, but he is not the kind of player who usually comes to mind when we think of Griffey.
Griffey’s long decline has not had much impact on how he has been viewed by the media and most fans with whom he is still quite popular. This is largely attributable to the reality that injuries have played a role in his decline, his position as the one player we are pretty sure hit all those home runs without steroids, and that he is broadly thought to be a decent and likable man. Largely because of these factors, few view Griffey as the kind of player who has just stuck around for a decade, but with the exception of 2005, he has been injured, or only an average offensive outfielder every season since 2000.
Griffey’s career trajectory is unusual for a player of his caliber because many all time greats, such as Robinson, Mays, Henry Aaron and Ted Williams were remarkably consistent. Others such as Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle retired very quickly after injuries, decline, or in the case of Mantle perceived decline, brought their numbers down. All three played their last game before their 38th birthday. Griffey’s status as one of the all time great players remains secure but it is increasingly clear that it is based on a 12 year run in the beginning of his career. Since then, he has been able to do little more than add to his counting numbers by sticking around for a decade as without having one full season where he was both healthy and good.