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March 12, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Nomar and the Trinity

by Jay Jaffe

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Back in the mid-1990s, a trio of young shortstops burst onto the American League scene. Soon dubbed the "Holy Trinity," Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra were part of an elite three-way positional rivalry not seen since the days that Willie, Mickey, and the Duke ruled the center-field scene in New York. The trio were heirs of a sort to Cal Ripken, Jr., who a generation earlier had opened up the shortstop position to bigger, more athletic and more offensively adept types, a development which played no small part in moving the game towards a higher-scoring era. Arguments raged over which of the three was superior, though they often came down to a choice between Rodriguez's video-game offensive totals and Jeter's championship rings, with Garciaparra's own merits somewhat lost in the fray. But no matter which dog one had in the hunt, for a few years it certainly seemed as though all three were racing towards Cooperstown.

On Wednesday, the first member of that trio officially bowed out of the race. Garciaparra, who was traded away from the Red Sox mere months before they broke their 86-year world championship drought in 2004, signed a one-day contract with Boston and announced his retirement. Though just 36 years old, his brittle body had aged far beyond its years, the result of a genetic condition which causes the development of excess scar tissue at the injury site. Already having been interrupted by a wrist injury which cost him most of the 2001 season, his career had been on the downslope ever since Achilles tendinitis cost him the first two months of the 2004 season. From that season onward, he averaged just 323 plate appearances a year and qualified for just one batting title while serving a total of 384 days (over two full seasons!) on the disabled list. He did no less than 10 stints on the DL due to a groin tear, a fractured wrist, and an endless litany of oblique, knee, and calf woes. As his body crumbled, he played just 57 games at his natural position following his exit from Boston.

The 12th pick of the 1994 draft out of Georgia Tech, Garciaparra was the last of the trinity to reach the majors. He was also the oldest (11 months older than Jeter, and two months older than Rodriguez) and the shortest (six feet even, three inches shorter than the other two). Rodriguez, the overall No. 1 pick of the 1993 draft had arrived first, via the Mariners in July 1994, though it wasn't until two years later that he claimed a full-time job. When he did, the numbers were absurd: .358/.414/.631 with 36 homers, plus a league-leading 54 doubles and 141 runs. He won the batting title and finished a very close second to Juan Gonzalez in the MVP voting, that at the age of 20. Jeter, the sixth pick of the 1992 draft, debuted in 1995, then inherited the Yankees shortstop job during the following spring training when Tony Fernandez suffered an elbow fracture. Jeter hit .314/.370/.430 with 10 homers and 14 steals, winning Rookie of the Year honors and helping the Yankees win their first World Series in 18 years.

Garciaparra debuted on Aug. 31, 1996, bumping incumbent Red Sox shortstop John Valentin over to third base during his late-season cup of coffee. In his first full season, batting almost exclusively in the leadoff spot, Garciaparra hit .306/.342/.534 with 30 homers, 22 steals, and a league-leading 209 hits, earning unanimous Rookie of the Year honors. His aggressive approach at the plate contrasted with an obsessive-compulsive batting glove strap-tightening routine between pitches; while it created enough movement to elicit a nervous energy, it was just as obviously his way of slowing down the game as Jeter's famously raised hand. Still, the lack of walks (33 unintentionals in 734 plate appearances, just 4.5 percent) limited his impact somewhat.

While his plate discipline slowly improved, he moved down to the middle of the lineup in 1998 and flashed more power, bopping 35 homers and hitting .323/.362/.584, numbers good enough to make him runner-up to Gonzalez in the MVP race. In 1998 and 1999, Garciaparra helped the Red Sox earn back-to-back AL wild cards, the first time the team visited the postseason in consecutive years since 1915 and 1916. In 1999 and 2000, he won back-to-back batting titles with .357 and .372 marks, the latter the highest in the AL in 20 years, and the highest mark by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939.

While Garciaparra couldn't match Rodriguez's home-run numbers or Jeter's championships, during the period that the three players overlapped up to that point-a carefully manicured stretch, admittedly-he had actually been the most valuable of the Trinity:

 


     --------Rodriguez--------   ----------Jeter----------  -------Garciaparra-------
Year Age  Tm   TAv  FRAA  WARP   Age Tm    TAv  FRAA  WARP  Age Tm    TAv  FRAA  WARP
1997  21  SEA  .287   -3   5.2   23  NYA  .273  -14   3.6   23  BOS  .286   -5   5.9
1998  22  SEA  .302   -7   7.1   24  NYA  .300    1   6.8   24  BOS  .302    3   7.0
1999  23  SEA  .290   -1   4.9   25  NYA  .324   -7   8.0   25  BOS  .319   13   8.2
2000  24  SEA  .333   24  11.6   26  NYA  .300  -21   3.9   26  BOS  .321   16   8.5
Total          .304   13  28.8            .299  -41  22.3            .306   27  29.6

Helped by a knee injury which cost Rodriguez a month during the 1999 season and by Jeter's already-dismal defensive numbers, Garciaparra squeaks by both players in terms of WARP, and he edges past them in True Average as well. Of course, by that point A-Rod had already put up a 9.5-WARP season in 1996, and Jeter had enjoyed a pretty fair year himself.

Garciaparra generated controversy in the spring of 2001 when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, shirtless and hulking, if not exactly Schwarzeneggeresque; Peter Gammons later pointed out his love handles. When Garciaparra tore a tendon in his wrist during spring training and was limited to just 21 late-summer games, the inevitable whispers linked him to steroids. Nonetheless, he was never implicated via a positive test, the Mitchell Report, or leaked information from the BALCO testimony, the survey testing list, or any other investigation. That doesn't guarantee he was clean, but that covers a pretty fair number of bases for a man accused. In 2005, on the DL after rupturing a tendon in his groin, he famously quipped, "If I was taking steroids, could I send them back and get the good ones, because obviously, these didn't work. I didn't get my money's worth."

With Garciaparra and ace Pedro Martinez on the sidelines for most of 2001, the Sox slumped to an 82-79 record, though the shortstop's lost production was covered by the arrival of Manny Ramirez, whose eight-year, $160-million deal was inaugurated with 41 homers. The team didn't make the playoffs in 2002, but the Sox did win 93 games, and Garciaparra returned to regular duty, hitting .310/.352/.528 with 24 homers while setting a career high with 156 games played. Even so, his .289 True Average was about 30 points lower than his 1999-2000 peak, and it would continue to fade. Garciaparra would essentially match those numbers the following year, in 156 games. With the middle of Boston's lineup augmented by free-talent pickup David Ortiz hitting fifth behind Nomar and Manny, creating a gauntlet imposing enough to curl this writer into a fetal position while rooting against them, time after time, the Red Sox won 95 games, their highest total since 1986, and took the Yankees all the way to Game Seven of the ALCS before Aaron Boone's 11th-inning walk-off shot sent them home for the winter.

Despite the near-miss, it wasn't long before Garciaparra's days in Boston were numbered. Mindful of the 10-year, $252-million deal Rodriguez had signed with the Rangers in December 2000, and of the 10-year, $189-million pact Jeter had inked with the Yankees just a couple months later, Garciaparra eyed his own big payday. He had turned down a four-year, $60-million extension the previous spring, only to find the offer reduced to $48 million by December. Furthermore, the Red Sox unsuccessfully attempted to land Rodriguez via trade, a deal which would have been accompanied by sending Garciaparra to the White Sox. The irony is that Rodriguez wound up in pinstripes, and switched to third base in deference to Jeter. Already, the Trinity was no more.

Garciaparra reported to spring training in 2004 unexpectedly wearing a cast on his lower right leg, the aftermath of a Grade II sprain of his Achilles tendon. The team initially expected him to miss only a few games, and while he did see action during spring training, he missed the first 57 games of the year, not cracking the lineup until June 9. By then he was caught in a downward spiral induced by the media's speculation regarding the injury's source and severity, and by the interpretations of his sullen demeanor. The Sox were 34-23 and 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees prior to his 2004 debut. With him in the lineup, they played .500-ish ball, and slipped further behind as the situation festered. During a July 1 game in the Bronx marked by Jeter's 12th-inning dive into the stands to snare a pop-up en route to a 13-inning win and a three-game sweep, Garciaparra sat on the bench the entire time, unable and seemingly unwilling to play.

At the July 31 trading deadline, the Red Sox were 56-45, 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees. Needing to find an everyday shortstop and to shake up the team, general manager Theo Epstein pulled off a bold four-way deal which sent Garciaparra, who was hitting .321/.367/.500 at the time while starting 37 out of 44 games since returning, to the Cubs. The move ultimately worked out for the Sox, who with Orlando Cabrera at short went on to win the World Series. It didn't work out as well for Garciaparra, whose new team finished three games behind the Astros in the wild-card hunt.

Garciaparra re-signed with the Cubs via a one-year, $8.25 million deal (plus incentives) over the winter. Off to a horrible 8-for-51 start the following spring, he suffered a cringe-inducing groin tear on the left side (as opposed to the previous season's right side injury) that cost him 93 games. He shifted to third base soon after his return, hit respectably (.318/.347/.531), but moved on at year's end.

The California native signed another one-year deal, this time with the Dodgers (managed by former Red Sox skipper Grady Little), and shifted positions again, this time to first base. Returning from a season-opening DL stint for an oblique strain, he conjured up his last burst of greatness: a .358/.426/.578 first half, complete with 22-game hitting streak. The second half wasn't so sunny, as a prolonged slump accompanied knee and quad strains. Though he battled injuries and returned to the DL, he came back in time to collect a pair of dramatic walk-off blasts in the season's penultimate week, the first of which capped a game in which four Dodgers bopped consecutive solo home runs (one of the most memorable moments in my 30 years as a Dodgers fan) in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game.

The shots kick-started the Dodgers' wild-card run, and he earned NL Comeback Player of the Year honors, not to mention a two-year, $18.5-million deal driven by sentiment and the departure of J.D. Drew. Though Garciaparra managed to hit a searing 373/.443/.436 with runners in scoring position, his power drained as he slugged .371 with seven homers in 466 plate appearances. Two seasons punctuated by more days on the DL than in the lineup, one in LA, the other in Oakland, set the stage for Wednesday's odd press conference.

Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of Garciaparra's JAWS case, it's worth stopping consider the trinity's numbers from 2001 onward:


     --------Rodriguez--------   ----------Jeter----------  -------Garciaparra-------
Year Age  Tm   TAv  FRAA  WARP   Age Tm    TAv  FRAA  WARP  Age Tm    TAv  FRAA  WARP
2001  25  TEX  .322   -7   8.0   27  NYA  .294  -21   3.7   27  BOS  .271    1   0.7
2002  26  TEX  .313    2   8.0   28  NYA  .283  -23   2.7   28  BOS  .289   11   6.8
2003  27  TEX  .311   -7   6.7   29  NYA  .292  -25   1.6   29  BOS  .285   -4   5.0
2004  28  NYA  .300    7   6.1   30  NYA  .280   -9   4.1   30  B/C  .280   -6   1.6
2005  29  NYA  .341   -6   8.6   31  NYA  .296   -5   5.6   31  CHN  .262   -9   0.0
2006  30  NYA  .304   -4   4.7   32  NYA  .310  -11   5.8   32  LAN  .295    0   2.7
2007  31  NYA  .343   -2   8.9   33  NYA  .290  -20   3.2   33  LAN  .250   -1   0.1
2008  32  NYA  .321    9   7.1   34  NYA  .274   -9   3.1   34  LAN  .276    1   1.2
2009  33  NYA  .320    2   5.7   35  NYA  .310  -11   6.0   35  OAK  .250   -1  -0.3
Tot            .320   -6  63.8            .292 -134  35.8            .278   -8  17.8

By these numbers, Garciaparra's been only half as valuable as Jeter over the past nine years, and Jeter, because of his poor fielding numbers, has been worth just over half the number of wins as Rodriguez. For what it's worth, Jeter's Ultimate Zone Rating defensive numbers show him at 33 runs below average since 2002 (the first year for which UZR is available), a full 80 runs better than he's been according to FRAA during that span, closing the gap between him and his third-base neighbor, who is 10 runs above average according to UZR. By comparison, Garciaparra is 20 runs below average during that span.

In any event, Garciaparra's raw stats (1,747 hits and 229 homers to go with a shiny .313 batting average), aren't likely to get him into the Hall of Fame on the traditional merits, though he makes respectable showings in the Bill Jamesian Hall of Fame Monitor (112) and Hall of Fame Standards (41) scores. JAWS is less forgiving:


Rank Player             Career   Peak   JAWS
 1   Honus Wagner*       150.1   73.0  111.6
 2   Cal Ripken Jr.*     104.3   62.4   83.4
 3   Alex Rodriguez      101.0   61.7   81.4
 4   Arky Vaughan**       93.0   64.5   78.8
 5   Ozzie Smith*         90.9   50.2   70.6
 6   Barry Larkin         86.2   53.6   69.9
 7   Lou Boudreau*        76.7   60.1   68.4
 8   Alan Trammell        78.1   52.8   65.5
 9   George Davis**       83.2   46.6   64.9
10   Ernie Banks*         69.4   57.5   63.5
11   Joe Cronin*          71.2   54.6   62.9
12   Luke Appling*        76.1   49.5   62.8
13   Bill Dahlen          78.1   42.7   60.4
Average HoF SS            70.0   47.9   59.0
14   Dave Concepcion      66.8   48.3   57.6
15   Robin Yount*         68.5   46.2   57.4
16   Jack Glasscock       64.7   46.4   55.6
17   Bobby Wallace**      65.7   41.4   53.6
18   Tony Fernandez       63.4   42.7   53.1
19   Bert Campaneris      60.6   44.5   52.6
20   Monte Ward**         62.4   40.9   51.7
21t  Derek Jeter          61.4   40.2   50.8
     Pee Wee Reese**      60.5   41.0   50.8
23   Hughie Jennings**    51.3   50.0   50.7
24   Joe Sewell**         57.0   44.0   50.5
25   Jay Bell             53.7   42.7   48.2
26   Dick Bartell         53.8   38.4   46.1
27   Nomar Garciaparra    47.6   44.1   45.9<<<<
28   Miguel Tejada        50.8   38.8   44.8

*: BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**: VC-elected Hall of Famer

The Hall of Fame has six other enshrined shortstops who rank lower Garciaparra, four of them Veterans Committee choices (Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson, Phil Rizzuto, and Joe Tinker) and the other two BBWAA choices (Luis Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville) driven by glovework. Garciaparra is about a half-win per year shy of the JAWS standard on the Peak score, but more than 22 wins short on the Career score, and thus about nine back on the JAWS total. In other words, he's got no real case for the Hall of Fame, as you'd expect from a player whose days as a threat were largely done by age 30, and who hung up his spikes at 36.

As for his two peers, Rodriguez is no longer a shortstop, but he's likely to stay in this JAWS classification; like Ernie Banks, his most productive years were at this position. Rodriguez will soon pass Ripken, but it will be an extremely tall order to reach Wagner. Jeter, who's likely to reach the 3,000-hit plateau next year and who will bring at least five World Series rings to the table when it's all said and done, could see his standing improved markedly by revisions in our defensive metrics; I wouldn't lose too much sleep over his numbers here.

As for Garciaparra, he won't wind up in Cooperstown due to the sad denouement of his career. He leaves behind a bittersweet legacy in Boston, where he reached stardom but like so many other Red Sox stars departed under unhappy circumstances. Nonetheless, he enjoyed a fantastic stretch at the outset of his career. Not only was he a part of one of history's great concentrations of talent at a given position, but for a brief period he could make the claim at being the best of the bunch. No matter what came after it, that's pretty special.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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