JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Carlos Delgado
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Though blessed with as much talent to crush a baseball as nearly anyone in his era, Carlos Delgado had a hard time getting the attention that his performance might have merited. Almost certainly, that owed something to the record numbers of balls flying out of the park during his heyday, with a proliferation of 30- or 40-homer seasons. It didn't help that he spent the bulk of his prime in Toronto either, arriving just after the Blue Jays' back-to-back world championships and proving unable to aid in replicating that accomplishment; he didn't reach the postseason until late in his career.
Beyond that, Delgado didn't fit the mold of what the public has come to expect from professional athletes. The controversies in which he was engulfed weren't the garden-variety ones of so many other jocks — money, respect, performance-enhancing drugs, off-field lifestyle. No, they were bigger. In an age when most athletes shirk political stances because they can narrow their public appeal and impact their personal brands, Delgado was unafraid to protest against what he felt was wrong, even if his stance was unpopular. He spoke out against the United States Navy using part of his native Puerto Rico for bombing practice and publicly opposed the war in Iraq. He took a stand by taking a seat (to borrow a headline from The New York Times), refusing to go through the motions during the post-9/11 ritual of "God Bless America." He was the conscientious slugger.
Conscience and good numbers won't get you much closer to Cooperstown than good numbers alone will, however, and while Delgado once appeared to be within reach of 500 homers, the abrupt end to his career -- due to a hip injury -- is likely to mirror his stay on the Hall of Fame ballot. His career may not merit a bronze plaque, but that doesn’t diminish his accomplishments, on or off the field.
|Avg. HOF 1B||65.9||42.4||54.2|
Delgado was born and raised in the coastal city of Aguadilla, P.R., the son of a mother who was a medical laboratory assistant and a father who was a drug and alcohol counselor. Large for his age, he played catcher in Little League, though other sports, including swimming, track and particularly volleyball, competed for his attention. The Blue Jays signed him as an undrafted free agent in October 1988 —two years before Puerto Rico became subject to the amateur draft — when he was 16, paying him a bonus of $90,000 but allowing him to finish his studies and graduate on time.
Delgado showed prodigious power as he climbed through Toronto's organization, pounding 18 homers for the team's Myrtle Beach affiliate in his first year of full-season ball in 1991, then 30 homers (with a .324/.402/.579 line) at High A Dunedin in '92 and another 25 at Double A Knoxville in '93. He came into each of the latter two seasons ranked among the game's top five prospects by Baseball America and made his major league debut on Oct. 1, 1993, drawing a walk off Baltimore's Todd Frohwirth. Delgado was let off the postseason roster, however, and while the Blue Jays beat the Philies in the World Series to win their second straight title, they didn’t return to the postseason again during Delgado's 12-season tenure in Toronto — and they haven't since.
Satisfied with their Pat Borders/Randy Knorr tandem behind the plate, the Jays decided to give Delgado — who had only played a few innings in the outfield in winter ball —a shot in leftfield midway through spring training in 1994, and he did so passably enough to get the Opening Day nod. He responded by hitting a 428-foot moonshot that was celebrated in the pages of Sports Illustrated when it was followed by seven more within the next 12 games. He soon fell into an extended slump, however, homering just once more as his batting line sank to .215/.352/.438 before he was demoted in early June. He spent the rest of the strike-shortened season and most of the next one at Triple A Syracuse, hitting a combined .319/.404/.577 with 41 homers in 176 games, but in two stints with the big club in 1995, he hit just .165/.212/.297.
Still shy of his 24th birthday, Delgado put a claim on a full-time role with the Jays in spring training in 1996, serving as the primary DH and playing a bit of first base. He broke out offensively, homering 25 times and batting .270/.353/.490 for a 112 OPS+, and after John Olerud was traded to the Mets in December, he took over the starting first base job the next year. He clouted 30 homers and hit .262/.350/.528 with a 127 OPS+ in '97, but shaky defense, the positional penalty from DH duty and rising offensive levels left him with 3.7 WAR in those two seasons combined.
Thanks to improved performances against lefthanded pitching and an increased amount of respect from opposing hurlers, Delgado's offensive numbers continued to climb. From 1998 to 2003, he hit a combined 295/.413/.585 for a 155 OPS+ and an average of 40 homers, 101 walks (17 intentional) and 5.3 WAR per year. He topped the 40-homer plateau three times in that span, with a high of 44 in 1999, and he ranked in the AL's top 10 in all six seasons and in the top five three times, but never higher than second. He did place second in the league in slugging percentage in 2000, the year he put up career-best slash stats (.344/.470/.664) en route to a 181 OPS+, and in 2003, when he hit .302/.426 /.593 and led the league with a 161 OPS+ and 145 RBIs. During that stretch, he had five games of at least three home runs, matching Sammy Sosa for the major league lead; on Sept. 25, 2003, against the Devil Rays, Delgado became the 13th player ever to homer four times in one game.
Despite that consistent production, the 2000 and '03 seasons marked the only times that Delgado placed in the league's top 10 in WAR (sixth in both seasons with 7.3 and 5.9, respectively), earned All-Star honors or made a dent in the MVP voting; he finished a solid fourth in 2000 and a very close second behind Alex Rodriguez in '03. Beyond the fact that the Blue Jays finished in third place in the AL East in all six of those seasons and that their attendance was middle-of-the-pack, it's not entirely clear why he flew so far under the radar. For that six-year span, he ranked fourth among first basemen in WAR (31.6), behind Jason Giambi (37.3), Todd Helton (35.1) and Jeff Bagwell (32.7). His 155 OPS+ was fourth among that same group behind Mark McGwire (180), Giambi (165) and Jim Thome (157), and his 237 homers were third behind Rafael Palmeiro (257) and Thome (248). It took until 2003 for Delgado to even start an All-Star Game. While it's true that some of the aforementioned first basemen with whom he vied for attention would later be connected to PEDs, it's also true that that was a high-scoring stretch, climbing above 5.0 runs per team per game, with more hitters reaching the 30- and 40-homer plateaus than ever before.
Delgado did find other ways to stand out, taking it upon himself to carry on the legacy of the late Roberto Clemente, a Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican hero, by using his platform to speak out for social justice. In April 2001, he joined 10 other Puerto Rican celebrities — singers Jose Feliciano and Ricky Martin, actor Benicio del Toro, boxer Felix Trinidad and fellow slugger Juan Gonzalez among them — in taking out full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post calling for the United States to cease using Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico with a population of around 9,400, as a Navy bomb-testing site, which it had done since 1938. The toxic air particles produced by the testing were believed to cause higher rates of cancer and other serious illnesses than the main population. After a protracted battle that drew the support of more politicians and celebrities, the Navy withdrew from Vieques in May 2003.
Delgado was also the rare athlete to take a stand against the war in Iraq. In an act of simple protest, at the start of the 2004 season, he regularly chose to remain in the dugout during the playing of "God Bless America," a staple in ballparks since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "I never stay outside for 'God Bless America,'" he told the Toronto Star in July 2004. "I actually don't think people have noticed it. I don't [stand] because I don't believe it's right, I don't believe in the war." He elaborated on that topic:
"It's a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11," Delgado said. "It's [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war.
"But I think it's the stupidest war ever," he said. "Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You've been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You've been looking for over a year. Can't find them. I don't support that. I don't support what they do. I think it's just stupid."
Delgado's protest had the backing of the Blue Jays — even teammates who disagreed with his views — but it exposed him to hecklers; I witnessed an incident at Yankee Stadium myself, but was heartened to find fans around me far angrier at the perpetrators than at the player.
On the field, Delgado missed five weeks of the 2004 season due to an oblique strain, and while he finished with 32 homers, his .269/.372/.535 batting line was his worst since 1997. A free agent that winter, he surprised the baseball world by signing a four-year, $52 million deal with the Florida Marlins, one so heavily backloaded that it included just $4 million in the first year. He put up strong offensive numbers (.301/.399/.582, 160 OPS+, 33 homers) in '05 but abysmal fielding (-20 Defensive Runs Saved) limited him to 2.9 WAR. Two years removed from their second championship, the Marlins won 83 games, but when they failed to secure public financing for a new ballpark and finished dead last in the league in attendance, owner Jeffrey Loria ordered the roster torn apart. On the same day that the team traded Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox for Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and two other players, they also dealt Delgado to the Mets for Mike Jacobs, Yusmeiro Petit and a third player.
Upon acquiring Delgado, New York made clear that it expected him to fall in line when it came to "God Bless America," with chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon telling reporters, "[Majority owner] Fred [Wilpon] has asked and I've asked him to respect what the country wants to do." While manager Willie Randolph lent support for Delgado's right to voice his opinion, general manager Omar Minaya steered clear of doing so. Wrote Newsday's Wallace Matthews:
"Even if you disagree with his politics, Delgado's willingness to break out of the mold corporate America loves to jam us in set him apart from the thousands of interchangeable young men who thrive athletically and financially in our sports-crazed culture...But no. One of the few pro athletes who had the guts to say no is now a yes man. And the silencing of his voice, whether you agree with it or not, is not a victory for democracy but a defeat."
Beyond the politics, Delgado was a hit. Sandwiched between fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Beltran and David Wright in the middle of the lineup, he clubbed 38 homers, his highest total since 2003, and hit .265/.361/.548 for a 131 OPS+. The Mets won 97 games, giving the 34-year-old slugger his first taste of the postseason, and he rose to the occasion, batting a combined .351/.442/.757 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 43 plate appearances. He homered and drove in the go-ahead run in the Division Series opener against the Dodgers, setting off a three-game sweep, and while his two homers in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cardinals went for naught, he drove in five runs with a double and a homer in a Game 4 rout. The Cardinals grew warier of pitching to him, walking him three times in a tight Game 7 that remained deadlocked into the ninth inning. Yadier Molina's solo homer off Aaron Heilman put St. Louis ahead, and while New York loaded the bases against Adam Wainwright in the ninth, Beltran struck out looking to end the game as Delgado waited on deck.
Thus began a three-year string of near-misses for the Mets; they would be eliminated on the final day of the regular season to wind up outside the playoff picture in each of the next two years. Though his overall numbers took a dip in 2007, Delgado hit .321/.383/.566 with four homers in September, but also missed 14 games due to a right hip flexor strain, and the team's 6-8 record in his absence contributed to its falling a game short. The hip would continue to cause problems, as he missed time the following spring and started slowly (.198/.297/.323 in April), but he improved as the year went on and put up another monster September (.340/.400/.649 with eight homers) to finish with 38 homers. But again, the Mets fell a buck short.
Delgado's strong finish in 2008 left him just 31 homers from 500, and it appeared he still had something left in the tank heading into his age-37 season. The Mets picked up his $12 million option for '09, but soon had cause to regret it. He started well, but after playing just 26 games, Delgado needed surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum in late May, and couldn't return before season's end. After undergoing microfracture surgery in the same hip in December, he attempted a comeback with the Red Sox in late 2010, but he played in just five minor league games before pain and problems with his other hip proved too much to surmount. He announced his retirement in April 2011.
Had Delgado reached 500 home runs — a shortfall that owes as much to his being trapped in Triple A in 1994-95 as to having played his final major league game before his 37th birthday — he might have had a fighting chance at Cooperstown. Even with that particular currency having been devalued due to the proliferation of home runs, his numbers hold up well in the context of the era, and they're bolstered by his strong rate stats and a reputation free of PED use. His 457 homers from 1996 to 2008, the heart of his career, were the majors' sixth-highest total. His 1,454 RBIs during that span are third behind only Alex Rodriguez (1,585) and Manny Ramirez (1,553), and his 140 OPS+ is 15th among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances, surrounded by Frank Thomas (143), Todd Helton (142), Mike Piazza (14) and Brian Giles (139) on the leaderboard.
Though he doesn't have a whole lot to point to in terms of All-Star appearances (just two), awards, league leads, postseason performances and milestones, Delgado scores 110 ("a good possibility") on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which captures the types of accomplishments not reflected by WAR. His 44 on James' similar Hall of Fame Standards metric, which credits him for career accomplishments relative to players already in the Hall, is slightly below average. Both figures are similar to those of another top-flight slugger who fell short of 500 and who's currently on the ballot: Fred McGriff (100 and 48, respectively).
Like McGriff, Delgado doesn't score well in terms of advanced metrics, where his subpar baserunning (-25 runs) and defense (-65 runs) cut into his value; he finished with just three seasons above 5.0 WAR, and six above 3.0. His 44.3 career WAR is 21.2 wins below the standard of enshrined first basemen and ranks 37th among all first basemen, just below Gil Hodges (44.9) and a couple of notches above Don Mattingly (42.2). Neither is ticketed for Cooperstown anytime soon, and only two enshrined first basemen rank lower. Likewise, Delgado's 34.5 peak WAR, while about seven wins shy of the standard, is tied for 34th with Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, but still ahead of just three enshrined first basemen. In all, he's 35th in JAWS, sandwiched between Hodges and Mattingly, 15 points below the standard.
With such a crowded ballot, Delgado doesn't figure to get more than token support, and he will likely fall short of the 5.0 percent needed to remain eligible. But while he may not have the numbers to warrant a Hall of Fame plaque, he has left behind an impressive legacy: that of a top-flight athlete willing to take a stand on things that mattered far from the playing field.