JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Brian Giles
Brian Giles had a knack for flying below the radar. A 5-foot-10, 205-pound fireplug, Giles spent parts of 15 seasons in the majors, putting up big numbers in a hitter-friendly area. While he never lit up the leaderboard, he bashed more than 35 homers for four straight years, totaled over 100 walks five times, and topped a .400 on-base percentage six times in seven years. Yet he made only two All-Star teams, and only once cracked the top 10 in an MVP voting.
Some of that may have had to do with Giles' broad skill set, for he was very good at many things, and while he was great at one — getting on base — appreciation for that aspect of baseball has lagged behind, even in the post-Moneyball era. Giles had power to go with that great plate discipline, though his numbers were suppressed by his home park late in his career, and he ran the bases well, even if his glove was nothing special. But much of the reason he flew under the radar had to with spending his entire career outside major media markets, playing for the Indians, Pirates and Padres. He made five trips to the playoffs, but three of them came as a role player on the great Cleveland powerhouse of the late 1990s, and the other two came via quick exits with the Padres. His best years were spent with the Pirates at a time when they were doormats, far below .500 and well outside the postseason picture.
When I planned my coverage of this year's ballot, I expected that Giles would wind up lumped in with other one-and-done position players such as Cliff Floyd and Jermaine Dye, players who had notable careers but no real shot at receiving the minimum five percent required to stay on the ballot. But driven by that OBP, Giles' value separates him from that pack, to the point that he was more valuable over the course of his career than several popular candidates both present and past. He's likely to fall off the ballot after this year, and frankly, his off-field issues dim some of the enthusiasm I might have about celebrating his career. Even so, he gets his look here, as the last of the 34 candidates I've examined on this year's ballot.
|Avg. HOF RF||73.2||42.9||58.1|
Giles was born and raised in El Cajon, Calif., a city of just under 100,000 in San Diego County. Like his brother Marcus — who is seven years younger and spent seven years in the majors himself, earning All-Star honors with the Braves — he played Little League baseball on a team coached by his father. At Granite Hills High School, he starred as a running back and a wrestler, as well as an outfielder. The Indians chose him in the 17th round of the 1989 draft, part of a haul that many consider to be one of the greatest in history; it included not only Giles but also slugger Jim Thome, longtime relievers Curt Leskanic, Jerry Dipoto and Alan Embree, and nine other players who at least tasted the majors. In 2010, Baseball America co-editor John Manuel rated the Indians' crop that year as the fourth best in draft history, behind the 1968 Dodgers, 1976 Tigers and 1976 Red Sox.
Giles showed strong on-base skills from the start of his time in the minors, putting up OBPs of .366 or better at every stop where he made at least 100 plate appearances, and of at least .391 across every level above Rookie ball. His power didn't materialize until he reached Triple A; his .313/.390/.479 showing with 16 homers at Charlotte in 1994, his age-23 season, marked his first time reaching double digits. The team's affiliation switched to Buffalo the following season, and Giles' numbers were basically a carbon copy. But with a big league outfield featuring Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez, and with future Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield as DH options (Thome was busy battling third base to a bloody draw), the Indians had little room for Giles.
Giles finally made his major league debut on Sept. 16, 1995, going 1-for-4 with a single off of Roger Clemens but eventually yielding to pinch-hitter Ruben Amaro Jr. Giles went 5-for-9 in his brief major league stay, highlighted by a pinch-homer off the Royals' Jeff Montgomery on Sept. 24.
After bopping 20 homers in half a season at Buffalo, Giles spent the second half of 1996 with the big club once Murray was traded to the Orioles. Serving as a part-time DH and battling for playing time with Jeromy Burnitz and Aug. 31 acquisition Kevin Seitzer, he hit a sizzling .355/.434/.612 with five homers in 143 plate appearances. Alas, Seitzer was every bit as hot (.386/.480/.542) and got the bulk of the playing time down the stretch; Giles struck out in his lone postseason plate appearance.
With the departure of Belle via free agency, Giles inherited the lion's share of playing time in leftfield in both 1997 and '98, though he generally yielded to lefties. He hit a combined .268/.382/.459 with 33 homers and 23 steals in 881 plate appearances in those two years en route to a 116 OPS+ and 5.9 WAR. After starting seven of the team's 11 games in the Division and League Championship Series in '97, he was consigned to the bench for most of the World Series, though he did go 2-for-4 with four walks in the team's seven-game loss to the Marlins.
On Nov. 18, 1998, the Indians traded the going-on-28-year-old Giles to the Pirates straight up for Ricardo Rincon, a lefty reliever of occasional effectiveness. It was a lopsided deal, to say the least; Rincon gave the Indians 154 1/3 innings of 3.73 ERA work over the next four years en route to all of 2.9 WAR, but Giles shed the platoon label and blossomed into a star, delivering 26.0 WAR in nearly five full seasons. He homered nine times in his first 24 games with his new club in 1999, and wound up hitting .315/.418/.614 with 39 homers and 95 walks; a broken finger cost him the last 11 games and a shot at becoming the first Pirate to reach 40 homers since Willie Stargell in 1973. He finished the year ranked eighth in the NL in home runs and OBP and fifth in slugging, OPS+ (157) and WAR (6.6), a performance that helped the Pirates improve from 69 wins to 78, one of their best showings in a 20-year stretch of sub-.500, playoff-free baseball.
Even on a second-division team, Giles' performance commanded attention, particularly as he moved into centerfield for about half the season and held his own. He earned All-Star honors in each of the next two years (.315/.432/.594 with 35 homers and 6.4 WAR in 2000, .309/.404/.590 with 37 homers and 5.3 WAR in '01) but somehow missed out during a very similar '02 (.298/.450/.622 with 38 homers and 5.3 WAR) during which he finished second in OBP, SLG and OPS+. He placed among the league's top 10 in those three categories a combined 10 times in his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, cracking the top 10 in WAR twice (fifth in 2000, as in 1999).
In May 2000, the Pirates signed Giles to a five-year, $45 million extension covering 2001 to 2005, the most lucrative deal in franchise history, but the merits of that deal were offset by pricey contracts for the likes of Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell, Pat Meares and Kevin Young. Despite ramping up their payroll from $27.6 million (27th in MLB) in 2000 to $56.4 million (19th) in 2001, the year that PNC Park opened, the team under general manager Cam Bonifay and new manager Lloyd McClendon was busy going nowhere, sinking from 69 wins to 62. The latter showing cost Bonifay, who had been in place since mid-1993, his job, and things improved only slightly under new GM Dave Littlefield. Amid the losing, Giles did his best to keep his teammates loose, whether it was showing up for batting practice au naturel ("Nudity is how I deal with things when there are a lot of problems," he told Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman) or making a shrine to the base stolen by McClendon.
On Aug. 26, 2003, needing to shed payroll, the Bucs traded Giles to the Padres — his hometown team — for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez and a player to be named later. Giles hit .299/.430/.521 that year, but in part due to an early-season knee injury, fell off to 20 homers and, via subpar defense (-12 runs), just 3.3 WAR. His new team was en route to a 64-98 season, 11 games worse than the Pirates, but the next year, with the opening of Petco Park and the emergence of Jake Peavy as the staff ace, the Padres climbed to 87 wins. Giles hit .284/.374/.475 with 23 homers and 10 steals in the spacious park en route to 3.7 WAR, then improved to .301/.423/.483 with a league-high 119 walks and 4.8 WAR in 2005. San Diego went just 82-80, but it was enough to capture the NL West flag, though the Padres were quickly swept from the playoffs.
A free agent that winter, Giles wasted little time in re-upping via a three-year, $30 million deal. While he still drew 104 walks and was worth 3.3 WAR while helping the Padres win another division title in 2006, he was involved in an ugly incident at a Phoenix cocktail lounge in August, where several witnesses saw him allegedly strike girlfriend Cheri Olvera; the incident was partially captured by a security camera. Giles pled no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and completed anger management counseling, after which charges were dropped. The incident didn't draw media attention until the video surfaced in December 2008, when Olvera filed a $10 million palimony suit. Major League Baseball did not act in the case, but in light of the NFL's recent mess involving Ray Rice, MLB spokesman Pat Courtney told USA Today in September, "As evidenced by the evolution of our drug program, our standards have changed or evolved over time," suggesting that that league would have acted more forcefully (under MLB executive vice president Joe Torre, the league is working towards a stronger policy). Giles and Olvera continued to battle in court even after his career ended; in 2011, a jury rejected her suit and found that both parties committed acts of domestic violence against each other.
In December 2006, the Padres signed Marcus Giles to a one-year deal, setting up the first opportunity the two siblings had to play together in their professional careers. Despite the gap in age, the two were especially close — and came off as particularly unhinged. "The first thing my mother was saying was, 'Oh gosh, you guys get to shower again together,'" the older Giles told the Associated Press soon after the signing. Tales of their antics circulated throughout the majors before Opening Day, with pitcher Chris Young telling USA Today's Bob Nightengale, "You get nervous when you see those guys come into the shower… Let's put it this way: You definitely don't close your eyes in there, even when you're shampooing." Nightengale went on to describe the elder Giles as "George Hamilton without the wrinkles, lying naked in the tanning bed whenever possible, and walking around nude to make sure the tan is noticed."
Despite letting it all hang out, Giles and the Padres fell short of a postseason berth in 2007. He missed 34 games due to a knee contusion and hit .271/.361/.416 with 13 homers — still good enough for a 110 OPS+ in Petco's stifling environment — but slipped to 1.4 WAR, the worst full-season showing of his career. After the season, he underwent microfracture surgery in his troublesome right knee in an attempt to stimulate cartilage growth, and it worked well enough that he rebounded to .306/.398/.456 with 4.8 WAR in 2008. He had an opportunity to leave for Boston when the Red Sox claimed him via waivers in early August, but Giles opted not to waive his limited no-trade clause. After the season, the team exercised his $9 million option for 2009, but Giles hit just .191/.277/.271 through the first two and a half months while batting yet another contusion in his right knee, and didn't play after June 18. His comeback attempt with the Dodgers the following spring was done before the Ides of March.
From a traditional standpoint, Giles doesn't appear to have a shot at Cooperstown. Thanks to his late start and relatively early end during his age-38 season, he finished with "only" 287 homers and 1,897 hits. The writers have yet to elect a position player with less than 2,000 hits whose career took place entirely during the post-1960 expansion era. Likewise, they’ve elected just one position player from that era with fewer than 8,000 plate appearances (Giles has 7,836): Kirby Puckett, whose career was shortened by glaucoma.
Giles shines when it comes to rate stats, however. His .400 career on-base percentage ranks 34th among players with at least 7,000 career plate appearances (I generally use 8,000 for my cutoff), right between Ricky Henderson and Larry Walker on the leaderboard, and his 136 OPS+ is tied for 62nd with Ken Griffey Jr. It’s tempting to think how much higher he might have ranked had Petco (where he hit .264/.370/.398) not suppressed his stats, but his career home/road splits are all of three points apart in OPS. Still, his low counting stats, two All-Star appearances, a high of ninth place in the MVP voting (one of five times he received down-ballot support), a .208/.311/.286 career postseason line and a Hall of Fame Monitor score of just 53 (where 100 means "a good possibility" and 130 "a virtual cinch") mean he isn't likely to gain traction with the voters, particularly on a crowded ballot.
The advanced metrics make a better case for him, which isn't saying much on the Hall of Fame front but does cast his playing career in a more favorable light. His 50.9 career WAR ranks 30th among rightfielders (he made 50 percent of his starts in right, 34 percent in left, and 16 percent in center), about 23 wins short of the average Hall of Famer at the position but still better than six of the 24 enshrined, all from prior to World War II. His 37.3 peak WAR ranks 25th among the same set, 5.6 wins below the standard but ahead of nine enshrined, including Enos Slaughter (34.9). He's just 0.4 behind Padres legend Dave Winfield in that category, and mere decimals ahead of Dave Parker and Dwight Evans, with Darryl Strawberry (34.7), Ken Singleton (33.6) and Roger Maris (32.3) below him. His 44.1 JAWS ranks 27th, 14 points below the standard but ahead of eight Hall of Famers, not to mention Golden Era Committee near-miss Tony Oliva (40.8).
In the end, that's not a Hall of Famer; Giles is more suited to the proverbial Hall of Nearly Great. He’ll have impressive company there, to say the least.
With that, my review of all 34 candidates on the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot is complete. With the deadline for voters to send their ballots by mail — yes, the Hall of Fame is still working in analog — set for December 27, I’ll be back on Friday with my official cut-down to 10 candidates for my virtual ballot.