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The Strike Zone

JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: Luis Gonzalez

Luis Gonzalez Luis Gonzalez parted ways with Arizona after Ken Kendrick hinted that Gonzalez may have been using steroids. (Will Powers/AP)

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.

For a five-season stretch from 1999-2003, Luiz Gonzalez put up some eye-popping numbers, particularly for a well-traveled journeyman who had crossed into his thirties. Passing through the hands of the Astros (twice), Cubs and Tigers in the first half of his career, he had never been pegged for a superstar, but when he joined the Arizona Diamondbacks at age 31, he suddenly emerged as a force. In 2001, he had a fairytale season, clouting a career-high 57 home runs and collecting a World Series-winning walkoff hit off the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.

Gonzalez's mid-career breakout may simply have been a combination of making the right adjustments while playing in a particularly hitter-friendly ballpark during a particularly high-offense era. Yet by the end of his playing days, he had to contend with allegations that he was among the legion of sluggers who had taken performance-enhancing drugs at a time before Major League Baseball introduced its testing regimen. None of it was attached to anything close to concrete evidence; he never failed a test, nor did his name surface via any of the routes which identified hundreds of his contemporaries as PED users. Yet even today, a certain segment of fans and media eyes his accomplishments with suspicion.

In any event, during his 19-season career, Gonzalez wound up accumulating impressive totals and rate stats, though nothing that matched his performance over that five-year stretch. In a lower-scoring era, those numbers would have drawn serious consideration for Cooperstown, but in context — and particularly on a lengthy ballot — he stands little chance of even returning for a second round of voting. Regardless, his career is worth a closer look.

PlayerCareerPeakJAWSHHRSBAVG/OBP/SLGOPS+
Luis Gonzalez51.533.842.72591354128.283/.367/.479119
Avg HOF LF65.041.553.2

Born in Tampa, Fla., to parents who had emigrated from Cuba as children, Gonzalez played baseball at Jefferson High School, which also produced Tony La Russa, Fred McGriff and Tino Martinez. In Tampa, Gonzalez's grandfather worked at a cigar factory under Martinez's grandfather; before becoming high school teammates, the two grandsons played Little League with and against each other and moved bales of tobacco in that same factory. Where Martinez was originally drafted out of high school, Gonzalez — at that point an undersized second baseman — was not. He played baseball at the University of South Alabama, and signed with the Astros after being drafted in the fourth round in 1988.

Gonzalez began his professional career as a third baseman, though by 1990, he played primarily at first base. After a 24-homer season at Double-A Columbus — where he roomed with future big league manager Manny Acta — the 23-year-old made his major league debut on September 4, 1990, striking out against the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez as a pinch-hitter. He saw action in 12 games down the stretch, mostly at third. By the next season, he had become the Astros' everyday leftfielder, joining a lineup that included Craig Biggio at catcher, fellow rookie Jeff Bagwell at first base, Ken Caminiti at third base, and Steve Finley in centerifeld. Though the team lost 97 games., Gonzlalez hit .254/.320/.433 with 13 homers and 10 steals in 137 games. In the pitcher-friendly Astrodome, that translated to a respectable 117 OPS+, and with outstanding defense (+15 runs according to Total Zone), a handsome 3.6 WAR.

Hampered by a left shoulder injury from late 1991, Gonzalez tailed off to .243/.289/.385 in 1992, but he broke out to a .300/.361/.457 showing with 15 homers, 20 steals and +22 defense in 1993 en route to 5.2 WAR, helping the Astros to 85 wins. He couldn't maintain that level of performance, however, and after backsliding and suffering the indignity of a pay cut, he was eventually traded to the Cubs on June 28, 1995. In a more offense-friendly environment, he hit .278/.365/.454 in his season and a half in Chicago, good for a 115 OPS+. He returned to Houston as a free agent for the 1997 season, still earning slightly less than he had in 1993 ($1.4 million versus $1.63 million). and had another subpar season. Although the Astros did make the playoffs for the first time since 1996, Gonzalez went 4-for-12 as they were swept in the Division Series by the Braves.

On the go again, Gonzalez signed a two-year, $4 million deal with the Tigers in December 1997. On the advice of new teammate Bobby Higginson, he began experimenting with a more open stance and pull-conscious approach so as to better target Tiger Stadium's rightfield porch, just 315 feet away. He wound up setting a new career high with 23 homers (15 at home) and a respectable .267/.340/.475 line, though he tailed off considerably in the second half. On December 28, 1998, the Tigers traded Gonzalez and $500,000 to the Diamondbacks for underachieving 23-year-old outfielder Karim Garcia, a move less about Garcia than about opening up space for Gregg Jeffries.

To that point in his career, the 31-year-old Gonzalez had hit .268/.341/.432 with 107 homers in 4,372 plate appearances (15 per 600 PA) for a 109 OPS and an average of 2.7 WAR per year. In other words, he was a decent player but nothing special, and there was little reason to expect him to turn into a star, or to turn that trade into such a lopsided one — to say nothing of the .231/.294/.346 Jeffries hit in 111 games as a Tiger.

In Arizona, Gonzalez joined a second-year expansion team that had gone 65-97 in its inaugural season but added free agents Finley and Randy Johnson over the winter. He continued to tinker with his stance, as Phil Taylor later noted in a 2002 Sports Illustrated feature:

In his first spring training with Arizona, Gonzalez made his new open stance even more pronounced. He set his front foot farther from the plate and turned his back foot slightly in toward the pitcher, which kept him from diving at pitches. It made him look a little like a man trying to hold his ground in a stiff wind, but there was no doubt about whether it worked — Gonzalez started the season with a 30-game hitting streak. "The key for Gonz, and for most hitters, is getting his arms extended on his swing," says [hitting coach Dwayne] Murphy. "Now he's getting great extension whether the ball's in or away. Pitchers still try to bust him inside and get him to make those arms short, but he's so quick inside that it's almost impossible to do."

Gonzalez's hitting streak ran from April 11 to May 14, at which point his batting average reached .391. That streak beat his 23-game hitting streak from 1997 as his career best, and stood as the longest in the majors that year until Vladimir Guerrero surpassed it with a 31-game streak in late August. He earned All-Star honors for the first time, and finished the year with across-the-board career highs in hits (a league-leading 206), homers (26), RBI (111), slash stats (.336.403/.549), OPS+ (137) and WAR (6.4). That latter mark ranked sixth in the league, the first time he cracked the top 10, and he was runner-up in the batting title race (a distant second behind Larry Walker, batting .379). Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks won 100 games and the NL West, though they bowed to the Mets in the Division Series.

After more or less maintaining that level in 2000 (.311/.392/.544 with new career highs of 31 homers and 78 walks), Gonzalez put together a fairytale season in 2001. He slugged .804 while homering 13 times in April, two more than Barry Bonds and six more than Sammy Sosa. Batting .355/.443/.745 with 35 homers at the All-Star break, four off Bonds' torrid pace, he turned some heads by beating Sosa in the finals of that summer's Home Run Derby. He hit his 50th homer of the year on August 29 off the Giants' Kirk Reuter, becoming just the 10th NL player to attain that plateau, and entered September with 51 homers, one behind Sosa and six behind Bonds. He lost ground to both, and finished third behind the two sluggers in homers (57 to Sosa's 64 and Bonds' 73). His batting line was an eye-popping .325/.429/.688 for a 174 OPS+; the slugging percentage and OPS+ also ranked third in the league, as did his 142 RBI and his 7.9 WAR. He wound up third in the MVP race as well.

Before that vote, however, Gonzalez attained far greater glory. He helped the Diamondbacks past the Cardinals and Braves in the first two rounds of the playoffs, homering once in each series and then breaking Game 1 of the World Series open with a two-run shot off the Yankees' Mike Mussina. He saved his most memorable moment for the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, when his bases-loaded bloop single to leftfield off Rivera brought home Jay Bell with the winning run, ending the Yankees' three-year reign as champions. It was just the sixth walkoff hit in a sudden-death World Series game.

Gonzalez couldn't top that in 2002, but who could? He earned All-Star honors in each of the next two seasons, hitting a combined .296/.401/.515 with 54 homers, a 130 OPS+ and 6.4 WAR, good seasons but hardly great ones. A torn flexor tendon cost him the last two months of 2004, his age 36 season, and required surgery. Thereafter, he continued a fairly slow decline, earning All-Star honors again and hitting 24 homers in 2005, the last time he would do either.

In June 2006, Gonzalez became the center of controversy when Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner, mentioned his name in the context of steroid rumors in an interview with the Arizona Republic. Said Kendrick:

"I'll be blunt with you and say there have been certainly whispers about Luis Gonzalez. Because he's such a high-profile guy and you can make a case of his numbers 5 years ago vs. his numbers today and therefore he must have been doing something. Well, he's also 5 years older ... I don't have any suspicions about Luis Gonzalez. Any more than I would about any other player."

With support like that from management, who needs enemies? The comments forced Gonzalez to take the step of calling a press conference to defend himself, saying in part, "[Kendrick's] trying to protect the game of baseball in his own way ... It's unfortunate that I have to sit here to defend myself for no reason." In the wake of that mess, it came as little surprise that his eight-year run in Arizona soon ended with the Diamondbacks declining the $10 million option tacked onto a three-year, $30 million extension he had signed in March 2003.

In December 2006, Gonzalez signed a one-year, $7.35 million deal with the Dodgers, a move that ruffled some feathers as it bumped Andre Ethier to rightfield and Matt Kemp back to Triple-A. During his hot start, that was forgiven, but he faded drastically in the second half. Not only did he finish with a tepid .278/.359/.433 and 15 homers, he joined Jeff Kent in questioning the team's youth movement as it cut into his playing time late in the year — in part because he clung to the notion of chasing 3,000 hits. He wasn't invited back, so he signed a one-year deal with the Marlins, but saw even less playing time. He officially announced his retirement on August 29, 2009, joining the Diamondbacks' front office as a special assistant.

Coming from a lower-scoring era, Gonzalez's 2,591 hits and 354 home runs would get a strong look from Hall of Fame voters. Of the 36 hitters with at least 2,500 hits and 300 homers, 22 are in the Hall of Fame, while only three (Finley, Harold Baines, and Dave Parker) have fallen off the BBWAA ballot; three are currently on it (Rafael Palmeiro, Bonds and Gonzalez) and eight aren't yet eligible. However, Gonzalez doesn't have a whole lot else going for his case on the traditional merits. He made five All-Star teams, and ranks 15th in career doubles (596), 30th in extra base hits (1,018) and 53rd in total bases (4,385). Aside from leading the league in hits once, he only grazed the statistical leaderboards. He scores 103 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor ("a good possibility"), but the average Hall of Fame leftfielder scores 158.

In terms of advanced metrics, Gonzalez's 51.5 career WAR ranks 22nd among leftfielders, certainly respectable, but better than just seven of the 19 who are in the Hall of Fame and a hefty 14.5 wins below the average of those enshrined. Similarly, his peak WAR of 33.8, covering his best seven seasons, ranks 35th, below 15 of the 19 Hall of Famers and 7.7 wins off the pace of those enshrined. His 42.7 JAWS places him 24th at the position, 9.5 points below the Hall standard.

Gonzalez is hurt by such measures because he had just two seasons where he cracked the league's top 10 in WAR. While he hit a robust .314/.405/.564 across the five-season stretch from 1999 to 2003, his 140 OPS+ for that period ranks 22nd, very good but not elite. Similarly, his 24.8 WAR for that period — the heart of his career — ranks 23rd in that span, outside of which he had just two seasons of at least 3.0 WAR. One could delve further into the stats to show how fluky his 2001 season and its surrounding peak was in the context of the rest of his career, but given that he clearly isn't Hallworthy, it's not worth the effort (particularly because that brings a whole lot of innuendo and zero proof regarding PED usage). Again, he never tested positive, his name never surfaced in the Mitchell Report or any other investigation, and it was never leaked as part of the 2003 survey test. Such suspicion may have been the cost of doing business in the so-called "Steroid Era," but that doesn't constitute evidence of wrongdoing.

In the end, Gonzalez's career was very good but not enough for Cooperstown, and among this year's parade of worthy candidates, he's likely to fall off the ballot in one turn. His mark in baseball history is secure, however. He'll always have the single off Rivera that brought an end to the Yankee dynasty and a title to Arizona.

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