Jay Jaffe begins his in-depth JAWS look at the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot with some of this year's likely one-and-done players, including Brad Ausmus, David Eckstein and Mike Sweeney.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
For better or worse, I'm a completist. In 12 years of analyzing Hall of Fame ballots using my JAWS system, I've never let a candidate pass without comment, no matter how remote his chance of election. From the brothers Alomar to the youngest Alou and the elder Young, I've covered them all. It should come as no surprise, then, that I'm tackling the minor candidates on the 2016 Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot in addition to the major ones.
To be eligible for election, a player must appear in games in at least 10 major league seasons, with a career that ended at least five calendar years ago, and then be nominated by at least two members of a six-member screening committee. That last step can produce some arbitrary results, as the inexplicable and somewhat infuriating omission of Chan Ho Park from this year's ballot shows. Prior to the announcement of the official ballot, 25 eligible newcomers were listed on baseball-reference.com, though only 17 made the cut. Not necessarily the best 17, either, at least according to JAWS, where Park (whose primary significance is as the majors’ first South Korean player and All-Star) and non-candidate Jeff Weaver have higher scores than candidate Brad Ausmus. That said, this year's line less resembles the boundary of a gerrymandered congressional district than others of recent vintage.
Given a backlog of strong candidates, this is no tragedy in the grand scheme of things, since most newcomers have no shot at gaining the 75% of the votes necessary for election. By my measure, nine candidates fall at least 20 points shy of the JAWS standard at their positions, too far to make any real case for them. It will be a surprise if any receives more than a token vote, let alone the minimum 5% necessary to remain on the ballot. Even so, these potentially one-and-done types were accomplished players who deserve their valedictory, so I'll spend this post and the next running through the ones about whom we might say, "They also served."
This is Part 1 of a two-part look at likely one-and-done players, covering ballot candidates at catcher, first base, second base and shortstop.
|Avg. HOF C||52.5||33.8||43.1|
|Avg. HOF 1B||65.9||42.4||54.2|
|Avg. HOF 2B||69.3||44.4||56.5|
|Avg. HOF SS||66.7||42.8||54.7|
Though he wasn't much of a hitter, Ausmus spent 18 years in the majors as a cerebral, defense-minded catcher, earning three Gold Gloves and parlaying his lengthy experience—1,938 games caught, seventh all-time—into a job managing the Tigers just three years after his retirement. The Connecticut native was chosen out of high school in the 47th round of the 1987 draft by the Yankees, who allowed him to attend Dartmouth College in the off-season while he began his minor-league career. He thus couldn't play college ball (instead, he served as volunteer coach and bullpen catcher), but he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in Government in 1991 and became the rare modern-day Ivy Leaguer to reach the majors.
That didn't happen until 1993, by which point Ausmus had been chosen by the Rockies in the '92 expansion draft, then traded to the Padres shortly before the July 31 trading deadline the following year. Both transactions bore the stamp of Randy Smith, who served as assistant general manager of the Rockies in 1992 and '93 before returning to San Diego in June of '93. Smith and Ausmus would become inextricably linked, as the GM would trade for the catcher again in 1996 and 2000.
Almost immediately upon being acquired by the Padres in 1993, Ausmus became the starting catcher on a team that had been abruptly plunged into the rebuilding process, with trades of Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield (and the departure of general manager Joe McIlvaine) preceding his arrival. Ausmus posted his best offensive season in 1995, hitting .293/.353/.412 with five homers for a 104 OPS+. It was mostly downhill for him there at the plate; his occasional .350-ish on-base percentages were products of batting at the bottom of NL lineups, where he could be pitched around in favor of the pitcher, and he lacked power. With the Tigers in 1999, he made his first and only All-Star team, set a career high in homers (nine) and posted a 100 OPS+, the only other time he ranked as a league-average or better hitter.
Despite his general weakness at the plate, he was regarded as an exceptional defender, exceeding the league-average caught-stealing rate in all but four of his first 15 seasons. A later study by Baseball Prospectus’ Max Marchi concluded that Ausmus was the game’s best pitch framer in the quarter-century before PITCHf/x was introduced, adding roughly one win per season with his strike-stealing prowess. He won Gold Gloves in 2001, ’02 and ’06 in his second go-round with the Astros, with whom he reached the postseason five times during his two stints. He produced a particularly memorable postseason moment via a game-tying solo homer off the Braves' Kyle Farnsworth with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 4 of the 2005 Division Series; Houston would win the 18-inning marathon, eliminating Atlanta and ultimately marching to its lone NL pennant.
After eight seasons with the Astros (2001–08), Ausmus spent his final two years as a backup and de facto coach with the Dodgers, playing in a total of 57 games. In 2010, a herniated disc sent him to the disabled list for the only time in his career, prefiguring his retirement. After managing Team Israel through the qualification round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic—he's of Jewish descent, and once joked that he sat out Yom Kippur "to atone for my poor first half"—he was hired by the Tigers to succeed the retiring Jim Leyland in November of that year. He led the team to a fourth straight AL Central title in 2014, but he now finds himself on the hot seat; Detroit sank below .500 this past season, though reports of his imminent firing proved false. If he's going to make it to Cooperstown, it will be via the dugout, though he's got a long ways to go on that front.
New York is where the spotlight shines brightest, and so Castillo's drop of a potential game-ending pop-up by the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez in the 2009 Subway Series interleague opener may be remembered more by baseball fans than any other moment in a 15-year career that included three All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, two stolen base championships and a key role on the 2003 World Series-winning Marlins. Ouch.
A native of the San Pedro de Macoris baseball hotbed in the Dominican Republic, Castillo was signed by the Marlins as a 16-year-old in 1992 and reached the majors as a 20-year-old in August of 1996. He struggled to establish himself, spending substantial time in Triple A in each of the following two seasons (he was not on the 1997 championship team's postseason roster) before finally showing he could hold down a regular job in ’99. Castillo hit .302/.384/.366 and swiped 50 bases that year, good for fourth in the NL, then improved to .334/.418/.388 with league leads in steals (62) and caught stealing (22) in 2000. His batting average ranked fifth in the league, his on-base percentage eighth and his 4.5 WAR would endure as his career high.
After a down 2001 season marked by injuries, Castillo earned All-Star honors for the first time in '02. That season, he stole an NL-best 48 bases and pieced together a 35-game hitting streak, the longest ever by a Latin America-born player and tied with Chase Utley ('06) for the longest of the millennium. In '03, he hit .314/.381/.397 with 4.4 WAR and earned an All-Star berth and a Gold Glove, but while he had a pair of three-hit games in extra-inning wins over the Giants and Cubs in the postseason, he hit just .211/.291/.268 during the Marlins' run to their second championship, going just 4 for 26 in the World Series. A free agent that winter, he remained with Florida via a three-year, $16 million deal that included a vesting option.
After totaling 7.5 WAR over the next two seasons, Castillo was traded to the Twins in December 2005. He helped them to a division title the following year and nearly helped the Mets to a postseason berth in 2007, producing 1.6 WAR in 50 games after a July 30 trade compared to 1.3 WAR in 85 games prior; alas, New York blew a seven-game NL East lead over the season's final three weeks. Re-signed by the Mets to a four-year, $25 million deal, he missed substantial time due to injuries in 2008 and ’10, with a superficially solid ’09 season (.302/.387/.346 with 20 steals) overshadowed by poor defense, including the aforementioned gaffe. New York cut bait in spring 2011, and while he briefly tried to catch on with the Phillies, he never played another professional regular season game.
Owner of one of the majors' toughest-to-spell names, Grudzielanek scattered some big seasons across a 15-year career that spanned from 1995 through 2010. The stage for his nomadic career was set even before he reached the majors: He was born in Milwaukee, graduated from an El Paso, Texas, high school and was drafted out of a Colorado junior college by the Montreal Expos in the 11th round in 1991. He reached the majors with Montreal in 1995, bouncing around the infield and back to the minors before emerging as the team's regular shortstop in '96. A .306/.340/.397 season with 201 hits earned him All-Star honors for the only time in his career that year.
Grudzielanek spent another season-plus in that capacity with dwindling returns and increasing salary before being traded to the Dodgers in a seven-player deal at the 1998 deadline. He hit .326/.376/.436 en route to 3.6 WAR the following season, but while his defense graded out as above-average, Los Angeles opted to move him to second base to make room for Alex Cora at shortstop. Grudzielanek was largely a disappointment over the next three seasons, producing a combined 4.0 WAR and an 86 OPS+, though injuries and illness played their part in sapping his production. A December 2002 trade to the Cubs gave him a much-needed change of scenery, and he hit .314/.366/.416 with 2.3 WAR for a team that came within one win of a pennant. He re-signed with Chicago after reaching free agency that winter, but he lost more than two months to a torn Achilles tendon in 2004 and was on the road again.
After setting a career high with 4.1 WAR for the Cardinals in 2005—thanks largely to improved defense at the keystone opposite fellow 2016 ballot newcomer David Eckstein—Gruzielanek enjoyed back-to-back 3.2 WAR seasons for the otherwise miserable Royals. However, a collision with a teammate tore a muscle in his right ankle, ending his 2008 season two months early, and between that and a hamstring injury, his ’09 amounted to just 11 minor-league games in the Twins' system. Though he made the Indians' roster as a utilityman out of spring training in 2010, he was cut in June after failing to collect a single extra-base hit in 110 plate appearances, and that was that.
One of four ex-Angels who are prominent among this ballot's newcomers, Eckstein, like Garret Anderson, spent so much time caught in the never-ending tug-of-war along the Moneyball fault line that his virtues were sometimes obscured. Listed at 5'6", he was renowned—or alternately, reviled—for his scrappiness and played a major role on two World Series winners, not to mention a great post-career cameo on one of TV's funniest sitcoms.
After starting at Seminole High School in Sanford, Fla., Ecsktein made the University of Florida team as a walk-on before earning a scholarship, and, eventually, first-team All-America honors. The Red Sox chose him in the 19th round in 1997 but never believed his future was at shortstop, instead moving him to second base. In late 2000, amid a subpar showing at Triple A Pawtucket during his age-25 season, the Sox lost him on waivers to Anaheim. He won the team's starting shortstop job the following spring and hit .285/.355/.357 with 29 steals in 33 attempts as well as league leads in hit-by-pitches (21) and sac bunts (16), not to mention an impressive 4.2 WAR. He was even better in '02, producing 5.2 WAR on a .293/.363/.388 line with 21 steals and stellar fielding (+10 runs). He went 9 for 29 with six runs scored in the World Series against the Giants, scoring the go-ahead runs in Games 2 and 7.
Alas, Eckstein's offense and defense fell off, and after back-to-back mediocre seasons that produced a combined 3.6 WAR, he was non-tendered by the Angels in December 2004. He quickly signed with the Cardinals and earned All-Star honors in back-to-back seasons while helping the team to a pair of NL Central titles and sparking rally after rally in the postseason. He was the MVP of the 2006 World Series, hitting .364/.391/.500, with eight of his nine hits coming in the Cardinals' Games 3, 4 and 5 wins over the Tigers; his three doubles in Game 4 helped St. Louis erase an early 3–0 deficit, with the last of them driving in the game-winning run. Though he set a career high in batting average the following year (hitting .309/.356/.382 in all), a back injury and his declining range and arm strength limited him to 0.8 WAR. The Cardinals let him depart as a free agent, and he spent his final three seasons bouncing from the Blue Jays to the Diamondbacks to the Padres—and back to second base—with diminishing returns.
In 2013, the NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation—executive producer Mike Schur (aka Ken Tremendous) and screenwriter Alan Yang wrote for the hilarious Fire Joe Morgan website, which from 2005 through ’08 lampooned the worst anti-sabermetric writing and broadcasting—gave baseball fans quite an "Easter Egg" via a sign for a fictitious law firm: Babip, Pecota, Vorp and Eckstein. That's two Baseball Prospectus acronyms (Value Over Replacement Player, and PECOTA, the site's player projection system), as well as the commonly cited stat for batting average on balls in play, and the name of the man who was the gritty, undersized embodiment of things that can't be quantified. The joke was furthered by MLB Fan Cave via a faux commercial for the firm starring Eckstein.
"Do you not understand the unwritten laws of baseball because no one has written them down?" he begins, and it just gets better from there:
Sweeney was a cornerstone of the Royals during their long dark age, as only once in his 13 seasons with the team (1995–2007) did they even crack .500. A five-time All-Star, he was Kansas City's lone representative in three of those years. Regarded as one of the game's true gentlemen, he gave fans of a downtrodden team something to cheer about on a regular basis, earning a spot as one of the most popular players in franchise history.
Drafted out of Ontario (Calif.) High School as a catcher in the 10th round in 1991, Sweeney reached the majors in September of '95, shortly after his 22nd birthday. Over the next three seasons, he caught a total of 197 games for the Royals, but troubles both at the plate and behind it pushed him back to the minors in 1996 and '97. In '98, Kansas City committed to him as a full-time player, moving him from catcher to first base, and the 25-year-old Sweeney broke out, hitting .322/.387/.520 with 22 homers, 102 RBIs and 3.2 WAR.
That was the first season of a seven-year stretch over which Sweeney hit .313/.383/.521 with a 130 OPS+ and averages of 23 homers and 3.1 WAR per year. He made the AL All-Star team every year from 2000 through '03—the latter being the Royals' lone winning season during his tenure—and again in '05. By that point, however, hip, neck and back injuries forced him to the DL on an all-too frequent basis; from '02 through '05, he averaged just 116 games per year, never topping 126, and he spent an increasing amount of time as a designated hitter, cutting into his value.
A bulging disc in his neck limited Sweeney to just 60 games in 2006 and sapped his power; he would never top 74 games or a .450 slugging percentage again. After he played in just 74 games in 2007 due to right knee surgery in the final year of his five-year, $55 million deal, he limped away to Oakland; he signed a minor-league deal with the A's but played in just 42 games due to bilateral knee problems that required in-season surgery. He turned in a respectable season (.281/.335/.442 with eight homers in 266 plate appearances) as a part-time DH for the Mariners in 2009, but back trouble limited him to 56 games the following year. An August trade to the Phillies did allow him to taste the postseason for the only time in his career, however. In Game 2 of the Division Series against Cincinnati, Sweeney delivered a pinch-hit single off Aroldis Chapman. It was his last hit, and one that reminded the baseball world of how many more there might have been if he could have stayed healthy.