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How Many More Years?

Today we’re going to start another little baseball project — the “How Many More Years Project.” This is the idea: We take a player who was ALMOST a Hall of Famer. And we ask the question: “How many more good years would it have taken to make that player a Hall of Famer?”

Today’s player: Nomar Garciaparra.

Nomah is in the news a bit these days because, well, because we have spent the last couple of weeks (or months or year or whatever) celebrating Derek Jeter. And as stories like this point out, it’s kind of hard to think about the young Derek Jeter without thinking a little bit about the young Nomar Garciaparra.

The two are more or less the same age; Garciaparra was born in July of 1973 and Jeter was born less than a year later. They were both first round picks. Jeter was the sixth pick in the 1992 draft out of high school. Nomah was the 12th pick in the 1994 draft after three years as an All-American at Georgia Tech.

They came up at roughly the same time. Jeter was a full-time player in 1996, when he won Rookie of the year. Nomar came up that year but he became a full-time player in ’97, when HE won Rookie of the Year. In 1998, they both had insanely good years. Nomar finished second in the MVP balloting. Jeter finished third. Either would have been a dramatically better choice than the man who won the award, Juan Gonzalez.

Through the 2003 season, Nomah had compiled 41.2 wins above replacement. Jeter: 40.4 WAR.

We all know how the Jeter part of all this turned out. Garciaparra’s career, meanwhile, was doomed by injuries and a rapid decline and some bad luck.

So, the question: How many more years?

From ages 22 to 29, Nomar Garciaparra was a a legendary hitter. He won two batting titles, and while batting average isn’t necessarily the best way to compute a player’s value, hey, .372 is still .372. That was Nomar’s average during his crazy 2000 season — 317 total bases, 51 doubles, 21 homers, 104 runs scored, 96 RBIs, all in just 140 games.

Those 317 total bases were actually his SIXTH highest total — he is one of only two shortstops in baseball history to top 300 total bases at least six times. The other was A-Rod who is a whole other subject.

Garciaparra was a ridiculous hitter. But he was also a good defensive shortstop in the early part of his career. He did not get a lot of credit for this when he was playing because he was not an especially graceful athlete. That is to say: He didn’t make ANYTHING look easy the way so many shortstops do.

Well, Garciaparra wasn’t really graceful at anything he did. He was a mechanical player, as self-made players often are. You will remember all the twitches and foot taps when he was in the batter’s box. Jeter was the graceful one, with his jump throws and general smoothness. Garciaparra was driven more by intensity and force.

Jeter danced. Garciaparra attacked the body.

Before the 2001 season, Nomah’s agent Scott Boras did a statistical study on his client. The study estimated that Garciaparra would hit .336 for his career and finish with more than 3,500 hits and 500 home runs. Yes, it’s true, that statistical study had an excel column for “wishful thinking,” and another labeled “hard to keep a straight face.” But it was true that Garciaparra at that point was a lifetime .333 hitter and that he had more than 800 hits. Big numbers were in play.

And then, Garciaparra had his first serious injury, a lingering wrist injury that kept him out of the lineup for the first four months of the season. After a month or so, the wrist took him out again. You could argue pretty persuasively that 2001 was the year that kept Nomah out of the Hall.

See, that 2001 season was supposed to be Garciaparra’s legend-making season. Sports Illustrated wrote a story before the year began titled: “400 Reasons.” It was basically how Garciaparra was preparing himself, as only Nomah really could, to make a real run at the magical .400 average.

If he had done that — hit .400 or even given it a great run — it might have secured his Hall of Fame credentials. His career was that close.

But he did not hit .400. He did not give it a run. He played just 21 games. And, sadly, ever though he was just 28, he was never again quite the same player.

Oh, he was a fantastic player in 2002 and 2003 — he led the league with 56 doubles in 2002, and he finished seventh in the MVP voting in 2003 when he hit .301 with 28 homers, 105 RBIs, 120 runs scored and played an excellent shortstop. But as good as those seasons were, they were not quite in the stratosphere of the pre-wrist injury Nomah. His average was down 40 or 50 points. His slugging percentage was down 75. Managers intentionally walked him TWENTY TIMES in 2000, that’s how good he was.

He was intentionally walked 24 times for the rest of his career.

And after 2003, well, it’s a sad thing for Nomah fans. If he had maintained even his 2003 level for some time, he would have made a powerful Hall of Fame argument. It could have happened. He was still only 29.

But after the 2003 season, as everyone remembers, the Red Sox tried to hard to trade for Alex Rodriguez. It was a shot across the bow; Nomah’s contract was up after 2004, and this was a clear sign: Boston was ready to move on without him. He was hurt. And he was angry.

And after the A-Rod deal fell through, Garciaparra began the season on the disabled list with an Achilles injury. When he returned, he hit pretty well but his movement was shot, and his defense for the first time was a clear liability. On July 31, the Red Sox did the unthinkable: They traded Nomar Garciaparra.

“We lost a great player,” Red Sox GM Theo Epstein announced. “But we made our team more functional. We weren’t going to win the World Series with our defense.”

“If it was in my control,” Garciaparra said, “I’d still be wearing a Red Sox uniform.”

Less than three months later, the Red Sox won their first World Series in more than 80 years.

And Nomah — he never again played 125 games in a season. The decline was rapid, and it was cruel. He had one more good year, 2006, when he was with the Dodgers. He hit .303 with 20 homers. But he was a first baseman by then, not a shortstop. He no longer had Fenway Park, that ancient palace that seemed made for him. It was over. He played three more nondescript years and retired at 35, as a member of the Oakland A’s

So finally, we get to the question: How many more years? Well, let’s look at Garciaparra and two others — his contemporary Jeter and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken.

Great years (WAR above 5.0)

Ripken: 8

Garciaparra: 6

Jeter: 5

So he’s there with the greats in great years.

Good years (WAR from 3.0 to 4.9)

Jeter: 9

Ripken: 7

Garciaparra: 0


Productive years (WAR from 2.0 to 2.9)

Ripken: 1

Jeter: 1

Garciaparra: 1

There you go. He had the great years. But he didn’t have enough good years to fill out that Hall of Fame resume. He couldn’t stay healthy enough. He declined too quickly. His body broke down on him. It’s a surprisingly common story in baseball. The thing that marks the Hall of Famers, as much as anything, was their superhuman endurance.

So how many many years?Well, it’s important to remember: Jeter and Ripken are not near the Hall of Fame line. They’re the best of the best. Ripken got 99% of the Hall of Fame vote — it’s still staggering to think that eight people did not vote for him. There will be talk about Jeter getting 100% of the vote, but he won’t. He should top 99%.

And so to get 75%, well, it feels to me that Garciaparra is close. I think with three more good years after he was traded from Boston, he would have pushed his hit total above 2,000, he would have approached 300 homers, he would have topped 1,000 RBIs and 1,000 runs. I think there would be a pretty strong case. And if you threw one GREAT year in there, yes, I think Garciaparra would be in.

Final judgement: 3 more good years or 2 more great years.



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