We are fast approaching 2015, and with it, the announcement of who will be added to the Hall of Fame. January 6th is the big day, and already we’re starting to get an idea on who might be in and who might not. I’ll be posting my ballot in a few days, but there’s one specific player that I want to focus on for the time being. Someone who probably won’t get a second thought from most voters, let alone a vote: Brian Giles.
I suppose you could say that part of my reason for wanting to write about Giles is personal. I lived in Pittsburgh for a while when I was younger. It wasn’t enough to make me a Pirates fan (really, given the awfulness of those early-2000s Pirates teams, it’s a minor miracle I didn’t develop a burning hatred for the entire sport), but it gave me a soft spot for the team and the stars from that era. I’ve written about Jason Kendall and Jack Wilson already (here and here, respectively), but Brian hung up his cleats a little earlier than either of them. So I’ll take this temporary return to relevance as an excuse to reflect on all that he did, since most people probably won’t be.
To start with, a personal story. At least, this isn’t really relevant to the rest of the article, so I’ll just say it here. Back when I played Little League, I used to look forward each year to seeing what jersey number I would get and who had that number in the Majors. I remember the year that I got 24 specifically because it was Brian Giles’s number. I don’t remember if I ever got 8 for Cal Ripken, or 17 or 27 for Scott Rolen, or any of my other favorite players from back then, but 24 sticks out in my mind.
As a young child in Pittsburgh, I remember thinking the Pirates would be good soon. Even after the chances of me actually being a fan of the Pirates were basically zero, you still sort of overestimate the hometown team. So when 2003 came around, I figured that the Pirates would be competing that year. After all, they had Kendall and Giles and Wilson and Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs and Kip Wells and Kris Benson and Jeff Suppan and Josh Fogg and Randall Simon…
No really, I actually remember being excited about Randall Simon and Josh Fogg. It’s easy for a small child to get caught up in the newness of acquisitions and the blind optimism of local fans and so on. That team would disappoint, going 75 and 87 for their eleventh straight losing season (officially halfway done with the streak, though!), with Giles and several of the other players being shipped out midseason.
I would keep following Giles as he went on to play six more seasons in San Diego after that trade. And years later, when I finally got into advanced stats, I was thrilled to see that Brian was one of the players who was as good as I had thought him to be as a little kid, even if he did only have two All-Star selections and a few lower MVP finishes to show for it.
In fact, he was sort of a criminally underrated star. In his peak, from 1999 to 2005, he averaged 30 home runs and 100 RBI per year while hitting .303/.418/.554, a batting line that was good for a 151 OPS+. In those seven years, he was worth 35.6 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. Fangraphs’ version rates him even more highly, with 40.0 WAR in that same time span. That’s actually quite a solid peak. Heck, from 1999 to 2003 alone, his lowest OPS was .994, and even accounting for the inflated offense of the era, his lowest OPS+ was 150.
His career numbers aren’t exactly awful, either. He finished with 1897 hits, 287 home runs, 411 doubles, and 1183 walks. While his counting stats may look low, his rate stats show just how good he was: a .291/.400/.502 career batting line, 166 hits, 104 walks, 36 double, 5 triples, and 25 home runs are his 162 game averages. His 136 OPS+ is tied for 62nd all-time among players with at least 7000 plate appearances. If you’re a fan of arbitrary round number groupings, he just misses the career .300/.400/.500 mark, but he is one of only 26 players with a career .290/.400/.500 line. Baseball-Reference puts his career Wins Above Replacement at 50.9, while Fangraphs goes even higher at 54.5.
However, there’s another interesting factor to Giles’s case: his late start. As you may or may not know, he didn’t play in over 100 games in a season until 1997, when he was already 26. He was pretty good that year, too, hitting .268/.368/.459 in 451 plate appearances. In the three years before then, he had been hitting everything he saw, posting a .312/.391/.518 triple slash in 334 AAA games and a .369/.441/.631 line in 57 games in the big leagues. If he was dominating like that, why wasn’t he in the majors, though?
What you may or may not know is that Giles did not start his career on the Pirates. He actually began his career with the Indians, meaning he spent 1994 through 1996 stuck behind the historically-great outfield of Albert Belle/Kenny Lofton/Manny Ramirez, with Eddie Murray installed as the DH. It wasn’t until the aging Murray faltered at 40 in 1996 that Giles got his first extended look in the majors.
You have to figure Giles lost at least a season and a half to that, maybe more. And given how well he hit after his call-up, not missing a beat, it was probably a rather good season-and-a-half+ that we missed out on. It’s a rather sad “what might have been” story for an underrated player that falls surprisingly close to the Hall’s borderline. For instance, just to go by Fangraphs’ WAR, his 54.5 WAR total as it stands is 65th all-time among outfielders. It’s not really a prime Hall position, but there are Hall members in his vicinity (Joe Medwick, Harry Hooper, Jim Rice, etc.). Another 3 WAR from that missed playing time and he’s neck-and-neck with Richie Ashburn; another 5 and he’s sandwiched between Dave Winfield and Andrew Dawson for 50th all-time (it also gets even better from there if you decided to take out his final season, where both metrics agree he cost his team about a win and a half in 61 games before retiring mid-season).
But he didn’t get called up earlier, and so he doesn’t even get the benefit of being a stealthy, forgotten Hall candidate. He’s the best of the just-missed group. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system for measuring Hall-worthiness has him 27th among right fielders, with 24 currently inducted. Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats gives him a Hall Rating of 97, where 100 is the minimum for Hall induction and each point above or below that a percentage above or below the Hall’s standards. He is as borderline a candidate as you could conceive.
In an ideal world, where I had both a Hall of Fame vote and an unlimited number of slots with which to vote, I’d definitely write him in. Partly because I like supporting underrated players and for personal fandom reasons, but also partly for what might have been, were he given a chance a little sooner. He would probably be my absolute baseline for corner outfielders in my personal Hall of Fame (a concept that I’ve explored before). But as is, he’ll probably slip off the ballot without even a vote. It’s a shame, but at least he’ll make for good company with Jim Wynn there.