As a Yankee fan and as someone who writes predominantly to other Yankee fans, I tend to begin my assessments of players through that prism, right or wrong. And when it comes to Jason Giambi, I think he’s been vastly underrated by Yankee fans. His propensity for hitting very timely and memorable home runs I think is the only thing that saves his Yankee tenure from being viewed as a bust by most.
This is very unfair. Jason Giambi was a monster with the Yankees and is very underrated not just in terms of his Yankee tenure, but in terms of his entire career. In fact, my initial thought is that he is a Hall of Fame player, but I wanted to take a closer look.
For starters Yankee fans, from 2002 through 2008 covering 897 games and 3,693 plate appearances, Giambi led the Yankees in HR (209) and OBP (.404) and was 2nd to A-Rod in OPS+, RBI, and SLG. And remember, those Yankee teams were loaded with savages. His 143 OPS+ was 9th best in all of MLB over that stretch, with the only players ahead of him being Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers and should be in the Hall of Famers.
He’s inarguably the second-best offensive first baseman in Yankee history, finishing behind Gehrig and only Gehrig in OBP, SLG, and adjusted OPS. And even as a defensive liability, he still finished with more WAR as a Yankee than Tino Martinez and Mark Teixeira despite playing in fewer games than both.
At his peak, Giambi was an offensive juggernaut. From 1999 through 2006, he had a 162 OPS+ with a .433/.570 OBP/SLG line. Only Barry Bonds was better in all three areas and only Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez posted a better OPS+ – Giambi’s was better than recent inductees Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Thome over that stretch, for some perspective.
But what about the totality of his career?
From 1990 through today, among MLB first basemen with a minimum of 6,000 PA Giambi is 4th in OBP, 4th in OPS+, 8th in SLG and 8th in WAR. Pretty lofty accomplishments considering Pujols, Bagwell, Palmeiro, and Votto are contemporaries. But he is behind Todd Helton, John Olerud and Teixeira in overall WAR which hurts his case as few people feel those three players are Hall of Famers (right or wrong).
And if we use Jay Jaffe’s method (why do the work when a smart person who’s been doing this for a long time has already done it? Link on the right side of this page) of comparing players to players at the same position who are already inducted, Giambi ranks 25th – there are 21 first basemen in the Hall, which doesn’t help his case. And that’s not counting Pujols, Votto and Miguel Cabrera who are still active. And among players who have not been inducted, Giambi trails not only Olerud and Helton but Keith Hernandez and Mark McGwire on the same list.
One could certainly make the case that Giambi is the victim of the same poor luck that happened to befell Bert Blyleven and Mike Mussina for so long: Being great when your contemporaries are among the best ever. Blyleven pitched with Palmer, Seaver, Carlton, and Ryan among another 6 or 7 Hall of Fame pitchers, which made Blyleven appear not as great as he was. Mussina competed with Pedro, Randy, Clemens, and Maddux – he wasn’t as good but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great.
In Giambi’s case, having Pujols, Bagwell, Cabrera, Votto, Thome, Palmeiro, and McGwire as your contemporaries could make you look like less than a Hall of Famer even if you are. If Giambi played in the 30s and 40s we’d look at his career differently, for sure.
But because I tend to be slightly on the side of a small Hall fan, I’d go with a “no” vote on Giambi, for now. That’s not to say my opinion won’t change as it should in some cases with some perspective and more information comes to light.
But as I write this today, the Giambino is on the outside looking in.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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