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Nomar Garciaparra’s Full Career Wasn’t Enough For Cooperstown — But It Was Still Damn Good

If you’d told a Red Sox fan in the summer of 1997 that Boston would win three World Series in the next 16 years — well, first, they’d be beyond ecstatic; the team had infamously not won a title since 1918. And second, they’d have been sure that shortstop Nomar Garciaparra would be the main reason for that success. Garciaparra was in the midst of a Rookie of the Year season that saw him lead the American League in hits and triples, finishing second in runs scored and total bases. Though Boston wasn’t very good that year (going 78-84), the Red Sox were just a couple years removed from a division crown and had a pipeline of prospects on the way that included outfielder Trot Nixon, catcher Jason Varitek and starter Carl Pavano — who was traded after that season for Montreal Expos ace Pedro Martinez.

Curses aside, with Garciaparra leading the way, it wasn’t impossible to imagine a Red Sox dynasty spanning the 2000s and lasting into the 2010s. A hotshot future Hall of Fame shortstop can set your team up for a long run of success; Derek Jeter, Garciaparra’s rival at shortstop for the New York Yankees, is only a year younger and was his team’s starter through age 40 in 2014. But, of course, that’s not what happened in Boston. Maybe the most improbable aspect of the Red Sox’s success — which included the first 0-3 comeback in MLB playoff history — was that Garciaparra wasn’t present for any of it. Thanks to injuries and a rift with management, Nomar was shipped out of town three months before Boston ended its World Series drought, and his career was never really the same afterward. But in this week’s edition of our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, we remember the player who was once on track for all-time great numbers.

HOF resume: Nomar Garciaparra, SS

Category Value Rank at Pos.
Career WAR 42.9 31
Peak WAR 41.6 12
JAWS 42.3 21
HOF Monitor 113 16
HOF Standards 41 14
Black Ink Test 15 12
Gray Ink Test 78 19
Implied HOF%* 37% 17
Years on ballot 2
Vote share 1.8%
HOF track**

*Hall of Fame probability based on traditional stats.

**Hall of Fame track based on most recent vote share and years on the ballot.

Data as of April 14, 2020.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Garciaparra’s final career stats are of borderline Hall of Fame quality at best. He ranks just 31st among MLB shortstops (since 1901) in total wins above replacement1 and 21st in JAWS, which averages together a player’s career and peak WAR.2 That latter figure is better than only 16 percent of the shortstops in Cooperstown, and while he fares slightly better by more traditional measurements,3 Garciaparra still would be worse than the typical Hall of Fame shortstop by most accounts.

Things didn’t always look that way, however. In fact, early in Garciaparra’s career, he was on pace to be one of the best shortstops in baseball history. After breaking out as a rookie for 6.5 WAR, he added 7.2 the next year as the Red Sox won 92 games and made the playoffs in 1998. Though bolstered by the offseason arrival of Martinez, Boston’s most valuable player by WAR that season was still Garciaparra, who hit .323 with 35 home runs and played strong defense at short. After follow-up seasons of 6.4 and 7.5 WAR in 1999 and 2000 — during which he won two batting titles and Boston reached an American League Championship Series — Garciaparra was in rarified territory for his position. Though outpaced by his contemporary Alex Rodriguez, another ridiculous early-career phenom, Garciaparra had more WAR through age 26 (27.8) than Jeter (25.5), Ernie Banks (23.1), Barry Larkin (18.2), Luis Aparicio (17.5) or Ozzie Smith (9.9), all of whom are in Cooperstown.

Although the Red Sox slipped by nine wins in the 2000 season to miss the playoffs at 85-77, it was an especially fruitful summer for both Garciaparra — who dallied with the unattainable .400 average before finishing at .372 — and Martinez, who reached the summit of all-time pitching brilliance that year. In tandem, Pedro and Nomar produced 18.1 WAR in 2000, the 11th-largest combined total by any team’s top position player and top pitcher in a single season since 1901:

MLB’s best batter-pitcher tandems

Most combined wins above replacement for a team’s No. 1 position player and No. 1 pitcher in the same season, 1901-2019

Year Team Best Batter WAR Best Pitcher WAR Total
1948 STL Stan Musial (OF) 11.2 Harry Brecheen 8.3 19.5
1965 SFG Willie Mays (CF) 11.0 Juan Marichal 8.6 19.5
1923 NYY Babe Ruth (OF) 14.5 Herb Pennock 4.7 19.3
1912 BOS Tris Speaker (OF) 10.4 Smoky Joe Wood 8.8 19.2
1932 PHA Jimmie Foxx (1B) 10.9 Lefty Grove 8.3 19.2
1921 NYY Babe Ruth (OF) 13.4 Waite Hoyt 5.4 18.8
2001 ARI Luis Gonzalez (LF) 8.4 Randy Johnson 10.3 18.7
1920 NYY Babe Ruth (OF) 12.6 Bob Shawkey 6.0 18.6
1980 PHI Mike Schmidt (3B) 8.9 Steve Carlton 9.5 18.5
1924 NYY Babe Ruth (OF) 12.1 Herb Pennock 6.3 18.4
2000 BOS Nomar Garciaparra (SS) 7.5 Pedro Martinez 10.6 18.1
2004 SFG Barry Bonds (LF) 11.3 Jason Schmidt 6.6 17.9
1946 BOS Ted Williams (OF) 11.2 Tex Hughson 6.6 17.8
1927 NYY Babe Ruth (OF) 12.7 Waite Hoyt 5.0 17.7
1908 NYG Mike Donlin (OF) 6.3 Christy Mathewson 11.3 17.6

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Garciaparra missed 136 games in 2001 because of a wrist injury, and Boston tumbled to 82-79. But he bounced back by averaging 5.9 WAR per season over the next two years, with the Red Sox reloading to come within a game of making the World Series in 2003. At age 29, Garciaparra was still in his prime and remained one of the most productive shortstops in the game, second only to Rodriguez by WAR that season.

But he was second, and to Rodriguez. And that — coupled with strong-willed negotiations over a contract extension before the final year of his existing deal — ultimately paved the way for Garciaparra’s exit from Boston. When the Texas Rangers gave up on their A-Rod experiment, the Red Sox pounced on the chance to upgrade from baseball’s second-best shortstop to its best. They worked out a deal that would send outfielder Manny Ramirez to Texas for Rodriguez, while simultaneously dispatching Garciaparra to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Magglio Ordóñez. But the trade eventually collapsed under its own weight, leading Rodriguez to join the Yankees instead … and Garciaparra to stew over management’s failed attempt to ship him out of town.

[Related: Our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players]

Unhappy and limited in playing time by an achilles injury, Garciaparra was increasingly irrelevant to the 2004 Red Sox’s chances as the summer progressed. (The juxtaposition of Jeter hurling himself into the stands during one July game while Nomar sulked on the bench was not lost on the Boston press.) Garciaparra hit .321 with an .867 on-base plus slugging when in the lineup, but he also struggled defensively and had played only 38 games through late July, generating just 0.2 WAR. On the day of the trade deadline, Boston finally pulled the trigger on a swap that sent Garciaparra4 to the Chicago Cubs, yielding shortstop Orlando Cabrera (and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz).

The rest was baseball history. Although the trade wasn’t an immediate hit with Red Sox fans, Cabrera was a defensive upgrade at short and had a .377 on-base percentage in the postseason, while Mientkiewicz recorded the final out as Boston won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. With their curse lifted, the Red Sox just kept winning over the next decade and a half.

For his part, Garciaparra kept raking (.819 OPS) after arriving in Chicago — and his defense even improved some — though the Cubs failed to make the playoffs despite winning 89 games. The next year, he ruptured a tendon in his groin, limiting him to 62 games and 0.2 WAR. After signing with the Dodgers for 2006, Garciaparra enjoyed one last good season — with an .872 OPS and 2.2 WAR in 122 games — but he struggled through an abysmal 2007 (-1.3 WAR) and a pair of injury-plagued campaigns in 2008 and ’09 before hanging up the spikes for good at the too-young age of 36.

[Related: Our MLB Predictions]

Nomar’s final WAR tally after leaving Boston: 2.8, compared with the 40.1 he piled up for the Fenway faithful.

Like other members of the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, Garciaparra peaked early, failing to put together a full career’s worth of Hall of Fame numbers. After getting just 1.8 percent of the writers’ vote in 2016, he dropped off the Cooperstown ballot permanently, and it’s tough to make a case for him as anything other than a fringe candidate for the game’s highest honor. But at his best, Garciaparra combined an elite batting average with strong power and smooth fielding at one of the game’s most challenging positions. By WAR, he was the best young Red Sox position player since Ted Williams. (There’s a reason why Boston fans loved “Nomaaaaaaah!” to the point of becoming a caricature.)

Although technically he got a ring for 2004, it remains a shame that Garciaparra didn’t really get to participate in the Red Sox’s 21st century renaissance. It’s an incomplete chapter in the story of an equally incomplete Hall of Fame career. Still, Garciaparra was nothing if not Damn Good — even if it was for too short a time.


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Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Once again using JEFFBAGWELL for wins above replacement.

  3. Such as Bill James’s Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor tests, and his Black Ink and Gray Ink tests, each of which ranks Garciaparra among the top 20 shortstops since 1901. Data as of April 14, 2020.

  4. And outfielder Matt Murton.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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