Jason Giambi announced his retirement on Monday, after 20 seasons as a major leaguer. For most of those 20 years, Giambi was one of the best hitters in the game. I won’t waste your time putting down the narrative of his career — Jay Jaffe already did that better than I would anyway. But I thought today that we would celebrate his career with a few choice facts and/or moments from a career that at the very least belongs in the Hall of Very Good.
1. Giambi had one of the best five year stretches for a hitter ever
From 1999-2003, Giambi was overshadowed only by, you guessed it, Barry Bonds. Bonds cast such a huge shadow that it’s hard to remember anyone else as truly incredible. But there were plenty of great hitters at that time, and Giambi was among the best. His 170 wRC+ tied for second with Manny Ramirez. I wanted to see how this stacked up historically, and luckily, FanGraphs intern and statistical analysis phenom Morris Greenberg was up to the challenge. You can find the top 200 in this Google doc. As you scroll through, you’ll notice a whole lot of Bonds, Babe Ruth and other luminaries. There’s lots of duplicates, but amidst them we find Giambi at #120. Pretty good. Now, let’s remove the duplicates, taking just the single best five-year stretch of each player’s career:
|Best Five Consecutive Seasons, by wRC+, 1871-2014 (min. 200 PA per season)|
Only 22 players’ best five-year stretch was better than Giambi’s. Not too shabby! Morris points out that of those 22, the only ones not in the Hall of Fame are the banned player (Jackson), Giambi’s alleged fellow steroid users (McGwire, Sosa) and an active player (Pujols). Giambi grades out better than many of the game’s best and brightest — Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Joe DiMaggio, Dick Allen, etc. Giambi wasn’t the slickest afield or afoot, but few could tear the cover off the ball the way he could.
2. Giambi was one of the best hitters of all-time
Giambi’s greatness wasn’t limited to a five-year period though. Using the FanGraphs career filters, we find that 1,000 plate appearances makes you “qualified” for the career leaderboard. If you take it back to 1871, there are 3,835 qualified players. With nearly 9,000 plate appearances, Giambi is certainly among that group, and his career 140 wRC+ ranks 70th all-time. His 422.5 Offense (or Off) ranks 56th. His 440 homers rank 41st all-time. I think there is a tendency to not be impressed by home run totals unless the number is 500, but only 51 players have topped 400. That’s a pretty select list. It should add two more members this year in Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera, but the next-closest active players might have a tough time getting there:
- Carlos Beltran – 373 homers, 37 years old
- Aramis Ramirez – 369, 36
- Mark Teixeira – 363, 34
- Ryan Howard – 334, 34
- Torii Hunter – 331, 38
Beltran and Ramirez stand a good chance of getting there, but Teixeira is dicey, and Howard and Hunter probably have no shot. And that’s just to get to 400 — none of them are getting to 440 where Giambi is. It’s tough to do, is the point. He also came within two homers of joining Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez as the only player to hit at least 200 homers with multiple clubs. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t called up until he was 24.
Going back to wRC+, we can add some more context. While Giambi ranks 70th overall, he ranks 43rd from the start of the Integration Era (1947). During his career, which started in 1995, he ranks 25th overall, which speaks to the quality of this era’s hitters, but this illustrates how some caveats apply. Namely, active players still early in their career. Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Yasiel Puig, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey all rank ahead of Giambi right now. Probably most of them will see their lofty career statistics recede below Giambi as their careers progress.
This is one reason why people often up the plate appearance limits beyond just qualified players. So let’s take a look at where he ranks at some other limits:
- Minimum 2,500 career PA: 65th of 2,147 players all-time, 21st of 523 from 1995-present
- Minimum 5,000 career PA: 52nd of 955 players all-time, 15th of 193 from 1995-present
- Minimum 7,500 career PA: 43rd of 336 players all-time, ninth of 51 from 1995-present
3. The end of his career was the worst
Some further context shows how he might have hurt himself by hanging on for so long. Had he gone out after his contract with the Yankees ended, Giambi would rank even higher here. At the end of the contract, Giambi had a career 146 wRC+. He had just finished his age-37 season, and if you filter career stats to end at the culmination of the age-37 season, Giambi ranks 43rd all-time in wRC+. And again, if you remove current players, he’s in the top 40. That’s not too bad, eh? That end of his career portion really dragged him down in that regard.
If you remove the age filters, the 146 wRC+ is already in the top 40. That’s an imperfect comparison of course, because most of the players on that list probably could have improved their statistics by hanging up their spikes a couple of years before they did. There are some truly awful final seasons out there. But still, for a player like Giambi who is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, every little bit counts, and -0.2 WAR in a player’s final six seasons doesn’t exactly help his case.
4. The end of his career was the best
It is rare the player that can be effective in a role that is so far beneath his previously established level of performance. After stinking it up in 2009 with the A’s, Giambi looked done, but the Rockies took a flier on him, and that paid off in a big way. Those 34 plate appearances (31 in the regular season, and three postseason) helped resurrect Giambi’s career. He would come back to the Rockies for three more seasons, including his majestic 2011 campaign — which ranks as the third-best season ever by a 40-year-old according to wRC+ (min. 100 PA). That season, it seemed like everything Giambi hit went for extra bases. His .344 ISO is tied for third-highest mark of the past five seasons (minimum 100 PA). On May 19, he swatted three homers in a game for the first time in his career:
Sure, it was in Philly, but it’s not like guys hit three homers per game on a regular basis in Philly.
Giambi actually started that particular game, but he also got in a lot of work as a pinch hitter, and excelled in the role. According to research by statistical wizard Jeff Zimmerman, Giambi is one of just 14 players in history (well, history beginning in 1974) to notch double digits in pinch hit homers for their career. And most of those for Giambi came in those final six seasons.
5. He had a flair for the dramatic
Of course, he did plenty more than hit homers in that first stint with the Rockies. Perhaps his most memorable hit was the one that briefly saved the Rockies season:
Yorvit Torrealba would barrel home two more runs in the following at-bat, and a Game 5 seemed like a given. Then Rockies manager Jim Tracy refused to use lefty killer Joe Beimel in the ninth instead of closer Huston Street, and then watched Street allow lefties Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to reach and tie the game at four, and then for good measure let Jayson Werth single home Howard with the go-ahead run. Then Tracy brought in Beimel. Good try, good effort. But still, the team wouldn’t have been in that position without Giambi’s game-tying single.
And that wasn’t the only time he chipped in with late-game heroics. Giambi hit four walk-off homers in his time with the Rockies. Perhaps the most impactful one was this pinch-hit, walk-off homer on Sept. 12, 2010:
First off, I mean look at that pitch. It’s low and away, and Giambi cranks it to maybe the deepest and hardest part of Coors Field to hit a homer to, and that wasn’t really his style. For his career, he pulled 238 homers, hit 179 to the middle and just 23 to the opposite field. That was likely classified as one of the 23 oppo shots.
Second, it drew the Rockies to with a game and a half of the division lead, and gave them their 10th straight win. They would lose the next two games, and would quickly collapse, leaving their hopes for a repeat playoff engagement as a bitter memory, but in that moment, Giambi looked like the clutchiest clutch that ever clutched.
These are isolated moments toward the end of his career, but Giambi made a habit of this throughout his career. For instance, we haven’t even mentioned his famous grand slam in his first year with the Yankees. Let’s pause briefly for that, which by the way is the first result in the Google search “Jason Giambi Yankees grand slam.”
We also haven’t talked about any of his playoff moments with the A’s or Yankees. There were definitely plenty of them. In fact, using our Clutch score, Giambi ranks 35th all-time (all-time again starting in 1974). He does even better in WPA (23rd) and RE24 (17th). Simply put, there was no moment too big for Jason Giambi.