JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot: One-and-Dones, Part 2

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

We continue our quick look at the 14 players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot who are certain to fall below the 5% threshold — with most of them being shut out entirely — but are worth remembering just the same.

Placido Polanco

A valuable player who started for five playoff teams, Polanco didn’t pack much punch with his contact-oriented approach at the plate, but he was quite a glove whiz, rangy and sure-handed, at home at both second base and third. In fact, he was just the second player to win Gold Gloves at multiple positions (after Darin Erstad), and his 136 career fielding runs ranks 31st among all infielders.

Born on October 10, 1975 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Polanco came to the U.S. on a student visa, attending Miami Dade Community College. Drafted by the Cardinals in the 19th round in 1994, he began his minor league career as a shortstop, and though he spent all of 1996 and ’97 as a second baseman, played more short than second during his 45-game callup in 1998. He spent most of his five-season tenure in St. Louis as a utilityman, earning an increasing amount of playing time as his offense improved. In 2000, he hit .316/.347/.418 in 350 PA, while in 2001 he upped his playing time to 610 PA while batting .307/.342/.383; he was a combined 23 runs above average at third base (his primary position), second and short, boosting his WAR to 4.5. The Cardinals made the playoffs in both of those seasons.

On July 29, 2002, the 26-year-old Polanco and pitchers Bud Smith and Mike Timlin were traded to the Phillies in exchange for Scott Rolen, pitcher Doug Nickle, and cash. Though he spent the rest of that season filling the hot corner vacancy left by Rolen, he played mostly the keystone over the next two seasons. In 2003, he set career highs in homers (14), steals (14), OPS+ (113), and WAR (4.6); while he hit 17 homers the following year, his WAR dipped to 1.7. A free agent that winter, he was re-signed by the Phillies to a one-year, $4.6 million deal, a move that temporarily blocked 26-year-old Chase Utley; strangely, the Phillies insisted upon playing the much less productive David Bell at third base rather than Polanco. In any event, on June 8, the team dealt Polanco to the Tigers, belatedly opening up second for Utley.

Between the two venues, Polanco hit a shiny .331/.383/.447 for career high in both OPS+ (128) and WAR (6.1) in 2005; his batting average was the majors’ second highest. Shortly after arriving in Detroit, he signed a four-year, $18.4 million extension covering 2006-2009. Playing exclusively at second in 2006, his production dipped, but he helped the Tigers improve from 71 wins to 95 and the AL Wild Card berth, then went a combined 16-for-34 in the Division Series against the Yankees and the League Championship Series against the A’s, earning MVP honors in the latter, a four-game sweep. Alas, he went 0-for-17 during the Tigers’ World Series loss to the Cardinals.

The 2007 season was a big one for the 31-year-old Polanco: he hit .341/.388/.458 (the batting average ranked third in the AL), set records for consecutive errorless games at second (141 that season, and 186 stretching from July 2006 to April 2008), tallied 6.1 WAR, made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove. From a baseball standpoint, nothing he did in 2008 could match that, but he did become a naturalized U.S. citizen in a pregame ceremony at Comerica Park on July 9, 2008. He won another Gold Glove in 2009, and upon reaching free agency, returned to Philadelphia on a three-year, $18 million deal.

The Phillies had won the 2008 World Series and lost the 2009 one; they won their fourth and fifth consecutive NL East titles in 2010 and ’11, but they were at the end of their run as contenders and for all intents and purposes, so was Polanco, who turned in a respectable 5.1 WAR in those two years, his age-34 and -35 ones, and made the NL All-Star team in 2011. Battling lower back woes from mid-2011 onward, he faded drastically in his final year with the Phillies and a one-year stint with the Marlins. If he was no Hall of Famer, it’s worth pointing out that his career/peak/JAWS (41.5/32.3/36.9) outdoes that of Omar Vizquel (45.6/26.8/36.2).

Miguel Tejada

Speaking of outdoing Vizquel, Tejada not only played shortstop at the height of the popularity of the Alex Rodriguez/Nomar Garciaparra/Derek Jeter trinity, the 5-foot-9 fireplug won the AL MVP award in 2002 while serving as a key cog for the Moneyball-era A’s. A six-time All-Star, he might have garnered significant consideration for the Hall of Fame if not for a sudden decline in his mid-30s and multiple connections to PEDs.

Tejada was born on May 25, 1974 in Bani, Dominican Republic, though he was using a falsified birth certificate showing that he was two years younger when the A’s signed him for a mere $2,000 bonus — still significant money given the poverty of his family — in 1993. That incorrect age distorted the interpretation of his minor league career, which included two top-10 placements on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects lists in 1997 and ’98. He was actually 23 years old when he debuted in the majors on August 27, 1997, the start of a 26-game cup of coffee. A fractured right middle finger kept him out of action for the first two months of 1998, and he didn’t hit much that year, but in 1999 he clubbed 21 homers while batting .251/.325/.427 (95 OPS+) with 3.6 WAR while helping the A’s to 87 wins, their first season above .500 since 1992.

Tejada improved to 30 homers, a 111 OPS+, and 4.2 WAR in 2000 while helping the A’s win the AL West — the start of a four-year run of postseason appearances for Oakland and a stretch over which the shortstop hit .283/.341/.484 while averaging 30 homers, 116 RBI, 115 OPS+, and 4.7 WAR. The high point of that showing was a .308/.354/.508 (128 OPS+) season with 34 homers, 131 RBI, and 5.6 WAR in 2002, a season in which he made his first All-Star team and outdistanced Rodriguez in the MVP voting despite the latter’s 57 homers and 8.8 WAR. Alas, the A’s lost five-game Division Series in all four seasons, with Tejada’s .212/.242/.329 overall line looming large in those defeats.

A free agent after the 2003 season, Tejada signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Orioles, who also landed free agent catcher Javy Lopez that winter in an attempt to change the fortunes of a franchise that hadn’t finished above .500 since 1997. Tejada did his part, particularly over the first three years of the deal, during which he hit .315/.363/.516 (128 OPS+) while averaging 28 homers and 5.9 WAR, with a high of 7.4 in 2004; he drove in an AL-best 150 runs that year as well. However, in 2005, Tejada found plenty of controversy. In the spring, he was named in Jose Canseco’s book Juiced, with the slugger writing that in 1997, “I started giving him advice about steroids, and he seemed interested in what I was saying.” After teammate Rafael Palmeiro became the first big-name player suspended for a positive test in August, he told the arbitration panel that an injectable supplement Tejada had given him, which he believed to be vitamin B-12, had caused the positive test.

Tejada was exonerated when samples of the substance were tested by baseball investigators, but his name turned up again in a 2006 Los Angeles Times report that pitcher Jason Grimsley had implicated him as a user of anabolic steroids. In December 2007, he was named in the Mitchell Report for allegedly having purchased $6,300 worth of testosterone, Deca-Durabolin, and human growth hormone through teammate Adam Piatt. A month later, a House of Representatives committee holding hearings on steroids in baseball formally asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Tejada made false statements to the committee in reference to the Palmeiro matter; shortly after that, the shortstop’s age discrepancy came to light. In February 2009, he was charged with lying to Congress. He pled guilty to withholding information about a teammate’s PED use and became the first high-profile player convicted of a crime related to PEDs. Tejada also acknowledged having purchased HGH but said that he had second thoughts and discarded it before using it. While he faced up to a year in prison as well as deportation, he was merely sentenced to a year of probation, and offered a tearful apology.

By that point, Tejada was an Astro; he was traded to Houston for five players (most notably Luke Scott) in December 2007. He made the NL All-Star team in both years in Houston, though his performance took a considerable downturn relative to his 2000-2007 work. After reaching free agency that winter, he chose to return to Baltimore on a one-year, $6 million deal. He struggled with a move to third base and didn’t hit well, and in July was dealt to the Padres, then spent 2011 with the Giants; over that two-year span, he totaled just 0.9 WAR in 512 PA. He didn’t play in the majors at all in 2012, having failed to regain his stroke at the Orioles’ Triple-A Norfolk affiliate after signing a minor league deal in May.

While Tejada caught on with the Royals in 2013, he played just 59 games before receiving a 105-game suspension on August 17, for testing positive for a banned stimulant (Adderall) a total of three times; the second positive test triggered a 25-game suspension, the third an 80-game one. While he previously had a therapeutic use exemption for Adderall, it had expired. Though he signed a minor league deal with the Marlins in May 2014 upon completing the suspension, he played just four games before injuring his right shoulder and then being released.

Tejada finished his career with respectable offensive numbers for a shortstop (2,407 hits, 307 homers, .285/.336/.456, 108 OPS+) but shaky defensive ones (-46 runs). Still, his 47.3 career WAR, 36.6 peak WAR, and 41.9 JAWS all outdo Vizquel; he’s 27th in JAWS among shortstops to Vizquel’s 42nd. Despite an 11-0 disadvantage in Gold Gloves, he outdoes Vizquel on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor metric — which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on — 148 to 120; winning an MVP award and having twice as many All-Star appearances will do that, while also serving to remind us that it wasn’t impossible to break through the trinity’s dominance in those areas, a point Vizquel’s proponents sometimes claim.

That’s not to say Tejada is worthy of a vote; he’s not, at least by my measure, and that’s before factoring in his testing-era suspension. Still, his was an exceptional career, not in spite of the controversies that touched it, but because of them. As Sports on Earth’s Jorge Arangure wrote in 2013, while tracing Tejada’s ride through the myriad controversies that defined baseball over the previous two decades, “No one player encapsulates baseball’s modern era better … His career is the story of the game as we know it.”

Vernon Wells

Over the first five full seasons of his career (2002-2006, though he debuted in 1999), Wells was a very good player, winning three Gold Gloves and making two All-Star teams while averaging 4.0 WAR as the center fielder for the Blue Jays. Then he signed a seven-year, $126 million extension with Toronto, one that eventually turned him into a cautionary tale at best, and a punchline at worst.

The son of a football player-turned-painter, Wells was born December 8, 1978 in Shreveport, Louisiana. When he was 10, his family moved to Arlington, Texas, where the younger Wells excelled on the gridiron to such an extent that he signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Texas and play both football and baseball. When the Blue Jays chose him with the fifth pick of the 1997 draft, however, he took the $1.8 million bonus and chose the diamond. By August 30, 1999, he had already graced Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list twice and rocketed from Hi-A to the majors in a single season, though after a 24-game cup of coffee late that year, he played just 32 major league games over the next two years while making uneven progress at Triple-A Syracuse. In 2002, he finally stuck in the majors for good, hitting .275/.305/.457 with 23 homers, 100 RBI and 1.7 WAR.

The next year, after signing a five-year, $14.7 million extension, the 24-year-old Wells enjoyed quite the breakout (.317/.359/.550, 132 OPS+, 33 HR). His 215 hits, 49 doubles, and 373 total bases led the league; he totaled 4.5 WAR and made his first All-Star team. Improved defense netted him Gold Gloves in each of the next three seasons while helping to counterbalance his leveling off with the bat; over that span, he hit a combined .282/.338/.493 (113 OPS+) while averaging 28 homers, 11 steals and 4.7 WAR, with a high of 6.2 — off a .303/.357/.542 line — in 2006. Convinced that they needed to lock up Canada’s answer to Andruw Jones, the Jays signed the Wells to that monster extension, the sixth-largest in history to that point, just after his 28th birthday, and a year before he reached free agency.

Wells stumbled to an 85 OPS+ and 1.4 WAR in the final year of his old contract, an ominous sign, and totaled just 2.9 WAR over the first two years of the new deal; wrist and hamstring injuries that limited him to 108 games in 2008, while he was posting a 123 OPS+, were part of the story. He hit .273/.331/.515 with 31 homers and 4.0 WAR in 2010 while making his third All-Star team, at which point Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos dealt him and $5 million to the Angels in exchange for Mike Napoli (whom they quickly flipped to the Rangers) and Juan Rivera — impressive work given that Wells was still owed $86 million on the heavily backloaded deal.

Things did not go well in Anaheim. Shifting primarily to left field, Wells hit for an 86 OPS+ with a net of zero WAR in 208 games in 2011-2012, with groin and thumb injuries sidelining him for a total of 84 games. The Angels caught a break when Yankees left fielder Curtis Granderson suffered a broken right forearm upon being hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance of the exhibition season. Needing depth, the team agreed to take on $13.9 million of the remaining $42 million on Wells’ deal.

For awhile it worked, as the 34-year-old Wells hit .287/.341/.506 through May 22 while playing regularly in left field, but when Granderson suffered another pitch-induced injury — a fractured metacarpal, requiring surgery — in his eighth game after returning, Wells turned into a pumpkin. He hit .200/.244/.250 in 279 PA from May 24 onward, then was released after the season. He never played again, but did collect the last $21 million of his contract. All told, he produced just 6.6 WAR over the life of the deal, with a steep defensive decline (-41 runs, even with the move to left field) offsetting a more modest offensive one.

Parts 3 and 4 to follow.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 years ago

Always felt bad for Wells. He had the “body type” of a guy who might not age perfectly, but I still don’t see any red flags on his playing record to indicate a coming cliff dive when the Jays signed him to that extension. He had been generally healthy, a good baserunner, a very good CFer, a good to very good hitter for 4 straight years. His hitting didn’t depend on high BABIP, he wasn’t prone to strikeouts, he took a below average number of walks but wasn’t a complete disaster there. Then it was just over, except for the bounce back in 2010.