JAWS and the 2020 Hall of Fame Ballot: Jason Giambi

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 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.

No less an authority than Sports Illustrated anointed Jason Giambi “The New Face of Baseball” on the cover of its July 17, 2000 edition. At a time when balls were soaring over fences in record numbers, the wet, hulking slugger with his bulging biceps and flaming skull tattoo was midway through a season in which he would hit 43 homers while batting .333/.476/.647. His performance not only garnered him the AL MVP award, it helped the upstart A’s win the AL West.

Having gone through lean times since their 1988-92 heyday, the small-market A’s had returned to contention thanks to their resourcefulness and their signature belief in plate discipline. Giambi, a protégé of Mark McGwire who was blessed with extraordinary eyesight and a cerebral approach that belied his hard-partying persona, was just about the the most disciplined hitter in the game, at least this side of Barry Bonds. In 2000, his 137 walks, .476 on-base percentage, and 187 OPS+ all led the AL. He would hit the trifecta again the next year, with league highs of 129 walks, a .477 on-base percentage, and a 199 OPS+ to go with his 38 homers.

Giambi would remain one of the game’s faces during less happy times as well. In early 2004, two years into his seven-year, $120 million contract with the Yankees, his name surfaced in connection to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which stood accused of distributing PEDs to athletes in several sports. In grand jury testimony that had leaked, Giambi confessed to having injected human growth hormone and testosterone as well as using “the clear” and “the cream,” two undetectable “designer” steroids distributed by BALCO.

Since baseball did not yet have a testing and suspension regimen, Giambi was never punished, but he was cast as a villain for awhile. Unlike so many other high-profile players associated with PEDs, however, he managed to find a way back into the good graces of both fans and the industry after publicly admitting to having used the drugs. He made a non-specific apology in 2005 so as to avoid further legal hassles, but got more specific two years later. The Yankees tried to free themselves of his contract multiple times to no avail, and commissioner Bud Selig threatened to fine and suspend him if he did not speak with former senator George Mitchell for his investigation into the game’s drug problems. Those heavy-handed attempts to shame him instead turned him into something of an antihero. He became a fan favorite all over again in New York, then spent six more seasons bouncing from Oakland to Colorado to Cleveland as a respected clubhouse sage and quasi-coach, finally retiring at age 43 following the 2014 season.

Though he made five All-Star teams, won an MVP award, and hit 440 homers — reaching 20 homers 11 times, 30 homers five times, and 40 homers three times — Giambi doesn’t have strong qualifications for Cooperstown via either traditional or advanced statistics, though he’s not as far off as one might think. He fares much better via WAR and JAWS than this ballot’s other first base/designated hitter types, but that doesn’t mean he’s likely to get enough support even to remain on the ballot, or that he merits it. Note that as with Bonds and McGwire, I don’t see his PED usage as disqualifying, as it’s confined to the period before MLB and the players’ union implemented a testing program.

2020 BBWAA Candidate: Jason Giambi
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Jason Giambi 50.5 42.2 46.4
Avg. HOF 1B 66.8 42.7 54.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,010 440 .277/.399/.516 139
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Giambi was born on January 8, 1971 in West Covina, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was the first of three children born to John and Jeanne Giambi; brother Jeremy (born three years and eight months later) would go on to play six years (1998-2003) in the majors with four different teams, while sister Julie would play softball at Cal State Fullerton. John, a banking executive, grew up in California as a Yankees fan, and played baseball at Mount San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, California. Though John was a Mickey Mantle fan, he had another role model in mind for his son, at least when it came to baseball. As Jack Curry wrote in a 2003 New York Times article, “When Jason first picked up a red plastic bat, his father turned the natural right-handed hitter into a left-handed one. After letting Jason swing at any pitch as a young boy, John used Ted Williams’s famous strike zone chart to teach his 10-year old patience.”

At South Hills High School, the lanky “Gumby” (6-foot-2, 170 pounds) starred in basketball (power forward) and football (quarterback) as well as pitching and playing second base (!) on a baseball team that also featured future major leaguers Cory Lidle, Aaron Smalls, and Shawn Wooten. Though he hit .386 in his three seasons, Giambi drew little Division I attention but was drafted in the 43rd round by the Brewers in 1989. After initially planning to attend Mount San Antonio, he accepted a partial scholarship offer from Long Beach State, where he starred as a third baseman, winning Big West Freshman of the Year honors, making the All Big West team while helping Long Beach State reach the 1991 College World Series and earning a spot on Team USA for the 1992 Olympics; initially cut in June, he rejoined the squad in mid-July after agreeing to take up the unfamiliar position of first base. The team finished fourth at the games in Barcelona, just missing a medal.

The A’s picked Giambi in the second round of the 1992 draft, three spots after the Padres chose (but did not sign) Todd Helton. Giambi moved quickly through the system, reaching Triple-A Tacoma by 1994. Amid a .333/.426/.530 showing in parts of two seasons at Tacoma and Edmonton (the A’s changed affiliates), he made his major league debut on May 8, 1995, DHing and going 1-for-4 against the Rangers with a single off Roger Pavlik. He played just four games before being sent down, but returned for good just before the All-Star break, homering off the Blue Jays’ David Cone in his first plate appearance back and splitting time at the infield corners during the second half while Scott Brosius bounced around the diamond playing other positions and McGwire battled injuries. Giambi hit .256/.364/.398 in 210 PA, with six homers, 28 walks, and 0.9 WAR for a team that went 67-77.

That was manager Tony La Russa’s final season. The A’s were in transition from the “Bash Brothers” era of McGwire and Jose Canseco, who were hardly alone on a star-studded team that also featured Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, and more. From 1988-92, the team made four straight postseason appearances, winning three pennants and the 1989 World Series. But as those players moved on, the team slipped under .500 annually from 1993-95, and then La Russa left for St. Louis, with Art Howe taking the reins. Forced to compete under increasing financial constraints, the A’s went from having the majors’ highest payroll in 1991 to its third-lowest in 1996, but amid that cost-cutting came general manager Sandy Alderson’s implementation of an organizational philosophy — espoused in Eric Walker’s seminal sabermetric tract, The Sinister First Baseman — that emphasized the ability to get on base above all else, with the ability to hit for power near the top of the list as well.

Giambi fit right into that mold. Playing regularly under Howe in 1996, he spent nearly equal time at first base, third base, and left field, hitting .291/.355/.481 (109 OPS+) with 20 homers. He added 20 more in ’97, playing left field regularly until McGwire was traded to the Cardinals, and improved to a .293/.362/.495 (126 OPS+) line. Defensive woes in left and at third base sapped much of his value, however; he was worth a combined 2.9 WAR in 1996-97. The A’s lost 97 games in that latter season, the worst for the franchise since 1979; at the end of that year, Alderson moved upstairs to the team presidency, with Billy Beane taking over as GM.

Counseled by McGwire to remain patient at the plate, Giambi’s maturation as a hitter coincided with the A’s return to respectability and then contention. Blessed with exceptional vision in his right eye — his lead eye as a left-handed batter — he was able to identify pitches earlier than the vast majority of all hitters, and had extraordinary depth perception as well. From a 2002 New York Times article (also by Curry):

Giambi has 20/13 vision in his right eye, his lead eye as a left-handed batter. That means he can identify an object from 20 feet that a person with 20/20 vision can see from 13 feet. But even more important is his depth perception. Bill Harrison, an optometrist who has worked with professional athletes for three decades, said Giambi’s is in the top 1 percent of the thousands of baseball players he has tested.

“I can pick up the ball right when he lets it go,” Giambi said. “It’s a huge advantage. I got God-gifted when it came to the eyes. I’ve got real good eyesight. I got lucky with that.”

With his disciplined approach, Giambi’s statistics soared, and the A’s fortunes rose. He went from a 130 OPS+ (.295/.384/.489, 27 HR, 81 BB) and 2.6 WAR for a 74-88 team in 1998 to a 153 OPS+ (.315/.422/.553, 33 HR, 105 BB) and 5.9 WAR for an 87-win team in ’99 to 187 OPS+ (.333/.476/.647, 43 HR, 137 BB) with 7.8 WAR for a 91-win AL West-winning team in 2000. He edged Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez in that year’s MVP voting, but lost out to Ichiro Suzuki the next year despite an even better season (.342/.477/.660, 199 OPS+) in which his 9.2 WAR led the league. The A’s improved to 102 wins and another postseason berth, this time via the Wild Card (Suzuki’s Mariners won a record 116 games), but as in 2000, they lost an agonizing five-game Division Series to the Yankees. Jeremy Giambi’s failure to slide into home plate as Derek Jeter came out of nowhere to redirect an errant heave from right fielder Shane Spencer in Game 3 — the famous flip play — loomed large.

That was Giambi’s final season in the green and gold. While the A’s attempted to retain him by offering as much as $91 million, he signed a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Yankees. With uniform number 16 unavailable (it had been retired in honor of Whitey Ford), Giambi chose 25 to honor his father, because the digits add to seven (Mantle’s number). “Well, pop, it’s not 7, but it’s pinstripes,” he said at his introductory press conference.

Giambi was tremendous in his first season with the Yankees (.314/.435/.598, 41 HR, 172 OPS+), but after four straight trips to the World Series, the team made a first-round exit at the hands of the Angels. They would get back to the World Series the next year, but not before the now-32-year-old slugger endured a slow start to the season. Focused on Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, he grew increasingly pull-happy, and teams began to employ infield shifts against him with great frequency. Giambi’s .250/.412/.527 line produced a still-respectable 148 OPS+, but his batting average on balls in play, which had been at least .314 in seven straight season to that point, including .328 in 2002, dipped to .259 in 2003, and would top .263 just one more time in a stay in New York that lasted until 2008.

The Yankees reached the World Series in 2003 thanks in part to Giambi’s three home runs in the ALCS against the Red Sox, including two off Pedro Martinez in the epic Game 7 that ended with Aaron Boone’s walkoff shot. He hit .235/.409/.471 in a losing cause against the Marlins in that year’s World Series, his only trip to the Fall Classic.

Giambi’s legal woes began after the season, when he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the BALCO federal investigation. On March 2, 2004, his name, along with those of Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and three other major leaguers, surfaced in a San Francisco Chronicle report by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, detailing that he had obtained PEDs from the nutritional supplement lab via Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Giambi publicly denied using PEDs, and although he had been granted immunity for his testimony, he played the 2004 season under a cloud. He hit just .208/.342/.379 with 12 homers in 80 games, missing 13 games due to an ankle sprain and then 49 more due to what was initially diagnosed as an intestinal parasite, then revised to a benign pituitary gland tumor. He was left off the Yankees’ postseason roster; they fell to the Red Sox in the ALCS.

In December 2004, the Chronicle drew from his leaked grand jury testimony to report that Giambi had admitted to injecting himself with human growth hormone and Deca-Durabolin, an anabolic steroid, during the 2003 season, and to using steroids at least two years prior to that. Among the drugs he admitted to using were previously undetectable steroids known as “the clear” and “the cream” at the center of the investigation. Brother Jeremy testified to using the banned drugs as well.

Postmortems for Giambi’s career in pinstripes began surfacing as the Yankees explored ways to void his contract. Upon reporting to camp in February 2005, Giambi held a press conference in which he publicly addressed the BALCO controversy for the first time, and offered an apology, though for exactly what he would not specify, on the advice of the US attorney handling the case. From the New York Times:

“I feel I let down the fans, I feel I let down the media, I feel I let down the Yankees, and not only the Yankees, but my teammates.. I accept full responsibility for that, and I’m sorry,” he said.

…In his first response to a question yesterday, Giambi said that he had not read the Chronicle article. He added that he had told the grand jury the truth, and he did not deny any aspects of what The Chronicle reported, which seemed to be as close as he was willing to come to confirming the article. Still, he did not directly admit to steroid use.

“I know the fans might want more,” Giambi said. “But because of all the legal matters, I can’t get into specifics. Someday, hopefully, I will be able to.”

Right as this was happening, advance copies of Jose Canseco’s Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big were big news. A day after Giambi’s vague apology, the New York Times quoted Canseco as calling Giambi “the most outright juicer in the game,” a player who “went overboard with steroids” and got “so bloated, it was unbelievable.” It was all a bit much, even as Giambi was excused from testifying in front of Congress on March 16, 2005 alongside McGwire, Canseco, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa; the Justice Department had decided that it needed him as a witness in criminal cases and didn’t want his testimony to be public.

Despite an early-season slump that led to the Yankees’ transparently lame attempt to convince Giambi to accept a minor league assignment in May — something that couldn’t be done without his approval given his service time — the slugger rebounded amid the furor, hitting .271/.440/.535, with 32 homers while leading the league in on-base percentage for the third time and walks (108) for the fourth; the performance garnered him AL Comeback Player of the Year honors, as chosen via polling at MLB.com. He was similarly solid in 2006, but lost more than two months to a torn plantar fascia — hurt while trotting around the bases following a home run — in ’07. Just prior to that, he made a more specific apology via USA Today:

“I was wrong for doing that stuff… What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said: ‘We made a mistake.’

“We should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. … Steroids and all of that was a part of history. But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid. Nobody wanted to talk about it.”

Giambi’s reward for candor was being strong-armed — under the threat of suspension, not that the union wouldn’t have put up a fight — into becoming the first active player to meet with Senator Mitchell. Giambi, who was on the disabled list at the time, agreed to speak to Mitchell on the condition that he would only talk about his own use, not that of other players. He was named in the Mitchell Report, released that December, with the particulars of his 2001-03 usage laid out in full detail.

As if liberated by his confession, Giambi not only hit .247/.373/.502 with 32 homers in 2008, he enjoyed a resurgence of popularity among Yankees fans with his growth of a mustache — a tribute, he explained, to Don Mattingly, whom he idolized as a kid — and the revelation of his ownership of a widely-shared gold lamé thong that was credited with the power to bust slumps. Jeter even conceded to wearing it to snap an 0-for-32 slide, and Johnny Damon said he’d worn it as well.

The Yankees declined Giambi’s $22 million option following the 2008 season, instead paying him a $5 million buyout. At 38 years old, he agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million deal with the A’s, and while he struggled (.193/.332/.364) to the point of being released in August, his 11 homers in 328 plate appearances led the Rockies to pick him up and activate him for a September stretch run that culminated in a Wild Card berth. He bonded with manager Jim Tracy, who had taken over in mid-season, and was recruited to return as a backup to Helton and DH for interleague play. He took to the reduced role, spending three more seasons in Colorado, the best of which came in 2011, when he hit .260/.355/.603 with 13 homers in just 152 PA. Four of his 22 homers for the Rockies were walk-offs, a mark that’s tied with Larry Walker for third in team history behind Helton (seven) and Dante Bichette (five).

When Tracy resigned at the end of the 2012 season, the going-on-42-year-old Giambi interviewed for the managerial vacancy. Though he was a finalist for the job, he declined an offer to become the team’s hitting coach when Walt Weiss got the managerial nod; Giambi opted to depart the organization, not wanting to be perceived as a looming alternative if the team struggled. He joined the Indians, and quickly drew praise from incoming manager Terry Francona, who in spring training told the New York Times, ““He’s not a veteran, he’s the veteran… I’ve already gone to him three or four times asking him questions. He’s solid. Brings a lot.”

Indeed, though he hit just .183/.282/.371, Giambi brought a lot via his nine homers in 216 PA; five of those homers came in the eighth or ninth inning; two of them tied the game, and two were walk-offs, including one on September 24 amid a 10-game winning streak via which they secured a Wild Card spot. The pair pushed his career total of walk-off homers to 10, tied with ballot-mates Bonds, Sosa, and Adam Dunn (plus four other players) for ninth all-time; Jim Thome leads with 13.

Giambi’s bid to repeat in that capacity suffered a serious blow when an Edwin Jackson pitch fractured a rib in his right side during a mid-March exhibition. Dogged by a calf strain and knee inflammation as well, he made just 70 plate appearances, all against righties, and served as a de facto coach. Though seemingly destined for a dugout role, thus far Giambi has limited himself to his son’s tee-ball team. He announced his retirement via a statement in the New York Daily News, one that concluded, “I want to thank the fans for being a part of this incredible journey. I especially want to thank the fans that gave me a second chance to let me show you the human being you see today.”

Though he played in the majors for parts of 20 seasons, Giambi finished with just 2,010 hits thanks both to his penchant for drawing bases on balls (1,366, 32nd all-time) and the fact that he qualified for the batting title just 11 times, all between the ages of 25 (1996) and 37 (2008). He reached 20 homers in each season he qualified for the batting title, and ranked among his league’s top 10 seven times, but his total of 440 isn’t exceptionally eye-catching; among 2020 ballot debutantes, it’s fewer than Dunn (462) and just ahead of Paul Konerko (439), and not really anything that moves the needle (cough) given the era in which he played and the choices that he made.

Giambi’s rate stats are the most impressive aspect of his candidacy, even given the shift-driven fade that knocked 32 points off his career batting average from the end of the 2002 season to the point of his retirement. His .399 on-base percentage is 36th among all players with at least 7,000 plate appearances, and 15th among those from the post-1960 expansion era, though everybody from the latter list with the exception of Wade Boggs did spend time in the high-offense 2000s. Adjusting for era, and taking into account his slugging percentage as well, Giambi’s 139 OPS+ is tied with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson as well as outsiders Norm Cash and Bob Johnson for 53rd among those with 7,000 PA; one point above him are a trio of Hall of Famers (Jesse Burkett, Vladimir Guerrero, and Duke Snider) as well as two who had the talent to make it (Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez). All of which is to say that there’s little question Giambi’s bat was of Cooperstown caliber.

That said, the measurable aspects of Giambi’s game besides his bat had negative value. He was a below-average baserunner (-16 runs), and subpar at avoiding double plays (-12 runs), and below-average defensively to boot (-83 runs). For most of his Yankees run, he was basically DH caliber, which based on Baseball-Reference’s positional adjustments means he was about six runs below average or worse over the course of a full season at first base. His defensive WAR (fielding runs plus his positional adjustment) of -19.8 is the 13th-lowest of all time, but not quite as bad as either David Ortiz (-20.9) or Manny Ramirez (-21.7); Hall of Famers Willie Stargell (-19.5), Harold Baines (-19.5), Willie McCovey (-21.6), Frank Thomas (-22.5), and Dave Winfield (-22.7) are in that same general vicinity, and the two lowest scores of all time, Sheffield (-27.7) and Dunn (-28.9), are on this ballot.

Overall, Giambi’s 50.5 career WAR ranks 32nd among first basemen, 16.3 WAR below the standard and ahead of just four of the 21 enshrined first basemen, from among whom only Orlando Cepeda (50.2) played after the start of World War II. Given his three seasons among the AL’s top five, all with at least 7.0 WAR, he’s in better shape in terms of peak, where his 42.2 WAR is 15th all-time, just 0.5 below the standard, but above 11 of the 21 Hall of Fame first basemen including Thome (41.5) as well as Eddie Murray (39.1). That still leaves him just 25th in JAWS among first basemen, 8.4 points below the standard and ahead of just six out of 21 enshrinees. Among contemporaries, Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Thomas, and Thome outrank him, as do the still-active Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto, and bygone candidates McGwire, Palmeiro, and John Olerud. Unlike Palmeiro, Giambi never failed a MLB-administered drug test, but he’s just not close enough to the mark where that distinction matters, at least to me. I can’t justify a ballot spot for him, and I suspect most voters feel the same way. At this writing, he’s 0-for-29 on published ballots, and even if he breaks out the gold lamé thong, I don’t expect he’ll get the 5% necessary to continue his eligibility.

Which isn’t to say that he should be forgotten. Giambi was an outstanding slugger, and warts and all, one of the faces of baseball in the late ’90s and 2000s. The man certainly made his mistakes, but he stands out for having provided a roadmap for other players when it comes to overcoming those mistakes. Certainly some of his contemporaries should have taken notes.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Mac

His 2001 season is 53rd all-time in MLB by wRC+. Outside of the sheer ludicrousness of Bonds/Ruth, it’s about as good as one can do.

Wish he and the A’s could have worked an extension out. Everyone calls the A’s poor but they did offer Giambi $90M.