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.
When I sketched out a plan to tackle the 14 one-and-done candidates on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, I found unifying themes to group them together even as the profiles themselves expanded: oft-injured infielders, sluggers who finished their careers concurrently with the White Sox, Dominican-born players who took unorthodox routes to the majors, starting pitchers for the 2003 champion Marlins, late-blooming relievers. When I reached the final pair, reliever José Valverde and slugger Raúl Ibañez, I was ready to concede that they were simply leftovers — but I had momentarily forgotten that during the 2012 ALCS, I had witnessed a moment firsthand that permanently tied them together:
|Player||Pos||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||H||HR||SB||AVG/OBP/SLG||OPS+|
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||W-L||S||IP||SO||ERA||ERA+|
In addition to that moment from the 2012 ALCS, both of these players seemed to have nine lives as they kept their grips on baseball — or vice versa, to invoke Jim Bouton’s famous line — for a long, long time.
Raúl Ibañez persevered. The catcher-turned-outfielder spent five years being yo-yoed by the Mariners, and didn’t get a real shot at regular playing time until his age-29 season. As Joe Posnanski — who covered his career-turning breakout with the Royals in 2001 — later wrote in his own tribute, Ibañez hit a greater percentage of his home runs after his age-30 season (278 of his 305, 91%) than any other player who reached 300 homers, as many home runs after age 30 as Harmon Killebrew, Alex Rodriguez, or Frank Thomas.
Ibañez was born on June 2, 1972 in New York City, the son of parents who had emigrated from Cuba just two years earlier; his father, Juan, had been a chemist, but worked in the sugar cane fields in order to earn an exit visa for his family, and then as a loading dock handler for cruise ships once he arrived in the US. Ibañez grew up in Miami, and claimed that Ted Williams‘ The Science of Hitting was the first book he ever read. At his father’s suggestion, Raul practiced by swinging at a single leaf on a tree, something Juan said Williams used to do.
A catcher at Miami’s Sunset High School, Ibañez received pointers from Fredi Gonzalez, then a catcher in the Yankees system who worked as a security guard in the offseason. The Rangers chose him in the 54th round of the 1991 draft, but instead of signing, he chose to attend Miami-Dade Community College, where he played for a year. Miami University recruited him, but when the Mariners chose him in the 36th round in 1992 as a draft-and-follow, he signed quickly, believing that his father, who had died of a heart attack just two months earlier, would have encouraged him to do so. His professional career started slowly; he hit well at the low levels, including .332/.395/.612 with 20 homers and 108 RBI in the hitter-friendly California League, but by that point, he was four years into his career. His pace picked up once he shed the tools of ignorance in 1996; he spent just 19 games at Double-A before moving to Triple-A, and on August 1 of that season, the 24-year-old outfielder made his major league debut, flying out in a pinch-hitting appearance against the Brewers’ Ramon Garcia. He went 0-for-5 in four games that year, and didn’t collect his first big league hit, a triple off the White Sox’s Doug Drabek, until more than a year later, on August 16, 1997. On September 26, 1997, he hit his first homer, off the A’s Mike Oquist.
Yet Ibañez could not get a strong foothold in the majors. From 1996-2000, he played 231 games for Seattle, with a high of 92 in 2000, but hit just .241/.295/.383 with 14 homers in 518 PA over that span, and served time in the minors each year as well. He did play in the postseason with the Mariners in 2000, going 3-for-17 while starting twice and coming off the bench seven times. Non-tendered by the Mariners that winter, the going-on-29-year-old signed with the Royals, having caught the eye of general manager Allard Baird. Though he struggled to the point of being DFA’d twice and spending time at Triple-A Omaha, he heated up in midsummer upon getting regular playing time, and became a bright spot on a 97-loss club, hitting .280/.353/.495 with 13 homers and 1.1 WAR in 312 PA. He spent two more years in Kansas City while proving that performance was no fluke, batting a combined .294/.345/.491 with 42 homers and 3.9 WAR, and even helping the Royals to an 83-win campaign in 2003, their only one above .500 in the 19-season span from 1994 through 2012.
A free agent that winter, the going-on-32-year-old Ibañez signed a three-year, $13.25 million deal — with the Mariners, who for so long couldn’t figure out what to do with him. He fared much better in Seattle the second time around, hitting a combined .291/.354/.477 (120 OPS+) while averaging 23 homers, 98 RBI, and 3.0 WAR across five seasons. The last two of of those were added via an $11 million extension signed in March 2006, just before his best year in that stretch, when Ibañez hit for a 125 OPS+ with 33 homers, 123 RBI, and 4.5 WAR. The Mariners finished above .500 just once in that span, bookending Ibañez’s stay with seasons of 99 and 101 losses. He deserved better, and thanks to a strong age-36 season (23 homers, 110 RBI, 124 OPS+, 2.7 WAR) he got it, with a surprisingly generous three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Phillies, who were fresh off a World Series win and needed to replace free agent Pat Burrell.
Ibañez’s first season in Philadelphia was one of the best of his career, and his lone All-Star campaign. He set new highs with 34 homers and a 132 OPS+ (.272/.347/.552) and thanks to respectable defense in left field (-2 DRS, compared to -26 over the previous two season), was worth 2.9 WAR. He helped the Phillies win the NL East and return to the World Series, driving in five runs in the first three games of the Division Series against the Rockies, and hitting a three-run homer off George Sherrill in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. He hit .304/.333/.609 in the World Series against the Yankees, driving in a pair of runs in each of their two wins. It wasn’t enough, as they lost in six.
With Ibañez in left field, the Phillies won the NL East in 2010 and ’11, running their streak to five straight division titles, but both his offense and defense declined drastically; he hit for a combined 102 OPS+ with -32 DRS and -1.3 WAR. At 39, his days as a regular appeared over, but in February 2012, he landed a DH job with the Yankees, who figured his left-handed pull-hitting tendency would play well with their short right field porch. They were right, in that Ibañez hit .273/.349/.545 with 14 homers in 209 PA at Yankee Stadium, but just .208/.269/.365 with five homers on the road. Playing more outfield than expected due to injuries elsewhere, he finished with a 103 OPS+ and an unremarkable 0.5 WAR.
Even so, Ibañez had some remarkable moments in the 2012 postseason. In Game 3 of the Division Series against the Orioles, with the Yankees down 2-1 in the ninth inning, he was called upon to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez — a seemingly absurd scenario except that A-Rod was amid a 1-for-12 slide with seven strikeouts in the series and playing through an as-yet-undiagnosed torn left hip labrum that would require offseason surgery. Ibañez mashed a game-tying solo homer off closer Jim Johnson, and three innings later, hit a game-winner off Brian Matusz. It’s the only time in postseason history that a player has come off the bench to deliver two homers in the same game.
Ibañez went on to drive in the go-ahead run in the series-deciding Game 5, and conjured up more magic in the ALCS opener against the Tigers. With the Yankees down 4-0 entering the ninth inning against Valverde, they cut the lead in half on a Russell Martin single and an Ichiro Suzuki homer, and after Mark Teixeira drew a two-out walk, Ibañez again hit a game-tying homer. With that, he joined Rodriguez (2009) as the only player with two game-tying homers in the ninth inning or later in the same postseason; Johnny Bench is the only other player with two such homers in a career (1972 and ’76 NLCS).
Alas, the Yankees not only lost that game in 12 innings, they lost Derek Jeter to a broken left ankle in the middle of the decisive rally and were swept. But having demonstrated that he still had life in his bat even at 40, Ibañez landed a third go-round with the Mariners. Though the team still stank (71-91), Ibañez homered 10 times in June and had 24 by the All-Star break, that while hitting .267/.314/.578 and garnering national attention for defying Father Time. Though he fell apart in the second half (.203/.295/.345 with five homers), his final shot of the season, a solo homer off the Angels’ Ernesto Frieri on September 21, was not only his 300th career blast but also his 29th of the year, tying Williams for the most by a player in his age-41 season.
Ibañez converted that performance into a guaranteed one-year deal from the Angels, but the magic was gone; he hit just .157/.258/.265 before drawing his release in late June. In another full-circle move, he caught on with the Royals, who were in the process of breaking their 29-year postseason drought. While he homered in his second game back, he played sparingly down the stretch and was left off the postseason roster except for the Wild Card Game, in which he did not appear. The Royals — who lost to the Giants in a seven-game thriller of a World Series — received permission for him to remain in their dugout as an unofficial coach. Indeed, such was the esteem with which he was held that before he had even officially retired, he interviewed for the Rays’ managerial opening in November 2014. He fell short, but in 2016, he took a special assistant job with the Dodgers, and his name continues to circulate as a managerial candidate.
When the burly and bespectacled Dominican righty nicknamed “Papa Grande” (Big Potato) was good, he was a lot of fun — exuberant, demonstrative, hard-throwing. If he led the league in saves three times during his 12-year career (2003-14), he led in fist pumps and primal screams even more often. His celebrations were polarizing, and to be fair, his performances could be as well, even to teammates. He saved 51 straight games at one point, made three All-Star teams, and helped teams to three postseason appearances, but had more than his share of struggles in October, and his major league career ended on a sour note. Still, the good times are worth remembering.
Though born in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris on March 24, 1978, the nephew of former major league pitcher Jose Mercedes didn’t gravitate to baseball. “I didn’t like it, because I didn’t want anybody telling me, ‘You (stink),'” Valverde recalled in 2008. With his family in need of money, Valverde worked a variety of jobs — bakery, dairy, ranch, cheesecake factory (!) — before his uncle finally convinced him to try baseball when he was 15. His arm was impressive enough that the Diamondbacks signed him for just a $5,000 bonus in 1997; the Diamondbacks believed him to be on the verge of turning 18 (born in 1979), a discrepancy that wasn’t discovered until 2009. As Valverde explained about the bonus, “I called my mom and said, ‘I signed for five grand; everybody has money now. Everybody in my family started laughing, partying.”
Despite battling shoulder and elbow injuries in the minors, Valverde rose through the Diamondbacks’ chain on the strength of a fastball that regularly approached 100 mph. Recalled to fill in for injured closer Matt Mantei, he debuted in the majors on June 1, 2003, entering a game in which the Diamondbacks led the Padres 10-3 and taking whoever remained in the ballpark on a rollercoaster ride; he struck out Gary Matthews Jr., served up a solo homer to Mark Loretta, loaded the bases via two walks and a single, then struck out Xavier Nady and Lou Merloni on three pitches apiece. Things went much more smoothly from there, as he converted all nine save opportunities before Mantei returned, allowed runs in just two of his next 21 appearances, and finished his rookie year with a 2.15 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and 1.6 WAR, with 71 strikeouts in 50.1 innings. He got another crack at closing the following season, when Mantei was shelved again, but struggled, and just as he was finding a groove in early June, he suffered a torn labrum — an injury which at that point was often a career killer — and underwent surgery.
Luckily, Valverde fared better than most pitchers with such an affliction, was back in the majors by the following May, and claimed the closer’s job in August. He pitched well (2.44 ERA, 2.0 WAR, 15 saves) but struggled in 2006, battling biceps tendinitis and getting optioned to Triple-A. Though he finished with a 5.84 ERA, he was boasted a 1.93 ERA over the final six weeks, after returning from the minors and reclaiming his job in the process. Building upon that, he had his first big year in 2007, making his first All-Star team and saving an NL-high 47 games to accompany his 2.66 ERA and 2.2 WAR. He helped the Diamondbacks to the NL West flag and a first-round sweep of the Cubs, but gave up the winning run in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Rockies after walking three in his second inning of work; Colorado would go on to sweep.
That turned out to be Valverde’s last appearance as a Diamondback; in December, he was traded to the Astros — who had recently dealt closer Brad Lidge to the Phillies — for infielder Chris Burke and relievers J.C. Gutierrez and Chad Qualls. He spent two years in Houston, leading the league with 44 saves in 2008 but dropping to 25 in ’09 while missing nearly seven weeks due to compartment syndrome in his right leg; by Baseball-Reference’s WAR, he was actually more valuable in the latter season (1.7 vs. 1.3) in 18 fewer innings due to better run prevention.
A free agent that winter, Valverde signed with the Tigers on a two-year, $14 million deal with a $9 million option for 2012. He made the AL All-Star team in back-to-back seasons, but his antics weren’t universally loved. During a series in which he notched two saves against the Diamondbacks, he engaged in a war of (bleepin‘) words with former teammate — and perpetual fun policeman — Miguel Montero, who called him “dumb” and questioned his professionalism. “If you don’t want to strike out, don’t play baseball. Sit down on the bench. He was looking for a fastball? No. Go to the cage,” Valverde told reporters after retiring Montero the first of two times in the series (Montero went 0-for-6 in his career against Valverde).
The best of Valverde’s seasons in Detroit was 2011, when he posted a 2.24 ERA while leading the league in both appearances (75) and saves (49); he didn’t blow a single save opportunity that season, which when combined with converting his final two chances in 2010 gave him 51 straight, a total that still ranks fifth:
|Tom Gordon||Red Sox||1998-99||54|
Valverde’s performance helped the Tigers win 95 games and the AL Central. He closed out the Yankees in the Division Series and converted his first three save chances of the postseason, but took the loss in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Rangers after yielding four 11th-inning runs, two via a Nelson Cruz homer. The Tigers picked up his option, and while his ERA ballooned to 3.78 as his strikeout and walk rates converged, he helped the team to another Central title, but was cuffed for nine runs in his final three postseason appearances — including the aforementioned nightmare in the ALCS opener — even as the Tigers made it to the World Series, where they were swept by the Giants.
A free agent again at age 35, Valverde couldn’t find a contract to his liking, and likewise regarding the Tigers and anything that would douse their burning tire fire of a bullpen. He signed a minor league deal to return in April, rejoined the Tigers later in the month, and allowed just one run in his first 12 innings while saving six games. Things quickly unraveled, however; rocked for 11 runs over his next 7.1 innings, he was demoted to Triple-A until being released a month later. From there, it was all over but the packing. Though he began the 2014 season as the Mets’ closer, he was released in late May. The Padres cut him at the end of spring training in 2015, and he spent three months with the Nationals’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate but after being released, he was suspended for 80 games for testing positive for Stanzolol. He continued to pitch winter ball, and resurfaced in the Mexican League in 2017 and again this past summer, with Rieleros de Aguascalientes. While his 6.16 ERA, midsummer release, and age (going on 42) suggest he’s reached the end of the line, who knows what’s still in store for Papa Grande?
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.