JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Jake Peavy

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 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.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Jake Peavy
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR Adj. S-JAWS W-L SO ERA ERA+
Jake Peavy 39.2 30.7 35.0 152-126 2,207 3.63 110
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Jake Peavy has a claim as the best player the Padres have drafted and signed since choosing Tony Gwynn in the third round in 1981, and probably the most important as well. From 2004 until he was traded in mid-’09, Peavy, a 1999 15th-round pick out of an Alabama high school, was their ace, winning two ERA titles and a Cy Young award, making two of his three All-Star appearances, and helping the team to back-to-back NL West titles in ’05 and ’06 — the franchise’s only playoff appearances between the 1998 World Series and the expanded playoffs in 2020.

Undersized at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, and dismissed as “frail and wild” by talent evaluators, Peavy parlayed a mid-90s fastball/slider/changeup combination and a bulldog mentality into a 15-year major league career (2002–16). During that time, he made four trips to the playoffs with three different franchises and earned two World Series rings (though he struggled mightily in October), all while battling through a variety of injuries that turned him from an extraordinary pitcher into a rather ordinary one.

Through it all, Peavy’s irrepressibly competitive nature remained apparent. As Baseball Prospectus 2016 noted just before he headed into the final season of his career, “Few pitchers present a bigger contradiction between stuff and mound demeanor than Peavy, whose fiery outbursts and furious soliloquies mask a finesse approach that no longer intimidates his foes.” A tip that Peavy picked up from Roger Clemens, one of his many high-profile mentors, may have had something to do with that. According to Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Clemens introduced Peavy to Icy Hot Balm, telling him “to take a little and put it on no-man’s land down there.”

“So over the next 12 years, you might say, Peavy regularly pitched with his balls on fire,” wrote Miller.

Jacob Edward Peavy was born on May 31, 1981 in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up in nearby Semmes on a plot of land that also included houses for his paternal grandparents and aunt. His father Danny and grandfather Blanche were carpenters who ran the family business, Peavy Cabinet Shop; his mother Debby was a mail carrier.

Blanche, who played fast-pitch softball, taught Jake the finer points of baseball, videotaping his throwing and swinging sessions inside a home-made batting cage for later dissection and encouraging him to think to outsmart hitters. Unfortunately, Blanche died following an accident at the cabinet shop in 1994, when Jake was in eighth grade. The pitcher went on to write the initials BP in every one of his caps as a reminder of the lessons his grandfather imparted.

Growing up, Peavy was “a scrawny teenager with rail-thin arms and a pair of legs brittle as twigs,” as Sports Illustrated’s Albert Chen wrote in 2007. He broke each of his ankles twice, plus his right wrist, and his eyesight was bad. “Never was anything much to look at,” Andy Robbins, Peavy’s middle and high school baseball coach, told Chen.

Despite his frailty, Peavy went 44–1 at St. Paul’s Episcopal High School. He won 13 games and hit .443 as a senior while leading the school to a state championship and was named the Alabama High School Player of the Year. Expecting a scholarship offer from the University of Alabama, he got none, just an offer to pay for his books and a chip on his shoulder. Instead, he signed a letter of intent for Auburn University, Alabama’s archrival.

Peavy never made it there. Padres area scout Mark Wasinger was impressed by his makeup and became sold on the 5-foot-11 righty after talking to (and dining with) Peavy’s maternal grandfather. The Padres had already taken 11 pitchers (and nine position players) in the first 14 rounds of the 1999 draft, but with Peavy still on the board, they chose him. Upon finding out that he planned to go to Auburn unless he was drafted within the first four rounds, Wasinger convinced general manager Kevin Towers — who at that point had never seen Peavy pitch — to offer a bonus commensurate with a fourth-round pick.

In the end, Peavy signed for a $100,000 bonus and began his professional career by dominating at two Rookie-league stops, first in the Arizona League (where he won the pitching triple crown) and then with Idaho Falls of the Pioneer League. In 84.2 total innings, he struck out 103 and turned in a microscopic 1.17 ERA. After striking out 164 and posting a 2.90 ERA in 133.2 innings at A-level Fort Wayne in 2000, he placed 40th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. While at Fort Wayne, he finally met Towers, who found him “writing novelettes about every hitter” as he charted pitches. “I don’t get it,” Peavy told Towers. “Why don’t these hitters ever make adjustments? They’re supposed to be professionals. I make adjustments every time I’m out there pitching.”

As Towers told Chen, “That was the first time that I had met Jake — and I remember thinking, ‘Is this kid 19 or is he Greg Maddux?'”

Peavy climbed to 28th on BA’s list after striking out 188 with a 2.97 ERA in 133.1 innings split between High-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A Mobile, where he was understandably quite a draw given his local ties. The only minor leaguer who topped his 12.7 strikeouts per nine was BA Minor League Player of the Year Josh Beckett.

Peavy spent the offseason selling tickets to Mobile BayBears games, then made 14 starts for the team before jumping directly to the Padres. Debuting on June 22, 2002 at Qualcomm Stadium, he tossed six innings, allowing just three hits and one run against the Yankees, the defending AL champions. In an eventful first inning, he gave up two of those three hits and that lone run via doubles by Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi, sandwiched around a strikeout of Derek Jeter, his first of four for the day. That run proved to be the only one scored, as the Yankees’ Ted Lilly tossed a three-hit, 11-strikeout shutout, but Peavy had demonstrated that he was ready for the big time. He made 16 more starts and finished the year with a 4.52 ERA (83 ERA+) and 3.69 FIP, striking out 90 in 97.2 innings, then began the next season by striking out 11 Dodgers (but walking five) in five innings. While he made a full complement of 32 starts and lowered his ERA to 4.11, his FIP ballooned to 4.99 as he served up 1.5 homers per nine.

The Padres’ move into pitcher-friendly Petco Park the next year helped Peavy cut his home run rate in half; thanks to improved command and the addition of a cut fastball to his arsenal, he trimmed his walk rate and boosted his strikeout rate to 9.3 per nine, good for sixth in the NL. Despite missing six weeks from late May to early July due to a flexor tendon strain, he went 15–6 and posted a league-low 2.27 ERA (171 ERA+) in 166.1 innings en route to 4.9 WAR. The Padres, who had lost 96 games in Peavy’s rookie season and 98 in 2003, improved to 87–75, their first season above .500 since 1998.

After signing a four-year, $14.5 million extension in February 2005, Peavy made his first All-Star team, led the league in strikeouts (216, 9.6 per nine) and posted a 2.88 ERA in 203 innings. In a weak NL West, San Diego was the only team to finish above .500 at 82–80. Peavy got the ball for the Division Series opener against the Cardinals but was torched for eight runs in 4.1 innings. It turned out he was pitching through an injury; he had fractured a rib jumping up and down with teammates while celebrating the Padres clinching the division title. He initially thought he had bruised some ribs in the celebration, “caught an elbow or something,” as he explained. But pitching became more painful after he caught a spike on the rubber and threw a wild pitch. Only after the game did he learn that he’d broken the rib, an injury that ended his season shortly before it did that of his teammates, who were swept.

Rising BABIP and home run rates helped push Peavy’s ERA to 4.09 in 2006, but he struck out a league-high 9.6 per nine — including a career-high 16 against the Braves on May 22 — and finished with a total of 215, one fewer than NL leader Aaron Harang. Though his own record dipped to 11–14, the Padres improved to 88–74, again taking the NL West. Again facing the Cardinals in the Division Series opener, Peavy was knocked around for five runs in 5.1 innings; he didn’t have to deal with a broken rib this time, but he didn’t get another chance, as the Padres lost a four-game series.

After a hard-luck 2006, nearly everything went right for the 26-year-old Peavy in ’07, starting with the arrival of the 41-year-old Maddux — whom he had watched extensively while growing up a Braves fan — as a free agent and mentor. “Now, more so than in past years, when he gets into a jam, he slows down the pace of the game. He slows down his thought process, focuses on each pitch — and I think a lot of that is Greg’s influence,” pitching coach Darren Balsley told Chen.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from him is that location is the top priority,” Peavy told Chen. “He always says, ‘If you locate your pitches, you’ve got a chance,’ and I’ve really taken that to heart.”

Maddux wasn’t the only high-profile pitcher to mentor Peavy; as Chen noted, he also communicated regularly with Clemens, former Cy Young winner and Padres broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe, and Hall of Famer and fellow Alabamian Don Sutton.

Just about the only thing that didn’t go right for Peavy was his performance in the Game 163 tiebreaker against the streaking Rockies. He allowed six runs in 6.1 innings at Coors Field, squandering an early 5–3 lead. Even so, the Padres’ loss in 13 innings, on a play that’s still disputed, wasn’t his fault.

Even with that dud, Peavy went 19–6 with a 2.54 ERA (158 ERA+) and 240 strikeouts and won the NL pitching triple crown, just the second NL pitcher to do so since Dwight Gooden in 1985, with Randy Johnson (2002) the other; three AL pitchers won it a total of four times in that span. He set a career high in WAR (6.2, third in the league), made his second All-Star team and was a unanimous choice for the NL Cy Young award. He capped the year by signing a three-year, $52 million extension for the 2010–12 seasons, which actually meant picking up his $11 million club option for ’09 a year and a half ahead of schedule.

Though Peavy’s 2.85 ERA placed third in the league in 2008 (his 133 ERA+ was just 10th), he missed four weeks due to an elbow strain and dropped to 10–11 as the Padres sank from 89 wins to 63. In June 2009, he tore the posterior tibialis tendon in his right ankle while running the bases, sidelining him for thee and a half months. When he returned, it was with the White Sox; looking to pare payroll, the Padres traded him to Chicago on July 31 for a quartet of pitching prospects, of whom Clayton Richard came the closest to panning out.

Peavy made three September starts and posted a 1.35 ERA for a White Sox team that had no real shot, but he later admitted he had rushed his return, which had longer-term consequences. “You wanna get out there, especially when you’re a guy who’s been traded for. I wanted so badly to be out there,” he told ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson. Because of his ankle injury, he stopped using his lower body as much, which compromised his mechanics and put more stress on his arm. He made just 17 starts in 2010 before fully tearing the tendon attaching the latissimus dorsi to his humerus bone — an injury never seen in the annals of baseball according to Dr. Anthony Romeo, the surgeon who saved his career.

But while Peavy was back on the mound as of May 11, 2011, and threw a three-hit shutout of Cleveland in his second start, he made just 19 starts that year, missing time due to rotator cuff tendinitis and a groin strain and getting shut down after his September 6 start. For the 2010–11 period, he managed just a 4.70 ERA (90 ERA+) in 218.2 innings, though a good chunk of that owed to lousy defensive support. Even so, it rated as a pleasant surprise that he rebounded with an All-Star season in 2012. Though his won-loss record was just 11–12, he put up a 3.37 ERA with 194 strikeouts in 219 innings, good for 5.0 WAR. In late October, the White Sox reworked his $22 million club option and $4 million buyout into a two-year, $29 million extension plus deferred payments on the old contract’s buyout.

When the White Sox crashed from 85 wins in 2012 to 63 the following year, they decided to cut costs, and traded Peavy — who had just returned from a six-week absence due to another rib fracture — to the Red Sox as part of a three-team, seven-player deal that also included the Tigers, with Avisaíl García, José Iglesias, and Frankie Montas also changing teams.

Peavy finished the regular season with a 4.17 ERA in 144.2 innings, then provided a very mixed bag of outcomes during the postseason: 5.2 innings of one-run work in the team’s Division Series Game 4 win against the Rays, a seven-run shellacking and defeat in ALCS Game 4 against the Tigers, and a wobbly four-inning effort in Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals, also a loss. Nonetheless, the Red Sox won it all, and with that, Peavy finally got a World Series ring. Famously, he celebrated by paying $75,000 to purchase a duck boat used in the World Series parade.

Boston’s championship team regressed in 2014, and so did Peavy. Between a 4.72 ERA and just 3.1 runs per game, he carried a 1–9 record into late July, when he was on the go again, traded to the Giants for Edwin Escobar and Heath Hembree. He turned his season around with San Francisco; after three shaky starts, he allowed two earned runs or fewer in his final nine turns, seven of which lasted at least six innings. He totaled 202.2 innings for the year, with a respectable 3.73 ERA (101 ERA+).

With Madison Bumgarner having started the NL Wild Card Game, Peavy got the ball for the Division Series opener against the Nationals and netted the only postseason win of his career with 5.2 innings of shutout work. The returns diminished even as the Giants marched to their third title in five years; he allowed 11 runs in 10.1 innings during the remainder of the postseason, capped by his yielding five runs and retiring just four of 11 batters faced in Game 6 of the World Series against the Royals. He won another World Series ring, and planned to buy a San Francisco cable car to turn into a mobile bar on his Alabama property, but the logistics proved too complicated to follow through.

A free agent again, Peavy signed a two-year, $24 million deal to remain with the Giants. He fared pretty well in 2015 but missed two and a half months with a lower back strain. His 2016 season was bookended by miseries, and the middle wasn’t much better; sidelined by further back problems, he made just two appearances after August 20, and wasn’t part of the team’s postseason roster.

He had been pitching through major distractions. Shortly after reporting for spring training, Peavy learned that his financial advisor, Ash Narayan, defrauded him out of over $15 million worth of retirement savings by directing him to invest in a money-losing online sports and entertainment ticket company on whose board of directors he sat. Narayan additionally took out over $5 million worth of loans in Peavy’s name. The pitcher spent his downtime on depositions and meetings with lawyers, FBI agents and SEC investigators.

(In 2020, Narayan, who stole over $30 million from Peavy, retired pitcher Roy Oswalt, and NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez, was sentenced to 37 months in jail and ordered to pay back $18.8 million to the three.)

Three days after the 2016 season ended, Peavy’s wife and former high school sweetheart Katie filed for divorce. Peavy stepped away from baseball in 2017 to focus on dealing with family and financial matters, and eventually secured 50% custody of the couple’s four sons. He planned to throw for scouts in a showcase in 2018, but nothing materialized, and in May of the following year, he abandoned his comeback attempt.

Injuries prevented Peavy from spending long enough as a top-tier pitcher to draw significant Hall of Fame support. Still, his stuff, his competitive fire, his resilience, and his impact on the teams he helped to the postseason ensure he’ll be remembered long after he falls off this ballot.

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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2 years ago

What a guy! Excellent write up Jay. We still miss Jake in San Diego! At least he managed to get a couple rings, even if he had to go to Boston and San Francisco to get them.