Steve Garvey is Modern Baseball Ballot’s Ballast

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Steve Garvey
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Steve Garvey 38.1 28.8 33.4
Avg. HOF 1B 66.8 42.7 54.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,599 272 .294/.329/.446 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

From his matinee-idol good looks as he filled out his red, white, and Dodger blue uniform to the round-numbered triple-crown stats on the back of his baseball card, Steve Garvey looked like a Hall of Famer in the making for much of his 19-year playing career (1969-87). A remarkably consistent and durable player, he had a clockwork ability to rap out 200 hits, bat .300 with 20 homers, and drive in 100 runs, all while maintaining perfectly-coiffed hair and never missing a game. He holds the NL record for consecutive games played (1,207 from September 3, 1975, to July 29, 1983), a streak that’s still the majors’ fourth-longest after those of Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Gehrig, and Everett Scott. He was the most heralded member of the Dodgers’ legendary Longest-Running Infield alongside second baseman Davey Lopes, shortstop Bill Russell, and third baseman Ron Cey, earning All-Star honors in each of the eight full seasons (1974-81) the unit was together while helping the team to four pennants and a championship. After moving on from Los Angeles, Garvey made two more All-Star teams while helping the Padres to their first pennant.

As the most popular player on my favorite childhood team, and the one who seemed to shine most brightly on the biggest stages, Garvey felt larger than life. An Adidas poster of him standing upon what was supposed to be the moon, captioned, “The harder you hit it, the further it goes,” hung on the wall of my younger brother’s bedroom. Yet when I began reading Bill James in the early 1980s, I was struck by the extent to which the new numbers took Garvey down a peg, though to be fair, he’d entered his mid-30s already beginning his decline, postseason heroics aside. Likewise, when I began writing about the Hall of Fame in early 2002, Garvey’s lack of traction on the ballot in his nine previous tries stood out. While I don’t think particularly highly of his chances or his case, I felt it was worth expanding beyond the two or three paragraphs I’ve devoted to him countless times over the years (he was on the writers’ ballot through 2007, and this is his fourth committee appearance).

Born in Tampa, Florida in 1948, Garvey connected with the Dodgers when he was just seven years old. In 1956, his father Joe, a Greyhound bus driver, was assigned to drive charter buses for the defending world champions at their Vero Beach spring training base, and arranged for his son to serve as a bat boy for the team, a position he occupied for the next six springs. Garvey idolized first baseman Gil Hodges and dreamed of playing for Los Angeles. Though small for a high school athlete (5-foot-7, 165 pounds; he would grow to 5-foot-10, 192 pounds), he excelled at baseball and football. Bypassing a chance to join the Twins after being drafted in the third round in 1966, he drew a scholarship to Michigan State University.

In 1968, the Dodgers chose Garvey — then a third baseman — in the first round of the secondary phase of the June draft; two rounds later, they added Cey. They had already drafted Lopes and pitcher Geoff Zahn in the secondary phase of that year’s January draft, as well as infielder Bobby Valentine, first baseman Bill Buckner, outfielders Tom Paciorek and Joe Ferguson, and pitcher Doyle Alexander in the primary June draft. All of those players would go on to substantial major league careers save for Valentine (whom injuries derailed) making that the largest draft haul in the history of the sport; circa 2015, MLB.com’s Jim Callis counted 23 All-Star appearances and 235.6 WAR among them.

Garvey, Buckner, Paciorek, and Valentine all played together under Tommy Lasorda for the team’s Rookie-level Ogden, Utah affiliate. Garvey tore up the league, homering 20 times and slugging .699 in 62 games, but it was Valentine who won league MVP honors. After hitting .373 for Double-A Albuquerque in 1969, Garvey got a brief cup of coffee in September, and played 34 games for the Dodgers in 1970. He reached the majors for good the following year, but defensive woes at third base, including 42 errors in 164 games in 1971-72, doomed him to part-time status and a brief experiment in left field.

Garvey continued to ride the pine through the first two and a half months of the 1973 season, while Cey took over third base; at the time, Buckner was playing first. In the second game of a June 23 doubleheader, manager Walter Alston wrote Garvey in as the first baseman; he went 2-for-4 with a double in a 5-1 win over the Reds, and the Longest Running Infield began its reign, while Buckner settled in left field thereafter. Garvey hit .304/.328/.438 (115 OPS+) that year, his first of seven times batting .300 or better. He started the 1974 season so hot that despite not being listed on the All-Star ballot, he beat out Tony Perez by nearly 20,000 votes as part of a write-in campaign, then won All-Star MVP honors by going 2-for-4 with a game-tying double off Luis Tiant. He collected 200 hits, the first of six times he would reach that plateau, won his first of four consecutive Gold Gloves, and took home NL MVP honors with a .312/.342/.469 line, 21 homers, 111 RBI, a 130 OPS+, and 4.4 WAR. In October, he went 15-for-39 while helping the Dodgers to their first pennant in eight years, though they fell to the A’s in the World Series.

From 1974-80, the ever-dependable Garvey hit .311/.348/.480 while averaging 23 homers and 104 RBI. His triple crown numbers positioned him among the game’s elite; his 730 RBI for the span ranked second (two ribbies behind Mike Schmidt), his batting average sixth, and his 130 homers 12th. By a more modern reckoning, however, his 130 OPS+ was just 24th for the period, and his 28.8 WAR (4.1 per year) 20th. More on that juxtaposition below.

Garvey helped the Dodgers to pennants in 1977 and ’78, Lasorda’s first two years at the helm, and in the latter year became the first player to win All-Star MVP honors a second time, part of a remarkable track record in the Midsummer Classic. He accompanied that with strong postseason performances, including NLCS MVP honors in 1978, when he homered four times in four games against the Phillies, but the Dodgers could not surmount the Yankees in the World Series in either of those years. Though he slipped to a .283 batting average and 110 OPS+ in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Garvey again sparkled in October (.359/.379/.547) while helping the Dodgers beat the Yankees to claim their first championship in 16 years. The Longest Running Infield broke up after that triumph when Lopes was traded to the A’s; Garvey himself would spend just one more year in Los Angeles, slipping to a 101 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR in 1982 before reaching free agency.

Despite his decline, it rated as a shock when the Padres outbid the Dodgers’ four-year, $6 million offer by offering the 34-year-old Garvey five years and $6.6 million. Garvey donned the brown and yellow uniform, joked that he “looked like a taco,” and rebounded to his strongest offensive performance since 1980 (.294/.344/.459, 124 OPS+), though his season and his consecutive game streak ended in late July due to a broken left thumb. In his Baseball Abstract 1984, James, who ranked Garvey 14th out of 26 first basemen, wrote of him, “[D]oesn’t have Grade A power, grounds into a lot of double plays, never walks, hasn’t hit .30 for three years… he might do things that will help you sell tickets. Personally, I prefer players who do things that will help you win ballgames.”

While Garvey made the All-Star team again thanks in part to the popular perception of his work, which included a .284 batting average and 86 RBI, he slipped to just a 91 OPS+, eight homers, and a puny 0.4 WAR. Despite his struggles, he helped the Padres to their first NL title, again winning NLCS MVP honors by hitting .400/.429/.600 against the Cubs, highlighted by a four-hit, five-RBI Game 4 that was capped by a walk-off two-run homer against Lee Smith.

Garvey’s performance improved somewhat in 1985 as he made his final All-Star team, but he faded the following year. A torn left biceps tendon sapped his power and limited him to just 27 games in 1987, his last year under contract. After undergoing surgery, he decided to retire at the age of 39.

Garvey spent his career doing the things that tend to impress Hall of Fame voters; he made 10 All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves and an MVP award, and played a prominent role on five pennant winners, batting .338/.361/.550 with 11 homers and 31 RBI in the postseason. As a result of all that, he scores 130 on James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how likely (but not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various honors, league leads, postseason performance and so on — the things that tend to catch voters’ eyes — marking him as “a virtual cinch.”

Garvey fares far less well via advanced stats. Among players who accumulated at least 7,000 plate appearance and spent at least half their careers at first base, his 117 OPS+ is tied for 43rd with Wally Joyner, Jake Daubert, and the late Ron Fairly, none of whom have been mistaken for a Hall of Famer. He ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR just twice, and topped 5.0 WAR just once. For as impressive as his batting averages were, his 5% walk rate limited his on-base percentages; his .329 career mark is just one point above the park-adjusted league average for his time. He’s 51st in both career WAR and JAWS among first basemen. Of the position’s 21 enshrinees, his JAWS outranks just two dreadful Veterans Committee selections, Jim Bottomley (35.3/28.8/32.1, 57th) and High Pockets Kelly (25.3/24.0/24.6, 90th). It’s the lowest of any of this ballot’s nine ex-players as well.

When he first became eligible on the 1993 BBWAA ballot, Garvey pulled a solid 41.6%. While that may not seem particularly impressive, it’s the highest share of the vote by any post-1966 first year candidate who has yet to get elected, either by the writers or a small committee; he inherited that mantle from Smith, who received 42.3% in his 2003 ballot debut but wasn’t elected until last year. Garvey simply couldn’t marshal much in the way of further support, topping 40% just two other times, with a high of 42.6% in 1995. The popularization of advanced stats and their gradual absorption into Hall of Fame debates didn’t help his cause; instead, they dulled the superficial sheen of his traditional numbers.

Likewise, off-field issues that ran counter to his squeaky clean, All-American image, including a highly publicized split with wife Cyndy in 1981, multiple affairs and children out of wedlock including a paternity suit in 1989 (yielding eternal zingers like “Steve Garvey is not my padre”), and chronic financial woes thwarted his post-career political ambitions and turned him into a punch line. Even though some of this — including his marital troubles, and widespread resentment among his Dodgers teammates, culminating in a 1978 locker room brawl with Don Sutton – surfaced during his career, his fall from grace after he hung up his spikes was sad and stunning. As sordid as some of that has been, Garvey’s very public struggles, which also include his being firedfrom a marketing and community relations job with the Dodgers by owner Frank McCourt after he explored buying the team from the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) owner and a 2013 battle with prostate cancer, have humanized a player who was sometimes considered robotic.

Earlier this year, Garvey was honored as part of the inaugural Legends of Dodger Baseball class along with Don Newcombe and Fernando Valenzuela. That’s probably as high as it goes for him, as by now it’s hardly a surprise that he has yet to be elected to the Hall. He’s landed on ballots each time he’s been eligible during the Era Committee cycles, namely the 2011 and ’14 Expansion Era ballots as well as the ’18 Modern Baseball one and this year, but he’s never broken out from the “less than” group, the candidates whose actual levels of support are obscured when the totals are announced, so as to avoid embarrassing anyone. Arguably, his spot on the ballot could be put to better use for a more overlooked candidate such as Keith Hernandez or Bobby Grich, both of whom fare much better via advanced stats and have their share of traditional merits as well. From baseball’s All-American to ballot ballast, it’s been quite a journey, but perhaps we finally have the player and the man in the proper perspective.

We hoped you liked reading Steve Garvey is Modern Baseball Ballot’s Ballast by Jay Jaffe!

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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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JustinPBG
Member
Member
JustinPBG

Jay, you must have started doing your warm-ups during the WS, because it’s JAFFE SEASON.

Anyway, great work. I was too young for Garvey, so I got distinct waves of impressions about him: I don’t know who he is, oh he must have been good, oh he was a bad human, oh he was actually not that great a player either.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

As someone who HATED the Dodgers growing up (still do), there was no one I hated more than Garvey. I remember staring at the back of his baseball card, convinced that the couldn’t be as good as people thought. I knew there was something that didn’t add up but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was so happy when I discovered Bill James´ Baseball Abstracts and had my suspicions confirmed.