ZiPS Time Warp: Nomar Garciaparra

One of the defining features of late 1990s baseball was the battle between three young, superstar shortstops: Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, and Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox. There were the occasional interlopers, such as Barry Larkin in his late-career surge and Jay Bell with the Diamondbacks in the midst of his second wind, but A-Rod, Jeter, and Garciaparra were the big three at the top of the leaderboards. The debate surrounding these three shortstops was very much in the public eye, with the trio at the top of the sport in terms of both name recognition and performance.

Top MLB Shortstops, 1997-2000
Player G BA OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Nomar Garciaparra 571 .337 .386 .577 142 27.5
Alex Rodriguez 579 .304 .372 .560 137 26.4
Derek Jeter 614 .325 .402 .479 132 21.2
Barry Larkin 481 .306 .399 .468 124 16.9
Jay Bell 608 .275 .361 .473 112 14.8
Omar Vizquel 604 .297 .370 .387 98 14.6
Mike Bordick 620 .266 .323 .395 87 10.9
Tony Batista 470 .262 .312 .497 99 8.8
Jose Valentin 520 .249 .330 .432 92 7.4
Rich Aurilia 461 .274 .331 .438 99 7.3
Royce Clayton 577 .261 .317 .397 81 6.2
Mark Grudzielanek 583 .285 .330 .391 90 6.0
Rey Sanchez 521 .282 .319 .350 70 5.9
Jeff Blauser 374 .266 .372 .409 108 5.5
Miguel Tejada 450 .253 .323 .431 92 5.4
Edgar Renteria 591 .278 .338 .377 88 5.2
Pokey Reese 471 .257 .314 .368 72 5.1
Mark Loretta 516 .294 .360 .401 98 5.0
José Hernández 541 .257 .322 .431 90 4.9
Walt Weiss 407 .261 .362 .347 84 4.7

We’ve been blessed with a flurry of phenom shortstops since then, but having three multi-talented players at the position who were also elite offensive performers was rather novel at the time. Cal Ripken Jr., Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount came the closest in living memory, but that fight was short-lived as Yount eventually moved to the outfield. To find another three this good, you’d have to jump back 60 years to the days of Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, and Arky Vaughan.

But what looked to be a debate that would last for the next generation faded away much more quickly than anyone expected in 2000. Derek Jeter, of course, stayed at short the rest of his career and cruised to the Hall of Fame, but Alex Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees in early February 2004 and was moved to third after the team decided to keep Jeter, the inferior defensive player, at the position. A-Rod isn’t yet eligible for the Hall, but will almost certainly face a lot of resistance from the BBWAA voters, but that’s for PED reasons not playing ones. And Garciaparra was only healthy enough to be a full-timer in four more seasons, eventually retiring before the 2010 season. Due to the Cooperstown logjam and the fact that inducting players based on peak abilities rather than career numbers had apparently become passé, Garciaparra quietly fell off the ballot on his second try.

In 2000, he hit .372, leading the American League (Todd Helton also hit .372 to lead the National League). No player has come closer to .400 since. But there was already trouble brewing for Garciaparra’s health. Despite a superstar season, he had played through discomfort in his wrist stemming from a hit by pitch in late 1999. The injury sidelined Garciaparra during early spring training, though it was believed at the time that he’d be back for the start of the regular season:

Red Sox doctors believe the problem is related to his being hit by a pitch thrown by the Orioles’ Al Reyes on Sept. 25, 1999. The pain was severe enough then for Garciaparra to miss one playoff game that October. However, he felt nothing more than what he termed “discomfort” during the 2000 season. Garciaparra said that it could not have bothered him too much, considering he batted .372 and won the league batting title for the second year in a row. Doctors explained the delayed pain, saying the tendon may have been fraying before it split.

That timeline turned out to be very optimistic and he went under the knife in April, with the best-case scenario for a return slated for late June. His surgery came with a foreboding warning as well:

There is no assurance that his right wrist — which had a split tendon surrounded by an inflamed sheath — will ever be as strong as it was before the injury.

“The repair went quite well,” the Red Sox team physician, Bill Morgan, said. “It’s obvious that he’s more vulnerable than prior to ever being injured. He had a fair amount of injury and a fair amount of surgery.”

Nomar returned in July and played at less than his usual MVP level, hitting .289/.352/.470 in 21 games before the team shut down him for the rest of the season in August. His relationship with the Red Sox and his status as an elite player unraveled over the next few years.

Set to hit free agency when his five-year contract extension expired after the 2004 season, the Red Sox, recently purchased by John Henry and Tom Werner, started discussing numbers. Derek Jeter had signed a $189 million deal and A-Rod his record-breaking $252 million contract, but as the oldest of the three, it was expected that Garciaparra would come up with a lighter salary figure. Boston offered him a four-year, $60 million deal in 2003, which Nomar was willing to agree to if they accepted his counteroffer that added an $8 million signing bonus:

“I said, ‘Great,'” Garciaparra says. “Four years, $15 million, fine: we agree on that. That is great. What I would like, though, I asked for a signing bonus for $8 million.” That would bring the average annual value of his contract to $17 million — “less than everybody [else],” Garciaparra points out, referring to Boston’s two highest-paid players, along with Jeter and Rodriguez — but still enough so that he wouldn’t feel resentful. In Garciaparra’s mind, the signing bonus would actually be divided up between the next two years of his deal, when he was slated to make about $11 million a year. That way, he says, the four-year extension would feel more like a six-year deal at $15 million a year. In either case, Garciaparra says, he thought that they’d agreed on a baseline from which they’d work off of as they moved forward. “Shoot,” he says, “I’m already accepting the $15 [million].”

The Red Sox wouldn’t agree, and the team believed that Garciaparra would not sign before the end of the 2004 season. After 2003, the Red Sox got involved in the A-Rod trade talks, agreeing to a deal with the Rangers that was only thwarted by a rare MLBPA veto. Contingent on the A-Rod deal was a trade with the White Sox that would have shipped Garciaparra to Chicago for Magglio Ordonez and Brandon McCarthy.

Garciaparra generally stayed on the field in 2002 and 2003, playing 156 games in both seasons and putting up a combined 10.6 WAR, a bit below his pre-injury numbers, but still star-level. He never bested two wins again. A controversial Achilles injury cost him a large chunk of the 2004 season and he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, meaning The O.C. would be Boston’s shortstop when the team won its elusive World Series trophy.

The Cubs brought Garciaparra back on a one-year deal, a pillow contract to let him re-establish his value in a healthy season. Instead, he tore his groin completely off the bone and returned well below his usual standards, hitting .283/.320/.452 with lackluster defense at the position. The defensive decline was so obvious at this point that his next team, the Dodgers, brought him in on a one-year contract to play first base.

A .303/.367/.505 line was enough for Los Angeles to re-up with Garciaparra for two more years. His 2007 was less impressive and after an injury-filled 2008 season, he finished his career with one last dreary season for the Oakland A’s that saw the former franchise player relegated to pinch-hitting duty 28 times.

For our time machine, we set the dial back to after the 2000 season. In this world, Garciaparra’s sore wrist responds well to an offseason of rest and he has a normal 2001 season. Without the injury and defensive decline, Boston’s new owners are more willing to come to terms on a deal and his stint in Boston ends with a parade rather than a trade.

ZiPS Time Warp: Nomar Garciaparra, 2000
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
1996 .241 .272 .471 87 11 21 2 3 4 16 4 14 5 83 0.1
1997 .306 .342 .534 684 122 209 44 11 30 98 35 92 22 123 6.4
1998 .323 .362 .584 604 111 195 37 8 35 122 33 62 12 140 7.3
1999 .357 .418 .603 532 103 190 42 4 27 104 51 39 14 153 6.3
2000 .372 .434 .599 529 104 197 51 3 21 96 61 50 5 156 7.6
2001 .333 .386 .582 555 104 185 42 6 28 99 46 54 10 150 7.3
2002 .325 .382 .560 548 109 178 42 6 25 105 49 54 10 149 6.8
2003 .333 .388 .579 537 119 179 42 6 26 115 47 51 9 146 6.8
2004 .337 .391 .608 526 114 177 41 6 30 113 46 49 9 148 7.0
2005 .324 .378 .567 515 108 167 38 6 25 106 43 49 9 146 6.1
2006 .330 .382 .579 506 95 167 42 9 22 94 41 47 8 141 5.7
2007 .337 .386 .564 498 94 168 39 7 20 92 38 44 7 136 5.6
2008 .312 .365 .537 490 87 153 40 8 18 86 39 43 7 129 4.7
2009 .300 .347 .505 483 81 145 33 9 16 79 33 41 6 116 3.5
2010 .290 .333 .452 476 71 138 26 6 13 67 29 40 5 108 2.7
2011 .289 .326 .423 470 70 136 23 5 10 65 24 37 5 100 2.1
2012 .279 .313 .419 427 55 119 20 5 10 50 19 33 4 94 1.1
2013 .265 .296 .357 389 48 103 16 1 6 41 15 28 3 79 -0.3
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
ZiPS RoC .314 .363 .524 6420 1155 2015 444 80 249 1112 469 570 92 129 59.0
Actual .297 .346 .480 3150 476 935 194 23 112 500 219 297 37 111 13.9
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
ZiPS Career .319 .368 .538 8856 1606 2827 620 109 366 1548 653 827 150 132 86.7
Actual .313 .361 .521 5586 927 1747 370 52 229 936 403 554 95 124 41.5

Garciaparra’s rate stats don’t change drastically, simply because he wasn’t healthy enough and didn’t play long enough for an extended decline phase to drag down his career line. But even with the projection system never putting his over/under for games played above 140, projecting from this point essentially gets us double the Nomar. ZiPS actually has him playing two more seasons given his closeness to the 3000-hit mark, but I instructed it to cut it off after 2013. Wouldn’t a World Series championship parade, followed by a symbolic handing-over of the title of “the man” to Dustin Pedroia, have been the more poetic way for things to end? Plus, he’d get to beat his rival, Derek Jeter, to Cooperstown by a whole year!

We hoped you liked reading ZiPS Time Warp: Nomar Garciaparra by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Awesome stuff Dan! Now I’m wondering if Tulowitzki would have a similar time warp projection.