As our nation celebrates its 237th birthday, one-time Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra is getting ready to turn 40. What do you think about when you think back to Nomar’s time in Boston? I’m sure there are some great memories–his dominating performances in the 1998 and 1999 playoffs, his two three-homer games, or maybe even his one-man standing O for the crowd at the end of the 1997 (?) season. Heck, maybe you just miss the batting gloves routine. But do you ever think of him as a Hall of Famer?
It’s easy to dismiss his career as a short burst of greatness that was sadly cut short by injury, as someone who had Hall-of-Fame talent but did not have a Hall-of-Fame career. It didn’t help that Nomar came up as part of the “Holy Trinity” of shortstops with two guys–Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez–who have had much longer, more productive careers.
This perception, however, is not entirely accurate. In fact, taking a step back from it, Nomar’s career is completely worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration. First, the traditional considerations: six All-Star games, two batting titles, and a rookie of the year are decent qualifications for a strong defensive shortstop. A seven-year peak where he batted .325/.372/.554 looks pretty good too. These are, of course, balanced by Nomar’s counting stats, which fall way short. There’s no way 229 HRs, 936 RBI, and 927 runs look like they belong in Cooperstown.
A similar dynamic plays out in looking at Nomar’s stats sabermetrically. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system attempts to judge Hall-of-Fame worthiness by looking at an average of their 7-year peak (WAR7) and their career value (WAR). It works pretty well in capturing both the long, excellent careers and the short, amazing ones. For example, Pedro Martinez‘s 71.1 clocks in right next to Gaylord Perry‘s 71.9, despite the latter having thrown about twice as many innings.
Nomar’s JAWS is sort of a funny sight. His WAR-7 of 43.0 ranks 13th among shortstops all-time. The only guys ahead of him who are not in the Hall of Fame are A-Rod (not eligible and suffering from weirdo shunning) and Alan Trammel (who played middle infield for Detroit, and therefore is somehow banned from the Hall). It places him ahead of Ozzie Smith, Hughie Jennings (a strictly peak guy), and Joe Sewell, all deserving Hall members. By peak, there’s really not much argument to be made for keeping Nomar out.
Of course, the career number is what hurts him. Outside his seven best years, Nomar totaled 1.2 WAR. 1.2! Nick Punto already has 1.2 WAR this year! That’s, um, that’s not good. That adds up to 44.2 WAR for his career. Although that’s not as impressive as his peak, it’s still good enough for 32nd all-time among shortstops, ahead of some guys who are in, but probably shouldn’t be.
Average the two numbers and Nomar’s JAWS is a pretty respectable 43.6. He ranks 23d among shortstops. What does that number mean? Well, he’s certainly no shoe-in. He’s surrounded by guys like Jim Fregosi, Luis Aparicio, Joe Tinker, and Dave Bancroft. It would place Nomar at the lowest rung of Hall-of-Fame shortstops. But the lowest rung is a an actual rung. You can’t have a ladder without that rung!
All in all, I’d say the takeaway here is that Nomar is a borderline candidate, someone who should probably hang around on the ballot for a couple of years and possibly get in at some point. Instead, I suspect he will be quickly dismissed because he unfortunately came up at the same time as two other super-durable star shortstops. In a different reality, Nomar stays with the Sox in 2004 and is part of Boston’s first championship team, immortalized forever. In this one, he’s an under-appreciated star who goes on to give the kind of bland commentary that ESPN puts on the air. Well, that’s a thing too.