November 12, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #33 Greg Gagne

Gregory Carpenter Gagne | SS | 1983-1992 | Career Stats

A week into the 1982 season the cost-cutting Twins traded starting shortstop Roy Smalley to the Yankees for All-Star setup man Ron Davis, Paul Boris, and a 20-year-old prospect named Greg Gagne. At the time Davis was clearly considered the big name coming back to Minnesota in the deal, but he flopped in the closer role and Boris was a non-factor while Gagne ended up being the real find as Smalley's eventual replacement.

He spent 1982 hitting poorly at Double-A, but the former fifth-round pick from Massachusetts bounced back at Triple-A in 1983. Gagne batted .255/.323/.462 with 17 homers in 119 games there as a 21-year-old and also got his first tastes of the big leagues with a brief stint in June as an injury replacement and a September call-up. He struggled, managing just three hits in 27 at-bats and found himself at Triple-A again in 1984.

Gagne put together another strong season there, hitting .280/.374/.441 with nine homers in 70 games, but didn't make it back to Minnesota until rosters expanded in September and then merely sat on the bench once he got there. Tired of trotting out guys like Ron Washington, Houston Jimenez, and Lenny Faedo the Twins turned to a 23-year-old Gagne as their starting shortstop in 1985.

He batted just .225/.279/.317 with two homers in 114 games as a rookie and missed time with injuries in May and August. In his absence the Twins turned to Smalley, who had returned that offseason in a trade for Ron Scheer and Randy Johnson (no, not that one), but back problems forced Smalley to be a designated hitter in 1986 and the Twins went with Gagne on a full-time basis at shortstop.

He came up with a solid sophomore campaign, hitting .250/.301/.398 with 12 homers in 156 games to rank 11th among all major-league shortstops in Value Over Replacement Player. In the second-to-last game of the season, Gagne hit inside-the-park homers in each of his first two at-bats against Chicago starter Floyd Bannister, and then smacked a triple off reliever Gene Nelson in his third at-bat to come 90 feet short of an all-time record.

After committing an AL-worst 26 errors in 1986 he had a team record 47-game errorless streak in 1987. He also hit .265/.310/.430 with 10 homers in 137 games as the Twins defeated the Tigers in the ALCS and beat the Cardinals in the World Series. Gagne hit just .229 in 12 playoff games, but had three homers and four doubles, scored 10 runs, and delivered the sixth-inning single that drove Tom Brunansky in as the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the World Series.

He had three fairly mediocre years from 1988-1990 and then hit .265/.310/.395 as the Twins again won the World Series in 1991. This time Gagne hit just .195 in 12 postseason games and had just one homer, but it was a big one. With the Twins clinging to a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning of Game 1 versus Atlanta, Gagne launched a three-run homer off Charlie Leibrandt that provided all the breathing room Jack Morris needed in a 5-2 win.

Gagne became a free agent after batting .246/.280/.346 in 1992 and signed a three-year deal with Kansas City. He gave the Royals three solid years and then finished up his 15-year career with two NL seasons playing for the Dodgers. Gagne retired at age 35 and was a starting shortstop in the major leagues from the moment the Twins handed him the job in 1985 to the moment he hung up the spikes in 1997, logging nearly 15,000 innings at the position.

Researching these rankings has changed my opinion of Gagne's career more than any other Twins player. My only real memories of him in a Twins uniform were from 1991 and 1992, and my primary experience seeing him play came after he departed as a free agent. By that point Gagne was on the downside of his career and other shortstops were starting to put up lofty numbers that made his .249/.292/.385 line with the Twins look pathetic.

However, take a closer look back at Gagne's decade in Minnesota and you'll discover a player who was more valuable than his paltry .677 OPS suggests. Perhaps the biggest key to seeing Gagne's value is in understanding the difference between baseball today and baseball in the 1980s. Not only has offense in general risen dramatically, players like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, and Nomar Garciaparra revolutionized the way we look at shortstops.

Meanwhile, during Gagne's time with the Twins the average shortstop hit .252/.309/.346. For comparison, since 2000 the average MLB shortstop has hit .270/.325/.400. That may not seem like a huge difference, but for overall offensive production it's a gap of about 10 percent. If you take Gagne's career numbers with the Twins and add 10 percent to them, you get something along the lines of .275/.320/.425. Jimmy Rollins is a career .272/.328/.435 hitter.

He still wouldn't light up a stat sheet, but those adjusted numbers are a lot more palatable. And then you have his defense, which was excellent regardless of era. He never won a Gold Glove, as Alan Trammell and Tony Fernandez dominated the award in the 1980s, but Gagne is widely considered the best defensive shortstop in Twins history and Total Zone Rating pegs him as seven runs above average per 150 games in Minnesota.

Despite the speed and athleticism needed for his defensive range he was awful swiping bags. Historically bad, in fact. He was 79-for-134 (59 percent) for the Twins and no one else in team history with at least 50 steals is under 60 percent. And he was somehow even worse after leaving, including a 10-for-27 mark in 1994. Seriously. Overall he was 108-for-204, which at 53 percent is the second-worst rate ever for those who attempted 200 steals behind Lou Gehrig.

Triples                35     9th
Games                1140    11th
Steals                 79    13th
Doubles               183    16th
Plate Appearances    3695    17th
Hits                  844    18th
Runs                  452    18th
Total Bases          1304    18th
Extra-Base Hits       287    18th
Times On Base        1060    24th
  • Pat

    was a helluva wrestler also

  • Matt

    I grew up with those mid-eighties to early nineties teams, and loved Gagne. Had that kind of funky, sidearm, head up throwing motion that the SI cover captures pretty well.

    I was at that two inside-the-park homer game, too. Didn’t remember the triple…crazy.

  • Ah, the two inside-the-park-HR game. When I was 12 I won a WCCO trivia contest at the State Fair about that.

  • ganderson

    I, too, came around on Gagne- perhaps the best thing to come out of Fall River since Lizzie Borden- he was, however, a terrible base runner- not just SBs but, at least in my memory had a knack for boneheadedness on the basepaths! Good SS, though.

  • Al

    Sadly, the 33rd best Twin is in their Hall of Fame.

  • McGivey

    ‘Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell should be in the Twins Hall of Fame, too

  • Dave T

    Gagne proved to my complete satisfaction that you judge a shortstop on his fielding, not his hitting. He was the captain of the infield, and saved a lot of runs with his excellent defense. It bugs me that Roy Smalley and Ron Coomer, two good-hitting, poor-fielding infielders, are the Twins position players on the FSN broadcasts. I’d much rather see Gagne than Smalley.

  • ML

    I loved (and still love) Gagne. He was Twins best defensive shortstop in my lifetime. In addition to being a good fielder he was good at being in position and for how smoothly he turned the double play. I’ll always remember the deep squat before every pitch.

  • nodakbob

    I need to pull this out and view again, but there is a pivotal point in the final game against the Tigers in ’87
    when Gagne goes deep in the hole and throws a pea to first. Bob Costas’s call still rings in my ears: “He got him!” Beautiful.

  • Ted

    Off topic, but with Uggla available for trade, is there any possibility that the Twins will pursue him? Being hampered financially probably doesn’t help. Could they afford the approximate $13 million that he is expected to get in arbitration? Do they have the prospects? Is he worth it? Do the Twins have those kind of stones?

  • Tom

    GAGS! I remember a lot of pro wrestler jokes when he first came up, but by ’87 he had pretty much set himself apart. I still recoil when i see R.D.’s name, though. Cost the team the pennant in ’84. What a hack.

  • duane

    Gagne’s fake double-play which caught Lonnie Smith napping in game 7 in 1991, won the world series and probably will go down as one of his greatest efforts.