April 5, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #21 Gary Gaetti

Gary Joseph Gaetti | 3B | 1981-1990 | Career Stats

Selected by the Twins out of Northwest Missouri State University with the 11th overall pick in the 1979 draft, Gary Gaetti hit .257/.377/.522 with 14 homers in 66 games of rookie-ball after signing and then batted .266/.357/.463 with 22 homers and 24 steals after moving to Single-A in 1980. Gaetti made the leap to Double-A in 1981, hitting .277/.357/.505 with 30 homers in 137 games before the Twins called him up in late September.

Starting at third base and batting seventh against the Rangers on September 20, 1981, Gaetti blasted a homer off knuckleballer Charlie Hough in his first major-league at-bat. He collected just four hits in his final 25 at-bats, but emerged from spring training as the Opening Day third baseman on a 1982 team that also had a rookie at first base in Kent Hrbek and later included rookies Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky, and Tim Laudner in big roles.

The Metrodome opened on April 6, 1982 and "The Rat" christened it in style, going 4-for-4 with two homers and narrowly missing a third long ball off Mariners starter Floyd Bannister when he was thrown out at the plate trying to stretch a triple. Gaetti never looked back after that, beginning his rookie year 10-for-17 with six extra-base hits while starting the first 13 games at third base, with former Rookie of the Year winner John Castino sliding over to second base.

Despite the fast start Gaetti hit just .230 with sub par plate discipline in 145 total games as a rookie, leading to a ghastly .280 on-base percentage. However, he quickly established himself as an excellent defensive third baseman and his 25 homers immediately became the most ever by a Twins third baseman not named Harmon Killebrew. He put together a similar sophomore campaign, hitting .245 with a .309 OBP while smacking 21 homers, but fell off a cliff as a junior.

After more than 100 strikeouts in both of his first two seasons Gaetti focused on making more contact at the plate in 1984. And he succeeded, whiffing just 81 times while upping his batting average to .262, but still posted a measly .312 OBP thanks to only 44 walks and saw his pop completely disappear. Despite playing all 162 games after hitting 46 homers over the previous two years Gaetti went deep just five times in 588 at-bats for a lowly .350 slugging percentage.

At the time it would've been troubling to see a 25-year-old slugger's power vanish, but 1984 simply sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of his now-completed career. In fact, his 1985 season was nearly identical to his first two campaigns, as he hit .246 with a .301 OBP and 20 homers. At that point Gaetti was a 26-year-old with four seasons under his belt, three of them similar in their low-OBP, high-power mediocrity and one unique in its low-everything putridity.

What happened next is amazing, as seemingly out of nowhere he put together a three-year run that saw Gaetti become one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball. It started in 1986, with Gaetti batting .287/.347/.518 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs while winning his first of four straight Gold Gloves at third base. He followed that up by hitting .257/.303/.485 with 31 homers for a 1987 team that shocked the baseball world by winning the World Series.

Not only did his 109 RBIs lead the team during the regular season, he homered in his first two playoff at-bats on the way to hitting .300/.348/.650 against Detroit to win the ALCS MVP. He then hit .259/.333/.519 versus St. Louis in the World Series, homering in Game 2. He missed significant action in 1988 for the first time in his career, sitting out much of August with a knee injury, but batted .301/.353/.551 with 28 homers in 133 games for his best season.

Sadly, like Cinderella's ride turning back into a pumpkin at midnight Gaetti quickly ceased being an offensive force in 1989 and turned right back into the out-machine he'd been prior to 1986. In fact, his OBP became worse than ever because his plate discipline mysteriously went from bad to awful while he was trying on glass slippers. He batted just .251/.286/.404 in 1989 and .229/.274/.376 in 1990, before signing a four-year deal with the Angels as a free agent.

Mike Pagliarulo and rookie Scott Leius replaced Gaetti at third base as a platoon, batting a combined .282/.342/.395 in 628 plate appearances while Gaetti hit just .246/.293/.379 in 634 trips to the plate for his new team. Along with the 50-point boost in OBP, the Pagliarulo-Leius duo cost less than a million bucks, compared to $2.7 million for Gaetti, giving the Twins money to sign free agents Chili Davis and Jack Morris on the way to their second World Series title.

Gaetti was a bust for the Angels, who released him in mid-1993 with a year-plus left on his big contract. After latching on with the Royals he resurrected his career when it appeared all but over, hitting .267/.323/.491 over parts of three years, including .261/.329/.518 with 35 homers and 96 RBIs in the strike-shortened 1995 season. That earned him a multi-year deal from the Cardinals and he continued his resurgence by hitting .274/.326/.473 with 23 homers in 1996.

He dropped off to .251/.305/.404 in 1997, but then pulled his career out of the dumpster yet again by hitting .281/.356/.495 with 19 homers and 70 RBIs in 1998, helping push the Sammy Sosa-led Cubs to the playoffs after being acquired in August. Chicago handed Gaetti a starting job in 1999, but at age 40 the magic was finally gone. He hit .204/.260/.339 in 113 games, was 0-for-10 in an ugly stint with the Red Sox in 2000, and called it a career after 20 seasons.

Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that Gaetti is one of the few players in baseball history to avoid the traditional effects of aging, which tend to include a loss of speed, batting average, and defensive range, and an increase in plate discipline. In ranking Gaetti the 34th-best third baseman ever James noted how he bucked that trend completely, making up ground on superior third basemen who "all aged at a normal rate." He also wrote:

Gaetti is odd in two respects ... his walk rate never improved at all, even an inch. [D]espite that, he aged at an exceptionally slow rate of speed. ... There is no reason for a player like Gaetti to last until he is 40 years old, and not much precedent for it.

In other words, Gaetti was far from a Hall of Famer, but he's unique in that he never really got worse. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Gaetti did get worse, but always got better again eventually. After two mediocre years to begin his career, he fell of a cliff and then inexplicably pumped out a great three-year stretch. Then he went back to being mediocre, falling into sub par territory while being released by the Angels, and again bounced back with the Cardinals.

Even within his three-season stay in St. Louis there's a good year, followed by an awful year, followed by a good year. His second season with the Cardinals saw a 38-year-old struggle to crack a .700 OPS, yet he bounced back with one of the finest seasons of his career in 1998. Taken as a whole Gaetti's career isn't especially intriguing. He hit for a low batting average and didn't walk much, played good defense while staying very healthy, and hit a ton of bombs.

What makes Gaetti's career so atypical and perhaps even downright fascinating is that there's seemingly no rhyme or reason to how the seasons were arranged. It's as if someone took 20 seasons, mixed them all together, randomly pulled them out one at a time, and arranged the new order into "Gary Gaetti." And if you don't believe me, look no further than the following graph, which shows the incredible year-to-year fluctuation in Gaetti's adjusted OPS+ totals:

That graph and James' ranking take into account what Gaetti did in 10 seasons after leaving Minnesota, whereas all that matters here is what he did with the Twins. While the homers and playoff heroics are memorable his all-around production was mediocre save for 1986-1988. In those years he was elite, but in the six surrounding years he was a replacement-level hitter, albeit one who rarely missed a game and played fantastic defense at third base.

When everything is taken into account, I suspect Gaetti's place in Twins history is somewhat overrated, although it's tough to say for sure given his unique career. Because of his defense, power, and durability he was a valuable player for a long time, but his inability to avoid making outs in bunches kept him from being a truly great player in more than a fraction of those years. On the other hand, he probably deserves some bonus points for that mustache.

RBIs                  758     5th
Extra-Base Hits       478     5th
Games                1361     6th
Plate Appearances    5459     6th
Hits                 1276     6th
Homers                201     6th
Doubles               252     6th
Total Bases          2181     6th
Times On Base        1672     7th
Runs                  646     9th
Runs Created          643     9th
Isolated Power       .181    12th
Walks                 358    15th
Steals                 74    15th
Triples                25    18th
  • RFS

    If there were ever a fantastic head shot of a player from the early 80s, that is definitely it.

  • Isaac

    An atypical resurgence contrary to all the expected effects of aging, all through the mid-90s? Sounds like steroids. Was he ever suspected of steroids?

  • frightwig

    Gosh, I wonder how the Rat managed to “avoid the traditional effects of aging” and actually post some of his best seasons in his late 30’s. I tell ya, that’s some mystery. If only there were some historical context of the era that might help explain it.

  • Doug

    He famously quit drinking with Hrbie. That may account for some of the volatility.

  • Twinstalker

    When he got injured in Detroit in 1988, he re-evaluated his life and then decided to accept Jesus, giving up drinking and cavorting. Hrbek was floored, and the pair were never the same. Gaetti’s fire (and it was considerable) went out as a player. He wasn’t the same, as Aaron shows. The Twins let him go, and it wasn’t that sad for any of us, because he was a shell of himself.

    What Aaron also mentions, and I’ll attest to, is that Gaetti was a great defensive player. I know most here don’t trust the eyeball over the stats, but defensive stats aren’t perfect, and besides, I don’t know what his were. I do know that he was an absolute vacuum at third. Combined with Gagne’s range to the hole, that left side was a steel trap. It was pure pleasure to watch. The Pags/Leius combo was also pretty good, though they were helped considerably by Gagne. Between Gaetti and Gagne, most balls between them could have been outs for either. It was fantastic. And there wasn’t a bunt or chopper Gaetti didn’t handle and get the out. Well, very few. Further, Hrbek made Morneau look like a little leaguer, and I like Morneau. The plays that were turned into outs on that team, well, those guys should have asterisks next to their own batting stats to explain how many doubles and base hits were saved.

    I sound like an old coot!

    (Off-Gaetti: Jason Bartlett reminded me so much of Gagne that I was howling when they dealt him)

  • marietta mouthpiece

    As another old coot, I agree with much of Twinstalker’s take on Gaetti, whether it is the dynamite defense or his seeming loss of full out passion for the game in the late 80’s (which, as Twinstalker notes, conventional wisdom at the time attributed to his finding religion). I also happen to think that his intestinal reformation degraded, over the course of a couple of years, the level of devotion that Kelly felt for him, which led to the Twins not making much of an effort to keep him here for 1991.

    My enduring everyday memory of the G-Man was his unique throwing style. Somewhere between a 3/4 and sidearm delivery, it was not technical perfection, but it was powerful and deadly accurate, and he executed and adapted it easily for plays made on the move (to the right, left or for charging the bunt or chopper) and it caused a natural carry on the ball that resulted in fewer (I believe) one-hop throws to Hrbek.

  • Tom

    There was an article about G-man in SI back about 1989 or 1990 about his acceptance of Christ and how it influenced his game. He admitted that baseball was no longer his focus, that preaching the Gospel was his priority now, and baseball was secondary. It noted that he would approach players from other teams at batting practice to testify, and he dropped Bible tracts into teammates’ lockers. It all drove a wedge into the locker room–especially with Hrbek, as has been noted–and I think that goes a long way to explaining his mid-career drop-off.

    Still, lots of great Gaetti memories……that unbelievable play against Detroit in Game 2 of the ’87 LCS….the sign someone made that said ‘hey Gaetti, give Hrbek a vowel…..’ his big hit in Game 6 of the World Series that set up Baylor’s game-tying homer……”it’s hard to throw the ball with both your hands around your neck.”

  • Tom

    There was an article about G-man in SI back about 1989 or 1990 about his acceptance of Christ and how it influenced his game. He admitted that baseball was no longer his focus, that preaching the Gospel was his priority now, and baseball was secondary. It noted that he would approach players from other teams at batting practice to testify, and he dropped Bible tracts into teammates’ lockers. It all drove a wedge into the locker room–especially with Hrbek, as has been noted–and I think that goes a long way to explaining his mid-career drop-off.

    Still, lots of great Gaetti memories……that unbelievable play against Detroit in Game 2 of the ’87 LCS….the sign someone made that said ‘hey Gaetti, give Hrbek a vowel…..’ his big hit in Game 6 of the World Series that set up Baylor’s game-tying homer……”it’s hard to throw the ball with both your hands around your neck.”

  • mike wants WINS

    Big fan of the Gaetti that was all about baseball….not as big a fan when he found baseball not to be as important. For some reason, what I found most interesting about the article was that the Twins just promoted him year after year….and didn’t just leave him in the minors at single A for 2-3 years. Not sure why that struck me so hard.

    I wonder how much my difference in opinion stems from being younger (though still an adult) in the late 80s, as opposed to now.

  • Josh

    I don’t recall Gaetti ever being linked to ‘roids, but it’s not totally unfair to wonder a bit considering how atypical his career progression was combined with the fact that he played in LaRussa’s clubhouse which was rife with ‘roiders.

    (side note: why doesn’t LaRussa get crucified for running 2, count them 2 of the most steroid-ridden clubhouses in MLB? Seriously, the players get crushed for this (and deservedly so), but LaRussa seems to get a pass. It should be a HUGE black mark on his record, but writers seem to believe he bears no responsibility for it)

    The Rat was a heck of a player, if a strange one. Loved his D at 3B and was very sad when he left as a free agent.

  • rghrbek

    agree with Josh. You have to bring up roids with a resurgence like that, when they were rampant everywhere in the early 90’s-early 2000’s. Just saying.

  • mike wants WINS

    More importanty than roids, LaRussa gets a pass for drinking and driving….alledgedly.

  • Strange guy, strange career. There’s no doubt that the Twins don’t win the World Series in 1987 without his playoff heroics, but his regular season was surprisingly blah (102 OPS+ from a third baseman?), even though the pre-SABR MVP voters gave him his highest ever finish. The following year the Twins were a better team, won more games (only 3 teams in all of baseball won more games — unfortunately one of them was Oakland in the same division), and Gaetti posted career high average, slugging, OPS, OPS+, yet no MVP consideration. But I can’t forget his performance in October 1987, so I have him 20th all time (right behind Radke, Torii, Morneau and ahead of Dave Goltz and Al Worthington).

  • Brian

    Thanks for the great story – the Rat is still my favorite Twin of all time.

  • NTR

    I know I say this every time you re-post Gaetti’s recap (or Koskie’s), but I still think the G-man should be the #1 3rd baseman ahead of Koskie (who you’ll have in a few more players). More longevity (leadiing to more HR, RBI, runs in a Twins uniform), more postseason heroics, higher offensive peak (although WAR has their best years pretty similar Gaetti’s OPS+ of 130 and 147 in 1986 and 1988 were better than Koskie’s best years of 2001-120 OPS+ and 2003-122 OPS+.

  • Joe in San Antonio

    Next year you should simply post this link: http://www.garygaetti.com

    The Rat is overrated in the same way that Chuck Norris is.

    …and by that, I mean not at all.

  • Twinstalker

    Two things:

    1. I’d have to give the edge very slightly to Gaetti over Koskie. As good as Koskie was in the field, Gaetti was better, by a fair margin. Koskie made all the plays he should have and more. Gaetti made so many plays no one should have, plus all the rest. That and the difference in eras should put Gaetti ahead. Also, again, I don’t know their comparative stats, but I believe Gaetti got to so many balls that never would have been credited as having been in his zone had he missed them. Gagne may or may not have made the outs anyway, but Gaetti never gave him the chance. I’m pretty sure, as you’d expect, that Gaetti played a pretty good shortstop in his younger days…and probably played there a few times with the Twins (if I remember right). One of the reasons you got to see both Gaetti and Gagne play spectacularly in the same hole was the swiftness of the turf at the metrodome. Other teams were horribly exposed, while the Twins were cleaning everything up.

    2. I said I *sound* like an old coot! (age-sensitive, and it *is* all about me, after all) 🙂

  • longtimefan

    Some puke of a reporter says G-Man loses his “fire” for the game because he finds religion. This was in the press at the time. Fire? The g-man was our anchor at 3rd that brought our first World Series.
    G-man made a great living playing the game. He played a very long time compared to others, like Hrbek. That is the interesting stat in all this analysis.
    I’m glad to know G-man has a relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the only stat that counts come judgment day.

  • brian

    The Gary Gaetti website was really great. I’d forgotten about the zany weirdness of (fans) and fan sites. It was 1997 internet all over again. Thank you.

  • Tom

    Longtimefan, the alleged “puke” of a reporter was simply quoting what G-man himself was saying, and others were saying about him.

  • Shelley

    I was too young when he played for the Twins to determine if he was a good player or not. I just know that I liked him and called him Gary eye-getti.

  • Look, all I’m saying is that you will find two sides to each and every story.