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.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
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