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“Pretty Much Retired” Huff Stuff

It sounds like the Yankees have one more name to take off of the list of potential Mark Teixeira replacements. Aubrey Huff is saying he is “pretty much retired.” Although earlier in the off-season he sounded like he still wanted to play, not surprisingly, there was not much interest in a 36-year-old first baseman coming off of a 87 wRC+ in 2011 and a 76 wRC+ in 2012. That should not be how we remember Huff. As Craig Calcaterra noted this mornining, Huff actually had a pretty nice career, and is hardly unique in having to have the game tell him it is time to say goodbye rather than the other way around. There are worse ways to go out than winning two World Series rings in three years. Huff is no Hall of Fame candidate, but his career is interesting for other reasons.

(I guess there is still a chance that Bruce Bochy will get nervous about Brandon Belt and give Huff a call, but we will leave that possibility aside for now.)

The Devil Rays drafted Huff in the fifth round of the 1998 out of the University of Miami, the same institution that produced fellow Devil Rays legends Greg Vaughn and fellow former Ray and future Giant Pat Burrell. Huff had a brief audition in 2000 that was nothing special. In 2001 he got a real shot in Tampa Bay, and pretty much botched it, hitting .248/.288/.372 (71 wRC+) while playing first and third (mostly poorly). Huff turned it around in 2002 with a .313/.364/.520 (133 wRC+) line, which started a string of three big seasons with the bat for Tampa Bay that established his reputation.

Those Devil Rays teams were almost completely hapless, and Huff, as one of their few good players, seemed to constantly be part of trade rumors. (The other side of those rumors were that Tampa Bay was supposedly asking for a ridiculous return.) He had a bad year in 2005, as not only his BABIP, but his power dropped, too. Andrew Friedman became the General Manager in Tampa Bay after the 2005 season, marking a shift in the Rays strategies. With Huff sort of rebounding in 2006, the team shipped him to Houston for pitcher Mitch Talbot and some slap-hitting minor league infield named Ben Zobrist. I suppose, in historical perspective, Tampa Bay fans can view that as payback for the Bobby Abreu-for-Kevin Stocker fiasco. I am not sure how much better that should make Houston fans feel, though.

The 2006 Astros finished with an inspiring 82-80 record, so the trade was probably worth it, right? Aubrey Huff was a free agent, though, and signed a three-year deal with Baltimore. His first year in Baltimore he continued with his established level of slightly above-average hitting and poor defense. In 2008, he returned to his former style, mashing to the tune of .305/.360/.552 (135 wRC+) with 32 home runs. Was he back? No. He was terrible for the Orioles for 110 games in 2009, and was even worse after they traded him to Detroit for Brett Jacobsen (who wasn’t even as good as Mitch Talbot). Huff looked done.

During the 2009-2010 off-season, I started writing for FanGraphs. I remember a some of discussions around one strange turn of events. Adam LaRoche turned down an alleged multi-year offer from the Giants. Although LaRoche later said it was not as good an offer as people thought, at the time the many of us wondered who was crazier: LaRoche for turning down the deal or the Giants for offering it. The Giants, desperate for a first baseman, turned to the seemingly washed-up, 33-year-old Aubrey Huff on a one-year deal for $3 million.

It seems that things worked out (at least eventually) for all parties involved. Coming off of perhaps his worst season since being a rookie, Huff hit .290/.385/.506 for a 144 wRC+ and 6.2 WAR. It was pretty clearly the best season of his career, and he finished seventh in the 2010 NL MVP voting. Oh, and the Giants won the World Series, which was nice. The Giants signed Huff to a two-year, $20 million deal after the season, which looks terrible now given how Huff had two disastrously bad seasons. At the time, though, while it maybe was not great, it was not totally insane given what Huff had done.

That leads in to one of the things that stands out to me about Huff: his hitting peripherals. Perhaps conditioned by sabermetric stereotypes, I tend to fit most non-elite hitters into a couple of different categories: patient hitters who take lots of walks and hit for power, or hackers who do not take many walks, rarely don’t strike out, don’t have much power, and rely on BABIP for their offensive production. Of course, there are obviously players who do not fit into either category, especially really bad ones who are, uh, bad at everything, or really good ones who do a number of things well.

Such categorizations are simplistic, so it is hardly a surprise when players slip between them. Still, looking at Huff’s career, he slipped through in what seems to be an unusual way. Outside of his big 2010 season with the Giants, Huff never walked all that much. The only other seasons in which he had above-average walk rates were his “meh” 2006 season and his terrible 2011 and 2012 seasons. Other than that, whether he had a good or bad year, his walk rates were generally poor. It would not be quite accurate to say he had bad plate discipline, though, because he also had good strikeout rates his whole career.

Low strikeout rates and now walk rates might sound like a recipe for a BABIP-reliant hacker, but that was not the case for Huff. He had good power for most of his career, and his walk rates were below-average even in his season with the best isolated power (.244 for the 2003 Devil Rays and .247 for the 2008 Orioles). Moreover, while he had seasons with low BABIPs, he never really had a high BABIP season. He finished his career with an only slightly low .290 BABIP. While he did better in some of his big years, they were never heavily BABIP-reliant. His highest seasonal BABIP was .315 for the 2002 Rays. He had a .309 in 2003, another big year, and .310 for the 2008 Orioles, and a .303 for the 2010 Giants. Those are all a bit above average, but none of them stand out as a guy getting lucky on grounders slipping between the defenders.

As for the post-2010 Giants, sure, that hardly-extravagant two-year, $20 million contract seems silly in retrospect. At the time, though, they were looking at a hitter with very good power two out of the previous three years, consistently good strikeout rates, no worrisome BABIP luck, and coming off of a spike in walks. They were not paying him like a six-win player, either. I am not necessarily saying it was a smart deal, but it was hardly crazy at the time.

Some might understandably want to point to Huff’s “inconsistency.” I am not going to get into whether that sort of category is actually helpful analytically. With Huff retiring (it looks like), it is more fun to simply look at how much his career swung back and forth in graphical form.

Whether or not “inconsistency” is useful as an analytical or predictive tool, as a retrospective description of Huff’s year-to-year production post-Devil Rays, it is an understatement.

Subjective views of Huff’s career probably vary depending on team loyalty. Rays fans might remember Huff as a bright spot during dark times for the team who probably should have been traded sooner (although it worked out quite well in the end). The few Astros fans who remember Huff’s time in Houston probably think, “we got that for Ben Zobrist?” Orioles fans had Huff for two-and-a-half years on some pretty unmemorable teams, so his big 2008 comeback may have gone by the wayside in team history. I did not even remember that Huff had ever been on the Tigers, and I am not sure any Tigers fans remember him, either.

Giants fans are probably of two minds. Over the last two seasons, Huff was a drag on the payroll. Bochy’s willingness to given him occasional starts over Belt in 2012 was likely quite maddening. That said, I am sure that the 2012 World Championship despite Huff’s non-contributions make that forgivable in retrospect. Moreover, given that the 2010 World Champion Giants probably would not have even made the playoffs without Huff, I would guess he won’t be buying a drink in the City by the Bay for a long time.

Not bad for an inconsistent guy so morally confused he has both Autobot and Decepticon tattoos.