Trying to Remember Jay Gibbons

All-Star Week was marred by the surprising news that Jay Gibbons retired. It was surprising in the sense that many probably did not realize that Gibbons was still “in baseball.” It has been a semi-interesting wild ride for the 35-year-old. Gibbons never went to the playoffs. While he made contact and had nice power, his low on-base percentage and poor defense at non-premium positions limited his usefulness. He dropped off of the map for a while after getting named in the Mitchell Report. Nonetheless, for some reason Jay Gibbons has always been on the periphery of my attention.

Jay Gibbons was originally drafted in the 14th round in 1998 by Toronto out of California State University, Los Angeles. He actually hit well for the Jays in Single- and Double-A over parts of three seasons, but for some reason he was left unprotected in the Rule Five Draft in 2000, and Baltimore picked him up. What a stark contrast to today’s Blue Jays — it is hard to imagine them letting a guy with that sort of power go.

Gibbons was not exactly an offensive machine for the 2001 Orioles, but for a 24-year-old with no experience above AA, he showed something, with a 104 wRC+ (.236/.301/.480) based primarily on a very impressive .244 isolated power. The Orioles were aging, so it made sense to install a somewhat promising power hitting into their outfield. Gibbons was roughly the same hitter in 2002 (.247/.311/.482, 107 wRC+) as he was in 2001. More of the same followed in 2003. After that, however, the injury bug started to rear its head, and while he bounced back in 2005 and 2006 from a terrible season at the plate in 2004, things were going downhill healthwise, and 2003 was the only season of his career in which he appeared in more than 150 games.

Injuries, uncertainty about his position (bouncing between the outfield, first base, and designated hitter) put Gibbons in an unusual spot. After 2007 and the Mitchell report, he was done as an Oriole. Gibbons spanned a weird era in Orioles history: he played alongside both Cal Ripken and Nick Markakis.

On a more subjective note, sometime during this period there was a certain well-known fantasy baseball analyst who seemed to love Jay Gibbons, enthusiastically recommending him just about every year. I’m pretty sure it was in 2007 that I took Gibbons as part of an auction draft — hey, even if Gibbons didn’t work out, I also had Rocco Baldelli and Josh Barfield! Shockingly, I did not win the league that year.

In the aftermath of the Mitchell Report and his terrible 2007 performance, Gibbons could not find work in the majors, even writing a letter basically begging for a chance. He ended up playing for the Long Island Ducks and got a short stint in the Brewers’ minor league system. In 2009 he got a shot in the minors with the Marlins, but was eventually released and played with the Newark Bears.

Prior to the 2010 season, I mentioned Gibbons in a weird sort of “Where are they now?” post. In a bit of serendipity, not only did Gibbons sign a minor-league deal with the Dodgers that year at age 33, but he raked enough in the minors that he ended up getting 80 plate appearances with the major league team at the end of that season, and did okay, hitting .280/.313/.507 (.346 wOBA) — a classic Jay Gibbons line. Not content to leave well enough alone, the Dodgers’ plan for 2011 included a left field platoon of Gibbons and Marcus Thames. It did not look like a great idea, and to the surprise of very few, it did not work out. I will not link to the blog post that took me to task for predicting failure for the platoon, “you don’t have to listen to projections.” Well, no, you don’t have to, I suppose… No one claims that those projections are the end-all, but I really do not think I was going out on a limb in that case.

It was a strange career path. On one hand, Gibbons sort of seems to have been a slightly better version of Mike Jacobs. On the other hand, despite the lack of walks and a flyball-based low BABIP tendency, with his power and low strikeout rates, maybe if he would have gotten more of a chance as a young player these days rather than being unprotected in the Rule Five draft. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days when I took the advice of fantasy experts (I was paying for that advice, after all) seriously.

Let’s conclude this meandering stroll through recent history with a simple game graph. Gibbons’ final season with the Orioles was mostly miserable, but it did include his biggest play according to Win Probability Added. Enjoy:

Source: FanGraphs

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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