Name: Jason Giambi
Position: First base/Designated hitter
Born: January 8, 1971 (West Covina, CA)
Yankee Years: 2002-08
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 653 G, .260/.404/.521, 134 2B, 2 3B, 209 HR, 145 wRC+, 22.0 rWAR, 21.8 fWAR
Some fans absolutely loved Jason Giambi and his home run prowess. He was a funny and popular guy in the clubhouse and had perhaps the best eye at the plate of any American League hitter this century.
Some fans loathed Giambi for his PED connections, his contract, his dismal defense, and for never quite getting the Yankees to a World Series title
It's quite a divisive reaction. There is something to be said for sheer production though, and few hitters were as feared in the 2000s as Giambi. The seven-year, $120 million deal the Yankees gave him after the 2001 season was large at the time, but by the time it ended, it paled in comparison to other contracts around the game. When all was said and done, just 11 Yankees hit more homers than Giambi's 209 and only four reached base at a higher clip than Giambi's .404--Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Charlie Keller.
That is why Giambi merits inclusion in the Top 100 Yankees.
Surviving in the major leagues for 20 years takes plenty of luck, but Jason Giambi had that in spades. Born near Los Angeles on January 8, 1971, Giambi was blessed with astonishingly good vision. The precise measurement of his right eye in 2002 was 20/13, meaning that he could see objects from 20 feet away that someone with 20/20 vision could only identify at 13 foot away. His depth perception was also in the top one percent of a group of thousands of baseball players.
Giambi's father John was a baseball savant and drilled his sons on Ted Williams' hitting, teaching them the best ways to analyze the strike zone and find pitches to hit. If walks were acceptable results for Williams, they would be acceptable results for the Giambis, a family which also included Jason's brother Jeremy, a future big-leaguer. John Giambi tried to make Jason into a switch-hitter too, as he idolized Mickey Mantle, but the natural right-hander Jason took to the lefty swing in a far superior manner.
Giambi played baseball, basketball, and football at South Hills High School, and he ended up getting selected in the 43rd round of the 1989 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Unsurprisingly, he chose to go to college instead, where he became a star at Long Beach State. They made the College World Series in 1991 and he earned enough attention to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic baseball team in Barcelona, too. That was his first exposure to first base, as he was mostly a third baseman at the time.
The NCAA pitchers were hopeless with Giambi at the plate. He hit .414/.524/.527 over two years at Long Beach State, launching himself onto draft boards across baseball. Giambi's superb approach at the plate perfectly fit in with what GM Sandy Alderson encouraged with the Oakland A's, and they made him their second round pick in the 1992 draft. It turned out to be a master stroke.
With Giambi's advanced approach at the plate, it did not take him long to soar through the minors. After a 1.050 OPS in a 13-game cameo in the Northwest League in 1992, he hit .291/.436/.470 in 89 games with High-A Modesto the following season. Giambi did hit a minor speed bump in Double-A at the outset of '94, but the A's felt comfortable enough in his abilities that he was bumped up to the Pacific Coast League by midseason anyway. Their confidence paid off, as he went on a tear for the rest of the season, batting .318/.388/.500 in 52 games with Tacoma.
It was evident that Giambi's bat was ready for The Show--the problem was just finding him a position. He was still ostensibly a third baseman, but he simply didn't have the defensive skills to survive there long-term. Although first base was the obvious solution, that spot was occupied by franchise player and mentor Mark McGwire. Injuries plagued "Big Mac," but whenever he did get into the lineup, he was an absolute force.
Nonetheless, Giambi earned a chance with a call-up on May 8, 1995. He went 1-for-4 with his first big-league hit, a single off the Rangers' Roger Pavlik. A few days later, he was back to the minors with only a 2-for-11 ledger to his name. The slight setback did not bother Giambi; he demolished the PCL with a .342/.441/.537 line in 55 games with Edmonton. There was no reason for him to still be in that league, so he returned on July 7th with a double and the next day, he homered off defending AL Cy Young winner David Cone for career dinger number one:
He wasn't going back.
Over the next two calendar years, Tony La Russa and then Art Howe did everything they could to get Giambi's bat into the lineup. They played him at first base when McGwire was hurt or needed a day off, took the youngster's defensive lumps at third base, and even gave him significant playing time in left field. He rewarded them first with a 106 wRC+ in 54 games as a rookie and then his first of 11 career 20-homer seasons in 1996.
In midseason '97, the first base job was Giambi's for good, as McGwire was dealt to the Cardinals at the trade deadline for prospects. He continued to become a force, first with a 27-homer campaign in '98 and then with a .315/.422/.553 triple slash in 1999, clubbing 33 bombs en route to an eight-place MVP finish. The team building around him held a lot of promise and the man known as "G" was at the center of the clubhouse. Miguel Tejada, Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito all gradually came up to the big leagues.
The A's zoomed from almost 90 losses in '98 to a second-place finish and Wild Card contention in '99. By 2000, they were ready to take the league by storm, and Giambi was at the forefront of their resurgence. He was unreal that year, making his first of five straight All-Star appearances and winning the AL MVP by hitting .333/.476/.647 with 7.7 WAR, a career-high 43 homers, and a league-leading 137 walks and 183 wRC+. They won 91 games, captured the AL West to secure their first playoff berth in eight years, and became just the second team to force Joe Torre's Yankees to a winner-take-all game in the postseason.
Despite Giambi's .786 OPS in the series, Oakland lost that ALDS Game 5 in 2000, but they were even better in 2001. They romped to a 102-60 season, only settling for the Wild Card again because Seattle won a modern record 116 games that year. Although Giambi narrowly finished runner-up to Ichiro Suzuki for AL MVP that year, he somehow improved on his 2000 campaign, bashing his way to a .342/.477/.660 triple slash (the last two numbers leading the league) with 47 doubles, 38 homers, 9.1 WAR, and an AL-best 193 wRC+. The Yankees saw just how dominating he could be with a walk-off homer against them in mid-August, his 1,000th career hit:
Once again, the A's faced the Yankees in the Division Series and once again, they took them to a decisive Game 5. It shouldn't have even gone that far, as they took a 2-0 lead back to Oakland only to lose three games in a row to blow the series. Giambi did just about everything he could by hitting .353/.455/.529 with a homer in the series, but they fell anyway. With both Giambi and Tino Martinez approaching free agency, Giambi's next home appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
Change was in the air around New York during the 2001-02 offseason. Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retired. David Justice was traded and the Yankees made no effort to re-sign the quickly declining Chuck Knoblauch. The biggest switch at all came at first base, as the Yankees eyed Giambi in free agency. Some in the organization, like Joe Torre, wanted them to keep Martinez for a couple more years and groom the up-and-coming Nick Johnson for the first base job.
That wasn't a strategy that quite suited George Steinbrenner though. Going back to his pursuit of Reggie Jackson, the Boss coveted the league's stars, and anyone who could mash dingers into the short porch like Giambi would be a priority, even if he couldn't throw to second base or do much at first base beyond scooping. Sure enough, Steinbrenner got his man, and Giambi was more than happy to join the team his father idolized. On December 18, 2001, Giambi signed one of the richest contracts of the era, joining the Yankees on a seven-year, $120 million deal.
The expectations were high on Giambi, and just as Martinez initially struggled to replace Don Mattingly amid Yankee Stadium cheers of "Don-nie Base-ball," Giambi got off to a slow start while the fans chanted "Ti-no." In hindsight, it was a microscopic sample size that the fans reacted to, as Giambi's .207/.361/.207 beginning lasted only eight games until he broke out with a pair of homers in Toronto on April 10th. He quickly heated up, hitting .304/.392/.576 over his next 33 starts leading up to an unforgettable walk-off grand slam to wrap up a rain-soaked 14-inning marathon against the Twins:
The rest of 2002 was smooth sailing for Giambi, who enjoyed his third straight monster season, batting .314/.435/.598 with 41 homers, 7.1 WAR, and a 175 wRC+.The Yankees trailed the Red Sox for most of the first half until overtaking them at the end of June. Boston faded and they easily rolled to a division title with 103 victories.
That team was loaded with stars, and they had three players finish in the top 10 for AL MVP: Giambi (fifth), Alfonso Soriano (third), and Bernie Williams (10th). They were the favorites to reach a fifth consecutive World Series. Then they ran into the Anaheim Angels buzzsaw. The 99-win AL West club was no pushover, and though Giambi once again did his part in the playoffs (1.098 OPS with a homer), the Angels stunned baseball by beating them in four games.
Giambi came up with another strong season in 2003, becoming the first Yankee since Roger Maris with back-to-back 40-homer seasons, but that was the first year that teams truly exploited a hole in his game. While he maintained terrific on-base and slugging percentages, his batting average dipped well below .300 as teams deployed a shift against him reminiscent of the one used against Ted Williams. Only one infielder remained on the left side and the second baseman played a shallow right field, so the YES booth took to calling it the "Martini Glass" shift since the players' positions created a similar shape.
At the same time, it should be noted that Giambi remained a tremendously productive hitter, and a slight decline from the prime of his late-twenties shouldn't have been that shocking in the first place. He led the league in walks in both 2003 and 2005, including a league-best .440 (!) OBP in 2005. Giambi's OPS was well above league average in every season of his Yankees contract, save for a 2004 stumble ravaged by a benign tumor in his pituitary gland that sapped his power. Fans also often forget that the late heroics of 2003 ALCS Game 7 would not have been possible had Giambi not managed to take a stingy Pedro Martinez deep... twice:
That was the year Giambi made the only World Series of his career. He was battling injury and still managed a .900 OPS over the course of the ALCS and the Fall Classic. Maybe if Torre used Mariano Rivera instead of Jeff Weaver in the extra innings of Game 4, the Yankees win that one to take a 3-1 series lead rather than falling to even on the Alex Gonzalez walk-off homer. Josh Beckett's shutout alone couldn't have ended it. Maybe Giambi's legacy would be viewed differently with a World Series ring. Sigh.
Steroids and the golden thong*
*No, those headings don't have much to do with each other, but where else could that be read?
The 2003 World Series loss wasn't the only thing weighing on Giambi's mind that winter. Federal investigators subpoenaed Giambi in regards to the BALCO scandal, and a report later emerged that he used both HGH and steroids at several points over the previous few years. Giambi denied it at first before later issuing a vague apology in spring training 2005 and then ultimately coming clean entirely in 2007.
So with both BALCO and the benign tumor on his mind in 2004, Giambi missed plenty of time and struggled. He only played 10 games after the trade deadline and just didn't look sharp enough for the playoff roster, ceding time to Tony Clark and John Olerud instead. The subsequent offseason was a grim time as the Yankees looked into voiding his contract based on the investigations, which from a union perspective was preposterous but still unsettling.
To his credit, Giambi did not fade away. He started off slow in 2005 until catching fire in July, when he blasted 14 homers and hit .355/.524/.974 in a sensational month. He slugged over .500 for the rest of the season too, finishing the year with 32 dingers and a 165 wRC+, impressive enough to win the AL Comeback Player of the Year award. The Yankees won another AL East title and Giambi hit .421/.500/.579 in the playoffs. Yet again, the Angels did them in anyway, dismissing the Yankees in five games.
The comeback proved to not be an anomaly as in 2006, Giambi returned with 37 homers in the heart of a devastating Yankees lineup nicknamed "Murderers' Row and Robbie Cano." He reached base several times in the ALDS against the Tigers but managed just one hit, a homer (the last of seven playoff blasts in his career), as the Yankees fell to Detroit in four games.A torn plantar fascia and other ailments limited him to 83 games and a 111 wRC+ in 2007, and he did not see much action in his final postseason appearance in pinstripes, a four-game loss to Cleveland.
Through it all though, Giambi was as popular as ever in the clubhouse. Everyone considered him a big, lovable bear. He had a slump-buster for the team too, a golden thong that helped a number of teammates out, including Derek Jeter during his infamous 0-for-32 stretch in 2004. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs in 2008, but it was no fault of Giambi's, who slugged 32 homers with a 131 wRC+, the last of eight times that he would top 30 in his career. His clubhouse impact was back in the news again, as the thick mustache he grew became a team phenomenon:
There was a $22 million option on Giambi for the 2009 season, but despite his production, it was clear for both sides that it was time to move on. He was about to turn 38 and the team wanted a younger player for the position who could actually play a good first base, too. They found their man in another big free agent splash, Mark Teixeira. Giambi's career wasn't over yet though.
The first post-New York destination for Giambi was a homecoming. At this point in his career, he perfectly fit the old DH type with a good batter's eye that his original team supported so dearly. So the A's signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract. As later teams proved, they had the right idea, but it was a bust. Giambi managed a mere .193/.332/.364 batting line in 83 games before Oakland cut him loose in August.
Making a late playoff push, the Colorado Rockies decided to bring Giambi aboard. As a powerful pinch-hitter off the bench, Giambi made plenty of sense, and the gamble paid off for manager Jim Tracy. He slugged .583 in 19 games to help the Rockies secure the Wild Card and went 1-for-3 in pinch-hit appearances during the last playoff series of his career, a four-game loss to the defending champion Phillies.
The team and Giambi liked each other a lot, so he remained in Colorado for three more years in a bench role while occasionally spelling Todd Helton (drafted three spots ahead of him all those years ago) at first base. He was solid in 2010 but had a particular renaissance in 2011, incredibly hitting .260/.355/.603 with a 146 wRC+ in 64 games, even launching three homers in one game against the Phillies in May.
Giambi's performance waned somewhat in 2012 but he was still a valued member of the team as a pseudo coach. His years of knowledge about the strike zone made him a helpful resource for the team's up-and-coming players. So when Tracy was dismissed at the end of the season, it wasn't entirely surprising that he was interviewed for the managerial job, even though he had literally just been a player.
The Rockies chose Walt Weiss over Giambi, so not wanting to cause a stir, he moved on. He closed out his career with two years on the Cleveland Indians, where he was absolutely beloved for his leadership (manager Terry Francona described him as not just a veteran, but "the veteran") and late-game heroics, particularly during their run to the 2013 Wild Card:
After the semi-productive bench role in 2013, Giambi came back for one last hurrah in 2014. He was injured in spring training and only played 26 games with poor results as his career quietly came to a close. Although his career OBP unfortunately dipped under .400 as a consequence, he ended it with an impressive .277/.399/.516 triple slash, 2,010 hits, 405 doubles, a 140 wRC+, 50.4 WAR, and 440 homers, ranking 43rd on the all-time list.
Cooperstown won't come calling for Giambi, but after a few years home at last with his family, it would be surprising to not see him ascend to a coaching role. Hell, he has already interviewed for a managerial gig once, so that could be a possibility as well.
Given Giambi's coaching potential, perhaps one day we will see Giambi in Yankee pinstripes again. If so, the fans will have plenty of warm memories to draw from in his return. Sure, there were flaws, but nothing heinous with the law or anything like that. Giambi gave it his all for the Yankees in seven seasons, and he ended up hitting more home runs than all but 11 players in franchise history.
That's certainly worth a tip of the cap and a spot on the top 100 Yankees. Thanks, Giambino.
Photo credit: Al Bello/Getty Images
Andrew's rank: 55
Tanya's rank: 62
Community rank: 56.7
WAR rank: 60.5
|NYY (7 yrs)
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Curry, Jack. "Giambi Envisions the Perfect Pitch," New York Times, 10 Mar. 2002.
Jaffe, Jay. "Despite Steroid Scandals, Retiring Giambi Rebuilt His Reputation," Sports Illustrated, 17 Feb. 2015.
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Verducci, Tom. "Bay Area Bombers," Sports Illustrated, 17 Jul. 2000.
Verducci, Tom and Joe Torre. The Yankee Years. New York: Doubleday, 2009.