Take one look at Jason Giambi. Shirtless, if you can achieve it. The fellow’s got so many tats that he looks like a biker version of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s mural as done by Harley-Davidson: that’s a pretty good analogy for Giambi the ballplayer — the sacred and the profane all wrapped up in one big pile o’ muscles, said muscles come by honestly or not.
Considering the man’s achievements, not to mention his bulk, you’d figure he could hold his own without needing defending of any kind by third-party armchair columnist types. This ain’t Jason Giambi: Singin’ with the Dixie Chicks, or Jason Giambi’s Passion (there’s the sacred and the profane again), or even Jason Giambi: Enterprising Young Man of Halliburton. Still, some of the more misguided camp followers seem less than pleased with the Man Who Would Not Be Tino.
Catalog all the things Giambi is not and you make the old Sears doorstop look like an anorexic Reader’s Digest. He is not as swift as Mercury, or even, well, grandma. If baseball was a fair game, he’d be allowed to take the bullpen car from first to third. Not that there are bullpen cars anymore; they were crowded out by all the LOOGYs, for what they’re worth. Buddy Groom or a Volvo: who you gonna trust?
Giambi is not slick with the leather. He strikes out more than your divorced older brother Scott does at the local happy hour gender mix. Last season he didn’t hit lefties any better than John Ashcroft hits righties. In all likelihood, he does not appreciate the avant-jazz stylings of Ornette Coleman and is more of a Candy Dulfer-dude. These things are important to discerning NYC baseball fans, because… well, just because. These are the profane parts of “sacred and,” the flaws in Giambi’s game.
Alarm clock: time to go cold turkey on these lesser matters because they don’t count for much. The difference between a good glove and an average glove (Giambi isn’t Dick Stuart — he’s serviceable) is minute. Speed has been deemphasized in our home run-happy era— no need to run rabbit run when you can trot around the bases because even the bat boy has 25-homer power. Speed isn’t exactly irrelevant, but it’s a whole lot less important to the scoring of runs than the average cat might think.
What is important, when you strip away all the different ways one can model offense on his tablet PC while still wearing pajamas, is getting on base. That’s all there is. When Michael Stipe sang, “You are the everything,” he was referring to getting on base. Huckleberry Finn is the great American novel about getting on base. Picasso’s Guernica is about getting on base (take that, Picasso’s Guernica!).
Every baseball game has its 27-out battle with mortality: score one more than the other guy in those 27 and you win, one less, you lose (and sometimes it rains). Players who do the most to push off the inevitable end are the ones to build your offense around. Jason “The Only” Giambi accomplishes this as well as anyone in baseball today because he has the humility to take a walk. Other ballplayers are too good to let a pitcher throw four wide ones. Not Giambi, who learned his devoirs from Mark McGwire and knows that to each batter he faces a pitcher will make some pitches with murderous efficiency, some with suicidal ineptitude. During his two seasons in the Bronx, Giambi has taken 238 walks; the average American Leaguer has taken 99. His Yanks OBP is .423, .090 above the average AL player. In both 2002 and 2003 he ranked third among AL leaders in on-base percentage. Among active players he ranks sixth (behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton, Edgar Martinez, and Brian Giles, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jeff Bagwell). In 2003 he led the AL in walks drawn. In 2002 he was second to Thome. Though Giambi lacks what Casey Stengel called “effeminate appeal,” the cosmetic invitingness of a Tino Martinez, he possesses the central skill of winning ballplayers.
Moving along past the bearded lady, General Tom Thumb, and Picasso’s Guernica, we come to the next most important component of offense, moving runners, also known as power. Though he turned in the worst batting average of his career, Giambi still popped 41 home runs, the same number he did the year before. Note that since Reggie Jackson hit 41 homers in 1980, exactly two Yankees have hit 40 or more home runs in season — the aforementioned Tino in his fluke 1997 season, and Giambi, who has done it twice. His Yankees slugging percentage of .563 ranks fourth in franchise history (1,000 plate appearance division).
RBIs don’t really mean much, being contextual and all, but if you’re one of those primitive, RBI-lovin’ types, the Only Giambi had 229 of ‘em over the last two years. What else do you want from the guy? Blood? Maybe you don’t like strikeouts. Sure, Giambi led the American League in strikeouts last year. Get over it. A strikeout is just another kind of out. The guy hit into nine double plays all year. One-hundred and fifty-five ballplayers hit into more doubles than did Giambi-Rod (in honor of the Yankees’ new, media-ready superstar, the entirety of this year’s roster will be –Rod). That’s because when he made an out he had the decency to keep it to himself.
This is your first baseman. He’s not a gazelle. He’s not Hal Chase, in the most positive sense that you can mean Hal Chase. What he is, River City, is a pure hitter, more in the mold of Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle than any hitter the Yankees have had in a long, long time. Learn to appreciate him, because he will do more to put the Yankees in the playoffs than the next two Doug Mientkiewicz types combined.
Steven Goldman has the honor of being the longtime writer of the Pinstriped Bible column for www.yesnetwork.com, is proud to be an Author of the Baseball Prospectus, and is gratified that Forging Genius, his book on Casey Stengel’s early managerial career, will be published by Brassey’s this summer. Your knocks, kicks, bouquets, brickbats, and appreciative wolf whistles welcomed at email@example.com.