Happy Birthday, David Eckstein

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
1:10
PM ET
videoNot a great list of birthdays for Jan. 20. The best player born on this day is Brian Giles, who had a pretty amazing peak with the Pirates from 1999 to 2002, when he averaged .309/.426/.604 with 37 home runs and 108 walks. He was probably the most underrated player in the game at that time, mostly because the Pirates were awful so nobody cared much what Giles was doing. He remained an effective offensive player through age 37 due to his ability to get on base -- he finished with a career .400 OBP.

Anyway, two others born on this date ...

Ozzie Guillen: Born 1964

Would Ozzie have a career if he came up today? With his lack of power and his disgraceful on-base percentages (.287 career), front offices would be more aware of his offensive shortcomings than they were in the 1980s. Still, Ozzie -- while not as good as the other Ozzie -- was a pretty good defensive shortstop and I suspect he would have carved out a career as a starter for at least a few seasons, at least until his defense started to slip.

In fact, the defensive metrics we do have rate Guillen as a superb defender early in his career, until he tore up his knee in 1992 in a collision with Tim Raines (missing almost all of that season). From his rookie season in 1985 to 1991, Baseball-Reference rates him at +116 runs in the field; over the same span, Ozzie Smith (granted, he was older) rates at +117. Guillen won just one Gold Glove in 1990 as Tony Fernandez won four in a row from 1986 to 1989. There were some good defensive shortstops in the AL in those days: Alan Trammell was still playing well, Cal Ripken, Greg Gagne with the Twins, Omar Vizquel came up in 1989. Fernandez won the Gold Gloves -- he had a terrific arm -- but I suspect Guillen and Ripken were the two best in that period. Guillen's defense was good enough that he averaged 2.7 WAR those first seven seasons.

He was pretty useless after that, although he remained the White Sox's starting shortstop through 1997. He never walked, didn't run much after the knee injury and a new generation of power-hitting shortstops came along.

And Ozzie the manager? Hey, he won as many World Series as Bobby Cox. I suspect his managing days are probably over.

David Eckstein: Born 1975

Like Guillen (who was traded as a minor leaguer from the Padres to the White Sox), Eckstein was dumped by his initial organization. A 19th-round draft pick of the Red Sox out of the University of Florida in 1997, Eckstein was an on-base machine in the minors: .407 in the New-York Penn League, .428 at Sarasota, .440 in Double-A. Still, he was never much of a prospect -- he was too small at 5-foot-6 and his arm at second base was considered weak. When he struggled at Triple-A in 2000, hitting .246 with a .301 slugging percentage, the Red Sox placed him on waivers in August. The Angels picked him up.

Then the most remarkable thing happened. Eckstein not only became a starter in the majors at age 26, he became a starting shortstop. He had played just 17 games at shortstop in the minors, 16 of those in Class A ball in 1998. Considering his arm was questionable for second base, how did he end up as a shortstop -- and, eventually, a two-time World Series champion shortstop?

It wasn't really any genius on the part of Angels manager Mike Scioscia recognizing something the Red Sox never did. It was a series of fortunate events for Eckstein. He began the 2001 season as the starting second baseman only because Adam Kennedy began the year on the disabled list with a broken bone in his hand. Benji Gil was the starting shortstop. In early April, Eckstein started taking grounders at shortstop in practice, with the hope that maybe he could turn into a utility guy, but even then Scioscia said he'd probably need game action in the minors to see if he could handle the position.

Eckstein didn't go to the minors. Instead, the club sent down utility infielder Jose Nieves. Eckstein eventually got some starts at shortstop and played well enough to impress Scioscia. While Gil was hitting .361 at the end of April, he'd also committed six errors. If Gil played defense that month, who knows what would've happened? By early May, Eckstein was the regular starter. In the end, you credit Eckstein's work habits and ability, but you do have to credit Scioscia for looking past Eckstein's weak arm to realize he had enough range to handle the position. Most managers wouldn't have played a guy there who sometimes took a couple steps before throwing the ball.

In 2002, Eckstein had his best year, hitting .293/.363/.388, playing good defense, stealing some bases, getting hit by a league-leading 27 pitches and also leading the league in sacrifice bunts. He was worth 5.2 WAR and he finished 11th in the MVP voting. The Angels won the World Series and Eckstein hit .310 with six runs scored. In 2004, he hit .276/.339/.332. That offseason the Angels signed free agent Orlando Cabrera to play shortstop and let Eckstein go. He signed with the Cardinals, made it to two All-Star Games and won another World Series in 2006 -- winning MVP honors by hitting .364 with several key hits.

It's a cliché and has been said many times about him, but Eckstein got as much out of his talent and physical skills as any player in recent history. The whole scrappy/gritty thing got a little out of hand, but in his case it had an element of truth to it. He didn't reach the majors until he was 26, but still recorded over 1,400 hits, played in four postseasons and won two rings. That's a heck of a career for a weak-armed second baseman.

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