The Ghost of Ben Grieve | The Process Report

The Ghost of Ben Grieve

Skip if uninterested in vintage Rays.

One of the haunting moments in Moneyball is when Michael Lewis describes Chuck LaMar as timid of Billy Beane. Haunting because general managers are supposed to be above the intrinsically human attributes like fear. Haunting too because the deal that caused LaMar’s ghost story reasons as the closest LaMar ever came to thinking like Billy Beane. That comparison might be too much. It is too much. The trade was for Ben Grieve. Son of the legendary Tom Grieve. A number two overall draft pick. A Rookie of the Year. LaMar and Beane did not look at Grieve with the same colored lenses but Grieve’s RBI totals made him appear normal to LaMar.

LaMar gave up Roberto Hernandez and Cory Lidle for the rights to Grieve, whom had four years and roughly $13 million remaining on his extension. A prized free agent signing from the 1997-1998 offseason, Hernandez had recorded consecutive 30-plus save seasons. He turned 36 months before the trade. Who knew how much longer he could be effective, but then again, the Devil Rays had no need for a high priced closer.

Lidle was a groundballer in his late-20s whom the Rays had signed coming off Tommy John surgery. He made 31 appearances in 2000 and racked up nearly 100 innings with an ERA over five. His peripherals were decent enough to suggest he was closer to league average than replacement level. His ERA dropped below 3.6 and his wins total eclipsed his career tally (13 in 2001 versus 12) in 2001 at the league minimum.

Grieve, though, Grieve was the prize. He would turn 25 months after the trade yet he’d already amassed more than 2,000 career plate appearances with a .280/.370/.475 line despite playing in a park that doubled as the flyball pitcher’s version of heaven. Grieve had hit more than 25 home runs in the preceding seasons while also driving in more than 100 runs for the first time in his career in 2000. A durable corner outfielder, Grieve seemed like a sure thing for at least 145 starts a season. He did not play defense well but who cared. He could hit.

Giving up an overpriced closer and a mid-to-back of the rotation starter for a player who fit Grieve’s bill is a move reserved for Beane. Of course, when Beane looked at Grieve he saw a young hitter who reached base 37% of the time and hit for power. LaMar saw a guy who would drive runners in. The problem with that ideology being that the Rays did not have the offensive chops of the Athletics. More precisely: they lacked the whole “runners on base” aspect of scoring runs. Whereas the Athletics held a .361 on-base percentage after the 2000 season (second best in the American League), the Rays finished dead last with a .329 on-base percentage. The next closest team sat at .337. The funny thing about scoring runs is how a team has to avoid making outs to do so.

Grieve got on base in 2001. His .372 OBP finished second on the team among players with at least 300 plate appearances to only Fred McGriff – and McGriff did not finish the season with the team. The American League average on-base percentage during the 2001 season was .334. The Rays had two players with more than 300 plate appearances finish above that mark: Grieve and Randy Winn (at .339). Greg Vaughn came close (.333), but is it any surprise the Rays scored the fewest runs in the AL that season?

That .372 on-base percentage may have represented a career high, but the 2001 season was anything but a career year. His home runs dropped to 11 and he only drove in 72 runs. His batting average slipped to the lowest of his career as well, and his slugging percentage dipped below .400 – his previous career low being .458 in his rookie season. The 2002 season would see his home run and extra base power return to a degree – 19 and .432 respectively – while his on-base percentage dropped to .353.

The 2003 season would act as the finale in Grieve’s Rays career. He’d hit .230/.371/.345 while being bothered by a thumb injury and blood clot in his arm. The Rays would grant him free agency after the season. One factoid that did not assist in Grieve’s popularity is his salary. The 2003 Rays’ opening day payroll sat at $19 million (no, really) with $12 million of that being paid to Rey Ordonez and Grieve (yes, really).

Grieve would also clash with manager Lou Piniella and fans alike over his seemingly apathetic approach to failure. All kinds of theories existed. From his father pushing him too hard throughout his life –thus resulting in burnout – to him literally not caring. Whatever truths (if any) those explanations hold should be held in lesser esteem than the logical baseball reasoning for Grieve falling apart.

The prevailing thought is that Grieve hit too many groundballs while becoming too passive at the plate. Batted ball data only goes back to 2002. What that data tells is that Grieve hit between 52% and 57% groundballs in 2002 and 2003. Before that, he led the majors in double plays grounded into during the 2000 season (more than 30) although that data point is more trivial than an indication of an underlying talent issue as he hit into 35 double plays his first two season and 28 in the subsequent two. Hitting the ball on the ground that often is a good way to ensure a low power output just as a high strikeout rate is a good way to ensure a low batting average. When married, the pair becomes a frustration-creating couple.

Did Billy Beane see Grieve collapsing in such a sudden fashion? Probably not. That LaMar thought he did is the terrifying part.

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