Last year, Jacque Jones picked up a charity vote from somebody on their Hall of Fame ballot. It's not noted here, and it was one of the great mysteries to the post-results debate, but it had made me hope that somebody would give Eddie Guardado the same honor. It didn't happen, but remember how much that one vote meant to Jones?
Apprecaite my tweeples for helping me get that 1 HOF vote. Seriously that is awesome.— Jacque Jones (@JacqueJones11) January 8, 2014
Maybe that means I'm not taking Hall of Fame voting seriously enough. But I don't care. Jones was one of our guys, as was Eddie, and I'm perfectly at ease with guys getting a token gesture of appreciation. Sue me.
Let's be straight, though: Guardado isn't a Hall of Fame pitcher. He's in the Twins Hall of Fame, but that's a totally different thing. Let's talk about why I love Eddie Guardado.
The 2002 ALDS
Eddie had just finished his first season as the Twins' primary closer. He racked up a league-leading 45 saves, and was on the mound to save Game 1 of the ALDS against Oakland. But we were treated to a classic Eddie Guardado appearance in Game 5.
In a tightly-wound contest that saw Minnesota carry a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning, A.J. Pierzynski's two-run homer and David Ortiz's double pushed the Twins in front 5-1. Then: Eddie. Oh, Eddie.
Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye put runners on the corners with one out, and Mark Ellis took Guardado deep to bring Oakland within one. Gardy stayed with his closer, though, and three batters later - on a full count, of course - Eddie got Ray Durham to pop up. Corey Koskie looked it in, and the Twins were on their way to the organization's only trip to the ALCS we've experienced since 1991.
So much about that game, and that set of playoff games, is etched in my mind. Guardado was at the end of a great bullpen, leading LaTroy Hawkins, Michael Jackson, J.C. Romero, and Tony Fiore as a crew that most teams in baseball would have loved to have as their relief crew.
The Ultimate Underdog
Guardado was a 21st-round draft pick in 1990, and made his Major League debut in 1993 as age 22. As the 553rd player taken overall, he provided the most value of any player taken between Round 11 and Round 21; Tony Graffanino and Rusty Greer, both tenth-round selections, just barely clear Guardado in terms of rWAR.
Even more interesting, and what makes Guardado's story so relatable, is that it took him so long to find success in the Majors. The Twins tried him as a starter but gave that up during the '95 season. By 1996 he was a full-time reliever and led the league with 86 appearances - but he still struggled, both with his command and with preventing runs. Four years into his career, Guardado had appeared in 157 games for Minnesota and had a 5.73 ERA to show for it.
His next four years were better. Tom Kelly continued to use him as a specialist, and from 1997 through 2000 he made 281 more appearances and notched 221.1 innings. The ERA wasn't great (4.23), but in that environment it was still 17% better than league average. Still, it wasn't as though anyone saw him as a future star. Guardado was a 29-year old left-handed specialist with control issues, who was also prone to home runs.
In 2001, though, it was like Eddie finally put things together. Maybe it was all the experience or maybe turning 30 helped something click - whatever happened, Guardado became a legitimate left-handed threat out of the bullpen. He was still striking batters out but he posted a career-low walk rate and started to keep the ball in the park. After nearly a decade in Minnesota, Guardado posted the best ERA of his career (3.51). Peripherals agreed that his performance had greatly improved too, with that 3.09 FIP shining like a beacon.
Kelly liked what he saw so much that in the waning days of the season that when Hawkins was struggling in the role, and the team was faltering and desperate to close that six/seven game deficit, Kelly installed Guardado as closer. His last eight saves of the year came as the Twins' new closing pitcher, and it was the culmination in what was a career-resurrection of a summer for Eddie.
Guardado was the team's full-time closer starting in 2002, saving a league-best 45 games and posting a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time. He earned the first of back-to-back All-Star selections.
From a guy who was a 21st-round draft pick and who was, at best, "serviceable" for eight years...to one of the best closers in the game at age 31. That's awesome. He'd depart for Seattle on a big free agent deal after the 2003 season, but between 2002 and 2005 Eddie posted a 2.84 ERA, saved 140 games, and during that time was one of baseball's household names.
This is getting long, so a couple other quick things
- How can you not love a guy who so clearly loved his job as much as Eddie did? He wore his emotions on his sleeve.
- Now that we don't have to deal with it everyday, admit it: those scary ninth innings were a lot of fun.
- How did some of the game'e best hitters perform when stepping in versus Eddie? Jim Thome (.471 OPS), Jason Giambi (.331), Rafael Palmeiro (.681), Ken Griffey Jr. (.431), Cal Ripken Jr. (.681) and Wade Boggs (.500) all struggled. Juan Gonzalez, Frank Thomas, and Bernie Williams all loved facing Eddie, but that's much less interesting.
- Any player who was a part of the franchise's revival in the early 2000s will always have my undying loyalty and devotion, barring something awful like blowing up a field of puppies.
It's fine that Eddie didn't get the token vote for the Hall of Fame. He's one of the great Twins relievers of my generation, and this was as good of an excuse as any to talk about him for a few minutes.