There was nothing but pure amusement to the first episode of Conor Gillaspie: Playoff Hero. Here was this unfailingly reserved and quiet soul, suddenly forced into the absurdity of a live SportsCenter interview, because of the seemingly impossible alignment of his decent ability for hitting right-handers, with his happening upon an organization decent enough to place him in a position to succeed but mediocre enough to be in a situation as high-leverage as the Wild Card Game, on a sports night when his three-run blast off Jeurys Familia was the biggest story of the night.
The comedy was easy to find: an unremarkable player who was previously tucked away from the spotlight is suddenly thrust into it, and the baseball world reacts with confusion bordering on genuine annoyance.
It was much later, when Gillaspie started clubbing Aroldis Chapman fastballs into the dark and uninhabited regions of AT&T Park and going 8-for-19 in five playoff games with six RBI that the confusion bordering on annoyance suddenly got reflected back on all of us. Why did Conor do this in San Francisco, and not Chicago, after all?
Well, firstly, for all typical definitions, Conor Gillaspie never played a meaningful game in a Sox uniform in three years. He broke out with the worst Sox team in decades, had his best season with a clearly-rebuilding 2014 team, and got axed from a 2015 team that was 18-17 at one point and never above .500 again. He was never put in the position for his ability to hang in there with pretty much any right-hander to show up in a game that anyone besides myself, Jim Margalus, and seven other people were watching. And while I wouldn’t offer myself as sage for predicting the Cubs overwhelming the Giants, somewhere around ‘Gillaspie hitting fifth in an elimination game’ brought back memories of when simply being competent vaulted him way too far up the hierarchy.
The Giants didn’t really get anything special from Gillaspie. He hit .262/.307/.440 in the regular season, and while the power jump is a bit notable, it’s countered by getting a .262 average from someone who has a nice hit tool and no other standout ability. What they did was reduce him to a part-time player (he started just 37 of his 101 games) which de-emphasized the shaky defense that made him a slump away from being a total liability, as he was in Chicago. A reader might remember that he slumped in 2015, and then became a total liability to both the Sox and the Angels.
The reason five-tool guys, and players who man premium positions are more valuable is that slumps happen all the time, and players who can contribute in multiple ways are more able to help their team even when parts of their game are not going well. So while the Sox being so desperate as to make Gillaspie a near full-timer for parts of three seasons (despite him being an obvious platoon candidate) means Sox fans’ memories are filled with stretches of him being useless, but they also got to see his peak.
He hit .282/.336/.416 in 506 plate appearances in 2014, good for a solidly above-average .277 TAv. Moreover, he was, uh, clutch if we want to wade into those waters. He finished in the top-50 in the AL in win probability added, one spot ahead of Kole Calhoun, and had a superb 1.44 clutch rating. He hit a bases-clearing triple off Wade Davis to key a mid-September comeback win over the eventual AL Champion Royals, he hit the go-ahead RBI single in the 10th inning of an August win in Seattle, and a month earlier terrorized the Red Sox by hitting two separate two-out, sixth inning, go-ahead home runs in Boston.
Like any players with any offensive impact at all, Gillaspie had his moments — hell, Leury Garcia had a solo home run in a 2-1 victory in Los Angeles and a walk-off single in 2014 — the strangeness was always him being granted this grand stage, which, as it always does, has obscured any reasonable conversation about the player himself.
Lead Image Credit: John Hefti // USA Today Sports Images