I grew up a Blue Jays fan in upstate New York. In 1993, when the Jays won their second straight World Series, a 21-year-old catcher from Puerto Rico caught three innings and batted twice, and I never even noticed. In today’s world, if a Carlos Delgado-cailber prospect was called up to play for my favorite team during a pennant race, there would be no avoiding the hype. I’d read Delgado’s name in 12 different sports blogs, hear his minor league numbers dissected by talk radio callers, and watch former players critique his swing and his ability to handle a pitching staff on postgame TV shows.
The relative shortage of sports media in 1993 isn’t the only reason I didn’t know about Carlos Delgado (I was 13 and more focused on the Paul Molitors and Devon Whites already winning games for the Jays), but I think it’s fitting. Ask a mildly fanatic baseball follower to name the game’s best first basemen (Delgado’s permanent position starting in 1995) before the Albert Pujols era and you’ll hear names like Todd Helton, Jeff Bagwell, and Jim Thome, and for good reason. But there’s a good chance you’d also hear names like Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff and Andres Galarraga before you hear Delgado’s. Eleven seasons in Canada, playing for the post-relevant Blue Jays, will do that to a player, even one as great as Delgado.
As I learned Spanish in middle school, I was entertained by a few Latino baseball players whose names translated into very basic English phrases. Joe Table was the Indians’ closer and Alexander Pain (but not the one who directed “Sideways”) was pitching for the Dodgers, but nobody had a better Spanish name than Charlie Skinny, who would become my favorite player in the mid-to-late-’90s. To make a Hall of Fame case for Delgado would be an exercise in blind favoritism. Delgado’s career clearly comes up short, as his six-year stretch as an MVP-type player was more Keith Hernandez than Jimmie Foxx. Still, his career warrants some space in the blogosphere, and I hope I’m not the only blogger giving him that attention.
According to Baseball Almanac, there are 18 men in the Hall of Fame who primarily earned their living as first basemen in the major leagues. This does not include Ernie Banks, who played more games at first but earned his fame as a shortstop, or great Negro League first basemen like Buck Leonard, but it’s an impressive list, bookended by the great Lou Gehrig and the less-great George Kelly. Carlos Delgado hit 473 career home runs, more than every Hall of Fame first baseman except Harmon Killebrew, Foxx, Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, and Gehrig. Delgado slugged .546 for his career, better than all but Gehrig, Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and Johnny Mize. Only half the Hall of Fame first basemen reached base at a steadier clip than Delgado’s .383 and only seven drove in more runs than his 1512.
At his peak, only Barry Bonds was clearly a superior hitter. In 2000, Delgado played all 162 games, collecting 197 hits, 41 of which were homers and 57 of which were doubles. He led the American League with an incredible 378 total bases. Vlad Guerrero led the NL with 379 that year, and added 58 walks. Charlie Skinny walked 123 times.
Delgado spent time on the DL in 2004, played 144 games for the Marlins in 2005, and was traded to the Mets after the 2005 season. He was worth 3.8 wins above replacement in 2006, helping the Mets to the playoffs and the brink of the World Series with a .909 regular season OPS and four postseason homers, but that was the end of his time in the spotlight. Had the Mets made that World Series and not collapsed in each of the next two Septembers, Charlie Skinny may have had just enough in the tank to add some postseason heroics to his impressive career profile. Had back and hip injuries not caused him to miss 93 games and put up sub-Delgado numbers between ’04 and ’08, and to essentially end his career at age 36, he might have hit 500 home runs and compiled 2200 hits and 1200 walks. Maybe then we could start a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Instead, we look back and appreciate what a monster Carlos Delgado was with the bat for six years around the turn of the millenium. In every baseball and softball game I’ve played since 1995, whether I’m digging balls from the dirt at first, pitching, or shagging flies in the outfield, I’ve played every inning with a first baseman’s glove. Who knows what glove I’d have if not for Charlie Skinny.