I’ve mentioned a few times that I used to live in Pittsburgh when I was younger and tried to be a Pirates fan for a bit. Brian Giles and Jason Kendall were undoubtably the two stars of that time, but after them was probably Jack Wilson, who announced the other day that he was retiring.
Sure, there were other players. Aramis Ramirez and Jason Schmidt were better than Wilson, but both made their real marks with other teams. There were other lesser players that got some attention, due to the lack of actual great players on the team.* Wilson was sort of the perfect middle ground, though. Most of his career was as a Pirate, but he was actually decent in that time.
*Just to give those unfamiliar with the early-2000s Pirates, I remember being excited for the Pirates’ 2002 rotation headed by Kris Benson, Josh Fogg, and Kip Wells. I was a little upset they had to give up Todd Ritchie to get Fogg and Wells, though. That single sentence sums up an entire era of the team, I feel like. Oh, to be young and not have any idea what was going on again.
And you may be surprised to learn that he was decent. Over 12 seasons, he had a .265/.306/.366 batting line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). That’s good for a 76 OPS+, meaning he’s 24% worse than a league-average hitter. So obviously it wasn’t his bat that made him valuable.
But have you ever heard writers say, when a player is not hitting well, that their numbers would only be good for a slick-fielding shortstop?* Jack Wilson was that slick fielding shortstop.
*Maybe you haven’t heard this expression. That’s okay; I think I’ve probably heard it enough to cover for you.
Most modern fielding stats agree that he was a great fielder. Total Zone figures he saved 78 runs (almost eight full wins) in his career, tied for 80th among all players in history. Baseball-Reference’s WAR fielding runs lists him as the twelfth-best shortstop since the American League was founded back in 1901. Ultimate Zone Rating isn’t quite as high on him, but they do credit him with a very solid 38.7 runs saved in his career. It’s a shame he was never a good enough hitter to win the Gold Glove, though.
And really, that was how he made his mark. Fangraphs gives him a career Wins Above Replacement of 14.2. Baseball-Reference, thanks to their use of a more-Total Zone-like defense, calculates his value at an even better 21.2. Either way, it’s kind of interesting to see just how good Wilson could be as a glove-only shortstop.
One interesting thing I never noticed before while looking at his B-R page was that he was originally drafted by the Cardinals, the team I ended up adopting after so many early disappointments in the Pirates. They dealt him to Pittsburgh for two half seasons of reliever Jason Christiansen. Out of curiosity, I compared him to the shortstops the Cardinals had from 2001 to 2009.
The actual Cards shortstop from 2001 to 2004, Edgar Renteria, was certainly better most of his reign. The exception would be 2004, Wilson’s career year, when he hit at just above league-average while playing exception shortstop. The Cardinals traded two minor leaguers and Braden Looper to get Renteria, so that wasn’t a huge loss.
After that, he probably could have made an adequate fill-in for David Eckstein, Khalil Greene, Aaron Miles, and the other players who paraded through the hole. Eventually, though, he would have lost his hold on the position about the same time he did with the Pirates (ironically, it would have been to Brendan Ryan, who eventually bumped him to a bench role in Seattle and is probably the closest player to Wilson in the Majors today, style-wise).
The bigger reason I wonder how he would have fared in St. Louis is because from 2001 to 2009, the Cardinals made six playoff appearances to Wilson’s zero. Plus, there’s last year’s run for number seven if he held on as their back-up. But St. Louis may not have made the playoffs had it not been for Wilson; as the Braves’ back-up, he missed a ground ball in Game 162 that contributed to Atlanta’s collapse. It’s the ultimate tragedy, the veteran looking for his first playoff appearance messing up in his area of strength and costing his team their October hopes. And then, this year, when their playoff hopes are guaranteed, he’s cut. I just can’t get over how depressing it is.
In the end, though, it’s worth showing just how good he was at fielding, though, if only to end on a high note. It’s a little sad that he never got to have his version of “The Catch" in October, but it’s worth remembering what he was: an incredible fielder who was, for some time, one of the few things worth watching on his team.