Prospect Retrospective: Andres Galarraga
Several weeks ago, a reader asked me for a Prospect Retrospective for Andres Galarraga. I've always found Galarraga to be an interesting case, as a player who turned out a lot better than I expected and an example of how watching a player in just a couple of games can be misleading.
Galarraga was signed by the Montreal Expos as a free agent out of Venezuela in 1979 at the age of 18 on the recommendation of Felipe Alou. Andres made his pro debut with Calgary in the Pioneer League and was ineffective, hitting .214/.299/.366 in 42 games, with a 9/42 BB/K ratio in 128 plate appearances. He had good power potential but a lot of problems with plate discipline, though of course he was young enough to grow considerably as a player. A catcher as an amateur, he split his rookie ball time between third base and first base, though most scouts felt first was his long-term destination.
He returned to Calgary in 1980 and was somewhat more effective (.263/.307/.426), though his performance was still nothing special for a league-repeater and his strike zone judgment was terrible (7/55 BB/K in 202 plate appearances). The Expos moved him up to Jamestown in the New York-Penn League for 1981. He made further steady progress with a .260/.339/.461 line, tapping into his power more readily, though he continued his impatient ways (15/44 BB/K in 175 PA). Entering 1982, Galarraga was a 21-year-old with one poor, one mediocre, and one decent short-season campaign on his resume.
The Expos promoted him to West Palm Beach in the Florida State League for 1982. He had a very good year, hitting .281/.360/.476 with 14 homers, 34 walks, and 77 strikeouts in 383 plate appearances, ranking 10th in OPS in the pitching-oriented league. Oddly enough, this did not result in a promotion in 1983: he returned to West Palm Beach, where he wasn't quite as effective as a power hitter (.289/.353/.424, 10 homers in 443 PA), though his season was still decent enough.
The breakthrough occurred in 1984. Moved up to Double-A Jacksonville, Galarraga hit .289/.367/.508 with 27 homers, 59 walks, and 122 strikeouts in 606 plate appearances. He led the circuit in slugging percentage and total bases, and was named Southern League MVP.
Promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis in 1985, he continued hitting for power with a .269/.344/.510 mark and 25 homers, with a 45/103 BB/K ratio. He got some playing time in Montreal and struggled, hitting .187/.228/.280 in 79 plate appearances, but his power numbers in Triple-A gave hope.
I was suspicious however.
Although his stats for Indianapolis were solid enough, I saw him play a couple of games and was not impressed. In those two games, he flailed wildly at breaking stuff, showing no feel for actual hitting as opposed to just trying to pull everything. He was obviously strong and had power, but his bat seemed very containable to me, given the hyper-aggressive approach.
He looked like a guy who would do well against mediocre competition, but who would be unable to handle pitchers who knew how to change speeds properly. His poor debut in the majors did nothing to change my opinion. He also botched a couple of routine fielding plays, and I came away from those games thinking he was a very overrated prospect.
This turned into one of my earliest lessons about judging players. While seeing players in person is obviously critical, a couple of bad games (or a couple of good ones) can be misleading.
In any event, Galarraga played 105 games for the Expos in 1986, hitting .271/.338/.405 with 10 homers in 356 plate appearances, 105 OPS+. A knee injury reduced his playing time. He took a step forward in 1987 at age 26, hitting .305/.361/.459, 114 OPS+. The genuine breakout (age 27 of course) came in 1988 with a .302/.352/.540 line, 150 OPS+, 5.6 WAR. He also drew notice for stellar defensive work, winning a Gold Glove in 1989.
Galarraga had weaknesses and the pitchers found them: he led the National League in strikeouts three years in a row, with his production tailing off sharply from his '88 peak. Injuries were a factor and limited his playing time considerably. He had a very poor season for the Expos in 1991 (OPS+ 70) and a mediocre one for the Cardinals in 1992.
The Colorado Rockies signed Galarraga as a free agent in 1993. The thin air (and better health) revived his career: he led the National League with a .370 average; even adjusting for the context, it was a fine season with a 150 OPS+ and a 4.3 WAR. He was a mainstay in the Rockies lineup for the next three seasons, with the environment in Colorado fitting perfectly with his approach.
He remained effective even after leaving Colorado and signing with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent, hitting .305/.397/.595 with 44 homers and a 157 OPS+ in 1998 at the age of 37. He lost 1999 due to cancer, but returned in 2000 at age 39 to hit .302/.369/.526, 123 OPS+.
Galarraga faded from that point, fighting another recurrence of cancer in 2004. His career ended after seven games on the Angels bench that fall.
Overall, the Big Cat hit .288/.347/.499 in his career, with 399 homers and a 119 OPS+. He rang up 32.1 WAR, his best seasons being 1988 with the Expos (5.6), 1998 with the Braves (5.0), and 1993 with the Rockies (4.3). He was a five-time All Star and won two Gold Gloves.
Galarraga's Sim Score comparables are Orlando Cepeda, Paul Konerko, Carlos Lee, Jim Rice, Joe Carter, Jason Giambi, Willie Stargell, Chili Davis, Fred McGriff, and Dale Murphy. Cepeda, Rice, and Stargell are all Hall of Fame guys, but they also played in less-friendly league/park/era contexts, which Sim Score doesn't account for strongly enough. WAR does a better job with this. Galarraga's 32.1 mark puts him in the neighborhood with Phil Cavaretta (34.5), Cecil Cooper (34.1), Vic Wertz (31.9), Hal Trosky (31.9), and Bob Watson (31.1), all very fine players but short of Hall standards.
In a narrow sense, my personal observation of Galarraga back in 1985 was correct: he did have problems with plate discipline and it did hamper him once major league pitchers found the weakness. His flawed approach, combined with injuries, resulted in poor production from 1990 through 1992.
However, better health and a friendlier environment helped restored his productivity. His hitting for the Braves in '98 and '00 showed that it wasn't all just a Colorado illusion; he did make some real adjustments and improvements, enough for him to rank in the Hall of the Very Good.