JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Steve Finley
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
The 2013 Hall of Fame ballot has its share of well-traveled players. Perhaps because the ballot’s newcomers didn’t reach the major leagues until after the shameful collusion saga of the 1985-1987 period — thereby removing an artificial drag on the market— and played through two rounds of major league expansion, they collected their shares of different jerseys. Kenny Lofton and Royce Clayton played for 11 teams apiece, two short of the record currently held by Octavo Dotel, while Roberto Hernandez played for 10, David Wells nine, and Reggie Sanders, Julio Franco and Steve Finley eight apiece.
Like Lofton — whom he forced out of Houston early in his career, as the Astros’ centerfielder of choice — Finley was a player whose frequency of relocation increased as he aged, with contending teams tending to value his services. Of the eight franchises he played for, he made the playoffs with four of them a total of seven times. While his career had its peaks and valleys, he remained a valuable player well into his late 30s.
|AVG HOF LF||61.7||39.7||50.7|
Born in Tennessee and raised in Paducah, Ky., Finley was drafted by the Orioles in the 13th round of in 1987 out of Southern Illinois University. He rose through the minors quickly; the bulk of his second year as a pro was spent at Triple-A Rochester. That year, 1988, the big club hits its absolute nadir, starting the season 0-21 and finishing 54-107, their worst record since shedding their identity as the St. Louis Browns.
Finley made the team out of spring training the following year, and most notably crashed into a wall making a spectacular catch on Opening Day, injuring his shoulder badly enough to send him to the disabled list. As reckless as it may have been, the play provided a “set the tone” moment in the eyes of his teammates, as the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell noted in a memorable column (later collected in his Cracking the Show anthology). Finley did two stints on the DL that year and hit just .249/.298/.318, but the Orioles improved to 87-75.
Finley stayed healthy in 1990, but his bat didn’t progress, and the following January, he was sent to Houston along with Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling in exchange for Glenn Davis, a move viewed by many as the worst deal in Oriole history. Though the trade placed him in a difficult hitting environment – the notorious Astrodome — Finley’s combination of speed and defensive skill made for a good fit with his new surroundings, and he came into his own. He hit .285/.331/.406, stole 34 bases, and was worth 4.8 WAR for an Astros team that also featured a rookie Jeff Bagwell and a sophomore Craig Biggio (still catching), plus Ken Caminiti and Luis Gonzalez — none of whom had yet reached their future heights. Lofton had a cup of coffee with the big club, but he was sent to Cleveland that winter, reasserting Finley’s claim on centerfield.
In 1992, Finely posted a .292/.355/.407 line that didn’t look like a big deal, but the low run environment, a 44-for-53 mark in stolen bases and good defense (six runs above average, down from 16 the year before) made him worth 5.5 WAR, a mark that would stand as his career high, matched but not exceeded.
Following two less spectacular years with the Astros, Finley and Caminiti were sent to the Padres as part of a massive 12-player deal in December 1994, while the players’ strike was still in effect. Finley had a solid 1995 and then broke out in ’96, hitting a career-high 30 homers and batting .298/.354/.531 for a Padres team that won the NL West — their first postseason appearance since 1984 — with a memorable collection of players. The steroid-fueled Caminiti slugged 40 homers and won MVP honors, while Tony Gwynn hit .353 and won his seventh of eight batting titles, Rickey Hendeson stole 37 bases, and Fernando Valenzuela enjoyed a resurgence at age 35, winning 13 games. Finley followed up with 28 homers in 1997, but he wasn’t much help in ’98, hitting .249/.301/.401 for a −0.3 WAR for San Diego, which won the NL pennant before being swept by the Yankees in the World Series.
A free agent that winter, Finley signed a four-year, $21.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks, who had just completed their inaugural season at 65-97. Joining fellow newcomers Gonzalez and Randy Johnson, Finley helped Arizona win 100 games and the NL West flag in just its second season of existence. He hit .264/.336/.525 with 34 homers and defense that was 17 runs above average, reversing a trend of three double-digit negative seasons. In the playoffs, Finley drove in five runs in a 7-1 win against the Mets in Game 2 of the Division Series, but the Diamondbacks were bounced in four games. After a 35-homer, .280/.361/.544 season in 2000, Finley dipped to .275/.337/.430 with 14 homers and 0.8 WAR the following year, though he was part of the team that upset the Yankees in the World Series, ending their three-year reign as champions.
After his four-year deal was up, Finley re-signed with Arizona for two more years and $11.5 million, and continued to hit well while holding his own in centerfield. Soon, however, it was clear that the Diamondbacks needed to undertake a youth movement and had little need for a 39-year-old centerfielder, so July 31, 2004, with his team en route to a 111-loss season, he was sent to the Dodgers in a five-player deal. To the 23 homers he hit in 104 games with Arizona, he added 13 more with Los Angeles, none bigger than the one which gave him a career-high 36. On October 2, in the second-to-last game of the season, his walk-off grand slam off the Giants’ Wayne Franklin broke a 3-3 tie and clinched the NL West flag for the Dodgers, sending them back to the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Finley would go on to play three more seasons in the majors, full ones with the Angels (who won the AL West)in 2005 and the Giants in 2006, then a partial one with the Rockies that ended with a mid-June 2007 release, just a few months after his 42nd birthday. He wasn’t ready to retire, and went to the winter meetings in Nashville, plodding around the expansive Opryland Hotel grounds with the other job-seekers, albeit to no avail.
Finley finished his 19-year career with 2,548 hits, 304 homers and 320 steals, making him one of five players with at least 2,500 hits, 300 homers and 300 steals, joining some pretty fair company: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez and Andre Dawson. Even so, the rest of his credentials — six Gold Gloves, but just two All-Star appearances and a meager .245/.335/.315 line in the postseason — don’t move the needle on his case. His career, peak and JAWS numbers aren’t all that close to the standards; he ranks 40th among centerfielders, within hailing distance of Earle Combs, Hack Wilson and Hugh Duffy among Veterans Committee-elected Hall of Famers, and Lenny Dykstra, Curt Flood and Amos Otis among those who came up short. If not a career that deserves to end in Cooperstown, it was a laudable one nonetheless.