They say time heals all wounds. Whoever “they” is needs to reevaluate their perspective, because they are wrong. I could get philosophical with my argument and probably come up with some kind of deep, existential reason why said cliche is wrong, but we like baseball around here, so I’ll go with that instead.
Let’s consider two former center fielders whose careers were drastically altered through a series of injuries, and though they have since returned, they are barely recognizable. These two players are Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez who, while not exceedingly similar pre-injury, have become just that over the last couple of seasons.
At the beginning of his career, between 2005 and 2008, Grady Sizemore was one of the very best players in the entire league. Despite these being his age 22 to 25 seasons, he managed to be the fourth best player in baseball by Wins Above Replacement at 27.2, trailing only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Alex Rodriguez. Though it came in tied for just 29th in the league, his 129 wRC+ was still great, especially for a center fielder; If we look only at other center fielders, it ranks 3rd, behind Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton, neither of which had Grady’s defensive prowess.
Seeing as he was only 25 at the end of this run, he was conceivably headed for even better production through his prime years. But, once his first injury hit in his age-26 season, limiting him to just 109 games in a 2.1 WAR season dampened by less favorable defensive metrics and a good-not-great 109 wRC+, his career took a turn, never returning to the lofty heights he occupied before.
He ended up playing just 33 games in 2010 (his age-27 season) posting a horrid 55 wRC+ when he did manage to get on the field. At this point, though, it was just an unfortunate hiccup that could conceivably be overcome the following season. Only that isn’t what ended up happening as he again battled injuries in 2011, appearing in just 71 games, his performance of a 94 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR once again was a far cry from his first few seasons.
This didn’t end, unfortunately, as he sat out the entirety of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, missing the former after having back surgery in spring training and microfracture knee surgery in September, ending his run with the Cleveland Indians, and the latter after deciding to make sure that he was fully healthy before jumping back into the game.
Though he has managed to make it back and stay relatively healthy over the past couple seasons, he hasn’t come close to returning to form. In 2014 he played 112 games for two different teams — beginning with the Red Sox before being cut and signing with the Phillies — and struggled on both sides of the ball. He posted a below replacement -0.7 WAR on the back of an 82 wRC+ and well below average defense in all three outfield spots.
He posted a decent 98 wRC+ in the second half of that season, and because the Phillies are the Phillies, he was brought back for the 2015 season, but once again, he struggled. He posted a 60 wRC+ as a Phillie, before once again being cut mid-season before being picked up by the Rays, this time on a minor league deal. Seeing as the Rays have some magical ability to get performance out of random players for no reason, it makes sense that he went on to post a 108 wRC+ with them, including 126 after the All-Star Break. His defense took an even bigger hit, though, so if he is going to get another shot this year — he is currently a free agent likely in line to snag a minor league deal — it might have to be as a platoon-DH or a bench bat that is used sparingly in the field.
It’s certainly not where anyone expected his career to go, and it’s unfortunate that we never got to see what could have been outstanding prime seasons. He is now 33 years old, and as mentioned before, his role is drastically different, and reduced. It’s almost as though he aged from 26 to 33 because of how decimated the in-between years were. If he stays healthy he should be able to hang around for a bit longer, bouncing from team to team on minor-deals. It’s certainly not the career anyone would have expected or hoped for, but I suppose it’s something.
So let’s move on to the man they call Guti. As mentioned his pre-injury career wasn’t quite in line with Sizemore’s, but they have ended up going in very similar directions. Gutierrez also began his career in Cleveland, first backing up Sizemore and then playing a lot of right field next to him. But, he showed that he belonged in center field, and the Indians, expecting to have an MVP-caliber center fielder for years to come and Gutierrez didn’t figure to hit all that much, agreed to trade him to the Mariners. That was a mistake.
While Sizemore missed some time and took a step back in 2009, Gutierrez posted a 6.0 WAR playing ridiculous +32 DRS center field, adding a 104 wRC+ at the plate. His 6 wins placed him tenth in baseball, best among center fielders, and he looked poised to continue a similar pace if he could keep up the offense. He didn’t end up doing that in 2010, with his wRC+ dropping to 85, which along with regressed defense came out to an average rather than spectacular 2.1 WAR season. But, he was still healthy at this point.
2011 is where that came into play, as he played just 92 games, posting a 50 wRC+, his 1.1 WAR buoyed by ridiculous defense. Like with Sizemore, this wasn’t necessarily a concern, as he could have easily bounced back with a healthy 2012 campaign. Only, the injuries got worse, as he ended up being diagnosed with IBS, in addition to ankylosing spondylitis (a kind of arthritis that isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds) which only caused him to deteriorate further.
He managed just 40 and 41 games in 2012 and 2013 respectively, similar to Sizemore, but unlike Grady, he managed to produce when he did take the field, with wRC+s of 105 and 115 (though he did start to demonstrate that he wasn’t really a center fielder anymore). He then sat out all of 2014, choosing to take a year to get fully healthy. But the Mariners stayed with him through all of this, and in began to pay off in 2015.
Of course, Guti is no longer the same player. He probably shouldn’t ever see center field again, and he has admitted himself that there are going to be some days where he simply can’t play. This led the Mariners to start him in Triple-A Tacoma, where he raked to the point where they had to give him a shot and just roll the dice on his health. He entered into a platoon role in left field, and absolutely mashed. He hit 15 home runs in just 189 PA — about 48 homers over a full season — contributing to a 167 wRC+, and even respectable defense in a corner when he managed to play out there (309.1 innings).
Now, no one should expect a 48-home run pace going forward. He isn’t that good — very few people are. But, he has always hit lefties very well, a 138 wRC+, and that kind of role allows him to stay as fresh and healthy as he can, considering his situation. Of course it would have been great to watch him continue his Death to Flying Things ways, but this has turned out to be a pretty incredible story, facing injury after debilitating injury, always opting to come back to the Mariners and try to figure things out.
It’s interesting, I think, to consider these two careers in tandem. Of course they both have the unfortunate injuries that upset their careers in a major way. But looking back to, say 2008, if you told me that Grady Sizemore would face injury issues that would impact his athleticism, I would of course be worried, but I would also think that he would have his tremendous hitting to fall back on, and ultimately be alright (depending on the severity of the injuries, of course). If you said the same about Gutierrez, I would wonder what he was going to do. “His game is defense, and he simply doesn’t figure to hit enough to make due without it,” I might think.
In reality, it has become the reverse. Of course Gutierrez has only really managed to produce over 59 games, and one healthy season doesn’t guarantee anything. But even if we expand to looking at 2013-2015, Gutierrez has a clear edge. Though it’s only 100 games to Sizemore’s 209, his 144 wRC+ over that time trounces Sizemore’s 86, and he has been worth almost 3 wins (2.9 WAR), whereas Sizemore has cost his teams over a win (-1.3 WAR).
More than anything, this is just an interesting parallel to look at, but it also serves as a reminder that baseball is hard, both to play, and to predict. Careers can change — fall apart — on a dime, with no warning. It is terrible, and unfortunate, but both of these men deserve recognition for not giving up after essentially having their life torn away from them, never to return to the way it was before. So kudos to Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez, and good luck to both going forward.