The meandering pace of the Hot Stove season has caused a variety of reactions among Phillies fans. Some have grown neurotic, parsing over even the minutest Macharper rumor in an attempt to find some clue as to where the big two free agents will end up. Others have grown angry, and have developed a hatred for Phillies management, Machado, Harper, and everyone remotely associated with baseball. Still others have found a calm sense of serenity, accepting the truth that neither man will ever sign a contract, and we will be locked into this state of purgatory forevermore.
And then there’s me. All of this Harper and Machado talk caused me to think about Gregg Jefferies, and whether he was actually a better player than we thought he was. (The mind can go to great lengths to protect itself from harm, and sometimes those lengths include analyzing Gregg Jefferies. Don’t judge.)
While it’s frustrating that the Phillies haven’t signed Harper or Machado, just remember that for most of the franchise’s existence, signing a big-name free agent wasn’t even a remote possibility. One of those times was the mid-90’s, when Bill Giles had apparently decided that the Phillies were a small market team, and would behave like one when it came to player payroll. That’s not to say that the Phillies never delved into the free agent market. Prior to the 1995 season, general manager Lee Thomas brought in a player who he thought would be the centerpiece of high-scoring lineups in the years to come.
Gregg Jefferies started his career as a highly touted Mets prospect. He never lived up to the high expectations in New York, but after making his way to St.Louis (by way of Kansas City), he broke out with two consecutive All-Star seasons. Thomas had long admired Jefferies, and signed the first baseman to a four-year deal. However, since the team had already decided to move flawed third baseman Dave Hollins to first base, they were going to have Jefferies play left field. (In a way, last season’s Rhys Hoskins in left field experiment was simply the continuation of a grand franchise tradition.)
With Jefferies as the centerpiece, the 1995 Phillies were expected to have a strong, balanced offense with threats all throughout the lineup. The only problem was that nobody could hit the ball out of the ballpark. As the steroid era began to pick up steam, teams were trotting out lineups filled with sluggers regularly bashing 40+ home runs. Meanwhile, the 1995 Phillies lineup was anchored by Jefferies and his 11 home runs. In St. Louis, he was able to compensate for his lack of power with a high average, but the .306 he put up in 1995 was the highest of his four years in Philadelphia.
The only real highlight of his time in Philadelphia came in August of that year when he became the first Phillie to hit for the cycle in 32 years:
Despite that cycle, Jefferies was never a fan favorite. He was embraced coolly from the start - many people felt he was replacing John Kruk - and neither he nor the team ever did much to change their minds. The Phillies were dreadful in 1996 and 1997, and the mercenary hitter seemed as much to blame as anyone. When Jefferies was ultimately traded in 1998, few tears were shed.
Since we now have the benefit of advanced statistics, I wanted to take another look at Jefferies’ Phillies career. I wanted to see if the fans were unfair to him, and maybe he was actually a very good player that became a scapegoat for a horrible team?
In his four seasons in Philadelphia, Jefferies put up WAR values between 1.1 and 1.6, which seems in line with how he was perceived. He was hurt by his defensive shortcomings in the outfield, but when he played first base, he was a plus defender. Offensively, he managed a decent on base percentage thanks to his ability to take a walk, but he never showed much power for a first baseman/corner outfielder.
On the right team, Jefferies might have been a decent complimentary piece of the lineup. But the Phillies of the mid-to-late 90’s were definitely not the right team. So if you ever booed Jefferies back in the day, don’t feel too bad. For the most part, he deserved the scorn.