Cleveland Indians: Grady Sizemore and the career that could’ve been

Welcome back to Indians What-Ifs, in which we examine events that could’ve altered the course of Cleveland Indians history if they’d have gone differently. Next up is Grady Sizemore‘s injury-shortened career.

For four seasons spanning 2005-08, the star of Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore burned as brightly as that of any player to ever wear the uniform.

During this time frame, Sizemore played in 639 of a possible 648 games for the Tribe. He was a three-time All-Star from 2006-08, a stretch in which he also finished 12th or better in AL MVP voting all three years. He won back-to-back Gold Gloves in 2007-08, and a Silver Slugger in 2008.

Among some of the more impressive statistical facts in this span: He trailed only Alex Rodriguez in total runs scored. Only Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Chase Utley led him in fWAR.

It goes without saying that there is a canyon in between how Sizemore is remembered in the grand scheme of baseball history compared to the other three, as injuries began derailing Sizemore’s promising path in 2009. For the ensuing three years, he ran up against one setback after another, playing in just 210 games from 2009-11.

Sizemore did not appear in a major-league game in 2012-13, then bounced around from Boston to Philadelphia to Tampa Bay for a couple of seasons in 2014-15 before permanently hanging ’em up. He was only 26 years old when the trouble set in, and only 32 when he retired.

Sizemore’s descent from All-Star to afterthought is as tragic as any injury-riddled baseball story. Indians fans lament it to this day, and even impartial observers have to at least wonder what Sizemore’s career would’ve looked like if his body had held up.

With a total fWAR figure of 27.3, Sizemore’s average WAR per season from 2005-08 came out to 6.825. Taking into account his age at the time, it’s perfectly plausible that he could have maintained such a clip for the next four seasons.

For comparison’s sake, 2005-08 represented the age 26-29 seasons for Utley, the age 25-28 seasons for Pujols, and the age 29-32 seasons for Rodriguez. Sizemore was at least three years younger than all three, just hitting the heart of his prime. It’s difficult to imagine anything other than injury could’ve caused him to significantly decline at that point in his career.

Had Sizemore sustained an average of 6.825 WAR per year from 2009-12, he’d have sat alone atop MLB’s leaderboard during that span, when Miguel Cabrera led the league with an even 25.0 fWAR.

As exceptional a baseball player as Sizemore was, it’s a little presumptive to argue even as a hypothetical that he’d have definitively been the best player in the entire league during his age 26-29 seasons, so perhaps we can dial it back a bit and peg him for an average WAR of 5.5 from 2009-12.

A running WAR average of 5.5 would’ve amounted to 22 WAR over those four seasons, giving Sizemore an eight-year total (2005-12) of 49.3. Such a mark would’ve sandwiched him in between Utley and Cabrera for third place on the leaderboard in that span.

For what it’s worth, even though he missed the entire 2012 season and barely played in 2009-11, Sizemore’s 29.4 fWAR from 2005-12 ranks 25th among all MLB position players. That’s how great his first four full seasons were.

While Sizemore’s days as a professional baseball player wound down in 2015, another future superstar outfielder was just ramping up in Boston: Mookie Betts. Much like Sizemore a decade before him, Betts’ first four full MLB seasons spanned the ages of 22-25.

Here’s a statistical comparison of Sizemore’s first four seasons versus those of Betts:

  • Grady Sizemore (2005-08): .281/.372/.496/.868, 128 OPS+, 107 HR, 163 2B, 464 R, 325 RBI, 115 SB, 27.3 fWAR
  • Mookie Betts (2015-18): .304/.370/.524/.894, 134 OPS+, 105 HR, 177 2B, 444 R, 372 RBI, 103 SB, 28.8 fWAR

Beyond simply illustrating that Sizemore and Betts were on similar trajectories early in their careers, this comparison serves to reinforce the idea that Sizemore absolutely could have kept up his elite numbers for another half decade or so if he had never gotten injured.

Is anyone in their right mind predicting Betts will suddenly stop being a great baseball player in the next year or two? Of course not. Nobody is going to be surprised if Betts winds up in Cooperstown 20 years from now, the same way nobody would’ve been surprised in 2008 to hear that such an honor awaited Sizemore in the future. Injury and injury alone was going to slow him down.

For our final insight into just what kind of company Sizemore is in, we turn to the expansive archives of Baseball Reference. Since 1904, seven MLB players have collected at least 700 hits, 100 home runs, 450 runs, and an OPS of at least .850 in their age 22-25 seasons: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hanley Ramirez, Pujols, Rodriguez, and Sizemore.

With the possible exception of Ramirez, that is quite the list for a young player to have found himself on if he wasn’t going to wind up being an all-time great.

Prior to the 2006 season, Sizemore signed a ridiculously team-friendly six-year contract worth $23.45 million with the Indians. Over the final three years of that deal, with Sizemore injured for almost all of them, the Indians never finished above .500.

It’s unlikely that Sizemore alone was going to save the Indians from such a fate in any of those years; they finished fourth in the AL Central in 2009-10 and were well removed from the wild-card hunt in 2011.

Maybe the Indians could have traded a healthy, inexpensive superstar at one of those deadlines and strengthened their future contention window with prospects, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the Indians were lucky enough to roster that superstar in the first place.

Next: What if the Indians traded Edwin Encarnacion one year earlier?

Sizemore’s career is largely unremembered (outside of Cleveland) because it ended just as quickly as it began. His unfortunately injury-riddled downfall should not be permitted to relegate him to the background. The way he played in his first four seasons, there’s a chance he’d have gone into the books as the best outfielder to ever take the field for the Indians when all was said and done.

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