The 2020 MLB All-Star Game would have been Tuesday night, if it hadn’t been canceled along with two-thirds of the season by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we took a look back at the Oakland A’s club history in the Midsummer Classic, quizzing ourselves on the team’s 120 All-Star berths over the last 52 seasons.
Of the 65 players represented on that list, though, one name was conspicuously absent. In his 13 years with the A’s, Eric Chavez never got the call, despite being one of the main stars on a team that either went to the postseason or contended for it six years in a row. In fact, he never made it once in 17 seasons in the majors.
Chavez earned plenty of other accolades during his career. He won six Gold Gloves for his sparkling defense at third base, and received downballot MVP votes in four different seasons. He finished with 260 homers, and his 38.3 bWAR rank 41st among all third basemen in history. And yet, this one honor eluded him for nearly two decades.
A variety of factors might have gone into this, beyond the easy answer of anti-A’s bias — though, to be honest, 10 berths over five years from 2001-05 was a bit light for a team with a .593 winning percentage during that span.
Chavez’s best year might have been 2001, but at the outset he was still establishing himself as a star and he got off to a slow start with a .738 OPS in the first half. That’s even worse in the context of the inflated steroid era, and it’s understandable that he was passed over that summer.
Even in other years when he started stronger in the opening months, overall he was more of a steady .280 average, 29-homer guy who derived extra value from his defense, whereas All-Star decisions are often measured purely by the gaudiest offensive numbers available. He also never had that one huge campaign that stood out among the rest, peaking at 34 homers and passing 30 only twice.
Leaving aside his solid first full season in 2000, Chavez’s peak was roughly 2001-05. He averaged 30 homers, 100 RBI, an .857 OPS (123 wRC+), and 5.2 WAR on both scales. In those years, 11 All-Star berths went to AL third basemen. Five of them were the starters voted on by fans, for which there is no accounting — thrice it was Alex Rodriguez (fair enough), once it was Troy Glaus (in 2003, coming off winning a ring the previous year), and once it was Shea Hillenbrand (LOL Boston). The six reserve spots went to the following players:
- Troy Glaus, LAA (2001)
- Tony Batista, BAL (2002)
- Robin Ventura, NYY (2002)
- Hank Blalock, TEX (2003 and 2004)
- Melvin Mora, BAL (2005)
All of them were strong players in their day, but it’s not like there was a logjam of Hall of Famers blocking Chavez. What’s more, it’s a different name almost every year, so it’s not that there was a long-term incumbent entrenched in the way. Each of them had first-half numbers at least comparable to Chavez’s, so nobody squeaked in with an obviously undeserving resume, but you’d think Chavy would have gotten the 50/50 nod once among all these years in the conversation.
Probably the worst of these snubs was 2002. The A’s were enjoying their second straight 100+ win season, and they got only two reps (Cy Young Zito and MVP Tejada, both great picks). At the break, Chavez had 20 homers and an .884 OPS, his best start during this five-year span, and there ended up being two spots for reserve third basemen after the ridiculous fan pick of Hillenbrand. But Batista and Ventura had nearly identical numbers to Chavez, and Batista was the lone rep for a bad Orioles team while Ventura was chosen by his own manager as one of six reps for the defending AL champ Yankees. Ventura was deserving too, but Chavez could easily have taken his place.
The 2003-04 picks of Blalock are actually surprisingly defensible, despite his name being somewhat lost to time after flaming out in his late-20s. He really did put up impressive years both times, anchored by monster first halves. In ‘05, Mora had superior numbers at the break, but Baltimore also had plenty of reps and the .500ish A’s could have used a second after reliever Justin Duchscherer.
Worst snub in history?
So, there are reasons why Chavez never represented the green and gold in mid-July, but not enough for a satisfactory explanation. He’s still clearly a snub, and the only question is where he ranks in history in that regard.
One quick measure is to look at the career leaders in WAR, since 1933 when the All-Star Game began. Here are the top nine players who never got berths:
- Tony Phillips, 50.9 bWAR
- Tim Salmon, 40.6
- Kirk Gibson, 38.4
- Eric Chavez, 38.3
- Garry Maddox, 36.8
- Andrelton Simmons, 36.3
- Ken McMullen, 34.0
- Mark Ellis, 33.5
- Dwayne Murphy, 33.2
(I used bWAR, but the fWAR list is basically the same. Salmon drops into more of a tie with Gibson/Chavez plus 1970s infielder Richie Hebner, who finished tied for 10th on the bWAR list. Also on the fWAR list, Ellis would drop off but Coco Crisp would rise into consideration.)
Looking at it that way, Chavez isn’t even the biggest snub in A’s history, much less all of MLB. That distinction would go to Phillips, who leads the overall list by a wide margin on both WAR scales. He also won the championship with Oakland that Chavez was never able to capture, in a year in which Phillips wasn’t picked by his own manager (though to be fair, he hadn’t risen to his peak yet by 1989). Ellis, Murphy, and Crisp are also close on Chavez’s heels.
The one thing Chavez has going for him over Phillips is superior star power. Despite their primes being similar in value, Phillips only got MVP consideration once, as opposed to four times for Chavez. One reason for that is Chavez was a core part of a juggernaut roster, while Phillips’ early-90s Tigers were only alright. Is that enough to bridge the gap in career WAR?
Outside of former A’s, Gibson also has a strong case. During his consistent and impressive prime from 1984-88, his teams won the World Series twice and he was the league MVP in 1988. That means his own Detroit manager passed him over in ‘85 (the AL outfield that year was almost entirely lone reps), and he somehow missed out in a year in which he was ultimately named the best player in the NL with the Dodgers (including a strong first half).
Salmon also warrants a closer look, with good numbers and plenty of star power. Simmons does as well, though perhaps he shouldn’t be eligible here — he’s only 30 years old and could yet top this WAR list if he never gets picked, but he’s still currently a great player and seems like a good bet to get a berth someday in the future. That would be my top five position players for now, in some order: Phillips, Salmon, Gibson, Chavez, and Simmons.
When I started writing this story, I expected the answer to the question in the headline would likely be yes. However, I think a couple of those other names have Chavez beat in terms of snub injustice, and he’ll have to settle for a top-five position, which itself feels appropriately like a snub of sorts. And we haven’t even looked at pitchers yet, nor at single-season greatness like Marcus Semien in 2019.
So no, Chavez is not the single biggest snub in All-Star history, though he’s definitely on the short list. We’ll continue our search for numero uno in another post, centered around Phillips.