Kelly Wayne Gruber | 3B | 1984-1992
Sometimes, there is a little synchronicity in the universe. Today is Kelly Gruber’s birthday. Kelly is 59 today. It is also Josh Tower’s 44th, Mark DeRosa’s 46th, and Richard Urena’s 25th birthday.
I’ll admit, I’m a little grumpy about having Kelly one spot above Rance Mulliniks, but I made up the rules to this little game, I decided to live by them (in this case, there are other spots where I played with the things a bit). In bWAR Rance losses 16.1 to 15.8. In fWAR Rance wins 16.8 to 14.5. But, I decided to zero out the seasons that a player had a negative WAR, feeling that it wasn’t fair to subtract points when a player shouldn’t be better off not playing than playing poorly (I’ve been calling it the Carter rule). Gruber had a few seasons with a negative WAR, Rance didn’t. I liked Mulliniks more.
Kelly Gruber was born February 26, 1962, in Houston, Texas. Cleveland picked him in the 1st round, 10th overall, of the 1980 amateur draft out of high school. The 1st pick that year was Darryl Strawberry. The Jays had the second pick and took Garry Harris (who?). In the first round of that draft, other notables include Terry Francona picked by the Expos and Billy Beane by the Mets.
Cleveland had Toby Harrah at third so Kelly was blocked from playing for them. The Jays picked up Kelly in the 1983 rule 5 draft. He got into 15 games that season with the Jays mostly as a defensive replacement. In 1985 Kelly got into 5 games as a September call-up. In 1986 he spent the whole season in the majors playing in 87 games, mostly as a defensive replacement playing third, second, short, and the outfield.
1987 was the first season Gruber had a defined role with the team, taking over Garth Iorg’s half of the third-base platoon with Rance Mulliniks and getting in 21 games at shortstop. He wasn’t great, hitting just .235/.283/.399 for an OPS+ of 77. He did have 12 home runs and 12 steals. Defensively he wasn’t much better, showing little range and making 11 errors for a .948 fielding percentage.
Despite that, Kelly was put in as the full-time third baseman in 1988, with Mulliniks moving to the DH role. He had a much better year, batting .278/.328/.438 for an OPS+ of 113. With 16 home runs, 81 RBI, and 23 stolen bases, all that he needed to become a genuinely great player was to learn how to take a few walks. He only walked 38 times in 569 at-bats.
In 1989 we made the playoffs, and Gruber was a large part of our success despite a couple of trips to the DL, shades of things to come. Kelly got selected to the All-Star team and hit .290/.328/.448 with 18 homers and 73 RBI. Even his defense improved as he showed more range. And on April 16, Gruber became the first Jay to hit for the cycle. Gruber hit well in our five-game loss to Oakland in the ALCS, hitting .294, and he even took three walks.
1990 was Gruber’s best season by far, with 31 home runs and 118 RBI, hitting .274/.330/.512 for an OPS+ of 127. He had career highs in at-bats, runs, doubles, triples, homers, RBI.....even walks with 48. He won the Gold Glove, Silver Slugger award for top offensive third baseman, made the All-Star game, took a walk, and stealing two bases in two plate appearances. He also was 4th in the MVP vote, 6th in the AL in slugging average, 2nd in total bases, and 2nd in RBI.
Kelly’s last two seasons with the Jays were injury-filled, and his production suffered, but they made the playoffs both years, and he concluded his time with the Jays by winning a World Series ring. He didn’t contribute much with his bat during their first World Series win, batting under .100 for the playoffs, though he did have a home run in each series. He did add one lasting memory during the World Series. He ended what should have been a triple play (after an amazing Devon White trade) with a diving tag of Deion Sanders’ heel. But the umpire at second didn’t see the tag. Gruber also had an interesting slide into home during the series where he drove his face into the ground, trying to make it to home.
After the 1992 season, the Jays traded Kelly to the Angels for Luis Sojo. The Jays wanted to open a spot for Ed Sprague. The trade didn’t help either team as Sojo only had 47 at-bats for the Jays before leaving as a free agent after the 1993 season, and Gruber only had 65 at-bats for the Angels. Kelly’s career was over at the age of 31 because of a bone spur near his spine and other impairments. He tried a comeback with the Orioles in 1997, but it didn’t work out. After a pretty good ten-year career, Gruber finished with 117 home runs, 443 RBI, and a .259 batting average. One thing I didn’t know about him was that he hit better with runners on base than with bases empty every season with the Jays.
A 6’, blond, good-looking, happy-go-lucky fellow, Gruber was a favorite of the female fans. At one point, he was voted Toronto’s most eligible bachelor.
But, at times, he wasn’t as big a favorite of the rest of the fan base as it all seemed to come a bit too easy for him, and it seemed like he didn’t work too hard to rehab from his various injuries. That might be a little unfair as the back injury was more severe than it seemed at the time. He was an extremely gifted athlete. Bill James ranked as the 103rd best third baseman of all time in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, but several years ago.
Kelly was the subject of a pretty funny Kids in the Hall sketch. Gruber has written an autobiography, ‘Kelly, At Home on Third’. And he won ‘American Superstars’ in 1991, a sports TV show, where athletes from different sports competed in a series of athletic events. Baseball players rarely won on this show, as soccer and basketball players tended to be in better shape.
And, of course, most of us remember that he appeared at a Pitch Talks event drunk (not that that is an excuse at all) and made some offensive remarks, many of them directed at the moderator Ashley Docking, back in June of 2018. You can find a video of it if you want. His behavior was completely inexcusable. I never saw an apology from Gruber. There was a statement, suggesting everyone else was wrong and what he did was fine. Pitch Talks apologized to Dockings
Kelly Gruber’s place among Blue Jay batting leaders:
Batting Average (> 2000 PA): 31st, .259
Slugging Average (>2000 PA): 27th, .431
Games: 16th, 921
At Bats: 20th, 3094
Runs: 20th, 421
Hits: 21st, 800
Total Bases: 13th, 1335
Doubles: 27th, 145
Home Runs: 16th, 114
RBI: 14th, 434
Walks: 33rd, 195
Stolen Bases: 14th, 80