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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #16 John Olerud

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Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

John Garrett Olerud | 1B | 1989-1996

John Olerud was born August 5, 1968, in Seattle, Washington. His father, also named John, played catcher for Washington State University and played professional ball, reaching Triple-A ball. The Blue Jays drafted John Jr. in the 3rd round of the 1989 amateur draft out of Washington State University, where he both pitched and played in the field. He was 26-4 as a pitcher in WSU. He is one of just a handful of players that started his professional career in the majors and never played in the minors until 2005, when he spent a few games there to get up to speed after being signed by the Boston Red Sox in May of 2005.

Everyone remembers him for wearing his batting helmet while playing first base. The story is that he collapsed after a workout from bleeding in his spinal column in early 1989. About a month later, he had surgery to remove a brain hemorrhage. After that, he wore the batting helmet on the field to be extra careful.

After the draft, he signed with the Jays in late August and, since rosters expanded in September, the Jays decided to let him spend the end of the season with the big team. He got into a few games as a defensive replacement. In 1990 he made the Jays out of spring training and platooned at DH as the Jays had Fred McGriff playing first. John played against right-handed pitchers, hitting .265/.364/.430 in 111 games. He also was 4th in Rookie of the Year voting. After 1990 the Jays traded McGriff and Tony Fernandez for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, which opened up first base for Olerud.

In 1991 John platooned at first with Pat Tabler at the start of the season and Ed Sprague in the second half. He had a pretty good season, kind of a Lyle Overbay type year, hitting .256/.353/.438 with 17 homers. Bill James compared him to a young Rusty Staub, but John became a better player than Staub. He played in all five games of our ALCS loss to the Twins and had only 3 hits in 19 at-bats in the series.

In our first World Series-winning year, 1992, Olerud played full time, starting against right-handed and left-handed pitchers. He didn’t even miss many games when he had his nose broken by a pitched fouled off during batting practice. His batting took a step forward. He hit .284/.375/.450. He also did well in our ALCS series win over Oakland, hitting .348 with a homer. He hit .308 in our World Series win over the Braves, though he only played in four of the six games as Cito had him sit a couple of the games in Atlanta when we didn’t have the DH, putting Joe Carter at first instead.

1993 was his big season; he hit .363/.473/.599, with 24 homers, 54 doubles, 200 hits, 114 walks, 109 runs, and 107 RBI. He was hitting over .400 on August 2 but fell off a bit the last couple of months of the season. He led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS (1.072), runs created (161), doubles, and intentional walks (33). He made the All-Star team, won the Hutch Award (give to the player who best examples the ‘fighting spirit’ and ‘competitive desire to win’), and came in 3rd in MVP voting. Frank Thomas won it that year, and teammate Paul Molitor finished second. Olerud’s season was better than either of them, but then MVP voters don’t always get things right. He also had a 26 game hitting streak and was just the 20th player in MLB history to reach 200 hits and 100 walks in a season. It is right up there on the list of best seasons ever for a Jay.

Ted Williams took note of his swing saying John might be able to be the first to hit .400 since Williams did it in 1953.

He hit well in our ALCS series win over the White Sox, hitting .348 with 4 walks. In the World Series win over Philadelphia, he didn’t hit great at just .235, but he did have a home run and 4 walks. At 24, he had two World Series rings.

The next couple of seasons were lockout/strike-shortened. The Jays didn’t do as well. Olerud didn’t hit at the level he had in 1992, but he got on base at over a .390 clip each year. He would have made a great leadoff man, but Cito’s mind didn’t think that way. 1996 was his last year with the Jays. He didn’t have his best season with the bat hitting .274/.383/.472 with 18 home runs but still got on base great. He only played 125 games as Cito liked using Joe Carter at first base, and Carlos Delgado was forcing his way onto the team.

After the season, the Jays having Carter, Delgado, and Olerud for two positions, someone had to go. Delgado wasn’t making much money and had a great career ahead of him, and Carter was Cito’s favorite. Cito didn’t like John, thinking he wasn’t aggressive enough at the plate, among other things. As well, the great season Olerud had in 1993 caused expectations that he didn’t match in the three seasons since then. We really didn’t value on-base percentage enough in those days. So the Jays ignored the fact that Olerud was younger, a better fielder, and a far better hitter than Carter and decided to trade him.

Now, if choosing to trade Olerud was a mistake, Gord Ash’s dealing him to the Mets for pitcher Robert Person was an even bigger mistake. Person was 8-13 with a 6.18 ERA in the two and a bit seasons with the Jays. Add in that Olerud was a terrific player for several more seasons, and Joe Carter, well, wasn’t, and you have just a crappy trade.

The Star had a story on the trade last May. Among what they said:

Toronto’s coaching staff was obsessed with turning Olerud into something he wasn’t. They wanted the Washington native to hit for power, pull the ball with increased regularity and be more aggressive at the plate.

“I don’t think that suits my strength,” Olerud lamented at the end of his last season in Toronto.

There were almost as many mechanical adjustments as there were home runs in his final two years with the Jays. He moved up in the batter’s box and then back. He opened up his stance, then closed it off. Hands up, hands down. It was a complicated game of Twister and everyone had an opinion on how Olerud supposedly could be fixed, even when nothing was broken.

I’ve never been a fan of ‘one size fits all’ approach to coaching.

Olerud had three great seasons with the Mets, then four and a half good seasons with the Mariners. He played half a season with the Yankees and finished his career with the Red Sox in 2005. He played 17 seasons and finished with a .295/.398/.465 batting line, with 255 homers, 1230 RBI, and 1275 walks (50th on the all-time list).

Baseball-Reference has Olerud at 6’5” 220 pounds, I don’t remember him being that big, but I guess my memory is wrong. John had the picture-perfect left-handed swing and a terrific eye at the plate. He was good with the glove, winning 3 Gold Gloves during his years as a Mariner, and likely should have won a Gold Glove or two when he was a Jay, but Gold Glove voters don’t care to figure out who the best defensive player is. He was a Lyle Overbay type but, you know, better.

Bill James had him listed at 53rd best first baseman in baseball history in his New Historical Baseball Abstract. Since he had a few good seasons after the book, he’d likely be up into the 30’s now.

As Matt pointed out, Olerud became a better hitter after leaving Toronto (which had someone on Twitter complaining ‘how could he become a better hitter, he hit .400 with the Jays?’ Suggesting he read the post, or that John played more than one season with the Jays was a waste of time). Some of the improvement was likely due to the fact he was entering his prime when he was traded. Some may have had to do with Cito’s love of getting players to pull the ball. Some might have been that John was kept in a platoon role with the Jays and maybe felt pressure to produce, thinking that if he had a bad game he might be sitting the next day. Other than his big year, he never played more than 139 games in a season with the Jays. After the trade, he had seven consecutive seasons of over 150 games.

John Olerud is married and lives in Fall City, Washington, and has a son and a daughter.

John Olerud’s place among Blue Jay batting leaders:

Single Season:

bWAR: 2nd, 7.8

Batting Average:1st .363 (1993)

On Base %: 1st, .473 (1993)

Slugging: 5th, .599 (1993)

OPS 2nd 1.072 (1993)

Hits: 5th, 200 (1993)

Doubles: 2nd, 54 (1993)

Walks: 4th, 114 (1993)

Intentional Walks: 1st, 33 (1993)

Career:

bWAR: 8th, 22.6

Batting Average (>2000 PA): 6th, .293

On Base % (>2000 PA): 1st, .395

Slugging Average (>2000 PA): 12th, .471

OPS (>2000 PA): 7th, .866

Games Played: 17th, 920

Runs Scored: 12th, 464

Hits: 14th, 910

Doubles: 9th, 213

Home Runs 18th, 109

RBI: 13th 471

Walks: 3rd 514

Intention Walks 2nd 87