JT Snow won his first Gold Glove in 1995, one year after the strike and, if we’re to believe the legends, the time at which steroids became a general fact of playing in the majors rather than an intriguing option for increased success. In that season, Snow registered an impressive OPS of .818 with 24 homers and 102 RBI. After showing flashes in his first two seasons with the Angels, he proved that he was a hitter worthy of a corner infield position in an era where power became more prominent than ever.
That Snow had to prove himself as a hitter rather than a fielder is an important distinction relative to his position. For most players, first base is a refuge rather than a proving ground, a spot for burly men with delinquent gloves. Many of the league’s best 1B batters of the ‘90s were good defenders, to be sure, but the position is almost always one that good batters learn to play, not a spot they take to naturally.
Snow, though, was always something of the Platonic ideal of a defensive first baseman. In one game, all his skills were on display: the ability to dig anything out of the dirt, a throwing arm better fit for a right fielder, quick instincts on bunts and grounders, a peerless grasp of the 3-6-3 double play, and a generally commanding presence. Whereas most infields are controlled by the shortstop, Snow typically called off his teammates on any reasonably catchable infield pop-up — even when he had to run over the mound — and made any necessary strategic decisions. In part, that was a necessity due to his playing with such rangeless wonders as Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent. For the most part, though, he played the role of infield captain because he had so obviously earned it. He cleaned up others’ messes and made everyone look better. If he’d had any speed at all, he would’ve been an outfielder.
Still, his offense was always a work in progress. A year after his excellent 1995, Snow saw a significant drop in production and suffered the indignity of being traded to the Giants for the uninspiring Allen Watson in the offseason. While an immediate success as the team’s No. 5 hitter, he proved so bad as a right-handed hitter that he ditched switch-hitting entirely, only to spend the rest of his career struggling to reach basic competence against lefties. He was the first baseman on the 2002 NL Champs, but he’s best remembered as saving Dusty Baker’s young son at the plate at the end of a Game 5 blowout win. He hit .327 for the 2004 team but could no longer pull the ball with any power. By the end of his career, he seemed to hope for walks if it meant he wouldn’t embarrass himself by feebly grounding out on a pitch he would have crushed for a double in his prime. Even the greatest single moment of his career, his game-tying three-run homer off Armando Benitez in the 2000 NLDS against the Mets, was a lesson in diminished accomplishments — the ball barely traveled more than 310 feet down the right-field line at Pac Bell Park, and the Giants lost the game in extra innings.
But Snow was forever a lineup fixture. Playing in an infield that contained exactly one plus defender in his nine years with the franchise (Bill Mueller, 1997-2000), Snow helped keep low-strikeout pitchers like Kirk Reuter, Mark Gardner, and Livan Hernandez from the kinds of seasons FIP suggests they deserved. He was a necessary figure on a team that never had a particularly impressive defense.
Snow followed up his ‘95 Gold Glove with five more in a row — and probably would have won more if his offense had kept his name in the news — cementing his legacy as one of the best defensive first basemen of all time. But with his bat forever a work in progress, he never seemed to fit in with the monstrous peers like McGwire, Bagwell, and Vaughn. On a team like the Giants, he played a role more commonly associated with a shortstop or center fielder. His defense defined him; his hitting more like a bonus.
As we get farther away from Snow’s career, he’ll likely fade into obscurity as his numbers look more pedestrian and his defense becomes quantified rather than described. But he was an important figure of the era, if only because he stood in such stark contrast to what we expect from a first basemen in the field. Where most teams desire only adequacy, he raised the ideal to new heights.