Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Second Basemen

Hornsby has to be considered the best second baseman of all-time (I70Baseball)
Craig Biggio's overdue election to the Hall of Fame got me thinking about where he ranks among the best second basemen of all-time. Here's the list I came up with.

1. Rogers Hornsby (127 bWAR, 130.3 fWAR, 97.5 WAA)
While Babe Ruth was dominating the American League during the Roaring Twenties, Hornsby was doing the same to the National League. The best righthanded hitter the game has ever known batted over .400 three times, establishing the modern record of .424 in 1924, and averaged .382 from 1920 through 1929, winning seven batting titles. Rajah also had exceptional power for a second baseman, winning two Triple Crowns and nine slugging titles on his way to blasting 301 home runs and 541 doubles. Oh, and I'm just realizing this now, but he has a 1.010 career OPS (175 OPS+). Not a misprint. He may have been mediocre in the field and on the bases, but when you hit like that (.358/.434/.577) it makes up for a multitude of sins.

2. Eddie Collins (123.9 bWAR, 120.5 fWAR, 78.8 WAA)
Collins compiled some astonishing statistics in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 25 years. A .333 career batter, he stroked 3,315 hits, scored 1,821 runs, drove in another 1,300, stole 741 bases, and worked 1,499 walks. He ranks 10th all-time in WAR by position players (13th overall), 11th in oWAR and hits, 12th in OBP (at .424) and triples, and eighth in steals. He also had a winning reputation, starring on four World Series champs and six pennant winners.

3. Nap Lajoie (107.4 bWAR, 102.2 fWAR, 68 WAA)
Lajoie was a slightly better hitter than Collins because of his superior power, but Collins had more speed and was the better all-around player. He was also better for longer, which gave him the slight edge. Lajoie's final numbers are actually very similar to Collins's, as he batted .338 for his career with 3,243 hits. Until Ty Cobb came along, he was the best hitter in the American League, winning five batting crowns and batting as high as .426 in 1901, when he won the sabermetric Triple Crown. His 657 doubles are seventh-most all-time.

4. Joe Morgan (100.3 bWAR, 98.8 fWAR, 63.2 WAA)
At his peak in the mid-70s, Little Joe was one of the most complete ballplayers there ever was. The back-to-back MVP contended for batting titles, walked a ton, hit for power, drove in and scored loads of runs, stole 60+ bases, and provided Gold Glove defense. fWAR has him as the best position player of the 1970s, and I agree. Still, as good as Morgan's numbers were, it's important to remember how depressed they were by playing his entire career during a pitcher's era and spending the first nine years of it in Houston. His neutralized batting line of .285/.408/.447 adds 36 points to his actual OPS. He also would have come close to 300 home runs, surpassed 2,000 walks and added an extra 200 runs and hits. Morgan's the best second baseman of the integrated era, for sure.

5. Charlie Gehringer (80.6 bWAR, 78.6 fWAR, 45.4 WAA)
Whereas Morgan was hurt by the era in which he played, Gehringer definitely received a boost from his. Not only did his peak coincide with the high-scoring 1930s, but he also reaped the benefits of playing half his games at Tiger Stadium. When neutralized, his OPS falls nearly 60 points as his .320/.404/.480 batting line becomes .298/.379/.448. Still phenomenal for a second baseman, but not as gaudy as his raw totals suggest. Nicknamed the Mechanical Man, he was machine-like in that he was a lock to score 100 runs, bang out 200 hits, and bat well over .300 every year. He was one of the five best position players during the Depression years, a notch below Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Mel Ott but better than just about everyone else.

Sandberg was the NL's best second basman in the '80s and early '90s (MyCubsToday)
6. Ryne Sandberg (67.5 bWAR, 60.9 fWAR, 38.1 WAA)
A Cubs icon, Sandberg was an outstanding two-way second baseman for much of his 16-year career. He won an MVP, made 10 straight All-Star trips, received nine consecutive Gold Gloves, and earned seven Silver Sluggers. Offensively, he was a great blend of power and speed with 282 home runs, 344 steals, and three 20/20 seasons. He hit as many as 40 home runs in a season--leading the league in 1990--and topped 25 on five other occasions. Remember that he accomplished all this mostly during the 1980s and early 90s, when offense wasn't so easy to come by. For 11 years, from 1982 to 1992, he ranked as one of the five-best position players in baseball. He was also dynamite in the postseason, batting a scorching .385/.457/.641 in 47 October plate appearances. While it's true that the Cubs haven't won a World Series, it's hardly Sandberg's fault.

7. Roberto Alomar (66.8 bWAR, 63.9 fWAR, 32.3 WAA)
The ideal second baseman, Alomar could do it all. He was great in the field (10 Gold Gloves), on the bases (474 steals at 80.6 percent success rate), and at the dish (career .300/.371/.443 hitter). He was the top second baseman when he played (1988-2004), earning 12 straight All-Star nods, four Silver Sluggers, and five top-six finishes in the MVP vote. Fell just eight votes shy of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer only because of a regrettable spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996. Spitting didn't keep Ted Williams out of the Hall of Fame. He's very close to Sandberg, but just a tick below because Sandberg was a better fielder and had more power despite playing in a offense-depressed era.

8. Craig Biggio (65.1 bWAR, 65.1 fWAR, 28.7 WAA)
Biggio was a bit of a compiler--hanging on at the end to get his 3,000th hit--but he was still a very good player for most of his 20-year career. He was tremendous at his peak in the mid-to-late '90s; a doubles machine who walked a lot, stole bases, scored runs by the truckload, and played Gold Glove defense. He was like a better version of Dustin Pedroia for two decades, and as a result his career numbers are absolutely staggering; 1,844 runs, 3,060 hits, 668 doubles, 291 homers, 414 steals, 1,160 walks, and 4,711 total bases. He's also took one for the team more than anyone else, getting plunked 285 times (ouch!). He was easy to overlook when lumbering sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Frank Thomas took over the game, but there were few players as well-rounded as Biggio.

9. Bobby Grich (70.9 bWAR, 69.1 fWAR, 43.4 WAA)
Grich was the best second baseman in the American League when he played (1970-1986) and was second only to Joe Morgan, and there's hardly any shame in that. A four-time Gold Glove recipient and six-time All-Star, Grich combined good power (224 home runs) with patience (.371 OBP) and strong defense. He also added a dash of speed, stealing 104 bases throughout his 17 year career. His era and home parks severely dampened his numbers, which in turn led to him failing to get past the first round of Hall of Fame voting. Even so, he's clearly one of the 10 best to ever play the position.

10. Lou Whitaker (74.9 bWAR, 68.1 fWAR, 42.5 WAA)
Whitaker was excellent from start to finish, winning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1978 and retiring after a career-high .890 OPS in his final season. Whitaker was the American League's top second baseman during the 1980s, when he made five straight All-Star teams, four Silver Sluggers, and three Gold Gloves. He was also remarkably steady, routinely posting high on-base percentages and solid power totals while providing great defense up the middle. The lifelong Tiger teamed with Alan Trammell to form the best double-play combination in baseball history. Last but not least, Whitaker was one of the 10 most valuable position players over the course of his career, nestled between George Brett and Ozzie Smith.

Grich and Whitaker are virtually inseparable value-wise, but I ultimately decided Grich was a hair better because his numbers were severely depressed by the parks he played in while Whitaker was helped by Tiger Stadium. After neutralizing their numbers, Grich's OPS jumps 43 points, from .794 to .837. Whitaker's, on the other hand, rises just 15 points, from .789 to .804. Grich was also better at his peak and relative to his peers. While Trammell was one of the 10 best players of his day, Grich was among the top five.

Note: I didn't include Rod Carew (81 bWAR, 72.3 fWAR, 46 WAA) because he actually spent more time at first base than second.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Kent, Willie Randolph, Joe Gordon, Frankie Frisch

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