Baseball TBT: The Curious Case Of Second Base…

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    Updated: April 24, 2014
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    Recently I joined a Stratomatic baseball league where the only available players are Hall of Famers. The funny thing about this is that everyone involved is a well-adjusted grown man in a stable relationship (I know, I’m as shocked as you are). Because we’re selecting from the best of the best of the best (sir), I’ve been picking up gems about baseball’s greats that are just too good to keep to myself. Throwback Thursdays is here to educate you on the history of the game. 

    Let’s face it – second base is not a sexy position. The “chicks dig the long-ball” commercial might as well have been about guys playing the not-so-hot corner.  There are bright spots, though: Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia are doing for the position what these guys did for shortstop in the mid-90s:

    (That’s right. Drink it in.) 

    But they both seem to be the continual exceptions that prove the rule. While we saw an uptick in high value shortstops (there’s also been Nomar, Tejada, Rollins, Tulo, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes when he’s not injured), it’s not like we’re seeing a glut of emerging superstars at second base, mostly because freak athletes don’t get put there.

    Guys with great range go to short, catlike reflexes will land you at third, anyone who can cover a lot of ground goes into the outfield, and slow (but hulking) power hitters get to play close to the bag at first. Second base requires you to be good – not great. 

    History seems to enforce this. Unless your name is Rogers Hornsby, Hall of Fame second basemen are not great ballplayers – they’re good ballplayers who were great second basemen. 

    And yes, I know Bill James takes both Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan over Hornsby because of his win-shares statistic (and the fact that he rates both of them as better defensive players) but this argument makes my head fly clear off my shoulders.

    Hornsby won seven batting titles, two Triple Crowns, hit .400 three times (not a typo), won the 1929 NL MVP with a 39/149/.380 line which – by the way – somehow didn’t lead the league in any of those statistical categories, and finished his career with a 1.010 OPS (over a hundred points higher than the next Hall of Fame second baseman).

    Meanwhile, Eddie Collins played in roughly the same era, never cracked 100 RBIs or even sniffed double-digit homerun numbers, and you could talk me into believing he aged like Benjamin Button.

    Joe Morgan had one season I might take over one of Hornsby’s seven best, but also had the benefit of playing on the Big Red Machine. When all’s said and done, I’ll take Hornsby. 

    That being said, I can’t for the life of me figure out what makes a Hall of Fame second baseman. What I do know is that – outside of Hornsby and his relatively gaudy offensive numbers – they tend to fall into three categories:

    1. Guys who hit somewhere between .270 and .290 but hit a couple hundred home runs and stole some bases
    2. Guys who hit .300 or well above
    3. Guys who played before electricity

    Ok, the third point isn’t fair. Mazeroski played from the mid-50’s to the early ‘70s, but he got elected by the Veteran’s Committee, largely for one homerun. You’ll find that a lot of second basemen got elected to the Hall the same way (minus the homerun). But as an exercise, let’s look at some career numbers and see if you can spot the Hall of Famers: 

    Category 1 – The “Mashers” 

    (Click the chart to expand)

    Based on the outlier, I’m sure you got that Player 4 is in the Hall. That’s Joe Gordon, who played for the Yankees during one of their great stretches and was also one of those “what-if” guys who got robbed of two prime years due to WWII.

    Player 1 is Ryne Sandberg (my childhood favorite) and Player 3 is Joe Morgan, both of whom are in the Hall. The case for Ryno is actually pretty good when you factor in his nine straight Gold Gloves and ten straight All-Star appearances.

    Morgan has two MVPs, two rings, and a butt-load of stolen bases.

    Still, their numbers are not that much better than Lou Whitaker’s (Player 2) or Jeff Kent’s (Player 5). Whitaker never really had a single stand-out season, but his overall numbers hold up.

    Kent will probably never get close to the Hall, mainly because he played during the steroid era and anyone so far beyond his peers in terms of power production isn’t to be trusted (too bad – as far as I know, he was never even accused in his day). 

    Category 2 – The “Sticks” 

     

    (Click the chart to expand)

    The 3,000 hit guys are obvious locks: they’re Nap Lajoie (Player 1) and Rod Carew (Player 5). Player 2 is Buddy Myer who, statistically, holds up to Player 3 (Billy Herman). Herman is in the Hall – Myer is not.

    Except for the fact that Myer only ever made two All-Star teams, I can’t tell them apart much. Player 4 is George Grantham – similar numbers, fewer years, zero All-Star appearances. Let it be noted that, within this class, Lajoie and Carew look like titans. 

    (George Grantham)

    At this point, I imagine your brain is feeling a lot like mine: you’ve looked at a bunch of stats, you’ve recognized that a bunch of guys are good – and by comparison they’re starting to look really good – but then you start thinking about guys with similar stats who didn’t make the cut, how those numbers don’t even hold a candle to other position players who didn’t make the Hall, and then you realize that you’d take Andre Dawson over most of the field if only he could turn two. Baffling. 

    These numbers do make me realize something, though: a bunch of guys were good, but Rogers Hornsby was great – and that’s the only thing I’m sure of when it comes to second basemen.

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    2 Comments

    1. Jade Rothman

      Jade

      April 25, 2014 at 9:57 AM

      Good point, Mikey - it’s tough for defensive greats to get their due from a generation that never saw them play. I have a feeling that I will be doing a lot of explaining to my kids why Ozzie - who hit .262 with 28 career homeruns - is in the Hall (it’s the backflips - right?).

    2. Mike Kahl

      April 24, 2014 at 8:13 PM

      Nice article. I really enjoyed it. I’d take issue that Maz made it to the hall based solely on his homerun that won the 1960 World Series. He was the “Babe Ruth” of double plays. Check out his numbers in the category. No one turned two more often than Maz. It helped of course that he played on some terrible Pirates teams whose pitchers always seemed to put guys on base. I think there has to be a place for a player who was that outstanding.

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