TBT Baseball: The Long And The Short Of It

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    Updated: May 15, 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. 

    Since there hasn’t been a column the past couple weeks, I thought I’d throw in a little something extra, free of charge, by giving you all a bit of literature (don’t stop reading! It’s relevant – I swear!):

    “Martin Aguero…who did not look like a bullfighter at all, but more like a husky, well-built, professional ballplayer, a third baseman or shortstop.” – Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon. 

    Far be it from me to criticize Hem, but I’d love to know what kind of baseball Papa was watching.

    It’s not that he’s wrong, just fairly confused. Guys I’ve always thought of as husky and well-built: third basemen, first basemen, CC Sabathia three years ago, and catchers. Line any of these guys up next to each other, and it’s not very often you’re going to think “shortstop.” Now if Hem had said, “more like a second baseman, with greater range and a better arm,” then I would have thought of shortstops. 

    Husky and well-built denotes powerful, and shortstops are anything but.

    To confirm what I already knew, I took a look at the top 500 third basemen and shortstops (ranked by WAR) and looked at HR totals per 162 game season for those that had played more than five years.

    The sample set turned out to be almost exactly the same, yet third basemen averaged 12 HRs a season while shortstops averaged 7 HRs. That’s 71% more pop per position. But because we’ve got the numbers, let’s dig a little deeper. 

    Historically, there are 18 third basemen who’ve hit over 300 homeruns; only 4 of them (22%) are in the Hall of Fame (though to be fair, six haven’t reached eligibility yet and one of them is named Troy Glaus.

    Troy Glaus! He hit 320 HRs over his career. I know – I’m as shocked as he is.). Four shortstops (and we’re including A-Rod in this) have hit over 300 homeruns: Rodriguez (654), Ernie Banks (512), Cal Ripken Jr. (431), and Miguel Tejada (307). 

    Rodriguez and Tejada will never get in because of their involvement in steroids (and both aren’t yet eligible for voting anyway), but look at the historical context for the other two guys: shortstops who hit for power are relative locks for the Hall because it just isn’t a characteristic of the position.

    For even further context, Derek Jeter has the 5th most homeruns of any shortstop – active or otherwise – and he doesn’t even crack the top 25 for the hot corner. So who were these husky, well-built guys that Hemingway was watching? 

    Honestly, I have no idea. I spent the better part of an hour sifting through the list of Hall of Fame shortstops and only came up with three “elite” players: Honus Wagner, Banks, and Ripken – and even they all have their holes.

    Wagner wasn’t much in the way of power, Banks was a strikeout machine, and Ripken’s numbers are inflated because he played for a thousand years. The only guy you might actually call “elite” is Ozzie Smith, who is in there solely for his glove and nothing else (you’ll see in a minute). 

    The best way to really shine a spotlight on the mediocrity of the position is to do the blind comparison like I did with second basemen, taking a look at who’s in, and who’s out:

    Group 1 – There are Hall of Famers in here?:

    (Click Picture to Expand)

    Frankly, on face value, I vote for none of these guys. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Because on face value, you don’t realize that Player 5 is Ozzie Smith.

    Just looking at his stats I can already tell that trying to explain how a guy with 28 HRs in his career made it into the Hall will be a tough sell to the grandkids, but here’s the other side of that argument: he’s got 28 HRs and he was a first ballot Hall of Famer! His glove was that good.

    I swear I saw him on Sports Center Top 10 every week growing up.

    Unfortunately, he’s the only guy on this whole list that gets a pass, because nobody else has the same type of legacy that endures. 

    Leaving out Ozzie, I’d take Players 2 and 3 as Hall of Famers based purely on numbers, but I’d only be half right. Player 2 is George Davis (who also played third base – must have been a husky sorta guy) and, as far as I can tell, he wasn’t terrible in the field. However, he’s only got two redeeming numbers in this line: his 619 stolen bases, and his .295 average.

    At any other position (except maybe second), those are not Hall-worthy numbers. You want to know who has even less Hall-worthy numbers and is in Cooperstown? Player 4 – Phil Rizzuto. 

    I’ve got nothing against Scooter (that should go without saying as a Yankees fan) – and yes, he lost three seasons to the war effort – but he must have been handing out a lot of cannolis to the Veteran’s committee when his name came up. Compare him to Player 1, Bill Dahlen (again with the SS/3B combo).

    Even if you project Rizzuto’s numbers out, he’s got fewer homers, doubles, and stolen bases than Dahlen, who you could probably talk me into being relatively as valuable as Davis (provided you buy me a beer). And Player 3?

    Vern Stephens, who must have insulted someone’s mother along the way, because he’s the only guy with any relative power in the group. In fact, he’s 8th all-time among shortstops for HRs. Somehow, this wasn’t good enough in this shallow talent pool to get him elected (the lesson: don’t insult anyone’s mom. It just isn’t worth it.).

    Group 2 – These are the real Hall of Famers, right?:

    (Click Picture To Expand)

    Spoiler alert, there are two Hall of Famers in this pack (and yes, Dahlen might have fit better in this group for comparison, but I wanted to showcase that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how guys are selected).

    The first guy you’ll notice is Player 3 with his token 3,000 hits. That’s Robin Yount, a guy whose numbers always underwhelmed me – mostly because I never saw him play shortstop.

    He was an outfielder my whole life, having transitioned from short in ‘84. But once you consider how he compares to other shortstops (as opposed to centerfielders) you start talking yourself into his candidacy.

    Then you hate to admit it, but so far he’s got the strongest resume of the non-elite shortstops we’ve looked at. But what about these other guys?

    Players 1, 2, and 4 are essentially the same player for me.

    They all have power for the position, have driven in roughly the same number of guys, same amount of hits, relatively the same offensive averages – the only thing that separates them is stolen bases, where Player 1 stands out.

    But then there’s Player 5. Way fewer hits and runs over his relatively shorter career, but he hit .313, had an .882 OPS, and clubbed 229 HRs in 14 seasons. Good strikeout to walk ratio, drove runners in, got on base, looks like he could run.

    My guess would be that he spent a lot of time injured, but the power numbers speak for themselves – I’d vote for Player 5. 

    And with that – I’d be voting for Nomar Garciaparra. Which is both insane and somehow not all at the same time. People forget this, but he was one of the best hitters in the game for the majority of his early career.

    Then he fell off a cliff – maybe literally considering the fact that he couldn’t stay on the field. He managed 500 plate appearances only once between 2004 and 2009. Even with the shortened career, I think he provided a lot more value than the next best guy: Player 1 – Barry Larkin. 

    Larkin’s numbers are good, but they’re not great – especially held up against Player 2 and Player 4, who are Alan Trammel and Michael Young, respectively.

    Read that again. Michael. Young. This is how shallow the talent pool is for shortstop Hall of Fame candidates. We are comparing Michael freaking Young to men with plaques in Cooperstown.

    I haven’t followed his career with the same attention I’ve given to other players of his generation, but I can tell you this: when the Rangers played the Yankees, I was never sweating out Michael Young beating them.

    And yet somehow, within the ten players we’ve just looked at, you could talk me into those numbers making him a Hall of Fame shortstop. Baffling. 

    So what has this exercise taught me? Not much. I feel like I know even less than when I began.

    But I have confirmed one thing: shortstops are generally neither husky nor well-built – and if they were, they’re probably in the Hall of Fame. Or not, because at this position, you never can tell.

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    1. Pingback: TBT Baseball: Gehrig vs. Ripken - The Iron Throne - LA Sportsa Nostra - LA Sportsa Nostra

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