The Best Players of the Last 50 Years - Part IV - Second Basemen

April 8, 2020
This is part IV of my series on the greatest players of the last 50 years, which I have dubbed the "Dan Marks Era", as it aligns with the 50 years that I have been following baseball.
 
If you didn't read the introduction to the series, here are the prior entries:
 
 
 

Second Basemen - The Results
 
Did anyone just miss getting included due to the timeline cutoff? 
 
Probably the best second basemen who I did see a little bit of, but not until the tail end of their careers, are Bill Mazeroski, Dick McAuliffe, and Ron Hunt. The midpoints of their careers are all pre-1970, although I did experience the "phenomenon" of Hunt's 50 hit-by-pitch season of 1971. 
 
Any active players outside of the top 25 worth noting?
 
4 players who were active in 2019 made my top 25.   Outside of the top 25, the top players include DJ LeMahieu, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Jason Kipnis. LeMahieu, who's coming off an excellent season, is probably the only one of those who is likely to move up enough to crash the top 25. Ozzie Albies has an exciting future, but he's only 375 games into his career, so too early to try and rank him. Ketel Marte is another exciting young player coming off a terrific season, but hell if I know where he's going to end up playing most of his career (SS? 2B? CF?).
 
Any surprise omissions? 
 
Before collecting the data, I thought that maybe Bret Boone or Steve Sax would rank higher than they did (#34 and #35, respectively).
 
#25-Brian Roberts
Best category: WAR7 (21st)
Worst category: Games (55th)
 
When I hear the name Brian Roberts, I think of 2 things - stolen bases and doubles. Roberts hit 50 or doubles in a season 3 times (leading the league twice), and also stole 50 bases once (which also led the league). A good, solid player on a generally bad team.
 
My dataset for second basemen has 184 players in it. The highest rate of doubles per 600 plate appearances are:
 
Player
Doubles / 600 PA
Daniel Murphy
39.3
Robinson Cano
36.4
Jose Vidro
35.8
Jeff Kent
35.2
Brian Roberts
35.2
 
Are you ready for a junk stat? I took doubles per 600 PA and SB per 162 games and combined them into a kind of a faux annualized 2B/SB number (sort of like Bill's Power-Speed number, which summarizes two things into a single, harmonized mean type of figure). Here were the highest figures in my dataset. Yeah, I know it doesn't mean much....just fun to look at:
 
Name
2B/SB Number
Eric Young Sr.
34.1
Brian Roberts
33.8
Whit Merrifield
33.0
Jose Altuve
33.0
Chuck Knoblauch
31.8
 
 
#24-Bill Doran
Best category: Win Shares / 162 (18th)
Worst category: All Star games (82nd)
 
Doran never made an All Star team, so he's tied with a whole bunch of other players who never made one either. It's a shame, because he was certainly good enough to have been named to at least a couple of them. From 1983-1987, Doran was probably the 2nd best second baseman in the NL behind Ryne Sandberg (and ahead of the likes of Johnny Ray and Tom Herr). It just never quite worked out for him.
 
I remember being very excited when Doran, a native Cincinnatian, was traded to the Reds in August of 1990. He played well down the stretch (.373 over 17 games) but had back surgery late in the year and missed out on the playoffs and the World Series championship.
 
#23-Orlando Hudson
Best category: dWAR (12th)
Worst category: Games (64th)
 
Hudson was a decent hitter (.273 BA, .341 OBP, about 10 HR a year) but defense was his calling card, as he took home 4 Gold Gloves. I think one of the things working against Hudson's legacy is that it's hard to associate him with any single team. He had a pretty short career (11 seasons), and it was fragmented across 6 different teams. The longest he spent with any single franchise was 4 seasons (Toronto). One of his Gold Gloves was with Toronto, 2 with Arizona, and one with the Dodgers. He lacked a true team identity. 
 
#22-Robby Thompson
Best category: WAR/162 (15th)
Worst category: Games (68th)
 
A short career, but a good one.  Good power, good glove, considered a team leader on some good Giants teams from the late 1980's to the early 1990's.
 
Thompson played all 11 of his Major League seasons in a Giants uniform. Would Thompson be your choice for second baseman on a fictional all-time Giants' team? No, probably not, and he wouldn't be mine either....but he's certainly one of the top contenders.   I think the top 4 candidates would be Thompson, Larry Doyle, Frankie Frisch, and Jeff Kent. Frisch is the Hall of Famer and probably the first instinct would be to go with him, but over half of Frisch's career was spent with the Cardinals.
 
If you go strictly by rWAR in a Giants' uniform, they stack up like this:
 
Player
Years with Giants
WAR
Larry Doyle
1907-1916,1918-1920
42.7
Frankie Frisch
1919-1926
37.8
Robby Thompson
1986-1996
33.9
Jeff Kent
1997-2002
31.5
 
I'd probably subjectively go Frisch, then Doyle, Kent, and Thompson....but Thompson is at least in the discussion.
 
#21-Placido Polanco
Best category: dWAR (4th)
Worst category: All Star games (36th)
 
In my opinion, one of the more memorable Bill James articles that he's written was the entry regarding what makes a player underrated (in the Darrell Evans profile from the New Bill James Historical Abstract). He felt that two of the primary characteristics contributing to players being underrated were  1) splitting their careers among multiple teams, and 2) splitting time across multiple positions.   He felt that both of those, among several other things, contributed to working against a player's identity.
 
Both of those criteria apply to Polanco. He started off with 5 seasons in St. Louis, then went to Philadelphia for 4, then Detroit for 5, then back to Philly for 3 more, and then wrapped up with 1 in Miami. He was pretty much the same type of player wherever he went (although he hit for more power with the Phillies), and as such, it's difficult to really associate him with any of them.   As far as defensively, Polanco, who was a very versatile infielder, was more 2nd baseman than anything, but played almost as much third base, and also had over 100 games at shortstop.   He won 3 Gold Gloves after turning 30 years of age - two at second base, one at third base.
 
Polanco was a lifetime .297 hitter who came close to a batting title one year and was third in the AL in another year. A quality player, but one who, I think, gets a little underrated when we think back on his career.
 
#20-Julio Franco
Best category: Games (3rd)
Worst category: dWAR (166th)
 
Speaking of moving around a lot.....
 
Franco's categories, of course, need to be taken with huge grains of salt. For starters, as I've noted before, my database lists all games for each player, regardless of position. Franco is 3rd in games among the players listed as second basemen, but he's nowhere near the top in games played specifically at second base. He moved everywhere, he played for many teams, and he played forever. 
 
He's at second base because I have to have him somewhere. Technically, he played more games at shortstop than anywhere, but his second base total is close, and I think his best years (including his only 3 All Star team selections) were the years he spent at second base with the Rangers, so second base is where I have him. He played 715 games at shortstop, 663 at second base, 508 at first base, and was a DH in 375 others. He played for 23 seasons in the Major Leagues, finally retiring from MLB at the ripe old age of 48.
 
I'm almost required by law (or at least by force of habit) that anytime Minnie Minoso or Julio Franco gets mentioned in virtually any context, that I include the chart of all players with 4,000 or more "professional" hits. 
 
Source: www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/3,000_hit_club (if you scroll down the page a bit)
 
Name
Years
Major League Hits
Minor League Hits
Other Hits
Postseason Hits
Total Hits
Notes
Pete Rose
1960-1986
4,256
427
-
86
4,769
Ichiro Suzuki
1992-2019
3,089
-
1,278
27
4,394
1
Ty Cobb
1904-1928
4,189
166
7
17
4,379
2
Hank Aaron
1952-1976
3,771
324
125
25
4,245
3
Derek Jeter
1992-2014
3,465
554
-
200
4,219
Jigger Statz
1919-1942
737
3,356
-
-
4,093
Minnie Minoso
1945-1993
1,963
1,144
966
-
4,073
4
Julio Franco
1978-2014
2,586
980
442
22
4,030
5
Stan Musial
1938-1963
3,630
371
-
22
4,023
 
Explanation of "Notes" column from www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/3,000_hit_club:
1.       Other hits are in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) but does not include 156 NPB minor league hits or NPB postseason hits

2.       Other hits are in professional games in Cuba

3.       Other hits include 84 in Puerto Rican League and 41 in Negro Leagues

4.       Minor league hits include 715 in Mexican League; other hits include 838 in Cuban League and 128 in Negro Leagues

5.       Minor league hits include 348 in Mexican League; other hits include 286 in Nippon Professional Baseball and 156 in the Korea Baseball Organization
 
Let me ask a serious question. Is there anything wrong with the notion of having someone like Julio Franco in the Hall of Fame? I mean, I know he only received 1% of the vote from the writers, and I can certainly understand that. But isn't someone like Franco in a different category?   Instead of just asking ourselves where someone rates among the greats, how about recognizing someone who epitomizes perseverance, endurance, and obvious love for the game, regardless of where or when it's being played? Shouldn't the most memorable of those types of players be recognized as well? Maybe the BBWAA isn't the appropriate vehicle for such an honor, but how about some other mechanism? It seems to me that there could be a legitimate way to honor someone like a Julio Franco.
 
#19-Ray Durham
Best category: Games (13th)
Worst category: Games (177th)
 
Durham doesn't rate real well defensively, but he had a broad base of offensive skills that served him well. Good average, good on-base ability, good power for a 2nd baseman, good speed. He doesn't rate as elite in any of these, but he was a good across-the-board offensive player, was pretty consistent year after year. Was top 10 in the AL in runs scored 5 out of 6 years in the late 1990's to early 2000's, surpassing 100 runs scored each season from 1997-2002. 17th all-time in games played at second base, right in between Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr and Red Schoendienst.
 
 
#18-Brandon Phillips
Best category: Games (16th)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (53rd)
 
I'd put Phillips as the third greatest second baseman in Reds' history after Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Bid McPhee, although there might be some Lonny Frey fans out there that would disagree. 
 
The Morgan trade from Houston before 1972 is a legendary steal in the annals of the franchise, of course, but the Phillips trade was pretty one-sided too. Montreal famously packaged Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips in 2002 to Cleveland in exchange for Bartolo Colon, and that was an exceptional trade for the Indians, but it could have been even more so except that they didn't cash in on Phillips, trading him four years later to the Reds for next to nothing. 
 
The Reds enjoyed 11 seasons out of Phillips as their primary second baseman, and he picked up 3 All Star nods and 4 Gold Gloves along the way. He was generally good for 15-20 homers a year (reaching 30 once), usually between .270-.300 average, around 20 steals or so a year. I don't know that you'd ever say that he was the best second baseman in the league, but he was consistently among the better ones in the NL for several years. 19th all-time in defensive games at second base, just behind the Doerr/Durham/Schoendienst group mentioned in the prior entry.
 
#17-Chuck Knoblauch
Best category: Win Shares 7 and WAR7 (11th)
Worst category: dWAR (42nd)
 
Knoblauch had a short career (12 seasons) that was also undermined by mid-career throwing issues as well as his inclusion on the Mitchell Report and subsequent admission to HGH usage.
 
There was definitely a wide chasm between Minnesota Chuck Knoblauch and New York Chuck Knoblauch. By rWAR, Knoblauch's top 6 seasons occurred as a member of the Twins. In his 7 seasons with Minnesota, Knoblauch slashed .304/.391/.416, with a 114 OPS+, made 4 All Star Teams, won the Rookie of the Year, led the league in doubles once, triples once, stole as many as 62 bases in a season, and took home a Gold Glove. If Roberto Alomar is the AL all-decade second baseman for the 1990's, then Knoblauch is probably #2.
 
#16-Ian Kinsler
Best category: dWAR (5th)
Worst category: MVP Points (24th)
 
Kinsler is pretty consistent across the board in the 11 measured categories. Aside from the best and worst mentioned above, he was between 10th and 19th in the other 9 categories.
 
Kinsler is part of a pretty exclusive group - players who have had multiple 30-30 seasons. It's pretty much a Bonds family gathering at the top, but here's the full list:
 
Name
# of Years with 30/30 HR/SB
Barry Bonds
5
Bobby Bonds
5
Alfonso Soriano
4
Howard Johnson
3
Ryan Braun
2
Ian Kinsler
2
Vladimir Guerrero
2
Bobby Abreu
2
Raul Mondesi
2
Jeff Bagwell
2
Sammy Sosa
2
Ron Gant
2
Willie Mays
2
 
Do you ever look at a player's rWAR figure and say to yourself, "that doesn't sound right"? You probably do it at least occasionally. Not saying it's right or wrong....I think it's a natural reaction we have when something contradicts your gut. It would foolish to think that any measure, no matter how good or poor it is, will always be consistent with our own subjective thoughts.
 
Anyway, Kinsler's  career rWAR of 55.2 feels high to me. Again, that doesn't really mean squat....WAR isn't there to satisfy me or disappoint me. It's just trying to measure something. But Kinsler's always felt high to me.
 
I suppose it's because oftentimes a WAR of around 60 is often used as a informal threshold for Hall of Fame quality. Again, not everyone feels that way, and I don't think generally people use it completely as a pass/fail test....just that I think it tends to serve as a mental benchmark for many. And to me, Kinlser, despite being close to that 60.0 level, is nowhere near a Hall of Fame type of candidate in my book.   I think he's a really good player - I have him #16 on my 2B list of the past 50 years, and, although I haven't done a formal analysis or methodology for all of baseball history, I suspect he would probably be in my top 30 or so all time at the position. He's a good player - I just don't think of him as an all-time great. 
 
#15-Davey Lopes
Best category: Win Shares and Win Shares 7 (14th)
Worst category: dWAR (112th)
 
In addition to the above, Lopes is also 15th in All Star games and 16th in both WAR and WAA).
 
One of the true nemeses of my youth, Lopes hit .283 with a .366 OBP against my Reds in his career (as opposed to .263 and .349 career marks), and his 17 HR's against them were more than he hit against any other single team. I knew there was a reason I didn't like him at the time.....
 
Caught stealing (CS) became an official statistic in 1951. Since 1951, 20 players have stolen 500 or more bases in their careers. Among those "high volume" base stealers, Lopes ranks 3rd in stolen base %.
 
Career Stolen Base %, Minimum 500 Stolen Bases:
Rank
Player
SB
CS
SB%
1
Tim Raines
808
146
84.7%
2
Willie Wilson
668
134
83.3%
3
Davey Lopes
557
114
83.0%
4
Ichiro Suzuki
509
117
81.3%
5
Joe Morgan
689
162
81.0%
6
Vince Coleman
752
177
80.9%
7
Rickey Henderson
1406
335
80.8%
8
Jose Reyes
517
127
80.3%
9
Ozzie Smith
580
148
79.7%
10
Kenny Lofton
622
160
79.5%
11
Paul Molitor
504
131
79.4%
12
Luis Aparicio
506
136
78.8%
13
Barry Bonds
514
141
78.5%
14
Otis Nixon
620
186
76.9%
15
Bert Campaneris
649
199
76.5%
16
Cesar Cedeno
550
179
75.4%
17
Lou Brock
938
307
75.3%
18
Juan Pierre
614
203
75.2%
19
Maury Wills
586
208
73.8%
20
Brett Butler
558
257
68.5%
 
I think that was a big part of Lopes' value. He was a good percentage player. He played smart. He stole bases frequently, but also stole them at a very successful rate.   He didn't hit for a high average, but he knew how to work a walk. He wasn't a great power hitter in the overall scheme of things, but he did have good pop for a second baseman. He was a big key to the great Dodger teams of the '70's and really early '80's.
 
#14-Frank White
Best category: dWAR (1st - Of course!)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (94th)
 
Every position so far has had one of these - Bob Boone at catcher, Mark Belanger at shortstop, and now White at second base.
 
White's claim to fame, of course, is defense, defense, and more defense. Well, there's more to it than that, but that's his calling card. He does also rank high in games (7th in my data set) and All Star games (11th). But, without the way I factored in dWAR as a separate category, White would have been lower down on the list, closer to 20th.
 
There's probably not a lot I can add to what you already know about White. He's an 8-time Gold Glove winner, he was a big part of the '85 World Champions, he developed a lot more power (both doubles and home runs) in his 30's as opposed to his 20's. He doesn't rate as a very good offensive player at all, and that's why I can't rank him any higher. But he was a fun player to watch.
 
#13-Jose Altuve
Best category: Win Shares/162 (2nd)
Worst category: dWAR (112th)
 
Whenever baseball does manage to return, Altuve (and how he does) will certainly be one of the more compelling story lines. Prior to the whole Astros scandal, he was pretty well beloved, with a resume shaping up as one that Hall of Fame voters love: 6 All Star games (in only 9 seasons), 1 MVP plus another 3rd place finish, 3 batting titles, four 200+ hit seasons, 13 postseason home runs in only 50 games, and one World Series championship. More than halfway to 3,000 hits.....and he's still only 29.
 
I've felt a connection to Altuve ever since I "discovered" him almost a decade ago. In my fantasy baseball league, we're allowed to keep minor leaguers as reserves on our roster over a period of multiple years, and every season we're allowed to claim minor leaguers during the season (one in each half) if we choose to do so. In 2011, I was researching the minors and came across this guy hitting over .400 at A Ball, and I thought, wow, who's that guy? Then I notice his height, and I started to look elsewhere. Fortunately, I decided to claim him anyway. To my surprise, he was up in the Majors before year's end, and by the next year he was an All Star. Much to my chagrin, however, the Astros moved to the AL the next year, and, since my league is NL-only, I lost the rights to him.
 
In any case, I've always felt a connection to him, superficial though that connection may be.  Obviously, the whole Astros scandal has been disheartening, but there's still a part of me rooting for Altuve get back in the public's good graces. I realize I am probably in the minority. 
 
I fully expect Altuve to continue moving up the ranking in the years to come.
 
#12-Jeff Kent
Best category: MVP Points (6th)
Worst category: dWAR (141st)
 
Also ranks high in Win Shares (7th) and Games (8th). 
 
Kent's calling card is offense/power, and lots of it. Kent leads all second baseman in career home runs. In addition to his MVP award in 2000, he also had a 6th, and 8th, and a 9th place finish.
 
Where would Kent rank among all-time second basemen (not just the last 50 years, but all time) if you only considered offense? He'd have to be top 10, wouldn't he? I think Hornsby, Collins, Morgan, Lajoie, and Carew would be above him. Jackie too, once you adjust for his shortened career. Gehringer? Yes. Cano? Yeah, probably, but it's not a slam dunk. I'd probably put Alomar above him too. 
 
Who else? I have others like Sandberg and Grich and Biggio and Whitaker above Kent in the overall rankings, but I don't think any of them were clearly better hitters than Kent. I'd have Kent somewhere between #8-10 if we are only considering hitting.
 
Does Kent have a reasonable shot at the Hall of Fame? Yes, I believe he does. He treaded water for 6 years on the ballot, bouncing between 14-18% of support, but last year, on a ballot that was less crowded with top-notch candidates than prior years, Kent stepped up to 27.5%. That may not sound like a lot, but it may help him get some momentum going. He's probably got too much ground to make up in his 3 years remaining on the ballot, but if he continues to gain support, it may generate enough buzz and attention that he will get consideration on a veterans' committee ballot down the road. His story could end up being somewhat similar to Ted Simmons, who, in the end, was simply too good a hitter at a key defensive position to continue getting bypassed.
 
#11-Dustin Pedroia
Best category: WAR/162 (3rd)
Worst category: Games (42nd)
 
Our third straight player with an MVP on his resume....
 
As happens frequently in the rankings with this methodology, an active player (or one with a short career) does well in a rate category (like WAR/162) because he may not have yet experienced a true decline phase, but that is often offset by not doing well in a category (like games) that rewards longevity. That's the case with Pedroia.
 
I think it's a close call between Pedroia and Kent. Kent had a much longer career, of course (Pedroia's isn't officially over, but the last 2 years have basically been for naught), but I like Pedroia's overall game. He's not the hitter Kent is, but I like Pedroia better in the field and on the bases. If I could only choose one, I'd go with Pedroia.
 
 
#10-Willie Randolph
Best category: dWAR (2nd)
Worst category: MVP Points (24th)
 
We kick off the top 10 with a player who I think is very underrated in the context of baseball history. In some ways, he's a lot like Lou Whitaker. Not exactly in his skill set....that's not what I'm talking about, as Lou had a lot more power, and Randolph had better base stealing numbers. What I mean is, Randolph generally didn't do well in MVP balloting (much like Whitaker didn't) because neither one generally had big, attention-getting seasons. Randolph didn't post big numbers. But , like Whitaker, he had a real absence of bad seasons. He just kept posting 2, 3, and 4-WAR seasons, and bunches of them. 
 
I wasn't a fan of the Yankees, but I liked Randolph a lot. He was smooth on the double play (3rd all-time at 2B in double plays turned behind Bill Mazeroski and Nellie Fox) , he was a good base stealer, he knew how to get on base, and he did his job in a quiet, professional manner.
 
#9-Craig Biggio
Best category: Games (1st)
Worst category: dWAR (162nd)
 
Biggio and Whitaker are really close in my rankings. I tried to not let the fact that Biggio is in the Hall of Fame and Whitaker isn't influence my ranking. Besides, I do think Whitaker will at some point be inducted into the Hall, so I think that distinction between the two will go away. Whitaker came out ahead in my methodology, and I'm sticking with that.
 
Biggio is #1 in games in my dataset, but, again, that is total games, not just games at second base. Biggio had over 400 games at catcher and more than 300 games in the outfield.
 
Biggio was awarded 4 Gold Gloves at second base, but he does not rate real well defensively according to dWAR, even if you exclude the years that he spent at other positions. I think Whitaker was better defensively, which is part of the reason I kept them in this sequence.
 
#8-Lou Whitaker
Best category: WAR (3rd)
Worst category: MVP Points (17th)
 
I've written enough about Whitaker over the years to fill several books, so I'm not sure there's a whole lot more for me to add. In short, I think his performance across the categories included in this methodology pretty well reflect how I think he should rate. Here's Whitaker's position in each of the 11 categories (out of 184 second basemen)
 
Category
Rank among 2B in Data Set
WAR
3
 WAR162
8
 WAR7
12
 MVP Points
17
 ASG
11
 Games
5
 WS
6
 WS162
12
 WS7
12
 dWAR
9
 WAA
4
 
Whitaker doesn't really have any "bad" categories. His best categories are WAR, WAA, Games, and Win Shares, all of which, at least to some degree, represent aggregation and longevity in addition to quality. In the "award" categories like All Star games and MVP voting, he doesn't rank quite as high, and the same goes for the "peak" categories such as WAR7 and Win Shares 7. That, I think is Whitaker, in a nutshell. He was a very good player for a very long time, but he generally didn't get a lot of recognition while he was active, and he didn't have as many eye-catching, big seasons as the players above him. 
 
8th overall out of 184 is still pretty damn good. I just happen to prefer the remaining 7 who are ranked above him.
 
#7-Chase Utley
Best category: WAR7 and WAR/162 (4th)
Worst category: MVP Points (15th)
 
The only mark against Utley, in my opinion, is that his career totals (for example, fewr than 2,000 hits) aren't quite up to several of the other top candidates at this position.   However, his peak was so strong, that he deserves to be well up the list. I used "best 7 seasons" for my measurement of peak years, but if you change it to 5 years, Utley's WAR-5 would be the 2nd highest of anyone in my 2B dataset, behind only Joe Morgan. 
 
Utley's 5 year peak (2005-2009) is summarized below (per baseball-reference.com):
 
Years
G
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
2005-09
754
2,909
553
875
196
23
146
507
77
10
.301
.388
.535
135
Per Season
151
582
111
175
39
5
29
101
15
2
Per 162 Games
162
626
119
189
43
5
32
110
17
3
 
One of the real strengths of Utley's game was his ability to steal without getting thrown out. He wasn't a real prolific base stealer (usually he was in the 10-20 range in a year), but he has the highest SB% of any player in history (minimum 100 attempts) since caught stealing started getting tracked in 1951.
 
The top 10:
 
Rank
Player
SB
CS
SB%
1
Chase Utley
154
22
87.5%
2
Carlos Beltran
312
49
86.4%
3
Jayson Werth
132
23
85.2%
4
Jarrod Dyson
250
44
85.0%
5
Kazuo Matsui
102
18
85.0%
6
Eric Byrnes
129
23
84.9%
7
Jason Bay
95
17
84.8%
8
Mike Trout
200
36
84.7%
9
Nate McLouth
133
24
84.7%
10
Pokey Reese
144
26
84.7%
 
 
#6-Bobby Grich
Best category: WAR/162 (2nd)
Worst category: MVP Points (16th)
 
Grich also ranks high in WAA (3rd) and both WAR and Win Shares/162 (4th in both).
 
Grich and Utley are pretty similar across most of the 11 categories, as Grich's "worst" category is also MVP points (he had 2 top-10 MVP finishes). Utley's 7-year peak is a little higher, Grich's career value is a little higher, but they're pretty close.
 
I'm interested to see if anyone else had this impression of Grich, but did he strike you as kind of a "stiff" player? As opposed to someone like Alomar or Sandberg, both of whom always seemed kind of smooth to me, Grich always seemed to field his position rather stiffly. Maybe it was his build, and he did have back issues, so maybe that's just the way he was. He seemed similar when at bat too. He was highly effective of course....but that's just how he struck me.
 
One other thought....which players do you think were hurt the most by the 1981 strike? Grich was on track for what might have been his best season in 1981. Prorated to a full season, Grich was on track for 33 HR's, and he hit .304 while leading the abbreviated league in slugging and OPS+ (not that anyone was aware of that metric then).  His prorated rWAR would have been around 8.2. Sure, being "on pace" for something doesn't guarantee anything, but Grich quite possibly missed out on his best season.
 
#5-Robinson Cano
Best category: WAR7 and Win Shares 7 (2nd)
Worst category: dWAR (23rd)
 
Cano also ranked high in Win Shares/162 (3rd) and MVP Points (4th, even though he never won one). Cano's strong performance in MVP points is driven by a 3rd place finish, a 4th, two 5ths, a 6th, and an 8th, all of which came in a 7-year stretch.
 
Cano, fairly or unfairly, has the you-know-what cloud hanging over him. Based strictly on performance, Cano has a strong case as a top-10 all-time second baseman.
 
Everyone is familiar with the great tradition of Yankees center fielders (Mantle, DiMaggio, Combs, B. Williams) and catchers (Berra, Dickey, Munson, Posada, Howard), but they're exceptionally deep in quality second basemen as well. Cano might very well be the best, but they also have had the luxury of Willie Randolph plus Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Tony Lazzeri, not to mention the versatile Gil McDougald, who excelled at second, third, and short, but ended up with more games at 2B than anywhere else. A very deep and talented group. And Cano might just be the best of that group.
 
#4-Roberto Alomar
Best category: All Star games (2nd)
Worst category: dWAR (85th)
 
Outside of dWAR, Alomar really didn't have any weak categories. He was 12th in WAR/162, but 8th or better in all of the rest.
 
Is Alomar the greatest player who didn't play a large % of his seasons with any one team? Alomar split his time among Toronto (5 seasons), Cleveland, Baltimore, and San Diego (3 each), New York Mets and Chicago White Sox (2 each) and Arizona (1), so the highest one (Toronto) only represented 29% of his total seasons.
 
Go down the list of career rWAR leaders and you'll see how unusual this is. I went down the list I just did position players rather than pitchers), and the only ones with more career rWAR than Alomar who were even close were Johnny Mize (40%, Cardinals), Adrian Beltre (38%, Rangers), Bill Dahlen (38%, Cubs), and Carlos Beltran (35%, both for the Royals and Mets). Well, there was Dan Brouthers at 26% (5 of his 19 years were with Buffalo), but that's hardly apples to apples, given the volatility of franchises in the early days of the sport. Most players at that level on the WAR list accumulate at least half of their seasons with one franchise.
 
#3-Ryne Sandberg
Best category: MVP Points, All Star Games, Win Shares 7 (3rd in each)
Worst category: Games and dWAR (11th)
 
Sandberg, as you might expect, excels across the board, and does best in the 2 categories designed to capture "honors" (MVP points and All Star games). Sandberg was both well-liked and well-respected, and, even though I didn't include it in the methodology, you can add his 9 Gold Glove awards as further evidence of how well respected he was. 
 
If you forced me to select a "most memorable performance" in my lifetime by a player in a regular season game, I might have to go with Sandberg's famous June 23, 1984 outing when he homered twice off of Bruce Sutter, who was in the middle of an otherwise amazing season (he had a 1.19 ERA heading into that game, and eventually ended up with a 1.54 mark for the season). That was the game that really put Sandberg, who was 24 at the time and an emerging young player on his way to winning the MVP, on the map. A wild game at Wrigley Field on national television on a Saturday afternoon, with the Cubs a game and a half back of the Mets in the NL East, in the middle of what was to be a memorable division championship season, Sandberg homered off Sutter in the 9th to tie the game, and then tied it again with a 2-run blast off Sutter again in the 10th. The Cubs eventually won 12-11. I can still hear Bob Costas' voice as he called those two shots. Sandberg finished 5 for 6 with the 2 home runs and 7 RBI.   Outside of some isolated special Reds-related regular season memories, I can't think of anything that compares to that performance for me.
 
#2-Rod Carew
Best category: All Star Games (1st)
Worst category: dWAR (165th)
 
Technicalities, technicalities. Yes, Carew played slightly more games at 1B than he did at 2B. I know I'm supposed to be ranking guys at the position at which they played the most. Nevertheless, I'm keeping Carew with the second basemen. To me, that's what he was.
 
Outside of dWAR, Carew didn't have a bad category. He was 5th or better in 8 of the 11 categories.
 
If I calculated it correctly, Carew has the highest All Star team selection % in history among all players from the All Star game era (although with a qualifier). What do I mean by All Star selection %?  Well, Carew played 19 seasons, and he made the All Star team 18 times (94.7%), missing out only in his final season. Other percentages among players with a large number of All Star game seasons:
 
Hank Aaron-91.3% (21 for 23)
Willie Mays & Stan Musial - 90.9% (20 for 22)
Cal Ripken Jr.  - 90.5% (19 for 21)
Ted Williams - 89.5% (17 for 19)
Mickey Mantle - 88.9% (16 for 18)
 
What's the qualifier I alluded to earlier? Well, technically, Joe DiMaggio has the highest % - he was 13 for 13. Of course, his career was abbreviated by his 3 years that were lost to the War. They were in the middle of his career, and I assume he would likely have made all 3, which means you can reasonably project him as 16-for-16. Except, well, you can't. But you could.
 
Carew was a perfect 18-for-18....until his 19th and final season, when he wasn't selected. How did we miss that one? Where were the fans? Yeah, I know he wasn't the player he used to be by that final season, but he wasn't the year before either, and he was selected to that one. I'm surprised he didn't end up getting named to the team in that final season, even if for no other reason than sentimentality. 
 
#1-Joe Mogan
Best category: "Little Joe" finished first in all categories except for All Star Games, Games, and dWAR.
Worst category: dWAR (75th)
 
An easy #1 pick. Joe's peak, whether you're using WAR7 or Win Shares 7, is at least 15-20% higher than the #2 man in both (Cano). 
 
In the Robinson Cano entry, I referred to the exceptional depth of quality second basemen in the Yankees' history, but the Astros are very deep there as well. If you include Morgan, who was with the Astros for 10 years and had several very good (and vastly underrated seasons) before emerging as the best player in the game with the Reds, the Astros have had 4 excellent second baseman in their history - Morgan, Biggio, Altuve, and Doran. Considering the Astros have only been in existence since 1962, that's a pretty impressive group.
 
Here's an interesting research question - can you come up with any other players who followed Morgan's arc? I'm thinking specifically of it this way:
 
1)      Came up and played well for 10 years or more seasons for one (or more) teams, a good enough player to make an All Star team or two
 
2)      Went to another team
 
3)      Played distinctly better for that team
 
I mean, you can kind of find cases with some similarity, and maybe you can with pitchers, but it seems rare to me, especially among position players. Adrian Beltre kind of fits that outline....he played a combined 12 seasons for the Dodgers and Mariners, but outside of one exceptional season with the Dodgers in '04, I think his image was that of a good player, but hardly someone who would be on a Hall of Fame path. He had never appeared in an All Star game up until that point, but beginning with Boston in 2010, and especially over the subsequent seasons with Texas, Beltre became a consistent All Star and the type of player who got a lot of recognition in MVP voting. I'm having trouble coming up with any other truly similar cases among "elite" position players.
 
 
Top 25 Second Basemen of the Past 50 Years - Ranking/Points
 
Rank
Name
From
To
Points
1
Joe Morgan
1963
1984
87.8
2
Rod Carew
1967
1985
75.4
3
Ryne Sandberg
1981
1997
70.8
4
Roberto Alomar
1988
2004
66.7
5
Robinson Cano
2005
2019
65.8
6
Bobby Grich
1970
1986
65.4
7
Chase Utley
2003
2018
64.1
8
Lou Whitaker
1977
1995
62.3
9
Craig Biggio
1988
2007
60.4
10
Willie Randolph
1975
1992
59.9
11
Dustin Pedroia
2006
2019
57.0
12
Jeff Kent
1992
2008
53.6
13
Jose Altuve
2011
2019
50.1
14
Frank White
1973
1990
47.2
15
Davey Lopes
1972
1987
46.4
16
Ian Kinsler
2006
2019
46.0
17
Chuck Knoblauch
1991
2002
45.9
18
Brandon Phillips
2002
2018
40.2
19
Ray Durham
1995
2008
40.1
20
Julio Franco
1982
2007
39.7
21
Placido Polanco
1998
2013
38.8
22
Robby Thompson
1986
1996
38.6
23
Orlando Hudson
2002
2012
38.1
24
Bill Doran
1982
1993
36.1
25
Brian Roberts
2001
2014
34.9
 
Distribution of the top 25 by decade (using career mid-point):
 
Decade
Total
1970s
4
1980s
5
1990s
5
2000s
5
2010s
6
 
Hard to get much more representative than that.
 
In the first article (which also had the catcher rankings), a reader requested #26-50 as well (without commentary), so I've been including those as well, with the caveat that these are unadjusted rankings at this point, strictly based on how everyone outside of the top 25 did based on the raw methodology. So, no subjective adjustments on my part. Also note that any active players are very volatile and fluid in how they fare in the various categories, and the ones who are not at the ends of their careers will likely change considerably in the years ahead.
 
Rank
Name
From
To
Points
26
Phil Garner
1973
1988
34.8
27
Mark Ellis
2002
2014
34.7
28
DJ LeMahieu
2011
2019
34.5
29
Dave Cash
1969
1980
33.7
30
Davey Johnson
1965
1978
33.7
31
Howie Kendrick
2006
2019
33.2
32
Luis Castillo
1996
2010
33.1
33
Mark Grudzielanek
1995
2010
32.4
34
Bret Boone
1992
2005
32.2
35
Steve Sax
1981
1994
31.6
36
Brian Dozier
2012
2019
31.4
37
Craig Counsell
1995
2011
31.0
38
Johnny Ray
1981
1990
30.9
39
Tom Herr
1979
1991
30.8
40
Aaron Hill
2005
2017
29.7
41
Daniel Murphy
2008
2019
29.5
42
Jason Kipnis
2011
2019
28.9
43
Jim Gantner
1976
1992
28.7
44
Dan Uggla
2006
2015
28.3
45
Randy Velarde
1987
2002
28.1
46
Glenn Hubbard
1978
1989
27.8
47
Neil Walker
2009
2019
27.8
48
Delino DeShields
1990
2002
27.8
49
Carlos Baerga
1990
2005
27.2
50
Adam Kennedy
1999
2012
27.2
 
Next up in a few days (hopefully) : First Basemen
 
Thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

RipCity
To the question about players with Morgan's career arc, if you're willing to fudge slightly on ten or more seasons, there are probably a few steroid-era guys who fit the bill. Luis Gonzalez, who had more PAs in his pre-Arizona years than Joe Morgan did in Houston. Jim Edmonds; Bret Boone.
7:53 AM Apr 27th
 
bhalbleib
One other thought....which players do you think were hurt the most by the 1981 strike?

Davey Concepcion and it's not even close. 1) Morgan was gone, Rose was gone, Perez was gone, Bench was a shell of his former self. Star-wise, the Reds were Davey's team (and Foster and Griffey, Sr. and Seaver). 2) Davey was having a fantastic offensive year, He ended up with the highest OPS+ of his career. He regularly batted 3rd that year (as opposed to 7th or 8th at the height of the Big Red Machine). 3) The Reds had the best record in baseball . . . but because of the whole split season thing, they didn't make the playoffs. It is speculation, of course, but what if the Reds did make the playoffs, even won the WS as their division mates did and Davey, out of the shadow of Bench, Morgan and Rose, shined along the way. Would he be in the HOF now?
8:30 AM Apr 14th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys. Sorry I've been slow to respond.

Maris - Yeah Baerga was one of those guys who I thought would have a better career based on how well he did in his early years. He was probably the #2 or #3 AL second baseman in the early to mid 90's, but fell off pretty sharply.

Bruce,

Not sure about other defensive metrics, but specifically in dWAR, Hubbard was #27 out of 185 in my 2B data set, or roughly in the top 15%. He has roughly the same career dWAR as Pokey Reese, Adam Kennedy, and one of your boys (Rich Dauer).

Thanks,
Dan
11:28 AM Apr 11th
 
smbakeresq
Bobby Grich being "stiff" - I grew up watching Bobby Grich and I think this is essentially correct. Some players just look smooth in everything they do, he wasn't one of them. He also played next to Belanger, who when fielding just played everything correct and looked good doing it so that certainly hurt appearances. Grich also was a stocky person, and they rarely look smooth on their feet although some very much are.

Grich always got where he needed to be it just didn't look good doing it.
11:03 AM Apr 10th
 
rwarn17588
Joe Morgan's surge in Cincinnati probably can be attributed to three things. 1) He went from a pitcher's park to more of a hitter's park, which helped his confidence and thus his performance; 2) He went from an also-ran club to a contender; and 3) He lockered next to Pete Rose, a student of the game, which he said later helped him on the day-to-day stuff.
9:33 AM Apr 10th
 
rwarn17588
I grew up in Cardinals-Cubs country. Younger people do not have a grasp of how momentous the Sandberg game really was. Bruce Sutter was regarded at the time as THE relief stud in the major leagues with that split-finger fastball. Someone hitting not one, but TWO game-tying home runs off him was unthinkable.

Looking over replays of that at-bat, both the home runs were split-fingered pitches that Sutter left up in the zone. Sandberg said in his bio he learned to hit pretty well against Sutter's bread-and-butter pitch by simply swinging the bat a touch lower.

It's also my recollection that Sandberg, who was having a really good season, was about 100,000 votes behind the leader in All-Star voting at second base before the game. He leapfrogged to a 150,000-vote lead after. That game was Sandberg's Ed Sullivan moment.
9:29 AM Apr 10th
 
wdr1946
The best gauge of how good a player is is his WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which can be seen for any player on baseball reference. It takes both hitting and fielding into account, as well as ballpark factors and the context in terms of whether there re a lot of runs or fewer in that season. Anything above 6.0 is very good. At Houston, from 1963to 1971,Joe Morgan's WARs were as follows: 0.1,-0.2, 5.7,3.6, 5.0,0.1,3.7,3.4,5.6. These are good figures, but that's all. Traded to the Reds, his next seasons were as follows:9.3,9.3,8.6,11.0,9.6,etc. In Houston, Morgan was chosen for only two All Star games, and played in only one, as a substitute. No one regarded him as more than a good player until he got to Cincinnati.
1:56 AM Apr 10th
 
phorton01
Not saying Morgan wasn't a really good player in Houston, but doesn't OPS+ already take into account that it was the worst hitter's park ever?
8:28 PM Apr 9th
 
DavidHNix
Joe Morgan was more than a "good" player in his Houston years -- 120 OPS+ in the worst hitter's park ever and 30 WAR in 6 seasons (excluding cups o' coffee and a late-career encore) is a hell of a player.​
5:09 PM Apr 9th
 
DavidHNix
Did Grich really look stiff, or are you retrocasting because the name "Grich" SOUNDS kind of stiff? Whereas "Alomar" glides around the tongue.
4:55 PM Apr 9th
 
bearbyz
Thanks again this is an interesting article. Our top 10 are the same players. The big difference is I have Biggio second. I didn't want him that high he just came out that high. In part as I put more emphasis on career and win shares which he does better in.
3:15 PM Apr 9th
 
LesLein
In the 1984 Abstract assistant Jim Baker quoted Pete Rose saying winners “follow me around.” Baker pointed out that the only team Rose left went from third to first while the team he joined dropped from first to fourth. Baker said the claim really applied to Morgan.
10:31 AM Apr 9th
 
OwenH
Dan, I'm really enjoying this series. It's lots of fun to remember all these great and good players from the last half-century, and I appreciate your thoughtful and balanced approach to ranking them. I'm also glad you let a little bit of sentimentality drift in there. This series and Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100 series on The Athletic are helping me survive the dearth of actual baseball right now. Great stuff!
10:29 AM Apr 9th
 
evanecurb
Bobby Grich looked STIFF. I’ve been searching for that word to describe him for almost 50 years. He absolutely looked stiff. Thank you.
8:55 AM Apr 9th
 
evanecurb
Where does Hubbard rank in defensive metrics? He was great on the DP. I’d guess White, Randolph, and Hubbard were near the top in turning DPs.
8:51 AM Apr 9th
 
Davidg32
I remember reading somewhere...I suspect it was in Bill's Player Rating Book one year...where the Chicago White Sox took various physical measurements of all the players in their minor league system. And Ray Durham had the highest vertical leap, beating out some guy named Michael Jordan.
8:19 AM Apr 9th
 
phorton01
I grew up in Chicago, rabid Cubs fan, so of course I am biased in favor of Sandberg.

That game you referenced was the one that prompted Whitey Herzog to say of Ryno: "He is the best baseball player I have ever seen."

Remember that Whitey managed a guy named George Brett.
7:39 AM Apr 9th
 
ajmilner
"One other thought....which players do you think were hurt the most by the 1981 strike?"

Well, Tommy John lost about 5 wins to the 1981 strike, which would have pushed his career win total to 293, at which point (like Early Wynn or Gaylord Perry) SOME team would have signed him in 1989 to get to #300 and a plaque in Cooperstown.
6:54 AM Apr 9th
 
brewer09
I remember Bill James writing about Joe Morgan in the 84 Abstract, I think.

It was about how Joe had been changing teams a lot and everywhere he went, his teams won. They won more than they had the year before and when he left, they dropped in the standings.

The 79 Reds won 90 games and the division title. The Reds let him go via free agency.

He signed with the 80 Astros. He led the league in walks. The Astros won their first division title. Then let him go.

He signed with the Giants. They made it over .500 in the strike-shortened 81 season. Then They finished two games back in the NL West in 1982, eliminating the Dodgers on the last day of the season, on a home run by Morgan. He had a 5.1 WAR that season, 11th in the league. He was 38.

He signed with the 83 Phillies, joining Rose and Perez from his the Big Red Machine days. Mike Schmidt was 33. The team was old. Morgan had 89 walks. The Phillies won the pennant.

4:00 AM Apr 9th
 
wdr1946
The problem with assessing Joe Morgan is that when he was in Houston he was only a good player, not a great one, let alone one of historic ability. He only became great in Cincinnati. Just before he was traded, in 1971 I think, when he was 29, no one in their right minds would have said that he was arguably the greatest ever second baseman, as many say now. There is probably no other very great player in baseball history who is in Joe Morgan's position- the only exception being Dazzy Vance, whose lifetime record at age 31 was 0-4, but won 197 games after that.
1:57 AM Apr 9th
 
MarisFan61
As with the other positions so far, my main reaction as I went down the countdown was that so many players seemed so surprisingly low, compared to what I would have thought, in isolation and off the top of my head -- but as I continued down the countdown, I didn't disagree.

Biggest shock to me (which doesn't mean I disagree, just wouldn't have guessed he'd be nearly that low), actually I guess the only one:
Baerga, 49th
10:14 PM Apr 8th
 
FrankD
Another great article in the series. As for honoring somebody like Julio Franco: how about a Gold Watch award, like they used to give retirees back in the day for Long Meritorious Service ......
10:08 PM Apr 8th
 
 
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