Sunday, July 24, 2011

Top 10 Shortstops

Boy have I been away for a while.  Let's see what I missed... the Pirates are in first?  Jose Bautista has 80 (or so...) home runs?  Oh my!  Anyway, I'm not going to make any promises that I can't keep, such as posting every day, but I'll try to post as I see fit.  I love baseball, and this season's been great, but sometimes you just don't feel like taking a few hours to write an article, you know?

Now, however, is not one of those times.  Another thing that's happened this season is that Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit.  Even though I hate the Yankees, and am not a big fan of Jeter's, I can appreciate what #2 has done.  What I don't appreciate is how many Yankee fans and sportswriters constantly overrate Jeter, in the pantheons of both all-time Yankees and shortstops.  Over at SB Nation, Rob Neyer has Jeter at fifth- and third-greatest, respectively.  Today, let's examine just where Derek Jeter fits into the top shortstops of all-time.

  • Note 1: What is a shortstop?  Somebody who has played at least 60% of their games at the position.  For instance, Alex Rodriguez does not count, while Cal Ripken does.
  • Note 2: The team abbreviation in parentheses is the team I feel that player did his best work with.
  • Note 3: As always, thanks to

    1. Honus Wagner, 1897-17 (PIT): .328 AVG/154 OPS+/134.5 WAR
    Was there any doubt?  Wagner was, by all accounts, an incredible ballplayer.  While media portrayals can often be overwrought and whatnot, the stats don't lie.  In an era known for awesome pitching, Wagner was putting up amazing offensive seasons year after year.  1908, in which he led the league in hits, doubles, triples, RBIs, stolen bases, average, OPS, and WAR, was particularly amazing, though other seasons around then were almost as good.  He was also a great fielder, registering a career fielding value of 85.  This is a bit of a short entry, but that's how clear-cut this is.  Wagner was one of the greatest ballplayers, let alone shortstops, of all-time, and is the clear #1 choice for this list.

    2. Cal Ripken, 1981-2001 (BAL): 431 HR/3184 H/89.9 WAR
    While Wagner is notable for dominating the dead-ball era, Ripken is notable for breathing offensive life into a position that was now known for a lack of hitting.  In plainer language: Ripken was the first, and best, of the modern, hitting-heavy shortstops.  Cal never overpowered--he only hit more than thirty home runs once in a season, and got more than 200 hits twice--but was a very steady, solid presence on the left side of the Orioles' infield for twenty years (he moved to 3B in 1997, but his total career stats appear on this list).  His 1078 career extra base hits (he's also the career SS leader in doubles, in addition to home runs) is way above any other shortstops.  He received two MVP awards and Rookie of the Year, which I'm usually dubious of using to assess anything, but Cal actually seems to have earned his awards, leading the AL in WAR during 1983 and 1991.  If Cal's offensive numbers don't overwhelm (and indeed, they don't, but one must admit that they're quite extraordinary), his fielding numbers will surely win you over.  He's primarily known for his hitting, but is third all-time among shortstops in career fielding value (181).  His body wore down over the course of his career, but at age 34 he was still saving over twenty runs per season.  Any way you look at it, Cal Ripken was one of the greatest players of his era, and well deserving of a top spot on this list.

    3. Derek Jeter, 1995-Present (NYY): 3010 H/.312 AVG/70.1 WAR
    Well well well.  It looks like I have to agree with Mr. Neyer: Derek Jeter is the third-best shortstop of all-time.  For his whole career--well, up until last year--Jeter was a great leadoff hitter, OBP'ing over .370 for twelve of his sixteen seasons.  He's gotten over 200 hits five times, and a WAR over 5.0 six times--a figure that would be higher were it not for Jeter's atrocious defense.  Yes, we have to get something out of the way: despite his flashy and famous plays, Derek Jeter has never been a good fielder.  His highest single-season fielding value is 5.  His career number is -134.  That's nothing short of terrible.  Yet despite his weakness at a very important defensive position, his hitting is too strong to ignore.  Jeter's often derided by non-Yankee fans and -sportswriters for being overrated, but it's easy to argue that he deserves two MVP awards--two more than he has to his name.  (Yes, it's fairly surprising that the sportswriters haven't bestowed the MVP honor on their favorite player of this generation.)  You don't have to make me like the man or his team, but I accept that he is one of the best players at his position of all-time.

    4. Arky Vaughan, 1932-48 (PIT): .318 AVG/.406 OPS/75.6 WAR
    Here's where it gets a bit murkier.  Arky Vaughan, who would rank first on this list if we were sorting by best name, was only a full-time player for twelve years.  He ranks tenth among shortstops in all-time runs created, twenty-third for hits, and fifteenth for RBIs.  Those stats, however, are accumulative, and I don't want to punish Vaughan too much for his World War II-interrupted career.  Consider this: Vaughan has a lifetime OBP of .406.  That's twenty-sixth all-time among all players, and well in first place among shortstops.  His OPS+ of 136 and AVG of .318 are second only to Wagner on the list of shortstop statistics.  Additionally, Vaughan ranks third all-time among shortstops for WAR, despite having played in many fewer games than the players below him on that list.  If you take Vaughan's statistics, and stretch them out over a career as long as Ripken's, he'd be first on this list. It is, of course, not fair to do that, but it gives you a good idea of just how good Arky Vaughan was.  This is a difficult call to make, but I'm pretty confident in it: Arky Vaughan is the fourth-best shortstop of all-time.

    5. Luke Appling, 1930-50 (CHW): 2749 H/.399 OBP/69.3 WAR
    On one hand, Appling is fourth among shortstops in all all-time runs created, fifth in WAR, and fifth in hits.  On the other hand, he had the great fortune to play during the notoriously weak-pitching World War II years, a fact which contributes to his lackluster OPS+ of 113.  However, he only played two full seasons out of those four, one of which was pretty sub-par, the other of which was quite excellent, so it's difficult to say just how much of an effect this had on his career numbers.  As mentioned above, he holds lofty positions on the leaderboard of many key statistics, though his WAR is virtually tied (within 3 points) with that of four other players.  His .399 career OPS is second on this list to Vaughan's, though I'm still having a tough time getting past that low OPS+.  True, Ripken's is 112, but he played in an arguably much stronger hitting era.  Appling only hit 45 home runs for his career, though it takes some considerable skill to amass 2749 hits.  If I sound conflicted about all of this... it's because I am.  Ah well.  On to the next entry.

    6. Joe Cronin, 1926-45 (BOS): 1370 RC/.857 OPS/62.5 WAR
    While Cronin is primarily remembered as a manager, he was also quite a shortstop.  His 119 OPS+ and 1370 runs created are sixth all-time among shortstops, and his .301 average is eighth.  Nothing in his career overwhelms, but he was a pretty good presence in the Washington and Boston lineups for thirteen seasons.  While he wasn't a big home run hitter, he was prodigious at getting extra base hits: his 515 doubles is second-all time (among shortstops), while his 118 triples is fourth.  All told, he has 803 extra base hits to his name, good for second (only behind Cal Ripken's amazing 1078).  That .390 OBP is pretty impressive too, helped by 1059 career walks.  Cronin's name doesn't often get bandied about as an elite shortstop, but it's clear from his numbers that it should be.

    7. Lou Boudreau, 1938-52 (CLE): 120 OPS+/118 FV/56.0 WAR
    Boudreau is another player primarily know for his managing, though deserves many an accolade for his hitting as well (to be fair, he's in the Hall of Fame as a player).  His 118 fielding value is pretty spectacular, as is his career 120 OPS+.  He underwhelms in some of the accumulated statistics, but that's due to the fact that he played his last full season in 1949, at the age of 31, due to a combination of arthritis, having to focus on full-time managerial duties, and just a general decline of performance.  In 1948, however, Boudreau won the AL MVP with an AVG of .355, and OPS+ of 165, 18 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a WAR of 10.5, the sixth best shortstop season in history.  Boudreau stopped being an elite baseball player way too quickly, and one wonders just how good he would have been had he been a full-time player until he was even 35.  In any case, a 56 WAR after the equivalent of 11.5 full seasons is very impressive--even though he didn't play out his full potential, the stats he did display were still very good, and he's well deserving of a spot here.

    8. Barry Larkin, 1986-2004 (CIN): 198 HR/1381 RC/68.9 WAR
    Hey look, we've already talked about him on this site!  He remains just as worthy of Hall of Fame entry today as he was six months ago, but that's not today's topic.  It's still very clear that Larkin was an elite shortstop, especially given the names he's above on this list.  He had seven seasons of a 5+ WAR, though he never actually led the league in any statistics of any importance.  What gives him this place on the list is, similar to Ripken, his superlative hitting numbers at an otherwise weak-hitting position (though not for long, as Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and the like were just breaking into the league).  He's a bit worse than Ripken offensively, and is much worse at fielding (his 28 career FV is very meh), but we can't all be Cal Ripken.  While Larkin might have to wait another year or two for his much-deserved Hall call, he'll have to content himself for now with knowing that I think he's the seventh-best shortstop of all-time.

    9. Alan Trammell, 1977-96 (DET): 2365 H/75 FV/66.9 WAR
    It's another guy who should be in the Hall of Fame!  Unlike Larkin, however, Trammell will probably never get his Hall call.  It's a great shame.  He wasn't an awesome hitter, but his 1255 runs created is eighth all-time and his 185 home runs is tenth.  His WAR--seventh--reflects how good of an all-around player he was.  In addition being a pretty solid, if not spectacular, hitter, Trammell was a great fielder.  His fielding value of 75 is thirteenth all-time, but it's fourth if you only consider actually good/great shortstops (sorry, Jack Wilson).  Trammell was one of the league's great shortstops for twenty years, and despite being relatively light on hitting his statistics still stack up relatively well against the competition.

    10. Ozzie Smith, 1978-96 (STL): 239 FV/2460 H/64.6 WAR
    First things first: I'm certainly not trying to argue that Smith deserves a spot on this list due to his hitting.  His .666 career OPS is pretty pathetic (reflected by his 87 OPS+), and his oWAR is just 43--far lower than anybody else on this list.  He does have 2460 hits, but that's mostly due to longevity.  Let's stop kidding ourselves, though: Ozzie Smith is one of the best fielders all-time.  Some might try to argue that he's overrated based on how much the media loved him, but that's a very tough case to make.  He's only one point in fielding value behind the all-time leader at shortstop, and is fourth all-time (NB: this statistic is only complete through the 1950s, so this is sort of misleading).  Ozzie saved 21 wins due to his fielding; that's only one per season, but still very impressive nonetheless.  

    Runners-up: Luis Aparicio, 1956-73 (CHW); Joe Sewell, 1920-33 (CLE); Miguel Tejada, 1997-present (OAK)

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