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Second Thoughts on Second Basemen

We don’t want to give too much away, but we’ve been thinking a lot about second basemen lately. See, like you, we have a pretty good sense of who’s a slam-dunk (Robbie Alomar) and who’s easy to write an obit for (Chuck Knoblauch). We’ve projected ahead as we narrow down the field, and with just a few spots left to figure out as we inch closer to our 2015 catch-up election, three second basemen fit neither the slam-dunk nor dead-man-walking profiles. Figuring them out could be key to nailing down the last few slots of the Hall of Miller and Eric.
Our three borderline second baseman all bring different things to the table. In fact, one of them is only a second baseman by plurality. We’re talking about Cupid Childs, Tony Phillips, and Jeff Kent. I’m going to explore these guys in a little more detail in subsequent articles. Today I want to lay out some basics to show why these three are tough to unknot so you can think along with us.

cupid childsCupid Childs

  • Position by games: 2B 1455; SS 1
  • Batting: 6766 PAs, 119 OPS+, 288 Rbat, -17 Rbaser (est.)
  • Fielding: 28 Rfield, 122 DRA
  • Value: 44.3 WAR (BBREF), 56.2 (Eric’s equivalent WAR)
  • Postseason Batting: 27 PA, .409/.519/.591

Childs was somewhat similar to Phillips as a hitter: an on-base machine with a little pop. He finished in the top 10 in walks every full year of his career. He fielded the position well, though second base in his time was not nearly as important defensively as it would become because double plays were more rare. Two important factors for Childs and one not yet known. One, Schoenfield’s Paradox. The further back in time we go, the more uneven was the quality of play, and the more the best players stood out. This is especially true before 1901. In the 1890s, Childs regularly played against four deadbeat teams in the big 12-team NL. When the league contracted to eight in 1900, Cupid was soon gone. Two, overpopulation of the 1890s. As it turns out, we’ve elected a couple more guys from that time than we perhaps should have. Given Schoenfield’s Paradox, perhaps it’s important to reel ourselves in for that decade. The as yet unknown factor is that Childs was teammates for a decade with Cy Young and Nig Cuppy who were two of the top pitchers in the league. Between that and being on one of he best teams in the league, he may have had it easier than some batters. We’ll dig into this question in great depth in a forthcoming article.
So who were Childs’ comparables at his own position? Using BBREF’s marvelous Play Index, I took every second baseman born from 1865 to 1869 (Childs was born in 1867) had medium-length careers with 5,000 to 8,000 PAs. Here they are with some stats from BBREF and the difference between their DRA and BBREF’s Rfield (this last to give a sense of how different defensive metrics see them):

Cupid Childs  1867   44.3   22.3   + 94
Tom Daly      1866   28.0    5.5   +  6
Bobby Lowe    1865   20.1  - 7.0   + 17
Lou Bierbauer 1865   14.0  - 3.1   +109
Bill Hallman  1867    7.3  -14.1   - 62

Childs stands way out among his own contemporaries. I tried expanding my search by one year on each side of his birth year, but that only added the terrible Joe Quinn. This appears to say more about his competition than it may about Childs. How about against the other second basemen of his time? Back to the PI! Here’s the top ten second basemen during (1890–1901):

NAME           WAR    WAA   DRA-RFIELD
Cupid Childs   44.3   22.3     + 94
Bid McPhee*    33.0   14.6     + 29
Nap Lajoie*    26.0   16.5     - 10
Tom Daly       25.1    9.0     - 24
Bobby Lowe     19.1  - 2.0     + 16
Jack Crooks    14.6    4.1     - 13
Monte Ward*    12.9    3.6     + 61
Heinie Reitz   12.8    2.2     + 1
Claude Ritchey  9.8    0.0     - 19
Lou Bierbauer   9.1  - 3.0     + 58
*member of Hall of Miller and Eric 

Yeah, he creams them all, though in fairness, Lajoie began his career in 1896.

tony phillipsTony Phillips

  • Position by games: 2B 778; LF 565; 3B 428; SS 294; RF 169; DH 101; CF 97; 1B 5
  • Batting: 9110 PAs, 109 OPS+, 153 Rbat, -5 Rbaser
  • Fielding: 41 Rfield, 156 DRA
  • Value: 50.8 WAR (BBREF), 61.0 (Eric’s equivalent WAR)
  • Postseason Batting: 50 PA, .217/.280/.348

Surprised to see Tony Phillips pop up here? Phillips was a hotheaded baseball rat. He’d play anywhere any time and was known for his aggressive takeout slides. Like Childs he was a player who walked a ton (top five 7 of 8 years from 1990 to 1997) and had a little power. During his career, Phillips was something of a novelty, but no one saw him as possibly being a Hall-level player. In many ways that versatility got in the way of forming a concrete picture of the entire player. In addition, a lot of how you see Phillips depends on how you see his fielding. A rating of +41 from BBREF is very good, but DRA sees him as outstanding. Given his ability to play every skill position on the field, that’s not out of the realm. The question about what additional value his ability to capably play many positions brought to his teams remains open. We’ll look at that in another article down the road.
For Phillips’ comps, I looked at 2B, 3B, and LF since they represent about 75% of his fielding appearances. My criteria were

  • Born 1957–1962
  • Played 2B, 3B, or LF
  • Had long careers (1750 G)

NAME             BORN   WAR     WAA   DRA-RFIELD
Rickey Henderson 1958   110.8   68.6    +123
Wade Boggs       1958    91.1   57.0    -110
Lou Whitaker*    1957    74.9   42.5    + 32
Tim Raines       1959    69.1   35.0    -  5
Ryne Sandberg*   1959    67.5   38.1    + 23
Tony Phillips    1959    50.8   21.5    +115
Gary Gaetti      1958    42.0   10.0    - 25
Carney Lansford  1957    40.2   14.6    - 92
Tim Wallach      1957    38.3    8.9    + 79
Terry Pendleton  1960    28.2    3.5    + 26
Steve Sax        1960    25.3    0.1    - 75
*member of Hall of Miller and Eric 

On one hand, tough competition. On the other not so much. Phillips sits between five all-time greats and better than average players. But adding DRA into the mix would push him a lot closer to Sandberg. In fact, by including DRA, the gap between Phillips and Sandberg isn’t nearly as big as the one between Phillips and Wallach or Gaetti. Those guys aren’t even on the same planet as Phillips. Another thing to consider here is that Phillips fares best as a third baseman and worst as a left fielder. Anyway, not that this really tells me anything I didn’t know. He’s still not a no-brainer, but it’s interesting to see how much better he was than the also-rans. I expanded by one year on each side of his birth year, but it added no other players.
Here are Phillips’ competition at those three positions during his time in the majors. Here’s everyone with 30+ WAR since we’re dealing with a lot of positions:

NAME               WAR    WAA   DRA-RFIELD
Barry Bonds       103.4   76.7    - 16
Rickey Henderson   94.5   61.3    + 92
Wade Boggs         91.1   57.0    -110
Ryne Sandberg*     67.7   38.2    + 23
Tim Raines         65.1   33.0    -  4
Lou Whitaker*      61.1   35.6    + 24
Craig Biggio       55.9   34.1    - 53
Roberto Alomar     54.2   28.9    - 27
Tony Phillips      50.8   21.5    +115
Robin Vetura       46.0   25.7    - 91
Matt Williams      44.8   24.8    -  5
Chuck Knoblauch    44.1   24.4    - 24
Gary Gaetti        42.2   10.3    - 25
Mike Schmidt*      39.9   24.5    + 27
Albert Belle       39.3   18.5    + 62
Tim Wallach        37.5    9.0    + 79
Willie Randolph*   36.2   17.8    + 18
Lonnie Smith       34.1   16.6    -  9
Robby Thompson     33.6   16.8    + 34
Bill Doran         32.6   13.0    -  3
Ken Caminiti       32.5   12.4    + 72
Bobby Bonilla      32.2    7.5    + 84
Scott Fletcher     31.9   12.4    - 20
Travis Fryman      30.7   11.3    +101
Ron Gant           30.1   11.0     - 5
*member of the Hall of Miller and Eric

That’s a lot of really amazing players. Again, however, we see that Phillips occupies the gray zone. When we consider DRA’s information, Ventura falls well back, and Phillips moves well up. Nonetheless, this is all of Phillips’ career, and among those above him, only Boggs and Sandberg’s entire careers are covered. But being the 9th best among all leftfielders, second basemen, and third basemen over twenty years isn’t exactly a bad thing.

jeff kent ladJeff Kent

  • Position by games: 2B 2034; 3B 157; 1B 117; DH 7; SS 3
  • Batting: 9537 PAs, 123 OPS+, 297 Rbat, 1 Rbaser
  • Fielding: -42 Rfield, -2 DRA
  • Value: 55.2 WAR (BBREF), 58.4 (Eric’s equivalent WAR)
  • Postseason Batting: 189 PA, .276/.340/.500

Jeff Kent is one of the least likely long-tenured second baseman I can imagine. He never looked like a second baseman, and he didn’t really move like one either. But he was good enough at the keystone to stay there a long time. Childs is a candidate who piled up lots of value in very few seasons. Phillips is more of the long-and-low kind of player. Kent is a strange amalgam. On one hand, my own WAR system shows two fringe MVP years (7+ wins) but only two other seasons at the lower edge of an All-Star year (~5 wins). After that he’s more of a 2.5 to 4 win player. Oddly, if you think that DRA is overdoing the number of fielding runs for Tony Phillips, then Kent is in a little trouble too since DRA likes him much better than BBREF’s Rfield. On the other hand, without the question of Young/Cuppy or multipositionalism, Kent’s case is far more straightforward than Childs’ or Phillips’.
To get a sense of Kent’s contemporaries, I searched for second basemen born 1966–1970 with 8000 or more PAs. Only Robbie Alomar came back, so I expanded to 1965–1971:

Roberto Alomar 1968   66.8   32.2   + 58
Craig Biggio   1965   65.1   28.7   - 31
Jeff Kent      1968   55.2   26.3   + 40
Ray Durham     1971   33.7   6.5    + 97

Kent is a clear third on this list. Which isn’t a terrible thing, given that those above him are strong candidates and that Kent played in an era of 28 to 30 teams. But he’s basically in the same spot that Phillips is within his peer group. By the way, even dropping the PA requirement to 7500 only tacked on Mark Grudzielanek. Finally, here are the top 10 second basemen of Kent’s time-period:

NAME               WAR    WAA   DRA-RFIELD
Jeff Kent          55.2   26.3    + 40
Craig Biggio       54.9   24.5    - 37
Roberto Alomar     50.1   24.2    - 42
Chuck Knoblauch    41.7   19.3    - 50
Chase Utley        33.9   24.8    -103
Ray Durham         33.7    6.5    + 97
Placido Polanco    33.4   16.6    - 36
Luis Castillo      27.2    7.5    - 49
Mark Grudzielanek  26.1    3.1    + 22
Alfonso Soriano    25.5    8.6    - 14

Kent looks pretty good this way, eh? Or maybe not since Alomar and Biggio got their starts in 1988 and finished up only a couple years prior to Kent. Utley debuted a decade after, and this is only about a third of his career. It’s defensible to see Kent as the fourth of those four guys. If you look at the newly eligible Hall of Fame candidates between now and 2020, there are no good second basemen. Hmmm.
Well, these are our contestants. Maybe one or two or all three will make the Hall of Miller and Eric. Maybe none will. We’ll see. For now, we’ll go into more detail soon about Childs and Phillips’ extenuating circumstances, but as we work behind the scenes, we hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts.




One thought on “Second Thoughts on Second Basemen

  1. Who would have ever thought that Tony Phillips compared favorably with Roberto Alomar? Thanks for this article.

    Posted by verdun2 | March 9, 2015, 9:50 am

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