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.
- 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):
NAME BORN WAR WAA DRA-RFIELDF ============================================== 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.
- 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.
- 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:
NAME BORN WAR WAA DRA-RFIELD ============================================== 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.