Second base has morphed as a position over the years. Before fields were well manicured and bunting for a hit was still a big part of the game, great defense belonged at third more than at second. As the double play became more important, a second sacker adept at making the pivot grew in value. And while sacrifice bunts were still in vogue, it seemed every team need to filed a scrappy second baseman who hit second and was willing to lay one down.
Today you’ll see the first of two weeks of rankings at second. Just as at first, our lists are pretty similar. One of the biggest differences is Eric’s inclusion of Rod Carew at the position at which he was best, while I included him at the position he played most.
If you haven’t yet, please take a look at the first two posts in this series.
Second Base – 1-20
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
One of the real underappreciated superstars of our time, Cano isn’t the player he once was, yet he continues to provide good value to a Mariner team most thought ridiculously overpaid when they gave him ten years and $240 million prior to the 2014 season. With more than 20 WAR over four seasons, Seattle has done quite well thus far. But Cano is 35 this year and still has six years left. This isn’t going to end well. It never was.
There are only 41 majority 2B in history with 1000+ trips to the plate from age-35 on. Hall of Famers Red Schoendienst and Nellie Fox are on that list. They had 2.3 and 2.0 respectively. Ryne Sandberg, Frankie Frisch, Bobby Grich, Craig Biggio, and Willie Randolph were all below 9 WAR total. In fact, only ten 2B ever totaled 10+ WAR from age-35 until the end.
There’s hope though. The best four on the list are Collins, Lajoie, Morgan, and Gehringer, my 2-5 all time. And the profile of those guys suggests Cano could follow a similar path – they all did it mainly with the bat, which is really all Cano has left. Well, kind of. Last year was Cano’s worst at the dish since his rookie offering of 2005. I worry for the M’s that Cano’s decline might be steep and might have started last season. If the bet is on whether or not he passes Bobby Grich for eighth on my list, I’m actually going to take the under. Sorry, Robby. —Miller
Cano is staying right where he is in my view. If I include Jackie Robinson’s MLE value, Cano can’t catch him. If I don’t include MLE figures, Cano will pass Jackie by this or next year and won’t catch Rodney Cline Carew. Well, life isn’t a hotel, so you don’t get everything you want. Cano will have to make do with being the best second baseman to hang it up in the last 35 to 40 years.—Eric
The only pace he’s likely to go is downward on my list. He’d still get my vote because it’s unlikely he can do enough damage to his case, especially on a team that’s too smart to let him suck up playing time if he can’t play anymore.—Eric
Utley is 15th all-time on the list I discussed above in the Cano comment. And he’s done it differently than those guys. Since turning 35, he’s had positive value in the field, on the bases, and avoiding double plays. What he can’t do is hit. The Dodgers signed him for two more years this off-season, which seems insane until you realize it’s for only $2 million total. Just 0.8 WAR over those two seasons will put Utley ahead of Fred Dunlap. I don’t think he can do it. —Miller
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
If conventional wisdom is equivalent to Hall of Fame support, the answer has to be Bobby Grich. In his one time on the BBWAA ballot, he received exactly 1/10th the support of Maury Wills. Rusty Staub, George Foster, and Vida Blue all more than doubled Grich. Tip of the cap to Willie Randolph in this category too. Even though he’s in both the Hall of Merit and Hall of Stats, there’s not a lot of clamoring for his Cooperstown induction. —Miller
I’m sure I’ve written elsewhere that Chase Utley is the Bobby Grich Lite of the contemporary game. He trades some of Grich’s defense and power for some baserunning, batting average, and DP avoidance. He also got a later start than Grich, so more of his career takes place outside his prime athletic years. But like Grich he does the invisible and less-visible stuff super well, and the glory stuff merely well. And that’s how we have a Hall-level player who will be a Hall afterthought.
Also, let’s give Cupid Childs his due. No one outside the Hall of Merit voters and nerds like us or Adam Darowski ever talks about this guy. No one ever remembered him before the baseball encyclopedias started pubbing. He played when everyone could hit, then he didn’t make it into the time when a lack of hitting ability was glorified as The Deadball Era, and which got a lot of attention from the early Hall voters because they remembered actually watching those guys.—Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
On one hand, I want to say that it’s on Fred Dunlap. On the other, though I rank him 17th and Eric won’t introduce him in even the first few spots next week, it’s not like either one of us is pushing for his inclusion into the HoME. And we agree that he’s the third or fourth best in his era at his position. So while there’s a difference in our rankings, it’s not like I think Eric’s off in a meaningful way. In fact, I prefer his ranking to mine.—Miller
Are there any players that MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
Let us posit for a moment that a major author’s most popular work is his own but also could highly influence public opinion. In the case of Dick Allen, Bill James’ deeply critical portrait may have done more to influence the public perception of Allen than anything the player had done in decades. At a much simpler and less emotionally charged level, we wonder if he’s done something similar for Ross Barnes.
James argued at length in the New Historical Baseball Abstract that Barnes deserved no place among the game’s 100 best second basemen. His biggest beef was that Barnes was probably the best fair-foul hitter there ever was and dominated the league using the tactic. I’ve played Olde-Tyme baseball, and it truly works. Ross was a righty, and righties stand at the plate with their hands in the vicinity of their right armpit or shoulder. Unless they are Julio Franco or Eric Davis, of course. For the fair-foul hit, as the ball nears the plate, the batter shifts his hands toward the front shoulder then chops downward toward his body, and hard, so that the path of his hands and the bat run just outside his left leg. If done well, the batter is almost catching the ball on its downward descent, and the ball strikes the ground almost at the hitter’s front foot. It smacks the ground in fair territory then bounds along in foul ground, allowing the batter to reach first with relative ease. Obviously this sets up a cat-and-mouse game with the corner infielders, especially the one nearest the batter. That means there’s lots of holes to hit through by swinging away. Since there were few double plays turned before gloves, middle infielders didn’t have to cheat toward the bag. It’s actually a fun way to play the game. Remember to that in Barnes’ time, pitchers threw underhanded and with less speed than they soon would.
Baseball dispatched with the rule in 1877 by declaring that any ball hit fair that went foul before reaching the bag was a foul ball. This kept the flow of the game moving along nicely and made infield play in general more interesting. Bill James contends, “deprived of this [the fair-foul hit], and fighting some injuries, Barnes was out of the league in a few years.” James also relies on the idea that the majors weren’t worthy of the distinction until about 1885. It “seems indefensible to me,” he writes, “to extend the status backward beyond 1876.”
There’s a few places where we disagree with Bill on this.
The major-league distinction: Bill knows more about baseball than Miller and I combined five times over, so maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree. His argument is that any old league prior to the mid-1880s could have been major since it was the Wild West of baseball out there. But after baseball outside of Cincinnati went overtly professional in 1871, leading amateur clubs in the east and west (well, west back then was the Great Lakes, the Jackson-Turner thesis was even dreamt of yet) formed the National Association of Base Ball Clubs. Or the NA as Miller and I usually call it. The collapse of the NA led to William Hulbert founding the NL in 1876. Virtually all the best players of the NA immediately went to the NL. Virtually all those players stayed in the NL or the upstart American Association prior to 1885 despite the existence of other professional leagues. For example, in 1886, Joe Start, among the best players nationwide in the 1860s, a stalwart of the NA and early NL, played his last game. Cal McVey, one of the original Cincinnati Reds moved to the NA and the NL and eventually gave up baseball and moved to the west coast in 1880. Cap Anson, Deacon White, Jim O’Rourke, and Ezra Sutton debuted in the NA, moved into the NL and played until someone tore the uniform off their backs. It seems strange to us to summarily simply slap away evidence of a player’s quality as James does with early professional baseball seasons.
This stance shows up again for James in the shortstops section of the New Historical Abstract. To be more precise, it doesn’t show up. James draws up a list 125 players deep and never includes the name George Wright whose career includes more seasons than Barnes and whose reputation in his times outshines Barnes’. At first base, at least Joe Start gets a nod: #107 there, behind Joe Pepitone, Dick Hoblitzell, and Deron Johnson among those close in rank. None of those guys was ever even discussed among the best in the game. Start was considered one of baseball’s great stars in the 1860s. And how then does one rank Start at 107 and not rank George Wright at all? If baseball wasn’t MLB quality prior to the mid 1880s, how can Anson rank 11th at his position, O’Rourke at 37th at his? But then why would Deacon White rank 76th? So we think the distinction might exist, but that it’s a distinction that makes no difference. That means that, for us, Barnes’ entire career is in play.
The rules: James says that Barnes’ case relies on a tactic that was outlawed because the league thought it was “cheap trickery.” By similar reasoning, we could reduce the rank of any and all spitballers. We might also consider reducing anyone’s ranking who played prior to the adoption of the foul-strike rule in the nascent years of the AL/NL era. After all, a hitter could just flick away pitches without penalty, which is kind of a cheap trick too. The rules is the rules until they isn’t the rules. Players will always find innovative ways to create value. Most fans find it “colorful” when King Kelly yells “Kelly in a third” in the middle of a play to catch a pop fly to the bench that the third baseman couldn’t reach. Now that’s trickery. Some observers, including the baseball commish, say that shifting borders on trickery and hurts the integrity of the game. We can only look at what a fellow did in the context he played in. For us that’s the only fair thing to do, though we understand why Bill might feel differently.
“Some injuries”: As reported in his SABR biography, Barnes suffered some type of chronic, debilitating illness. Researcher Robert H. Schaefer suggested in 1999 that it was the ague. Whatever it was, Barnes never, ever returned to anything near his peak. We find it hard to believe that a player would malinger such that he never played effectively again.
Performance after the fair-foul rule change: Barnes did, indeed, fail to ever play at his accustomed level after the rule change. On the other hand, in his comeback attempts in 1879 and 1881, despite losing 150 points of batting average, he nonetheless managed a 104 OPS+ in 650 PAs. That’s not exactly abject failure. His fielding appears to have gone well downhill, however. Overall, WAR sees him as a slightly above average player in both seasons.
Reliance on the fair-foul hit: Maybe the most compelling reason not to dismiss Ross Barnes is that he did not merely rely on trickery. The guy was a complete player. He led the league in walks twice and finished in the top 10 six times, leading the NL in career walks until 1880, and after he hung it up in 1881, he remained second. Barnes led the league in steals once and finished within the top ten four other times as well. From 1871–1875, his 103 steals led the NA…by 29 swipes!. His known stolen base record yields a 79% success rate. Most of all, Barnes could really pick it. At both second base and shortstop, in the NA, where we have play by play records, he saved a total of 53 runs in 265 games. Given that the league as a whole had a very wide range of fielding ability, but that’s pretty impressive. Those 53 runs were second only to Bob Ferguson, whose nickname “Death to Flying Things” describes his fielding prowess. Barnes trailed by just two runs but exceeded the third-place fielder by 15. At his retirement after 1881, Barnes ranked fourth in fielding runs despite missing two and two-thirds seasons due to his illness. Ross Barnes did everything on a ball field well, except stay healthy. And even that last wasn’t true until it suddenly was.
Which is to say that if Bill James’ arguments against Barnes as worthy of a significant ranking represent an important opinion in the baseball world, we disagree with him strongly. We have more in common with the SABR 19th Century committee who named him its 2013 Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend.—Eric
Come back in a week for the next 20 second basemen.