We’re pretty excited about this half of the position. That’s because the second half of second base offers us more active players than any other position who aren’t yet HoME quality but could make it there if the final years of their careers go well. It’s also an area where we see a guy like Chuck Knoblauch, a player remembered mostly for his inability to throw the ball to first base, something pretty fundamental to his position. It’s always pretty cool to see a player from the last few decades, someone who most of us saw play, look better than we might expect in the context of his historical peers. Knoblauch was a pretty great player in his Minnesota days. Lists like these point out just how impressive.
If you haven’t yet, please check out the other posts in this series.
Second Base – 21-40
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
Kinsler’s sneaking up on us. But now in his mid-30s, it’s all about the bulk. It’s about piling up career value to complement a decent but not other-worldly peak. In fact, it’s about as good as Tony Phillips’ and Willie Randolph, and Bid McPhee’s respective peaks, and those are the guys he needs to chase down to give himself his best chance. If he sags to the finish, he’ll be in the Doerr/Kent zone, which is not a guarantee of much. Despite that, he’s a lot farther than most might think.—Eric
Sneaking up? Hah! I’ve been on this for years, though two years ago, I used just those words. Yes, Kinsler turned 35 last year, and yes, he had his worst season since his rookie campaign. I want to point to what might be a little bad luck though – a BABIP of only .244. If that rebounds and he maintains positive value in the field and on the bases, he may have some more in him even at age 36. I’m betting he does. On my list, my guess is that he sneaks past Jeff Kent and Bobby Doerr and falls just shy of Tony Phillips. He’s going to end his career as the definition of a borderliner, so an eventual spot in the HoME is possible, though far from certain.—Miller
Yes, Zobrist is “active”, but he’s only had one 2-win season in the last three, and second basemen seldom reverse a decline when they’re 37. Like Kinsler, his BABIP and expected batting average say he got a little unlucky. However, he’s older, and his recent past says that he’s pretty far from his peak. This is a guy who made it when he probably shouldn’t have, playing his first full season at 28, so I don’t want to count him out. Still, I think his chances of falling behind Pedroia are a bit greater than they are of eclipsing Pratt.—Miller
The end is nigh for this generation’s Tony Phillips/Bip Roberts. Even if he tacked on another 10 WAR over the next three years, he’s probably falls short. He has Phillips’ peak but trails by 20 in the Wins department. The late start is the culprit.—Eric
The only thing stopping Pedroia is his own body. An assortment of injuries have wiped out big hunks of seasons and slowed him down a few steps on the bases and in the field. Despite the MVPs and the fun nicknames, he’s got about the same peak value in my book as Johnny Evers , Del Pratt, and Tony Lazzeri. He starts to get real interesting if he tacks on another 10 WAR, but I’m not convinced he can do it physically.—Eric
I couldn’t agree more with Eric’s thoughts here. Laser Show is a pleasure to watch, a little guy who sometimes swings the bat like a right-handed Reggie Jackson. To add to Eric’s point, even when he’s healthy, he’s not, topping 141 games only five times in his career. Yes, it all depends on health, and he’s already going to miss the first month or two of the season. I expect we’ll see him sitting in the front row of the group photo at the Hall of Very Good in his future.—Miller
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
That’s easy: Tony Phillips. When you think about it, Phillips analogizes nicely with Pete Rose. Both came up as a middle infielder and played wherever the team put them as their careers went along. As hitters, both switch hit, drew a lot of walks, and had occasional power. As people, both had a highly competitive, fiery attitude. Phillips didn’t hit for average, and Rose couldn’t pick it as well as Tony. Rose preferred gambling as his major vice, Phillips preferred cocaine. There’s a kind of player represented by both men that we should dig into at some point….
Anyway, most baseball followers would probably scoff at the idea that Phillips played at anything like a Hall level and laugh at the idea that Phillips would belong in any Hall that elected Pete Rose. Obviously, we disagree. His excellent on-base percentages and periodic pop made him a good hitter. His versatility kept him in the lineup every day. His glove brought him plenty of additional value. We both happen to think DRA is a high-quality defensive evaluation, and it really likes his defense. Add it up, and we find ourselves outside the old main stream. Like that ever happens with us.—Eric
Phillips is the clear answer here. I’d like to throw some support to Bill Mazeroski too. A Hall of Famer, I rank him 53rd, while Eric calls him the 60th best second baseman ever. Clearly, Maz’s reputation is greater than his reality.—Miller
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
I understand that my ranking for Kid Gleason at 32 is a silly one. Eric, less unreasonably, ranks him 57th. And I think that’s still far too high, or too strange. See, Gleason’s career high in WAR, aside from pitching, is 2.2. And he only topped 1.1 three times. The thing is, he was quite valuable on the mound in 1890, and he was pretty good a few other years. In other words, almost all of his second base rating is based on his pitching. Yeah, that’s silly. Also, the ranking helps to explain why we are not slaves to MAPES+ and CHEWS+. There are some things our systems must miss. And there are others where they are clearly wrong. To me, my ranking of Gleason is the worst ranking either one of us has for any player at any position. I’m not sure any other is really close.—Miller
Are there any players that MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
Actually, Phillips again. We’ve written before that the kind of in-season or in-game versatility that someone like Phillips brings may enable his team to generate extra value and buy the platoon advantage significantly more often than their opponents. That can’t be captured by a positional adjustment. It also creates a significant differentiation with Pete Rose who tended to play a position each year, though he played several throughout his career.
It is also possible that our systems underrate Jacob Nelson Fox. BBREF gives Nellie Fox 120 Rfield for his career. DRA gives him -36. Its creator, Michael Humphreys goes to great lengths attempting to account for the big gap in his book Wizardry. I still end up giving Fox positive fielding value, but nothing like 120 runs. We could also have written up Fox in our conventional wisdom question. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s in the Hall of Merit. He tots up to 49 WAR if we use only BBREF’s defensive total. His peak would be about 37 WAR, which in combination with that career total ain’t good enough. The problem for Fox, however, is not really about his defense. It’s about his offense.
Everyone in the world knew that Nellie Fox had no power at all. He couldn’t make a flashlight work with fresh batteries. Which means that someone like Fox must have either an extremely high walk rate or extremely high batting averages to create the amount of offensive value necessary to offset the power problem—while also creating substantial value with applied speed. Fox walked a fair amount, enough that his OBP (.348) was 60 points higher than his batting average (.288). But a .348 OBP ain’t an extremely high OBP. You want that, talk to Maxie Bishop and his .423 OBP on a .271 average.
Here’s the kicker: Fox seems like the perfect candidate to hit for extreme averages:
- Crazy contact-hitting skills
That’s an Ichiro starter kit!
But Fox didn’t hit like that. The Mighty Mite finished among the top ten in singles 13 times in his career, leading the league eight times. His 2,161 singles rank 28th all time. But Nellie Fox never won a single batting title. He never finished higher than fourth (which he did twice) despite placing among the top ten eight times. He never hit higher than .319. Ichiro Suzuki finished among the top ten in singles twelve times, leading the AL in singles every year 2001–2010. He won two batting average titles and finished second twice. Ichiro topped .319, Fox’s highest average, six times. Getting to extremely high averages does matter when you have no power and don’t draw 100 walks a year.
Then we get to the applied speed part, and things really go south. Despite the Go Go Sox’s reputation in the late 1950s, Fox, himself, didn’t do much with his footspeed. He nabbed 76 bases in 156 career attempts. Blech! His on-base advancement makes up for some of those outs, but he ends up at just +19 runs on the bases for his entire career. Not amazing. Teammate Luis Aparicio was the real speedster at +91 baserunning runs.
With his combination of skills, Fox sounds like he should have had plenty of chances to rack up value at double play avoidance. Fox finished with +16 runs in that department, a third of what Ichiro totaled and almost exactly what Aparicio, a right-handed batter, earned (+17).
So the problem for Fox is that he basically did all the little things a guy with his particular talents could do. But he couldn’t do any of them quite well enough to generate the amount of offense required to create Hall-level value on the foundation of 120 defensive runs and 82 positional runs. There’s no shame in that. Extraordinarily few players whose careers show a substantial tilt toward defense and who don’t hit for power can build up enough offense to put them over the in/out line. Pee Wee Reese, Ozzie Smith, Monte Ward, Dave Bancroft, Art Fletcher, Joe Tinker, Tommy Leach, and Ichiro, of course. These fellas are exceptions that prove the rule.—Eric
Next week, expect a Schmidt storm, as we present our top-20 third basemen ever.