Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Best Shortstops Before My Time

A little less than four weeks ago, we contemplated the bright future of Logan Morrison.  That verbal jaunt took a handful of first basemen from throughout history and attempted to see how LoMo stacked up.  His numbers, through the age 22 season were greater than or equal everyone we looked at: Mark Grace, Keith Hernandez, John Olerud, Enos Slaughter, Will Clark, Paul O'Neill, Bobby Abreu, and Don Mattingly.

This essay began as a look into the bright future of Brett Anderson, but there didn't seem to be as much of a story to tell.  Let's just say that that all of us here at the ol' blog are very bullish on Brett Anderson.

While researching old scouting reports and anything else for one of the Oakland A's young and talented starting southpaws, I was distracted by thoughts of shortstops throughout the history of the game.  How great have the Edgar Renteria moments in this World Series been, so far?  The home run in game 2, of course, but even the plays in the field bring nostalgia and grace to the 106th Fall Classic.  How good is Elvis Andrus?  How good will he be in a few years?  Like I said, I just started thinking...

A little background and a trip down memory lane: I played baseball throughout my childhood and often played shortstop.  It was a glamorous position, and I was blessed with enough of the skills required to get nonathletic, suburban peers out on routine ground balls.  Unfortunately, I was not gifted with the nimble footwork, soft hands, and rifle arm that land scholarships.  Physically speaking, I was closer to what an old coach used to say about some kids, that they have "a 99 dollar glove, and a 59-cent body".

At the very least, I knew from listening to Steve Stone that I had a good head on my shoulders.  I began
 watching baseball over 25 years ago, catching glimpses in 1983 and ‘84, before getting completely hooked by Harry and Steve, on WGN, the next few years.

Stoney has this uncanny ability to inform the TV viewer of what will be happening on the next pitch.  I'd say he hovers around a 95-95% accuracy rate for predicting pitch type and location throughout the game.  Wading through the relatively subdued craziness that could come from Harry Caray, Steve often brought a level of sanity back to the broadcast.  We all loved when he'd start a brief lesson with, "For all you youngsters out there..."  Harry and Steve were a match made in heaven, as Cub fans and WGN viewers from the 80's and 90's will attest.  It's true what they say, all you ever needed to know, you learned from your local baseball announcers.

Shawon Dunston made his Major League debut in 1985 and quickly became one of my favorite players.  He was always hustling and smiling.  Even the way he wore his hat up high on his head, while in the dugout was cool.  His throws were erratic, and he’d strikeout a lot... especially on breaking balls bouncing in the dirt, nowhere near the strike zone.

Heads Up!
Shawon was a fan favorite because of his hustle and excitement.  Although they didn’t help the team, Dunston’s wild throws over the 1st basemen’s heads were exciting to behold.  Scalpers charged more for seats behind first base, while warning that Dunston could hit you with a ball going between 90 and 100 mile per hour.  "Cool!" many people would say.

Occasionally, some fans would gripe that, instead of taking Dunston with the #1 overall pick, the Cubs could have drafted Dwight Gooden, who went #5 overall to the Mets.  In 1985, the season Dunston debuted at shortstop for the Cubs, Doc was 20-years old and having the best season of his career.  He won the Cy Young after finishing second in 1984 to the Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe.

Also in 1985, about 90 miles north of Wrigley Field – the same distance as between the United States and Cuba – Hall of Fame Brewer Robin Yount moved from shortstop to the less demanding outfield in Milwaukee County Stadium.  During the past 25-years, especially when Arod, Jeter, and Nomar were STARS, it has been fairly well documented that we are in a golden age of shortstops.

In addition to the four players listed above, we've seen the 
tremendous careers of Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, Davey Concepcion, Barry Larkin, Miguel Tejada, and Omar Vizquel.  (Jeter could learn something from Robin Yount and take great pride in moving to the outfield.)  Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez could also join their ranks in a few years, if they haven't already.

Rightfully speaking, most arguments of best shortstop ever include Honus Wagner and players from the past 25 years.  Although it’s an arbitrary cutoff point, I thought it’d be fun for bar stool argument’s sake to dig up some history on the best Shortstops I’ve never seen play.  (For the record: Rogers Hornsby is a Second Baseman).  Who were the best shortstops in baseball before the Robin Yount/Davey Concepcion generation?  Let the random debates begin!

20.) Jim Fregosi, 1961-78, California Angels, NY Mets, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates
I guess since I know Fregosi as a manager, I always thought he was a catcher.  In reality, he was a good offensive catcher, with 41.1 oWAR in 11 seasons with the California Angels and an overall career 113 OPS+.

19.) Bobby Wallace, 1894-1918, Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Perfectos, St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals
Here's a passage from The Baseball Page: "In the first decade of the American League's existence, "Rhody" Wallace was the best shortstop in the loop. He finished in the top ten in runs batted in eight times in his long career, despite playing for losing teams most of the time. He played in the big leagues until he was 44 years old, largely because of his defensive savvy and intelligent play. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953."

18.) Maury Wills, 1959-72, Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Montreal Expos, and Los Angeles Dodgers
Wills was known for his speed.  He won the National League MVP in 1962, with 104 stolen bases.  He wasn't the best hitter, as his career .330 OBP suggests.  Unfortunately, for Wills, he wasn't given a chance in the show until after he turned 26.  It's unclear how much of that was needed minor league seasoning and if any of it was due to racism/segregation.

17.) Luis Aparicio, 1956-73, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and Boston Red Sox
Aparicio must've been one heck of a defensive player.  He's in the Hall of Fame, and the nine Gold Gloves must have a lot to do with that.  His career 82 OPS+ (100 is average) and career .636 OPS is comparable to Rabbit Maranville and Bert Campaneris.

16.) Phil Rizzuto, 1941-56, New York Yankees
The Scooter gets major points for losing three of his prime seasons to WWII.  He was a legendary character, fan favorite, natural team leader, above average defensive player, and beloved announcer.

15.) Pee Wee Reese, 1940-58, Brooklyn and LA Dodgers
Reese also went to war and was a beloved member of the old Brooklyn Dodgers.  To some extent, he could be the poster boy for Scrappiness.  His numbers don't jump off the page (98 OPS+), but all accounts point towards consistency and leadership that doesn't show up in a box score.

14.) Dave Bancroft1915-30, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants, Boston Braves, and Brooklyn Robins
From the very neat Baseball Biography Project"Dave "Beauty" Bancroft was Honus Wagner's successor as the National League's premier shortstop. A brainy on-field leader with tremendous defensive range, Bancroft was especially adept at scooping up bad-hop grounders and cutting off outfield throws to hang up runners between bases. He believed that "the business of batting and fielding is a contention between minds," crediting his uncanny intuition in the field to a rigorous study of opposing batters, but he also had extremely quick hands and could move gracefully in either direction. Though he batted only .248 during his five seasons in the Deadball Era, the switch-hitting Bancroft became known as a "timely swatter and a good waiter"; he ranked second in the NL in bases on balls in 1915 and third in 1916 and 1918."

13.) Vern Stephens, 1941-55, St. Louis Browns, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Baltimore Orioles
In 1948, Vern Stephens joined the Red Sox and moved Johnny Pesky to 3rd base.  The odd thing is that Stephens was the more powerful hitter.  Together, they formed an outstanding left side of the infield.  Stephens often played the role of sidekick to Ted Williams as Superstar.  In his first three seasons with the Red Sox, Vern Stephens, had 137, 159, and 144 RBI.  His career was extremely limited by injury after his 30th birthday, which submarined his hopes for the Hall of Fame.

12.) Johnny Pesky, 1942-54, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators
I love Johnny Pesky.  We met during my season working for the 2006 Portland Beavers, and I got to know him rather well.  He would come to most games throughout the summer, and I'd have a chance to sit with him for an inning or two here and there.  Mr. Pesky was born and raised in Portland, graduating from Lincoln High School, where I would referee basketball games about 70 years later.  Mr. Pesky is as wonderful and gracious as any person can be, a true legend and national treasure.  Sentiments aside, he also lost three prime seasons to the War, and his career .307 batting average and .394 OBP dwarf most shortstops of all time.

11.) Joe Sewell, 1920-33, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees
At first, Sewell was known as the person who replaced Ray Chapman, the only player ever killed on a baseball field.  The Hall of Famer sported a career .391 OBP and was the most difficult player to strike out in the history of baseball, striking out just 1.6% of the time.

10.) Bill Dahlen, 1891-1911, Chicago Colts, Chicago Orphans, Brooklyn Superbas, New York Giants, Boston Doves, Brooklyn Dodgers
"I'm Bad."
About ten weeks ago, Dahlen was the starting shortstop for our 1st Annual non-Hall of Famers Team.  He was an outstanding all around shortstop.  I love his nickname "Bad Bill".  It reminds me of how Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart would say, "I'm Bad.  I'm Bad Blake."

9.) George Davis, 1890-1909, Cleveland Spiders, New York Giants, Chicago White Sox
The next two players on our list put up Hall of Fame numbers in the deadball era.  Davis once held the record for most base hits by a switch hitter.  He wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1998.  Before induction, many historians claimed he was hampered most by Joe Tinker's shadow after Franklin P. Adams's Tinkers to Evers to Chance verse.  This website says that after retiring from baseball, Davis was also a professional bowler and automobile salesman.

8.) Hughie Jennings, 1891-1903, '07, '09, '10, '12, '18, Louisville Colonels, Baltimore Orioles
During seven seasons for the Baltimore Orioles from 1893-99, Hughie Johnson had a .447 onbase percentage.  In 1,284 games, he 1,526, not many walks (347), but a boat load of hit by pitch: 287 HBP.  Jennings played over 100 years ago, but a triple-slash line of .312/.391/.406 with 359 stolen bases play well in any era.

7.) Willie Wells, 1924-1948,San Antonio Black Aces, Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Cole's American Giants, Newark Eagles, Chicago American Giants, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite Giants, Indianapolis Clowns, Memphis Red Sox, Birmingham Black Barons
There aren't a lot of statistics out there of the old negro leagues and Mexican leagues.  Here is a nice, informative passage from"While compiling a lifetime batting average around .300, often taking the Negro National League batting title (hitting .403 in 1930), Wells displayed fielding talents which earned him 8 nominations to the East-West all-star game. This remarkable feat was accomplished despite the fact that Wells had played nine of his finest seasons before the inaugural All-Star Game in 1933.  During the early 1940s Wells spent four seasons playing in Mexico where his legendary fielding skills prompted frustrated hitters to dub his El Diablo (The Devil)."

Wells probably has a good case to be in the Top 5 on this list.  If he's anything like the best negro league players at other positions: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, and others, then he would certainly fall in the top 3.

6.) Ernie Banks, 1953-71, Chicago Cubs
Growing up a Cubs fan, I thought Ernie Banks was the best shortstop of all time until I was about 22 years old.  You hear about the Mr. Cub stories, "Let's play two!", the 512 homeruns, and you figure no-one could be better, not even Shawon Dunston.  His .330 career OBP and 1,259 games at first base, compared with 1,125 games at shortstop, penalize his ranking on this list.

5.) Luke Appling, 1930-1950, Chicago White Sox
Stability has more often than not been a trait of Southside Chicago shortstops.  They have had three different shortstops with over 1,500 games played: Luke Appling (2,422 games; 1930-50), Luis Aparicio (1,511 games; 1956-62, '68-70), and Ozzie Guillen (1,743 games; 1985-'97).  Luke Appling was a Hall of Fame player, but he suffered through 20 years of futility with the White Sox.  According to The Ultimate Baseball Book (c) 1979, "No player in the game's history would play for so long with a club that was never once in contention. [snip] In his 20-year White Sox career, they never finishEd Higher than third.  Fortunately, wrote Warren Brown, Appling 'was completely relaxed at all times, winning or losing.'"  On a possibly related note, Leo Durocher was quoted as saying, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you an idiot".  Appling makes the top 5 of our list primarily for a career .399 OBP, his 2.47 BB/K ratio, and an outstanding 1936 season, where he hit .388 - the highest batting average by a shortstop since 1900 A.D.

4.) Joe Cronin, 1926-1945, Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, and Boston Red Sox
Cronin was blocked in Pittsburgh by #2 on this list, Arky Vaughan, so the Senators were able to get him on the cheap, about $7,500.  In 1933, Cronin was named player/manager at the young age of 26.  He responded by leading the team to a pennant, and the only trip to the World Series of his career.  The following year, Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators introduced Cronin to his niece, and the two youngsters were married later that year.  That didn't stop Griffith from selling Joe Cronin to the Red Sox for $225,000.  Cronin showed more power than the shortstops ahead of him on this list, but much of that was attributed to his surroundings and moving to Fenway Park, where he thrived as a hitter.  Overall, Cronin's career could be a sappy Disney movie.  He spent fifty years in professional baseball.  In addition to his managerial record, where he had 11 winning seasons in 15 years, Cronin was a general manager at 42, and became President of the American League at 54.  Joe Cronin is no longer a household name, mostly for being overshadowed by the likes of Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, and numerous Red Sox legends.

3.) Lou Boudreau
, 1938-1952, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox
Amazingly, Lou Boudreau became player/manager of the Indians in 1942, as a 24-year old.  He played and managed the club for the next nine seasons, compiling a 728-649 Won-Loss record, and capturing the 1948 American League MVP and World Series Championship along the way.  He received MVP votes in ten different seasons and retired with a .380 career OBP and 120 OPS+.

2.) Arky Vaughan
, 1932-1948, Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers
Pittsburgh doesn't get enough respect for being Shortstop City, USA.  Imagine for a minute that you were born in Pittsburgh the year Thomas Edison invented the light bulb: 1879.  So you're growing up in Pittsburgh in the nineteenth century.  Not too much is going on.  As a child, you are fortunate to not be affected by the nearby Johnstown Flood of 1889.  When you're 20 years old, the hometown Pirates trade for Honus Wagner.  Ten years later, Wagner leads the Pirates to a World Series Championship over Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers.  When you're 33 years old, a 38-year old Wagner finishes 2nd in MVP voting to the New York Giants "laughing" Larry Doyle.  Fast forward to 1942; you're 63 years old.  The life expectancy of a US male in 1942 was 65 years, so this is possible.  Let's say you stayed in Pittsburgh your whole life, as a Pirates fan.  You would have not only experienced the Honus Wagner era, but you would have also just witnessed another Hall of Fame career by Arky Vaughan, where he received MVP votes and/or an All-Star selection in all 10 seasons for the Pirates.  In 1935, Vaughan had an almost unimaginable .491 OBP and .385 batting average.

1.) Honus Wagner, 1891-1917, 
Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates
Honus is the best ever.  Historians often say that if not for Babe Ruth, everyone would talk about early 1900’s as The Honus Wagner Era.  His on base percentage was at least .395 every season for 14 consecutive seasons, from 1899 through 1912.  For traditional and advanced stat geeks, over 21 seasons, Honus Wagner’s career batting average was .328 and career OPS+ was 150.  He had over 3,200 hits and 142.1 avWAR.  If you have any Honus Wagner baseball cards, take good care of them.

Honorable mention to Joe Tinker and Marty Marion.

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