BL, TR (Part 4:  The best left-handed hitting second basemen in major league history)

In Part 1, we introduced the concept of the rarity of right-handed throwers who bat left handed, identifying how rare it’s been over the past half-century for players at the defensive positions that nearly universally demand right-handed throwers (catcher, third base, second base and shortstop) to be left-handed hitters—not switch-hitters (though they’re rare too), but straight, full-on left-handed hitters, batting lefty even against southpaws.

In Part 2 we examined the best of these rare birds at the position of catcher, and in Part 3 we looked at third base. Now we’re ready to consider second base.

How rare are they?

As a reminder, here’s what we saw last time, the proportion of major league second baseman plate appearances taken by straight left-handed batters (not switch-hitters) from 1957 through 2006:

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As rare as lefty-hitting catchers and third basemen are, at second base the phenomenon is even less common. The proportion hovered right around 20 percent for a couple of decades within this span, and then dropped below that in the 1980s. Since then it’s oscillated between 10 percent and 20 percent of the second base population.

So this is, most definitely, a distinct minority of second basemen. Bear this in mind as we work our way through the list of its most accomplished members.

The best

I’ve identified every left-handed hitting second baseman with a career of any significance in big league history, and done my best to rank them. My criteria aren’t rigorous, and one can easily take issue with the precision of this or that ranking. The essential issues I’ve considered are total games played (at second base, and overall), total Win Shares, and Win Shares per game, filtered through a mild degree of Time Line Adjustment.

Here are the best of the also-rans:

Honorable mentions

Rank Second baseman      Years              G by Pos               G    WS WS/G
 25  Adam Kennedy      1999-2008     2B1161, OF12, 1B3, SS1      1227  104 .085
 24  Mickey Morandini  1990-2000          2B1245, SS4            1298  119 .092
 23  Todd Walker       1996-2007  2B1007, 3B83, 1B59, OF2, SS1   1288  124 .096
 22  Jerry Lumpe       1956-1967      2B1100, 3B118, SS105       1371  127 .093
 21  Billy Goodman     1947-1962 2B624, 1B406, 3B330, OF111, SS7 1623  170 .105
 20  Jerry Remy        1975-1984     2B1117, SS1, 3B1, OF1       1154  113 .098
 19  Don Blasingame    1955-1966       2B1310, SS52, 3B4         1444  140 .097
 18  Fernando Viña     1993-2004    2B1049, SS19, 3B14, OF6      1148  128 .111
 17  Chase Utley       2003-2008          2B669, 1B26             735  126 .171
 16  Jim Gantner       1976-1992  2B1449, 3B360, SS7, 1B3, P1    1801  163 .091
 15  George Grantham   1922-1934   2B848, 1B502, OF19, 3B14      1444  193 .134
 14  Pete Runnels      1951-1964 1B644, 2B642, SS463, 3B49, OF1  1799  216 .120
 13  Delino DeShields  1990-2002 2B1392, OF122, SS10, 3B5, 1B2   1615  186 .115
 12  Lonny Frey        1933-1948   2B966, SS420, OF34, 3B22      1535  208 .136
 11  Max Bishop        1924-1935       2B1230, 1B26, SS2         1338  184 .138

What’s interesting about this group is the degree to which many of these guys were second basemen noted for strong bats, but not especially highly regarded with the glove: Todd Walker, Billy Goodman, George “Boots” Grantham and Pete Runnels, all of whom spent a little or a lot of time playing first base, would most strongly fit such a description.

To be sure, several of the names on this list were more along the lines of the stereotypical small, quick, light-bat, good-glove mode of second baseman (Mickey Morandini, Jerry Remy, Don Blasingame and Fernando Viña), but of them only Viña was awarded a Gold Glove. We may not always think of throwing ability as an essential challenge of playing second base, but this provides an anecdotal suggestion that it is, given that none of these ambidextrous athletes are pure defensive stars, while the list of pure defensive star second basemen (say, Hughie Critz, Oscar Melillo, Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Richardson, Bobby Knoop, Tommy Helms, Frank White, Manny Trillo, Pokey Reese) seems to be pretty strongly slanted in the right-handed-all-the-way direction.

Chase Utley is clearly on a trajectory to end up a whole lot higher on this list. He may become one of the best-hitting second basemen of all time, but his fielding, while competent, isn’t what brings him his accolades. The fact that he’s already been deployed at first base 26 times provides a hint as to where he may land eventually.

The 10th-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Rod Carew

Years: 1967-1985
Games: 2,469
Games by position: first base 1,184, second base 1,130, shortstop 4, third base 2, outfield 1
Win Shares: 384
Win Shares/game: .156

Speaking of second basemen noted for strong bats, but not especially highly regarded with the glove … Carew always presents a challenge to those trying to figure out where he fits in comparison with others, because of his near-exact-equal career split between second base and first. Obviously he’d rank a whole lot higher here, but he gets dinged for the relatively light innings load at second.

Here’s what I once wrote about Carew, comparing him and contrasting him with a switch-hitting part-time second baseman named Pete Rose:

Rose and Carew had a lot in common. Both were young second basemen who blew through the minor leagues in three seasons, leapfrogging Triple-A altogether. Both then burst onto the major league scene with runaway Rookie of the Year performances. Both were adequate defensively at second, though not outstanding, but both were moved off the position after a few years, more as an injury-prevention measure than as a function of fielding inadequacy: both were considered just too valuable at the plate to be left exposed to rolling blocks in the field.

Both Rose and Carew were essentially singles hitters, but both in mid-career developed the capacity to deliver the more-than-occasional home run, and both lost that power as they aged. Both were rather impatient hitters when young, but both gradually developed an outstanding capacity to draw walks.

Yet for all their similarities, as personalities Rose and Carew could hardly have been more different: Rose was ebullient and pugnacious, while Carew was laconic and imperturbable. And in the batter’s box they were near opposites as well. While both hit from a pronounced crouch, Rose, beefily muscular, intensely squeezed his bat and was a tightly coiled spring, pure energy lusting for release, while Carew, angular and long-limbed, seemed relaxed at the plate to the point of drowsiness, resembling nothing so much as a housecat casually perched on a windowsill, languidly contemplating the afternoon scene.

The ninth-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Buddy Myer

Years: 1925-1941
Games: 1,923
Games by position: second base 1,340, shortstop 238, third base 219, outfield 13
Win Shares: 258
Win Shares/game: .134

A terrific player, Myer didn’t hit home runs but he did everything else splendidly. Yet playing nearly all of his career in the relative anonymity of Washington, he was rather overlooked in his day, and by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, he was more or less forgotten, his name almost never appearing in the Big Time Baseball sorts of books I grew up with that listed the “stars of yesteryear.”

But Bill James’ original Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 1986, pretty well “rediscovered” Myer. James closely compared Myer with his contemporary, the well-known Hall of Fame second baseman Billy Herman. James ranked Myers and Herman as essential equals, and concluded with the question, “How in the world can you put one of these people in the Hall of Fame and leave the other one out?”.

In that book James also gave his readership a fresh look at another long-forgotten second baseman, Del Pratt, saying “I began to take Del Pratt seriously as an outstanding player about 1976.” Thanks to James, both Myer and Pratt are better remembered and regarded today than decades ago.

The eighth-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Cupid Childs

Years: 1888-1901
Games: 1,456
Games by position: second base 1,454, shortstop 1
Win Shares: 238
Win Shares/game: .163

Few folks other than 19th-century scholars may ever have heard of this guy, but he could play. In an era in which defensive specialization hadn’t much taken hold, and even star players rotated pretty much all over the diamond, Childs made, literally, 99.9 percent of his major league appearances at second base, suggesting exceptional defensive acumen at the position. And at the plate, he didn’t have power but was a terrific on-base machine.

The Hall of Fame overlooked him, but not the Hall of Merit.

The seventh-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Johnny Evers

Years: 1902-1929 (well, effectively, 1902-1917)
Games: 1,784
Games by position: second base 1,735, third base 21, shortstop 19, outfield 1
Win Shares: 268
Win Shares/game: .150

Among the blunders Hall of Fame voters have committed over the years, few have been more egregious than the as-a-unit election of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance in 1946. I mean, it’s a cute poem and all, but come on.

And while one might think the honor was the best favor that possibly could have fallen upon the trio, in another sense it had an aspect of curse about it: Their Cooperstown status quickly became seen as tainted. Mention the fact that any one of them is a Hall of Famer, and even the casual fan’s eyes roll.

And here’s the thing: in the case of Tinker, being in the Hall of Fame is indeed highly dubious. But for both Evers and Chance, while the cases are debatable, they’re hardly ridiculous. The Hall of Merit elected neither, but both cases drew serious consideration.

For his part, Evers (who was exceptionally small, even by the standards of the day: 5-foot-9 and 125 pounds!) presented pretty much the Cupid Childs value profile, not quite as good, perhaps, but for a longer period: a singles hitter with exceptional strike zone discipline and outstanding defense.

The sixth-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Larry Doyle

Years: 1907-1920
Games: 1,766
Games by position: second base 1,728
Win Shares: 289
Win Shares/game: .164

But this guy’s skill profile was different: though he wasn’t big (listed at 5-foot-10, 165), “Laughing Larry” was a big hitter, a middle-of-the-lineup power guy. He wasn’t noted for great defense (though he wasn’t bad; Win Shares rates him a C+), and in his era, with the double play far less an issue that it would be later, it wasn’t uncommon to find players of this type at second base, while in later decades they’ve tended to play third.

Doyle is in neither the Hall of Fame nor the Hall of Merit, but he’s definitely inner-circle in the Hall of Very Good.

The fifth-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Nellie Fox

Years: 1947-1965
Games: 2,367
Games by position: second base 2,295, third base 6, first base 2
Win Shares: 304
Win Shares/game: .128

Fox would qualify as a pure defensive star second baseman, except that for most of his career Fox was a fine offensive performer as well. But fielding was his strongest asset; he won just three Gold Gloves, but that’s only because the award wasn’t inaugurated until 1957. Had the Gold Glove been available throughout Fox’s entire career, he almost certainly would have bagged at least five more.

Bill James once observed of a similarity between Fox and Brooks Robinson: both were so valuable defensively that they became regulars in the major leagues before they were good hitters, and remained regulars after they were no longer good hitters.

The fourth-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Lou Whitaker

Years: 1977-1995
Games: 2,390
Games by position: second base 2,308
Win Shares: 351
Win Shares/game: .147

The idea that Lou Whitaker isn’t in the Hall of Fame, while, say, Bruce Sutter is, is staggeringly ridiculous.

The third-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Charlie Gehringer

Years: 1924-1942
Games: 2,323
Games by position: second base 2,206, first base 9, third base 6
Win Shares: 383
Win Shares/game: .165

Logically, any Hall of Fame voter who didn’t support Whitaker must believe that Gehringer doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. Of course no one has ever asserted that Gehringer doesn’t belong (and they’d be nuts if they did), but the point is that the daylight between Whitaker and Gehringer is nearly nonexistent, and thus to include one and exclude the other is senseless.

Their major league careers were of exactly the same length, and, playing the same position, they logged almost identical totals of games. Their Win Share production was very nearly equal, and if one applies a time line adjustment it gets closer still. Not only that, their skill sets were amazingly alike: Each was a well-rounded talent, not great at anything but simply strong across the board, a good hitter for average with good power and good strike zone judgment, a good baserunner, and a very good fielder. They even played for the very same franchise for their entire careers, for crying out loud.

The second-best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Eddie Collins

Years: 1906-1930
Games: 2,826
Games by position: second base 2,650, shortstop 40, outfield 10, third base 1
Win Shares: 574
Win Shares/game: .203

The best left-handed hitting second baseman in major league history

Joe Morgan

Years: 1963-1984
Games: 2,649
Games by position: second base 2,527, outfield 16, third base 3
Win Shares: 512
Win Shares/game: .193

I give Morgan the first-place nod here only by virute of a time-line quality-of-competition adjustment. Fabulous as Morgan was, Collins played slightly more games, and earned Win Shares at a slightly better rate.

By most reckonings, if Morgan and Collins aren’t the best and second-best second basemen of all time (in whichever order), they’re damn close to it. Thus it’s fascinating that at this position, demanding right-handed throwing excellence, where the proportion of left-handed batters is limited to around 20 percent, the two very best performers in history have sprung forth from that small minority.

And beyond that, there’s a rather interesting linkage from Collins to Morgan, that goes by way of the No. 5 fellow on this list.

Collins was signed as a 19-year-old by Philadelphia Athletics’ owner/manager Connie Mack, whose eye for young talent was among the sharpest. Mack patiently tutored his diminutive second base prospect, and was rewarded several years later when Collins blossomed into stardom. But at the peak of Collins’ career, Mack sold him (whether rashly or through unavoidable financial necessity is open to debate) to the Chicago White Sox, where Collins would play the majority of his major league games.

Several decades later, Mack’s A’s signed a teenager named Nellie Fox. Like Collins, Fox would be brought to the majors by Mack at the age of 19. Mack spent several years patiently investing in the development of this diminutive second base prospect, but alas, instead of waiting for the blossoming, Mack traded Fox (rashly this time, there’s no debating it) to the Chicago White Sox for a backup catcher. In Chicago, Fox would fall under the tutelage of manager Paul Richards (who’d played for Mack himself), and it was with the White Sox that Fox would break out as a star, and play the majority of his major league games.

A decade later, Richards was the GM for the Houston Colt .45s. There Richards signed a teenager named Joe Morgan, and Richards would bring Morgan to the majors at the age of 19 (of course). As a diminutive left-handed batting second baseman growing up in the 1950s, who was the big league ballplayer Morgan identified with, and emulated? Why, Nellie Fox, of course. And it would be, of course, Fox whom Richards would acquire via trade, to serve as Morgan’s personal coach and mentor, as Richards patiently developed Morgan into a star—a star of such magnitude, in fact, that he would eventually join Collins at the very top of the list of the greatest ever to play second base.

Next installment

The best left-handed hitting shortstops in major league history

References & Resources
Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York: Villard, 1986, pp. 346, 349.

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