BL, TR (Part 5:  The best left-handed hitting shortstops 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 which 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, in Part 3 we looked at third base, and in Part 4 at second base. Now we’re ready to consider the most challenging fielding position of all.

How rare are they?

As a reminder, here’s what we saw in Part 1, the proportion of major league shortstop plate appearances taken by straight left-handed batters (not switch-hitters) from 1957 through 2006:
image
Yes indeed, lefty-hitting catchers and third basemen are rare, and lefty-hitting second basemen more rare, but lefty-hitting shortstops are rarer still. In half a century this population only briefly has poked its head above the 10 percent mark, occasionally has approached zero, and typically has hovered somewhere around 5 percent. There are not, and never have been, very many left-handed hitting shortstops at all.

As for why this might be, recall our speculation:

… shortstops—handling the most demanding fielding position on the diamond, the position from which hard, accurate, often off-balance right-handed throwing is a vital skill—display the lowest degree of straight left-handed hitting of any position, indicating that “true” dominant right-handedness is rewarded at shortstop as nowhere else in baseball.

But has this extremely small population of shortstops nonetheless produced a disproportionate share of the all-time greatest performers at the position, as we’ve seen is the case at third base and at second?

The best

I’ve identified every left-handed hitting shortstop 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 shortstop, 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 Shortstop         Years                G by Pos                 G     WS  WS/G
 25  Ramon Vazquez   2001-2008     SS247, 3B198, 2B143, 1B11        595    41  .069
 24  Dave Altizer    1906-1911  SS223, OF105, 1B101, 2B39, 3B16     514    55  .107
 23  Stephen Drew    2006-2008               SS354                  361    44  .122
 22  Tom Foley       1983-1995 SS463, 2B385, 3B90, 1B63, OF1, P1   1108    66  .060
 21  Sonny Jackson   1963-1974         SS630, OF212, 3B7            936    60  .064
 20  Ernest Riles    1985-1993   SS362, 3B301, 2B88, 1B10, OF5      919    63  .069
 19  Billy Klaus     1952-1963      SS425, 3B272, 2B43, OF1         821    64  .078
 18  Alex Cora       1998-2008    SS538, 2B457, 3B16, OF1, 1B1     1034    74  .072
 17  Wayne Causey    1955-1968        SS406, 2B307, 3B268          1105    92  .083
 16  Bill Spiers     1989-2001  SS446, 3B441, 2B168, OF53, 1B23    1252    98  .078
 15  Arthur Irwin    1880-1894      SS947, 3B56, 2B9, P2, C1       1010   107  .106
 14  Solly Hemus     1949-1959         SS471, 2B212, 3B80           961   109  .113
 13  Tony Womack     1993-2006        2B529, SS516, OF205          1303   118  .091
 12  Craig Reynolds  1975-1989 SS1240, 2B68, 3B58, 1B20, OF4, P2   1491   115  .077
 11  Tony Kubek      1957-1965    SS882, OF145, 3B55, 2B3, 1B2     1092   120  .110

The rarity of this specimen is vividly illustrated here: By the time you get into the high teens and low 20s among the best performers in history, you’ve left any resemblance to stars behind, and are dealing with the most pedestrian of journeymen.

To be sure, Stephen Drew is shaping up to be a star, but his career is still quite rudimentary. And the other two active players on this list, Alex Cora and Ramon Vazquez, would certainly fall into the journeyman category.

The best players on this list were guys who achieved stardom for a fleeting period, but for one reason or another were unable to sustain it. In the lightning-fast-but-not-much-else category that would include Tony Womack and Sonny Jackson; in the great-OBP-but-questionable-defense department we find Solly Hemus and Wayne Causey; and in the pretty-good-all-around-but-couldn’t-draw-a-walk-to-save-their-life mode we have Tony Kubek and Craig Reynolds.

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

Sam Wise

Years: 1881-1893
Games: 1,175
Games by position: shortstop 563, second base 448, first base 62, third base 57, outfield 48
Win shares: 157
Win shares/game: .134

Wise owns the dubious distinction of being the first player in major league history to strike out more than 100 times in a season, in 1884. Moreover, in that year he also had more strikeouts than hits (104 to 91), and had a bad offensive season all around, hitting just .214. But he immediately improved, and spent most of his career hitting quite well. He would always be rather prone to the whiff, and wasn’t a great hitter for average, but had plentiful extra-base power.

Wise was primarily a shortstop through the age of 30, following which he was shifted to second base. Presumably at shortstop he demonstrated outstanding range, because he was error-prone; even by the error-rich standard of the period, Wise made a lot of errors. A newspaper account put it this way: “Wise makes hair-raising throws, for which he holds a patent, the ball going among the spectators back of first base.”

The ninth-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Al Bridwell

Years: 1905-1915
Games: 1,252
Games by position: shortstop 1,094, second base 260, third base 58, outfield 19, first base 2
Win shares: 138
Win shares/game: .110

By the standards of his day, Bridwell wasn’t a particularly little guy; at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he was about average for a middle infielder, probably even a little heavier than most. Yet he hit like the smallest of fleas; even accounting for extreme deadball conditions, Bridwell was a no-power slap hitter. But he maintained a reasonable batting average, and was exceptionally adept at drawing walks, making his overall offensive contribution pretty good for a shortstop.

Bridwell was highly regarded defensively, though the Win Shares system doesn’t particularly substantiate it; the letter grade Bill James awards Bridwell’s fielding is “C+.”

The eighth-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Ozzie Guillen

Years: 1985-2000
Games: 1,993
Games by position: shortstop 1,896, third base 19, first base 6, second base 5, outfield 2
Win shares: 148
Win shares/game: .074

Guillen’s high-profile turn as White Sox manager is beginning to overshadow his long career as their shortstop. Guillen the manager and Guillen the player share interesting similarities: both are quite singular in style, aggressive and talented but flawed.

Guillen the ballplayer was a very good defender. As a hitter he was able to consistently deliver a league-norm-or-so batting average, but that was it: he had no power, and was completely incapable of drawing walks. He stole bases for a few years, but was getting thrown out so ridiculously much that he finally stopped running.

The seventh-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Monte Ward

Years: 1878-1894
Games: 1,825
Games by position: shortstop 826, second base 491, pitcher 292, outfield 215, third base 46
Win shares: 409
Win shares/game: .224

He was such a remarkably busy guy in his professional career that it’s easy to overlook Ward the ballplayer. After all, this fellow managed more than 700 major league games, co-founded the first ballplayer’s union, and then led the formation of the Players League. Though still playing regularly, Ward retired as a player at the age of 34, in order to become an attorney. Among his long-term clients was John McGraw, and Ward frequently represented ballplayers in complaints against the National League. He then became president of the Boston Braves, and then was involved in the operation of the Federal League.

Whew. As if that weren’t enough, along with being a middle infielder in more than 1,300 games, Ward was also deployed as a pitcher 292 times, compiling a 164-102 record with an ERA+ of 119. Indeed Ward was a better pitcher than he was a shortstop, but as his career progressed the game was maturing to the point where two-way players were becoming an anachronism, and besides he’d probably incurred some wear-and-tear on the arm. As a full-time shortstop Ward wasn’t a star, but he was a solid, consistent all-around performer, before shifting to second base for his final three seasons.

The sixth-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Cecil Travis

Years: 1933-1947
Games: 1,328
Games by position: shortstop 710, third base 468, outfield 69, second base 4
Win shares: 169
Win shares/game: .127

Travis came up very early, and was a regular by the age of 20. He spent several years performing solidly, as a star but not a superstar. Then in 1941, at the age of 27, Travis burst out with a tremendous season, the kind that Hall of Fame shortstops produce. He finished sixth in the league’s MVP voting, which was nuts; his 34 Win Shares were third in the league, behind only Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (this was 1941, after all).

But then the U.S. entered World War II, and Travis was among the earliest of the major league military inductees. He missed nearly all of the next four years, and when he returned Travis was a mere shadow of his prior self; he played poorly for a couple of years and was finished at the age of 33.

The explanation for this I’d always heard was that Travis had suffered frostbitten feet during the Battle of the Bulge, but Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract asserts this isn’t the case:

It has been written that he suffered frostbite on his feet in Europe, but Travis has reportedly denied this or denied that the frostbite had anything to do with his inability to play after the war, and said that he simply was unable to get back in playing condition after almost four years away from the game.

Whether or not frostbite was to blame, it’s obvious that the war wrecked Travis’ baseball career. It’s intriguing to wonder what sort of career he might have achieved otherwise: Was the great 1941 season a fluke, or had he genuinely stepped up to a new level that he’d be able to sustain for a several-year peak? Given his early start, what sort of career counting stats might Travis have compiled?

The fifth-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Johnny Pesky

Years: 1942-1954
Games: 1,270
Games by position: shortstop 591, third base 460, second base 137
Win shares: 187
Win shares/game: .147

Then we have this guy, who missed three full seasons to World War II military service, and then came back and performed as though it had been a two-minute bathroom break. Pesky’s stat lines from 1942 and 1946 (and 1947 as well, for that matter) display the sort of astounding consistency that just seems unrealistic. It’s like, no, that wasn’t achieved by a real ballplayer playing six-month-long seasons full of road trips and rhubarbs and nagging injuries and all such, it was just made up.

I mean, come on, over ’42, ’46 and ’47, we have 620, 621 and 638 at-bats. 105, 115, and 106 runs scored. 205, 208 and 207 hits. .331, .335 and .324 batting average. And on and on. You think that really happened? I’m not buying it.

Beginning in 1948, Pesky began to miss a few games each year with injuries, but remained an amazingly consistent performer before running out of gas in 1952, at age 32. Until then, Pesky’s offensive performance was among the most consistently productive ever seen.

The fourth-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Dick McAuliffe

Years: 1960-1975
Games: 1,763
Games by position: second base 971, shortstop 666, third base 146
Win shares: 241
Win shares/game: .137

Perhaps McAuliffe shouldn’t be included as a shortstop, given that he played almost 50 percent more games at second base. But 666 games at short is the 11th-highest total from a left-handed hitter, and it’s within this more exclusive company that he truly stands out.

McAuliffe was an outstanding ballplayer, but he was generally overlooked at the time and has been largely forgotten since. He ran into a double-whammy among ways to become underrated: First, he did everything well except hit for average (always the most efficient means of becoming underrated), and second, he timed his career such that his peak seasons coincided almost exactly with the big-strike-zone offensive trough of 1963-68, depressing his raw stats. Moreover, for McAuliffe it was perhaps the perfect storm, in that American League conditions in particular drove batting averages down, meaning that he not only never hit as high as .275, he struggled to hit as high as .250.

Nevertheless McAuliffe was a first-rate run producer for a middle infielder, reliably getting on base as well as delivering power. His defense at shortstop was adequate but nothing more than that. After four years as their regular there, the Tigers moved McAuliffe to second base, despite the fact that they were left with nothing better than Ray Oyler to play short.

The third-best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Herman Long

Years: 1889-1904
Games: 1,874
Games by position: shortstop 1,794, second base 265, outfield 19, first base 2, third base 1
Win shares: 265
Win shares/game: .141

A remarkably well-rounded talent, Long wasn’t great at anything, but he simply didn’t have a weakness. Overall he was just a league-average-or-so offensive performer (which for a shortstop is quite good, of course), but it was an across-the-board production: His batting average was okay, he got on base reasonably well, had some power, and ran well. Defensively Long was a true standout; based on contemporary opinion, if there’d been a Gold Glove award at the time, he would have been an annual contender. The Win Shares system yields an “A+” rating for Long’s fielding.

He’s in neither the Hall of Fame nor the Hall of Merit, but this guy deserves more than the oblivion to which he’s generally consigned.

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

Joe Sewell

Years: 1920-1933
Games: 1,903
Games by position: shortstop 1,216, third base 643, second base 16
Win shares: 277
Win shares/game: .146

I was 11 years old in 1969 when my brother and I received, as a Christmas present, the inaugural edition of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia. What a wonder it was, filling in with exquisitely vibrant detail the careers of so many players about whom we’d read only sketchy fragments. The one major reference book we already owned was S. C. Thompson’s All-Time Rosters of Major League Baseball Clubs, which was invaluable for placing everyone on every team. But its stats were limited to games played by position, batting average and won-lost record for pitchers.

We’d heard somewhere, I think, about this guy Joe Sewell, and his amazing capacity to avoid the strikeout. But we knew none of the details. And so I’ll never forget the first time I turned the Encyclopedia page to Sewell, and beheld that strikeout column. Just how far can an 11-year-old’s jaw drop, do you think?

Of course, avoiding strikeouts per se isn’t a terribly valuable skill; if it were, Bob Lillis would be in the Hall of Fame. But it’s an indicator, for sure, not only of the ability to make contact, obviously, but also of particular focus, and concentration, and competitive relentlessness.

In Sewell’s case, he did much more than simply avoiding strike three. He achieved ball four at a pretty good clip, and he was a good hitter for average, with surprising pop for such a little guy (5-foot-6, 155 pounds).

Defensively, Sewell gets an “A-” from Win Shares, which frankly I find a little bit hard to swallow. I’ve long thought it rather indicative of less-than-stellar defensive chops that the Indians abruptly shifted Sewell from shortstop to third base at the age of 30, despite the fact that they had absolutely no one else on hand to take over at short. I’d love to know the story behind that.

In any case, Sewell was an outstanding ballplayer, one of the 1970s Veterans Committees’ many selections to the Hall of Fame from his era that they seem to have gotten right. The Hall of Merit concurs.

The best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history

Arky Vaughan

Years: 1932-1948
Games: 1,817
Games by position: shortstop 1,485, third base 197, outfield 60, second base 1
Win shares: 356
Win shares/game: .196

This guy isn’t only the best left-handed hitting shortstop in major league history, he’s one of the three or four best shortstops in major league history, period. And yet in his time he wasn’t properly appreciated, nor has he really been so to this day.

I wrote a piece a while back honoring Mel Ott, and in it I speculated just why it might be that Ott—an inner-circle all-time great player—doesn’t seem to have achieved the stature his accomplishments deserve. I came up with four reasons, and I think they apply just as well to Ott’s contemporary Vaughan.

Here they were, with regard to Ott:

1. “He was in New York, but with the wrong team. The Giants in Ott’s era were a strong ball club, winning three pennants. But they couldn’t hold a candle to the Yankees, who were far more dominant …”

This applies even more strongly to Vaughan. Forget playing for the second-banana team in New York, Vaughan played nearly his entire career in Pittsburgh, then as now one of the lesser lights within the baseball media galaxy. Moreover, during Vaughan’s tenure the Pirates, though they were consistently good, never won a pennant. The only World Series appearance Vaughan made was with the Dodgers in 1947, by which time he was a utility player, who made no starts in the Series.

2. “His quiet, bland personality. Ott wasn’t just non-controversial, he was non-quotable …”

Ditto for Vaughan. Have fans been provided with anything about Vaughan’s personality, any anecdotes or wisecracks or images? Contrast this with Vaughan’s contemporary Luke Appling, a very fine shortstop in his own right, but not as good as Vaughan, yet far better known then and now—and, of course, far more colorful. As Bill James puts it, “A quiet player, Vaughan was not a fan favorite or a flashy defensive player.”

3. “Misreading of his statistics, in several ways. His 511 homers are rarely appreciated today as the amazing achievement they were, because of general ignorance about the 1930s difference in home run environments between the leagues. His 511 homers are also often discounted as a mere park effect by observers who fail to understand that even without the park effect he was still a hugely dominant home run hitter. And finally, like nearly all underrated players (witness Darrell Evans, Jim Wynn, etc.), Ott featured diverse, all-around talent, and most especially one of his major strengths was in the still-too-often-overlooked walk column.”

Vaughan wasn’t a big home run hitter (though for a shortstop his power was outstanding), but other than that this issue perfectly applies to him. When one properly adjusts for the extreme and historically unique difference in scoring environments between the leagues that prevailed across the 1930s, Vaughan emerges as far and away the best-hitting shorstop of his era, a better hitter not only than Appling, but also than Joe Cronin, who’s generally been considered superior with the bat.

And, of course, a major component of Vaughan’s terrific offensive production was his tremendous ability to draw walks, the skill that’s almost always undervalued if not ignored.

4. “His early demise … Ott was thus not around the baseball scene as the television age advanced, to be featured in ‘where are they now’ interviews, appearing in old-timers games, and so on, continually recalled by contemporaries and introduced to younger fans.”

Ott died in a car crash in 1958, at the age of 49. Vaughan passed away even earlier, drowning in a boating mishap in 1952, at the age of 40. His contemporaries such as Appling and Cronin remained highly visible in baseball for decades after that, while the absent Vaughan simply became more and more forgotten.

Vaughan wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame until the Veterans Committee got around to him in 1985. By that time Cooperstown had already long since inducted not just Appling (1964) and Cronin (1956), but a long list of distinctly inferior shortstops including Luis Aparicio and Pee Wee Reese (1984), Travis Jackson (1982), Dave Bancroft (1971), Lou Boudreau (1970), Rabbit Maranville (1954), Bobby Wallace (1953), Joe Tinker (1946) and Hughie Jennings (1945). There may be a more egregious case of the Hall of Fame being several decades late to enshrine one of the very few greatest players at a given position, but I honestly don’t know what it might be.

There something really special about shortstop

Great as Vaughan was, he wasn’t the best shortstop of all time. Ranking behind the monumental Honus Wagner is hardly a shame.

We’ve seen with Yogi Berra at catcher, with Eddie Mathews at third base, and with Joe Morgan and Eddie Collins at second, either the very greatest or someone close to it has emerged from the left-handed-hitting minority. But beyond that, at each of those positions other slam-dunk Hall of Famers (such as Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane behind the plate, Wade Boggs, George Brett, and Frank Baker at the hot corner, and Charlie Gehringer at second base) hit from the left side.

Not so at shortstop. Only Vaughan and Sewell are in the Hall of Fame, and Sewell is hardly of the slam-dunk variety. And once we get beyond the top six or seven lefty-hitting shortstops the quality fades pretty fast. Unquestionably, the overall talent included on this list is of a meaningfully lower magnitude than that of any of the other positions we’ve examined.

This could be just a coincidence. But I really doubt it. I suspect it reveals something significant about the nature of the special challenge presented in playing shortstop well at the major league level, the degree to which the criticality of excellent right-handed throwing at the position tends to limit the success of all but the most right-hand-dominant athletes.

Next time

The rarest species of all: Bats Right, Throws Left

References & Resources
The Sam Wise anecdote is from Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York: The Free Press, 2001, p. 645.

The quote regarding Cecil Travis is from page 612. The quote regarding Arky Vaughan is from page 593.

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