Larkin for the Hall?

After 19 seasons and 2,180 games in the big leagues, Barry Larkin called it quits earlier this month, stepping off the field and into the front office, where he will be a special assistant to former Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden and the Washington Nationals. Though Larkin was a 12-time All-Star shortstop and the 1995 National League MVP, he has always struck me as an underappreciated player and the lack of attention his retirement got was disappointing, but not surprising.

Like many star players who hang around until their late thirties (or in this case, 40), Larkin was just a shell of his former self in his final few seasons. He remained at shortstop until the very end, but his defense there declined significantly, and his once outstanding offense and baserunning were last seen in 2000. He did, however, put together a solid final season, hitting .289/.352/.419 in 111 games; good enough that he could have joined another team as a part-time player and hung around for another season or two. Larkin chose not to, retiring having spent his entire career with the Reds after Cincinnati drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 1985 draft.

One of the first things I think about when a player of Larkin’s caliber retires is whether or not they have a strong case for the Hall of Fame. Larkin has a dozen All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, an MVP, and a World Series title, but his argument will almost certainly be damaged by two things. One is that the overall offensive explosion of the mid-90s didn’t begin until Larkin was on the wrong side of 30. The other is that, in addition to the overall increase in offense that Larkin missed out on in his younger years, the end of his career coincides with the emergence of several outstanding offensive shortstops.

From Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez (whom I still think of as a shortstop), the position has become much more offensive oriented in recent years. Even guys like Michael Young, Carlos Guillen, Bobby Crosby, Jimmy Rollins, Khalil Greene, and Edgar Renteria provide more offense at shortstop than was typically seen throughout a large portion of Larkin’s career. In fact, take a look at how the average offensive production from shortstops increased during Larkin’s career:

Part of that is due to a league-wide increase in offense and part of it is due to a steady influx of good-hitting shortstops, and both factors have led to Larkin’s raw career numbers being overlooked. During his entire career, the average shortstop hit just .256/.317/.361, while Larkin hit .295/.371/.444 — an OPS difference of 20.2%. Very few players dominate a position like that for so long and only two big-name shortstops from the past 30 years have out-performed the rest of the position offensively more than Larkin did.

                      OPS       SS OPS       DIFF*
Alex Rodriguez       .963        .735        31.0%
Nomar Garciaparra    .919        .736        24.9%
BARRY LARKIN         .815        .678        20.2%
Cal Ripken Jr.       .798        .675        18.2%
Robin Yount          .757        .641        18.1%
Alan Trammell        .767        .665        15.3%
Derek Jeter          .848        .737        15.1%
Miguel Tejada        .807        .744         8.5%
Dave Concepcion      .679        .629         7.9%
Ozzie Smith          .666        .648         2.8%

*Only seasons at shortstop were included.

Also keep in mind that while Rodriguez and Garciaparra are ahead of Larkin on the above list, they have yet to go through their decline phases, which as Larkin learned, will bring down your career numbers. Plus, Rodriguez may never again be an everyday shortstop and has only 1,269 games there in his career, while Garciaparra has just 968 career games at shortstop. Larkin played the position in 2,085 games.

All of which is why, when you look at Larkin’s career in the context of a stat like Runs Created Above Position (RCAP), he comes out looking extremely good. First, here is a list of the best RCAP totals by players who spent the majority of their career at shortstop:

                           RCAP
Honus Wagner               1060   
Arky Vaughan                598   
Alex Rodriguez              506   
BARRY LARKIN                488   
George Davis                452   
Joe Cronin                  431   
Cal Ripken                  408   
Robin Yount                 408   
Luke Appling                375   
Alan Trammell               365

Next, here’s the same list, except only using seasons that a player actually primarily played shortstop (so Rodriguez doesn’t get credit for last season, for example):

                           RCAP
Honus Wagner                926   
Arky Vaughan                591   
BARRY LARKIN                488   
Alex Rodriguez              474   
Joe Cronin                  425   
Cal Ripken                  400   
Luke Appling                366   
Alan Trammell               365   
Derek Jeter                 328   
Ernie Banks                 324

I think two things become immediately clear from the above rankings: 1) Honus Wagner was a beast of epic proportions; and 2) Larkin is an elite offensive shortstop if there ever was one. And with three Gold Gloves and a reputation for good defense that lasted until his final few seasons, Larkin was certainly no slouch defensively either. If you look at Bill James‘ Win Shares, a stat that attempts to combine offensive and defensive contributions, Larkin once again shows up near the top:

                             WS
Honus Wagner                655
Cal Ripken Jr.              427
Robin Yount                 423
George Davis                398
Bill Dahlen                 394
Luke Appling                378
Arky Vaughan                356
BARRY LARKIN                346
Bobby Wallace               345
Joe Cronin                  333
Ozzie Smith                 325
Alan Trammell               318

Larkin ranks eighth all-time in Batting Win Shares among shortstops and 23rd all-time in Fielding Win Shares. His total Win Shares ranking of eighth among shortstops is made to look less impressive by the fact that guys like Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount accumulated tons of Win Shares at non-shortstop positions later in their careers. It would not be hard to argue that Larkin is one of the best handful of pure shortstops in major league history, and his case for the Hall of Fame is an extremely strong one.

Just for fun, take a look at the similarities between Larkin’s career through 1996 and a mystery shortstop’s current numbers:

                  G      2B     3B      HR      BB      SB     CS     RCAP      WS
Larkin         1328     254     48     135     545     275     51      341     241
Mystery SS     1366     283     42     150     559     201     52      328     219

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I’ve done a little cherry-picking of stats to make the comparison work. Those numbers take Larkin through his age-32 season, while our mystery shortstop was just 30 years old last year. Still, they are pretty damn close through 1,300 games or so. And Larkin put up those numbers in a far less friendly environment for offense than our masked man has played his entire career in. If you account for that and adjust Larkin’s rate stats accordingly, here is how the two shortstops compare through ~1,300 games:

                  G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoD     IsoP
Larkin         1328     .305     .379     .487     .866     .074     .182
Mystery SS     1366     .315     .385     .463     .848     .070     .148

By now you’ve probably figured out that our mystery man is none other than Captain Dreamboat himself, Derek Jeter. While I’ve been known to pick on Mr. Clutch at times, the one thing the man can clearly do is hit. So I mean it as nothing less than a huge compliment when I say that when it comes to hitting, Barry Larkin was Derek Jeter before Derek Jeter. Add in years of good defense and a career that produced 147 RCAP, 105 Win Shares, four All-Star apprearances, and three legitimately outstanding seasons after 1996, and Larkin should be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame.

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