The Path to Cooperstown Through the Middle Infield

This afternoon, the baseball writers will announce their votes for the Hall of Fame. One middle infielder, Cal Ripken, will surely be inducted. Three others—Alan Trammell, Dave Concepcion, and Tony Fernandez—are on the ballot. Four more—Joe Gordon, Marty Marion, Maury Wills and the recently deceased Cecil Travis—are on the Veterans Committee ballot, with results to be announced Feb. 27.

Last January, I looked at the candidacies of Jim Rice, Albert Belle, and Andre Dawson by doing something that is, in my view, too infrequently done—lining them up against a reasonably comprehensive collection of similar players both in and out of the Hall. The goal should be to look at enough players who are somewhere around the line that divides Hall of Famers from non-Hall of Famers to get a sense of where the line should be drawn. I’d like to do the same with the shortstops and second basemen.
I’ve followed the same methodology as in the previous column, which I will summarize briefly here—you can go back and read last year’s edition for the full details. My goal is to do two things: Identify each player’s prime years and present, for those prime years, their average season translated into a common offensive context.

Prime Value

At least in evaluating non-pitchers, the key inquiry for the Hall of Fame should be neither “peak value” (how good the guy was at his very best) nor “career value” (the sum total of his career) but “prime value”. Prime value is, roughly, looking at the number of years a guy had when he was a legitimate star, and how good he was in those years. In other words, when I look at a potential Hall of Famer, the first question I ask is, “How many seasons did this guy have where he was a Hall of Fame quality ballplayer?” And the second is, “How good was he in those years—just around or above the line, or way above it?”

Now, I wouldn’t argue that you should throw peak or career value entirely out the window, but both have their flaws. Peak value really doesn’t capture the way most of us think about the Hall: As a shrine to a player’s accomplishments of a period of years, not his very best day. Career value, on the other hand, has two drawbacks. One is that that looking only at career value ends up putting too much emphasis on which guy played passably well when he was 38 and playing out the string as a part-timer, rather than the years when he was doing the things we’ll remember him for. I’m a big believer that you don’t play your way out of the Hall in your old age, and neither should you get inordinate credit for padding the career totals with mediocre or part-time seasons.

Second, baseball is played in seasons. If you look just at career totals, you miss that—you miss the fact that, at least for a star player, two seasons of 600 plate appearances really are worth more than three seasons of 400 PA at the same level of production, because the 600 PA seasons move the team closer to winning championships. Inseason durability is a very important measurement of value. As a result, what I have tried to do here is excerpt out the seasons when each guy was a star and weigh that chunk against other guys’ primes.

The Criteria

I used slightly different criteria here than I did with the first basemen/outfielders:

1. I was more flexible with longer and shorter primes, although the bulk of guys still ended up with a roughly decade-long prime. I mainly defined “prime” seasons here as 500-plus PA and an OPS+ of 100 or better, rather than 120 with the corner guys, but where there were issues over what seasons to pick, I tried to isolate the part that let each guy put his best foot forward. You can re-run the numbers for any individual player if you think I’ve cherry-picked too long or too short a mix of seasons; I included an “Oth” column, meaning other seasons, which totals up seasons when the player had an OPS+ of 100 or greater and at least 400 PA, or an OPS+ of 120 or greater and at least 300 PA (lower thresholds than I used for the corners). For players whose primes were less than eight years, I list them on a separate chart to avoid mixing apples and oranges.

2. I’m only looking here at second basemen, shortstops, and guys who split between the two. With a few noted exceptions, I excluded seasons at other positions. Of course, for some guys like Rod Carew, Robin Yount, and Alex Rodriguez, all of whom won MVP awards at other positions, that cuts off a big chunk of why they are in or headed to the Hall. But this study isn’t about whether Rod Carew belongs in the Hall, it’s about what careers like his and others say about the guys on the bubble.

3. No dead-ball players. The three earliest guys on here are Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch and Dave Bancroft, and in each case I started their prime years at 1920 or later. I did that mostly because the lively ball changed the nature of the game to such an extent that, while you can compare their value, dead-ball era players don’t tell you much about the Hall of Fame’s standards for more modern players.

4. Unlike with the corner guys, I included a few players who are still in their prime or otherwise still active, mainly because it’s interesting to see where, say, Derek Jeter or Miguel Tejada stacks up.

5. I also, this time, included a whole bunch of people whose careers were significantly interrupted by war or who had prime seasons during the war. A huge number of significant middle infielders in the Hall or on the Veterans ballot saw their prime years intersect with World War II. Rather than eliminate them, I just note in each case how the war affected them. Note that by “World War II” I mainly mean 1943-45—the war didn’t really affect the quality of play in 1942, and most of these guys were still in the majors that year.

6. I didn’t bother cutting off the list at the top, quality-wise—I covered even the very best at the positions, to help give a broader context.

7. I had to draw the line somewhere, but I should note a bunch of players who would have figured somewhere in these charts, albeit for one reason or another less durably productive as middle infielders, including Dick McAuliffe, Roy Smalley, Glenn Wright, Alfonso Soriano, Edgardo Alfonzo, Toby Harrah, Garry Templeton, Delino DeShields, Edgar Renteria, Dick Bartell, Jose Vidro, Steve Sax, Robby Thompson, Carlos Baerga, and Bret Boone.
I ended up with a sampling of 60 players, consisting of 26 Hall of Famers, four guys on the writers ballot, four on the Veterans Committee ballot, nine active players, four players who have recently retired and have yet to join the ballot, and 13 who appear to have permanently dropped off the ballot (let me know if I have misclassified anyone).

The Numbers

The first caution I would emphasize here is that this is just a study of batting stats. Obviously, when you are dealing with middle infielders, defense looms larger than at any other position, possibly including catcher. I am not arguing here that defense should not be considered; instead, I’m recognizing that offense is easier to quantify in ways people can generally agree on, and use that as a starting point for discussing other aspects of a guy’s game.

In the chart below, I include a very rough, seat-of-the-pants defensive grading system (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor). For some of these guys I was largely guessing, but I think I’ve at least separated out the really elite glove men from the weak ones. “Good,” in this context, means guys who won a few Gold Gloves; it’s no insult. I reserved “Excellent” ratings for five guys who were really regarded as historically amazing glove men, and rated only two guys as “Poor,” although I discuss other debatable rankings below.

The batting percentages here (batting average, slugging average, on-base percentage) are translated statistics. You can read a detailed explanation of the method in the earlier article; for consistency with the earlier piece I used the 2005 National League. (I did most of the work on this before Baseball Reference came out with its own translation system. Unlike their system, I translate based on differentials in league Avg/Slg/OBP rather than Runs/Game, thus changing the shape of a player’s statistics to place them in a more common context.) The essential idea of translations is to show what a player’s performance in Year X and Park X was equivalent to in Year and Park Y, not to project what a guy would have hit, which is unknowable.

The other numbers—plate appearances, steals and caught stealing, double plays—are actual, not translated (I included base stealing and GIDP figures because they’re the two main components of offense that aren’t captured by SLG and OBP), but are averaged per 162-game season, so as to put players whose careers were in the 154-game era or were interrupted by strikes on a common footing (thus, 1981 is counted as two-thirds of a season in the averaging). The “Rate” column in the chart is simply (SLG)*(OBP)*(PA). It’s not any kind of scientific formula, just a handy metric to organize the data on the table by the three main variables. I prefer multiplying rather than adding SLG and OBP (as is done with OPS), since a single point of OBP is worth more than a single point of Slugging. As you can see, this metric organizes the data very strongly in favor of guys who were very durable in-season and against guys with low OBPs. Of course, besides not counting defense, the “Rate” metric doesn’t count the baserunning and double play numbers on the chart, so don’t treat the rankings as holy writ.

Player           Yrs  Oth    Ages   PA   Avg   Slg   OBP  SB  CS  DP   Rate  Pos Def    Status
Rogers Hornsby    10    5   24-33  672  .344	 .648  .429   8  11# --  186.7   2B   P        IN
Alex Rodriguez     8    3*  20-27  685  .298  .559  .368  21   6  14  140.7   SS   G    Active
Arky Vaughan       9    4*  21-29  657  .305  .500  .402   9  --   6  132.1   SS   F        IN
Joe Morgan         9    9   25-33  660  .286  .494  .403  55  12   6  131.4   2B   G        IN
Charlie Gehringer 11    3   25-35  709  .298  .490  .369  13   6  --  128.2   2B   G        IN
Craig Biggio       9    4*  25-33  720  .299  .459  .385  34  10   6  127.3   2B   G    Active
Cal Ripken        10    3*  21-30  705  .283  .491  .352   3   2  19  121.9   SS   G  OnBallot
Derek Jeter        9    2   24-32  695  .313  .458  .382  24   5  14  121.6   SS   F    Active

Jeff Kent          9    5   29-37  633  .294  .518  .355   8   4  16  116.6   2B   F    Active
Ryne Sandberg      9    1   24-32  671  .288  .501  .346  27   7  10  116.3   2B  VG        IN
Lou Boudreau       9    0   22-30+ 653  .301  .471  .373   5   5  13  114.8   SS   G        IN
Roberto Alomar    11    2   23-33  662  .302  .463  .370  34   7  12  113.4   2B  VG   Not Yet
Vern Stephens      9    1   21-29+ 665  .277  .504  .332   2   2  14  111.3   SS   G       Off
Billy Herman       9    3   25-33+ 708  .291  .442  .354   4  --  17  110.9   2B   G        IN
Chuck Knoblauch    8    0   23-30  708  .291  .418  .375  41  12  11  110.9   2B   F   Not Yet
Joe Sewell         8    2*  22-29  711  .287  .430  .361   8   9  --  110.4   SS   G        IN
Joe Cronin        12    1   23-34  652  .279  .469  .355   7   5  15# 108.6   SS   G        IN
Bobby Doerr       10    2   22/32+ 655  .273  .494  .333   5   4  16  107.7   2B   G        IN
Jim Fregosi        8    0   21-28  665  .289  .454  .354   8   4  11  106.9   SS   F       Off
Frankie Frisch    11*   1   22-32  658  .292  .458  .353  30  13  --  106.3   2B   G        IN
Joe Gordon        10    0   23/34+ 642  .262  .493  .335   9   6  17  106.1   2B   G  Veterans
Tony Lazzeri      11    0   22-32  625  .274  .479  .353  13   7  --  105.6   2B   F        IN

Nellie Fox        10    0   23-32  739  .300  .404  .346   7   7  12  103.2   2B  VG        IN
Lou Whitaker      10    6   26-35  614  .277  .462  .362   8   4   8  102.6   2B   G       Off
Barry Larkin       9    4   27-35  567  .295  .473  .377  28   5  11  101.3   SS  VG   Not Yet
Pee Wee Reese     10    0   27-36+ 691  .270  .405  .360  18   8# 16  100.8   SS   G        IN
Luke Appling      15    0   26/42+ 641  .300  .415  .377  11   7  14# 100.3   SS   G        IN
Bobby Grich       13    1   23-35  564  .272  .468  .377   8   6  10   99.5   2B  VG       Off
Jay Bell           9    0   25-33  675  .268  .435  .339   7   5  14   99.5   2S   G   Not Yet
Alan Trammell     11    1   22-32  613  .292  .451  .358  17   8   9   99.1   SS   G  OnBallot

Ray Durham         9    0   26-34^ 622  .275  .437  .345  19   7  11   93.8   2B   F   Active 
Tony Fernandez     9    3*  23-31  660  .285  .406  .336  22  10  11   90.0   SS  VG  OnBallot
Davey Johnson      8    0   24-31  566  .268  .446  .343   3   3  13   86.7   2B   G       Off
Dave Concepcion    9    0   26-34  638  .277  .411  .327  23   7  17   85.9   SS   G  OnBallot
Willie Randolph   12    2   21-32  599  .278  .378  .378  21   7  14   85.6   2B   G       Off
Ozzie Smith        8    0   30-37  636  .282  .370  .359  38   8   9   84.4   SS   E        IN
Jim Gilliam       11*   1   24-34  682  .259  .355  .348  18  10   7   84.3   2B   G       Off
Bert Campaneris   12    0   23-34  636  .278  .391  .323  47  13   6   80.5   SS   F       Off
Luis Aparicio     12    0   25-36  661  .271  .369  .312  34   9  11   76.2   SS   E        IN
Frank White       10    0   27-36  567  .262  .427  .299  11   6  11   72.3   2B  VG       Off
Bill Mazeroski    12    0   20-31  609  .263  .392  .301   2   2  15   71.9   2B   E        IN
Marty Marion       9    0   23-31  588  .254  .371  .306   3  --  11   66.8   SS   E  Veterans

* - Includes seasons at another position – see below
+ - Career affected by war – see below
# -  Indicates that this statistic is not available for all seasons
^ - Prime seasons still going as of 2006

Rogers Hornsby: Even compared to the top guys on this list—or the outfielders on the last list—Hornsby is entirely off in his own universe as a hitter, which is one reason I have trouble buying the arguments for other guys as the best second baseman ever. I left out Hornsby’s pre-1920 seasons, including leading the league in slugging as a 21-year-old shortstop; he was a Hall of Fame caliber player in those years too, but not in the same ballpark as the 1920s. If I’d included them, Hornsby would rank as a better fielder; he was a decent glove man up through about 1922.

Alex Rodriguez: A-Rod’s prime is still going, but I cut him off here after he came to the Yankees and moved to third at age 28. That’s artificial, since he moved to accommodate Derek Jeter’s incumbency and not due to any deficiencies with the glove. A-Rod’s decision to put team harmony above individual glory has won him no praise or even moderation of criticism, but almost certainly cost him a chance to be considered one of the top two shortstops of all time, maybe even the best (though Honus Wagner, who became an everyday shortstop at the age at which A-Rod moved to third, is a tall mountain to scale).

Arky Vaughan: Moved to third base at age 30, played through the war at age 31, then retired for a few years in a clubhouse dispute while he was still a good player. Bill James wasn’t kidding in ranking Vaughan, in the latest historical abstract, as the second-best shortstop ever. I may have underrated him as a defensive player.

Joe Morgan: I left off three outstanding years in Houston (1965-67) mostly because they were separated from the rest of his prime by an injury that wiped out 1968; only Carew and Yount have a similar number of quality seasons that aren’t included in the prime chart. Morgan and Vaughan stand well above the competition in on-base percentage, though well below Hornsby.

Charlie Gehringer: Gehringer had a broad base of skills and tremendous consistency and durability, but I was somewhat surprised that he did not rate higher in batting average, ranking below the likes of Nellie Fox, Cecil Travis and Craig Biggio.

Craig Biggio: I included his last year as a catcher here, since that’s a more demanding defensive position than second base; if anything, it drags down his averages. Biggio never had jaw-dropping on-base percentages like Morgan, Gehringer or Luke Appling—his career high is .415. But due to his consistency and the fact that he was doing it in the Astrodome, he rates highly in that regard. Biggio’s high ranking here is largely a factor of playing time—not only was he indestructible in his best years, but he was leading off for a loaded offensive team. Biggio’s 3,000th hit should remove any possibility that he won’t get his due as a great player. The four other years include one as a catcher and one as a center fielder.

Cal Ripken: Yes, from 1982 to 1991, he really was that good, his only weakness being the double-play ball. How much a guy plays is so underrated as a measure of value: When you consider the average offensive production of the average backup shortstop in the ’80s, Ripken’s refusal to come out of the lineup even for an inning in those years becomes all the more valuable.

Derek Jeter: I was surprised that Jeter rated quite so high—I’d always thought him more comparable as a player to Joe Cronin and Frankie Frisch, but Jeter’s OBP sets him a cut above those guys.

Jeff Kent: I’m still not prepared to consider Jeff Kent a Hall of Famer, but that’s my Mets fan bias showing—Kent is a serious slugger of a type rarely found at second base, and especially over a consistent period of years.

Ryne Sandberg: Sandberg is another fine illustration of the ways in which durability, power and speed can compensate for mediocre plate discipline. I’m comfortable with Sandberg, by acclamation the best second baseman of his era, in Cooperstown despite a relatively short career, since it’s really more his decline phase that was cut short.

Lou Boudreau: Played through the war while age 25-27, so you have to discount him a bit for that. Boudreau was all but finished after his MVP season at 30, having just one more good year as a regular.

Roberto Alomar: A great one in many ways for over a decade; really a no-brainer as a Hall of Famer.

Vern Stephens: Played through the war while age 22-24, and moved to third base at 30. His numbers might justify the Hall if you didn’t discount the war-weakened competition that made up a third of his prime.

Billy Herman: Rates highly here in large part due to his durability. Herman had a big year against war-weakened competition at 33, but then missed ages 34-35. Hit into a lot of double plays.

Chuck Knoblauch: Knoblauch is rated here as a “Fair” fielder as a compromise—he was a pretty solid glove in Minnesota before the throwing problem hit him in the Bronx. His eight-year prime is definitely Hall quality work with the bat, but is a little too short for a guy with his defensive problems, even with the four World Series rings.

Joe Sewell: Moved to third base at 30; is remembered today mainly as a trivia question due to never striking out or breaking his bat, as well as due to inheriting his starting job from Ray Chapman. But Sewell was the AL’s best shortstop in the 1920s.

Joe Cronin: More of a power hitter than a high-average hitter, in the context of his time and the parks he played in. Would do better were it not for a poor, injury-plagued 1936 season that dragged down his average plate appearances. You will see that as a recurring theme here—when your rankings are based on plate appearances, a season lost or half-lost to injury makes a huge dent. Given the consequences to a contending team of having that happen to a star in his prime, I think it’s fair to dock guys for that.

Bobby Doerr: Played through war ages 25-26, missed age 27 (the slash in the chart means I skipped years lost to war). In the end, very similar to Gordon, which may eventually help Gordon with the Veterans.

Jim Fregosi: I added Fregosi at the last minute, not realizing quite how strongly he shows here, with average translated numbers that would have been career bests for him as raw numbers in the offense-starved ’60s in the AL. Fregosi was washed up at 29, was traded after that season for a young Nolan Ryan, and never really bounced back as an everyday player.

Frankie Frisch: I included age 22, when Frisch played mainly at third base—he was young and playing a defensive position that at that point was still as demanding as second, due to the high rates of bunting at the time. His averages are dragged down a bit by the 1931 season (age 32), but I couldn’t well leave off a year when he won the MVP.

Joe Gordon: Played age 28 through war, missed ages 29-30 and struggled his first year back. Giving him the benefit of the doubt for the war, Gordon wouldn’t be a terrible Hall of Famer. He was somewhat out of place in his era, as a relatively low-average, power hitting middle infielder.

Tony Lazzeri: Had some issues with nagging injuries, notably in 1928 when he missed 40 games but finished third in the MVP balloting anyway. Held up better in translation than I expected.

Nellie Fox: Fox even on his best day was never a great player; he had no power, drew few walks, didn’t steal bases, and didn’t win batting titles. But he did four things well: hit for good batting averages, fielded very well, was tremendously consistent and never came out of the lineup. Plus, he rarely struck out. The Hall of Fame will always reward that package.

Lou Whitaker: Whitaker’s a real challenge. I have argued before that Whitaker is an easy Hall of Famer due to the length of his career, his offensive consistency and productivity at a difficult position, and his good glovework. He also avoided double plays, one of the hidden skills that is easily overlooked. He was the premier AL second baseman between Grich and Alomar. And while you see Whitaker’s best 10-season stretch up there, his last three, at least, are equal or better in quality, just lacking quantity. But therein lies the problem: Whitaker never did hit left-handed pitching, and the last seven years of his career he kept his averages up by being platooned. I’m inclined to say he was more valuable to his teams over the long haul than Fox, but the difference in plate appearances per season is a large gap to cover.

Barry Larkin: Larkin’s one of the main reasons for this study, and has a particularly bad fit between his best seasons and most durable seasons. Even in the near-decade of his prime, he had an endless series of small injuries and a tendency towards bigger ones. The quality of his game is unquestionable. Like Whitaker, only moreso, Larkin was without a doubt the best at his position in his league for about a decade, won an MVP award and a World Championship, with two other top seasons for his team (the 1995 division title and 1999 loss in a one-game playoff) when he was clearly the team’s star and leader. I think that adds up to a Hall of Famer anyway.

Pee Wee Reese: A borderline Hall of Famer on the numbers, until you consider that he missed age 24-26 to the war.

Luke Appling: Played age 36 through the war, missed age 37, and I ignored his age-38 season, when he batted .368 in 18 games after returning in late 1945. Played more third base than shortstop at age 41, but returned to short the following year. I was surprised not to see him rate higher, but Appling had little power, played in an era of high OBPs, and missed significant playing time at age 27 and half the season at 31. Still, he came back at essentially full strength even into his forties after a layoff for the war.

Bobby Grich: Has Whitaker’s problems with limited playing time, and then some, having missed two-thirds of a season at age 28. I lean in the direction of preferring Whitaker’s consistency, but while both guys are outstanding and underrated players, it is understandable why Hall voters have given them short shrift.

Jay Bell: Switched to second at age 33. Bell has never, to my knowledge, been accused of doing anything improper, and I know only what’s been publicly reported, but even if his resume was Hall-worthy (it’s not) he would suffer from: 1) Matching to a T the statistical profile of a steroid user in terms of a dramatic and unexpected post-30 power surge for a guy who, in his twenties, was known mainly as a great bunter and 2) being a teammate of several other guys with similar statistical profiles.

Alan Trammell: Trammell has the Larkin problem, and wasn’t as good or as consistent when healthy (his age 24 and 27 seasons were utterly mediocre, while the prime listed leaves out an outstanding age 35 season), with adverse consequences for his teams’ ability to win when they had a tremendous talent core. If you draw the line just under Larkin or Whitaker or Grich, you are likely to leave Trammell out.

Ray Durham: Yes, Ray Durham, and yes that includes 2006. Durham exists in the sphere of players who are clearly comparable to serious Hall candidates but who equally clearly don’t have a legit case of their own. He’s a heck of a player who hasn’t gotten enough respect.

Tony Fernandez: Will presumably last just the one year on the ballot. Other non-prime seasons include his late-90s resurgence as a second and third baseman. Is one of several guys on this list hated by Mets fans for his tenure with the Mets.

Davey Johnson: Grich’s lesser predecessor was better than his raw numbers, but short on durability.

Dave Concepcion: Concepcion rather inexplicably draws continuing Hall support. As I’ve written before, Concepcion is a classic example of a guy with the skeleton of a good Hall of Fame argument but no meat on the bones: the best shortstop in his league for half a decade but never actually a good hitter, and a guy who could never be the star of a contending team. It’s not like the Big Red Machine hasn’t gotten adequate credit in Cooperstown, between Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Sparky Anderson.

Willie Randolph: Very similar offensively (better OBP, lesser base thief) to Ozzie Smith, but not Ozzie with the glove, obviously. It’s funny—you look at the numbers for a guy like Randolph and can halfway talk yourself into thinking him a serious candidate, but a systematic approach like this one draws out his flaws in comparison—he just wasn’t as durable as some of the other guys listed, he had no power, and he was a good but not great fielder. Randolph was probably a more skilled and talented player than Nellie Fox, and if he’d had another 140 plate appearances a year he would have a long string of 100-run seasons and would probably be in Cooperstown too.

Ozzie Smith: Even with a cherry-picked sample of his eight good years as a hitter out of a much longer career, Ozzie just didn’t have what it took to be a Hall of Famer if he was anything less than Ozzie with the glove. But for a guy with zero power he made the most of his remaining offensive skills, and was the best hitting shortstop in the NL for a few years. Add in his legendary defensive work, long-term durability and winning teams, and he’s well-qualified.

Jim Gilliam: Played third base at age 30-31. Along with Frisch, one of a select few post-1920 players to go to four World Serieses without playing for the Yankees, spanning from the Boys of Summer years to the Koufax era. Basically a lesser version of Randolph, but more durable and versatile.

Bert Campaneris: Really has nothing to recommend himself as a Hall of Famer; very similar to Aparicio as a hitter.

Luis Aparicio: I’m skeptical at best of Aparicio as a Hall of Famer, though he really was a sensational fielder for a long time, was durable and consistent, and played at a time when few shortstops contributed much more with the bat than he did.

Frank White: Not a serious Hall candidate, but as similar with the bat to Mazeroski as Campaneris is to Aparicio, plus White was an outstanding glove man in his own right. Really didn’t draw walks.

Bill Mazeroski: Mazeroski was a bad hitter, and unlike Aparicio he hit into a lot of double plays, wasn’t much on the bases and wasn’t especially durable. I was on board with his Hall candidacy some years ago based on his defensive stats alone, but I’ve long since concluded that a guy with his offensive weaknesses just can’t belong in the Hall.

Marty Marion: Played through the war ages 25-27, including his 1944 MVP campaign. As my dad likes to remind me, when Reese, Boudreau, Stephens, Appling and Phil Rizzuto were playing, it was Marion who was nicknamed “Mr. Shortstop.” But his prime besides the war amounts to all of six seasons, and even during the war he wasn’t much of a hitter.

Now, the shorter-prime guys:

Player           Yrs  Oth    Ages   PA   Avg   Slg   OBP  SB  CS  DP   Rate  Pos Def    Status
Jackie Robinson    5    4*  29-33  682  .312	 .503  .395  25   8# 14  135.6   2B  VG        IN
Ernie Banks        7    6*  24-30  679  .288  .569  .350   5   4  14  135.3   SS   G        IN
Robin Yount        5    8*  24-28  670  .308  .533  .362  14   4  14  129.2   SS   G        IN
Rod Carew          5   10*  25-29  644  .343  .474  .395  27  11  16  120.7   2B   P        IN

Miguel Tejada      7    0   24-30^ 703  .291  .482  .342   7   2  20  115.9   SS   F    Active
Nomar Garciaparra  7    0   23-29  532  .312  .529  .355  11   4  11  109.4   SS   G    Active
Julio Franco       7    3*  26-32  646  .310  .440  .370  24   8  21  105.3   2S   F    Active

Eddie Stanky       7    0   28-34+ 651  .265  .378  .398   6   5#  7   98.2   2B   F       Off
Red Schoendienst   7    0   28-34  666  .298  .425  .344   4   4  14   97.3   2B   G        IN
Cecil Travis       7*   1   21-27+ 623  .307  .441  .353   3   3   9#  96.8   SS   F  Veterans
Alvin Dark         7    0   26-32  681  .288  .442  .322   7   5# 12   96.8   SS   F       Off
Gil McDougald      7    0   23-29  594  .285  .451  .354   6   5   9   94.8   2S  VG       Off
Dave Bancroft      7    1   29-35  615  .280  .418  .362   9   8# --   93.2   SS   E        IN
Davey Lopes        7    2*  28-34  627  .267  .421  .352  53  11   8   93.0   2B   F       Off

Travis Jackson     6    3*  22-27  574  .274  .467  .332   8  --  --   89.0   SS   G        IN
Phil Rizzuto       7    1   29-35+ 664  .272  .387  .339  13   6   9   87.0   SS   G        IN
Omar Vizquel       7    0   29-35  666  .274  .366  .338  30  10  11   82.4   SS  VG    Active
Maury Wills        7    1*  27-33  670  .289  .354  .339  60  19   7   80.4   SS   G  Veterans

Jackie Robinson: Won the Rookie of the Year at first base at age 28, was an outfielder/third baseman at 34-35, so his prime as a major league middle infielder was short—but oh, was it spectacular. It’s sometimes forgotten that the war cost Robinson as much time as the color line did, but either way, he missed a lot—both the big, muscular middle infielders like A-Rod and Ripken and the speedy guys like Alomar and Knoblauch tend to have their best years in their early to mid-20s, and Robinson (who was both) didn’t even get in the door until he was 28. In other words, we may not even have seen the best of him. Robinson may be surrounded by a lot of hard-earned myth and hype because of how he changed the game and the country, but he requires no apologies among the best second basemen ever.

Ernie Banks: Moved to first base at 31, and spent years as a mediocre first baseman, driving up his counting stats without ever being a star caliber player. But the young Banks was a monster (he once led his team in RBIs by a margin of 91), and properly immortalized as such.

Robin Yount: I could have padded out Yount’s “prime” with significantly lesser years, but basically he left an unfinished resume as a superstar shortstop to become a center fielder, and is only in the Hall because he finished the job at that position.

Rod Carew: To take Carew beyond five years, you have to include his age-24 season when he missed two thirds of the year, and his prior years were of lesser quality and hampered by his duties in the Marine Corps Reserves. There were really only three seasons (1973-75, age 27-29) when he was healthy and at his peak before moving to first. Carew, like Yount, has to be evaluated as a multi-position guy and can’t really be a yardstick for middle infielders.

Miguel Tejada: A year or two away from really entering this conversation in earnest. You could not have convinced me in 2000, even after Tejada whacked 30 homers and drove in 115 runs, that he could end up with a better career than Nomar, but that’s more likely than not now. May yet break the single-season GIDP record.

Nomar Garciaparra: Nomar gets docked here for 2001—as he should, since his loss that year to a team that had Manny and a half-season of Pedro was crippling. He’s never been the same since. Once an “of course” Hall of Famer, Nomar will need a Carew-like second act to make it now, and the game has changed since then. I don’t know that he has batting titles and MVP awards in him as a first baseman.

Julio Franco: Moved to second base at 29, and then to designated hitter and first base from 33 on. Yes, it’s quite humorous to see Franco associated in any way with short careers, but the injury that cost him his 1992 season cut off his prime as a middle infielder. Note that Franco hit into boatloads of double plays even when he was young and fast.

Eddie Stanky: Played through war at 28; the war probably helped Stanky because it forced talent-starved teams to consider his unique skill set. His value was almost entirely in drawing walks and annoying people.

Red Schoendienst: Joe Torre and Gil Hodges can draw inspiration from Schoendienst and Wilbert Robinson, guys who are in the Hall really as both players and managers despite being qualified as neither (though Torre has an argument as a player and a good one by now as a manager).

Cecil Travis: Was a third baseman at age 21 and 26, went to war ages 28-30 and might well have had a real Hall resume if the war hadn’t ruined him as a player. I say “might”—you can see here that Travis doesn’t really stand up that well here against his contemporaries, and unlike a guy like Reese, there’s a fair bit of speculation in projecting more than just a few more years of the same.

Alvin Dark: Durable power hitter, drew few walks but was well-suited to bat behind Stanky, his double play partner for pennant winning Braves and Giants teams.

Gil McDougald: Like Jackie Robinson, a versatile defensive player, but unlike Robinson, McDougal wasn’t an offensive superstar and never got a chance to play every single day.

Dave Bancroft: A very shaky Hall of Famer, given his short career, though his defensive numbers and reputation are impressive.

Davey Lopes: Was 28 when he got a job in the majors; wasn’t really Cooperstown material anyway, but could really have had an impressive career if he’d started earlier and played under less hostile offensive conditions. Had a revival in his 40s as a part-time outfielder. Stole 89 bases in 97 attempts (92%) at age 33-34 and 62 in 66 attempts (94%) at age 39-40.

Travis Jackson: Moved to third base at 31. A silly Hall inductee, sort of the Chick Hafey of shortstops (short, injury-plagued prime, never really the star of any of his teams), plus, unlike Hafey, he wasn’t even that great a hitter when he suited up.

Phil Rizzuto: Missed ages 25-27 due to war. Even giving credit for that, it’s hard to find many guys on this list who were demonstrably lesser players than the Scooter.

Omar Vizquel: A better base thief than Rizzuto, but a little less power—still, all but the same player, and like Rizzuto, he had one really good year at age 32.

Maury Wills: Didn’t get a full time gig in the majors until age 27, moved to third baseat age 34. As I have noted before, good luck finding writers who would admit they thought the 1962 MVP was actually a better player than Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron at the peak of their powers. And except for his 1962 season, Wills wasn’t an especially good percentage base thief. I see no basis for considering him a better player than Lopes.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. This analysis is intended to be more of a foundation for arguments than an argument in itself—there really are a number of guys you have to consider as right around the line. And while the Hall voters haven’t done a great job of drawing that line, you can at least see the systematic biases at work—in particular, it really does matter if a guy is able to show up for work consistently over time.

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