Honus Wagner (240), Alex Rodriguez (109), Derek Jeter (73), Allan Trammel (102), Ozzie Smith (127), Omar Vizquel (72), Luke Appling (130), Ernie Banks (115), Lou Boudreau (108), Joe Cronin (120), George Davis(170), Pee Wee Reese (98), Phil Rizutto (75) , Joe Sewell (107), Arky Vaughan (134), Robin Yount (112), Barry Larkin (110), Cal Ripken Jr. (127), Joe Tinker (121), Dave Bancroft (116), Dave Concepcion (98), Luis Aparicio (91), Bert Campaneris (91), Bill Dahlen (180).
The first round: Clearly, there is one shortstop who is far and away ahead of the class, and that is Honus Wagner. According to WARP, Wagner was literally twice as valuable to his team as most of the rest of the list.
I included a number of these, not because I consider them in the Top 10, but more to prove a point. While I understand that shortstop has historically been a position of defensive specialists, all of the top contenders (with the arguable exception of Ozzie Smith), brought a fair amount of offense to the position as well.
Luis Aparicio, for example, really does not deserve the status he has been accorded as a baseball legend, and in fact, seems no more deserving than Bert Campaneris, or Dave Concepcion, other defensive minded speedsters who brought a great deal of value to their teams, if not enough to put them over the top.
Bill Dahlen and George Davis's stats are clearly less impressive than they appear, due to the conditions in which they played (less organized baseball, no black players, etc). Nevertheless, their numbers are impressive enough that they must be put into the Top 10.
Phil Rizzuto, I know he missed time due to war, but he still only had 75 WARP, Pee Wee missed the same years, and had 97 WARP. The Scooter was great, but not quite great enough.
Without thinking too much about it, I imagine we can all agree that the Top 10, beyond Wagner, Dahlen, and Davis, absolutely must include Ozzie Smith, Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr. as well. The Same is true for Arky Vaughan, who has largely been forgotten by history, but who Bill James considered the second greatest shortstop (after Wagner), in the history of the game.
Omar Vizquel. Vizquel is absolutely not a candidate for Top 10 all time status, and I included him in the discussion mainly to illustrate the point that, comparisons between Vizquel and Ozzie Smith are entirely unfounded. Vizquel has saved 99 runs above average in his career, this is a fantastic total. He has also been 155 runs below average at the plate, (it is easy to forget, given his late '90's offensive contributions, that he was once labeled "Omar the outmaker").
Ozzie Smith was 33 runs above average at bat. This is not so impressive, but is, as you can easily figure out, 188 runs more than what Vizquel was able to produce. Ozzie stole more bases (by far), and did so with a much better success rate. Ozzie drew more walks, and produced a similar batting line in an era of much lighter offense.
Defensively, he saved an astonishing 268 runs over the average shortstop. This is an earth-shattering figure, and it absolutely blows Vizquel out of the water. Saying that Vizquel is comparable to Ozzie Smith is like saying Eddie Murray is just as good as Lou Gehrig.
They were both the best first basemen of their day, but that does not mean that they are equivalents.
This leaves us with 3 spots to be filled. The contenders for those 3 spots are as follows: Alex Rodriguez, Luke Appling, Alan Trammel, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, Pee Wee Reese, Joe Sewell, Robin Yount, Joe Tinker, and Dave Bancroft.
Jeter gets cut first. He may eventually rank in the Top 10, but he is only 33, has probably 5-7 years ahead of him, and, lest we forget, is an absolutely brutal defensive shortstop, no matter what gold glove voters say. And before I hear any shit about how he is the cap'n of the Yankees, and a team leader, look who he is up against.
The others include Boudreau, who won the MVP as a player manager, Pee Wee Reese, who was unquestionably a team leader, Barry Larkin, and Ernie Banks ("let's play two!"). Shortstop is THE position for team leaders.
Anyway, just for fun, before saying goodbye, here is a rough projection of Derek Jeter's career numbers, assuming he lasts around, at least in part time duty until the age of 41, declining at a normal rate for a player of his caliber.
H-3403, D-557, T-78, HR-283, R-1992, RBI-1434, SB-374, BB-1099.
This would give him a career WARP of 106. Add in his postseason record, and he would certainly merit inclusion (although people will probably be trying to tell you that he was the best there ever was, which is clearly bullshit). It should also be noted, that this is a fairly modest projection, it is not hard to imagine Jeter breaking the 4000 hit barrier, scoring well over 2000 runs, etc. The more he is able to avoid injury, and the longer he wants to keep playing, he may end up very high on this list.
I'm sort of at a loss with what to do with A-Rod. He already has 109 career WARP, and will almost certainly end up with more than anyone on this list excepting Wagner…but he hasn't been a shortstop since 2003.
Giving proper regard to peak value, he is as good as anyone on the list, but still…I think, in a selfish attempt to make my own life easier, I am just going to pretend that he doesn't exist for now. When I update this lists in 2019 I will give him proper consideration.
Suffice to say, A-Rod will retire as one of the 10 best players in the history of the game, but it is unclear whether he will be chiefly remembered as a shortstop, third baseman, or even a first baseman. If he continues to play 3rd for the rest of his career, he will have spent more time there than at short, so I'm leaving him out for now. Sorry.
Ok, that made things a little easier. Again, here are the career WARPs for the players we have left to fill these three spots:
Appling (130), Trammel (102), Larkin (110), Lou Boudreau (108), Cronin (119), Sewell (107), Bancroft (116), Tinker (121), Reese (98).
These are all pretty closely bunched together, Appling's is noticeably higher than the others, he's in.
Reese, obviously is the only one without 100 career WARP. However, as I have mentioned in previous articles, I do tend to give credit to time lost to war. If a player is productive the year before war, and the year after, it stands to reason he would have been productive during.
In 1942 Pee Wee Reese was worth 10.2 WARP- an MVP total. He missed all of 1943, 1944, and 1945. In 1946, he was worth 10.6. Even assuming that '42 and '46 would have been the best of these years, he would certainly have been worth between 8-10 wins a season in the war years, especially considering he was worth 10.6, 8.0, 9.2, and 9.5 in the four years after his return.
Give him credit for those 24-30 WARP, and his total shoots up to somewhere around 122-128.
He might have put up the following career line:
H-2618, D-403, T-98, HR-150, R-1578, RBI-1086, SB-270.
We have two spots left, and 8 players to fill those two spots. They are all between (giving Reese credit for time lost), 102-124 WARP, so let's look at their peak totals. What follows are the players best five years WARP totals, to see if anyone jumps way out, or falls way behind, the rest of the pack.
Trammel (45.9), Larkin (48.6), Boudreau (60.5!!!!!!), Cronin (58), Sewell (54), Bancroft (52.3), Joe Tinker (54.2), Reese (47.5)
This doesn't tell us very much. Trammel, Larkin and Reese have the lowest, but Reese is unfairly hurt by missing peak time to war, and Trammel and Larkin played a much more difficult version of the game than the other players.
Even so, I have to drop Trammel, who is distinctly inferior, if not by much, to his contemporary Barry Larkin.
I'm afraid I have to get rid of Reese as well. As much as I want to help him out, there is still some question as to how he would have performed, and I think he is probably in the 10-14 all time slot.
OK. Larkin, Boudreau, Cronin, Sewell, Bancroft and Tinker.
Alright, to hell with it; I'm doing a Top 11. Tinker, Bancroft and Sewell are gone, they don't quite match up to the other pre war stars (Cronin and Boudreau). Barry Larkin did have the lowest peak score, but he played in the 1980's and 1990's, against far better competition, and was one of those rare players (like Collins and Morgan in the second base category), who did everything perfectly, and its my list.
So there it is, the Top 10 (in no particular order), are Lou Boudreau, Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken Jr. Ozzie Smith, Luke Appling, Bill Dahlen, and Gorgeous George Davis.
Lou Boudreau, Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken Jr. Ozzie Smith, Luke Appling, Bill Dahlen, and Gorgeous George Davis.To catch up, here are our top 11, in no particular order, with their career WARP totals:
Boudreau (108), Larkin, (110), Cronin (120), Wagner (240), Vaughan (134), Banks (115), Ripken (127), Ozzie (127), Appling (130), Dahlen (180), Davis (170).
As impressive as they appear here, remember that Bill Dahlen and George Davis were doing this before baseball was baseball. Other than Honus Wagner, there is not that much immediately separating these shortstops form one another.
Here are their best 5-year WARP totals, some measure of their level of peak play:
Boudreau (60.5), Larkin (49.5), Cronin (59), Wagner (79.6)!!!, Vaughan, (69.4), Banks (59.4), Ripken (57.9), Ozzie (47.7), Appling (53.4), Dahlen (59.9), Davis (58.5).
Here are their best 10 year WARP totals, some measure of how long they were able to sustain these peaks.:
Boudreau (101.6), Larkin (83), Cronin (88.2), Wagner (146.7), Vaughan (118), Banks (91), Ripken (92.4), Ozzie (88), Appling (93.8), Dahlen (111.6), Davis (109.7).
Things look pretty even, with two notable exceptions.
1. Honus Wagner
Honus Wagner is very clearly the greatest shortstop in the annals of the game, and quite possibly (Babe Ruth included), the most dominant performer at any point in baseball history. Looking at the above numbers, it is shocking the level to which Wagner exceeds the other shortstops on this list. He was worth 240 wins-above- replacement-player in his career, none of the others were within 60 points of that. His 5- year peak exceeded the 2nd place finisher by 10, 3rd place by almost 20. His 10-year totals were even more impressive. His 1908 season may be the best ever, where he put up the following line:
AB-568 H-201 D-39 T-19 HR-10 R-100 RBI-109 SB-53 BB-54 .354/.415/.542/.957
This looks pretty spectacular, and then you realize that 1908 was the lowest offensive point of the twentieth century, the deadest of the dead ball seasons. Baseball Prospectus translates this 1908 season into contemporary numbers. Prepare to be blow away, and remember, he is also one of the game’s 3-4 greatest defensive shortstops.
AB-609 H-226 D-54 T-14 HR-57 BB-70 SB-54 R-150 RBI-177 .371/.440.787/1.227
From a gold glove shortstop, this is beyond belief. This season was worth 19 wins above a replacement player. This means that, given an average team that would finish the season with a record of 81-81, was starting a replacement level shortstop, replaced that shortstop with Wagner, and the team could expect to win 100 games.
Following is Wagner’s career line, as translated through Baseball Prospectus:
H-3640 D-855 T-138 HR-637 BB-1174 SB-640 R-2060 RBI-2257 .324/.394/.595
It’s like combining Albert Pujols and Ozzie Smith.
2. Arky Vaughan
A forgotten star, Bill James ranked him number two of all time, and its hard to disagree, even if putting him ahead of the rest of this list doesn’t quite feel right.
His numbers really are eye-popping, though. Check out his 1935 season, where hit batted .385/.491/.607. He comes in second to Wagner in almost anyway you try to look at the numbers. He also had some of the most impressive BB/K rations of all time, including seasons of 97/18, and 104/21.
His career numbers would be more impressive had he not missed all of ’44, ’45, and ’46 due to serving in the Second World War. Had he been permitted to play out those three seasons, his career batting line would resemble something like this:
H-2503, D-446, T-138, HR-108, R-1456, RBI-1108, SB-140, BB-1088 .318/.406/.453/.859, he would have had a career WARP of at least 150.
3. Cal Ripken Jr.
It’s funny, all people think about when they think about Cal Ripken Jr. are the games played, forgetting how unbelievably good he was. Despite his lack of speed, Cal was a remarkable defensive player, worth 113 fielding runs above average during his career (this is more than Omar Vizquel, for example).
His positioning, instincts, and incredible throwing arm made him one of the best shortstops of his time, although his frame and lack of foot-speed kept him from feeling like a great defender. His 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1991 seasons rank among the best ever from the position.
His offensive numbers do not look quite so impressive compared to the big shortstops of the late 1990’s, but they are fantastic remembering that his offensive peak came from 1982-1991, before the offensive explosion of the “steroid era." He was one of the dominant offensive players at the time (easily the dominant offensive player of 1991, and perhaps in ’83 and ’84 as well), and did so while being a gold glove quality shortstop.
Beyond all this, the consecutive games record is not just ceremonial. Their is remarkable talent in being able to take the field every day, and incredible value as well.
4. Ozzie Smith
I am having a lot of trouble figuring out a way to differentiate between the rest of the men on the list. Davis and Dahlen have by far the most impressive statistics, until on realizes that they played the majority of their careers in the 19th century, tailing into the dead-ball area.Barry Larkin is one of those perfect players; every facet of his game was beyond reproach, even if he was not ever the best in any single way.
Ernie Banks and Lou Boudreau had the impressive peaks, but didn’t last long enough at the position. Given a combination of peak value and longevity, I think I am going to go with, in the number 4 spot...Ozzie Smith.
Obviously the greatest defensive shortstop in the game’s history; perhaps the single greatest defensive performer at any position. Ozzie, after spending the first eight years of his career as an offensive zero, became an asset with the bat as well. He hit for a reasonable average, drew a great deal of walks, and stole bases at a high success rate. His numbers are depressed somewhat by the low-offense ‘80’s, BP’s translations change his .262/.337/.328 line into .278/.356/.364.
Given his reasonable offensive contributions, his brilliant glovework, and the fact that he maintained positive value until the age of 41 (being worth 3.1 WARP in part time duty in 1996), I feel pretty good about having him in the 4 spot.
5. Luke Appling
Old Aches ‘n Pains. It was really between him and Joe Cronin for the 5 position, Appling eked it out due to a slightly longer career.
6. Joe Cronin
Superficially superior offensive stats to a lot of these players, but remember that he played in the 1930’s, and in Boston. Environments that tremendously increased his numbers, and probably added about .20-.30 points to his rate stats.
7. Ernie Banks
Started on a path that would have placed him higher than number 7, but he spent the second half of his career as a league average 1st baseman. It is truly a testament to his superior play at short that he is this high, given the 1259 games at 1st (actually more than he had at shortstop). He was worth 36.2 WARP in his time at 1st, and 79.8 WARP at short. His MVP seasons were well deserved, but he was just as valuable in 3 other seasons, and was, in fact, an excellent defender as well. Had he been physically able to play short in his 30’s, he’d rank higher, but he didn’t, and he doesn’t.
8. Barry Larkin
Superficially, his career is less impressive than the three men ranked below him. Again, however, he did this in the 1980’s, against far tougher competition.
As mentioned above, he is on the shortlist with Mays, Bonds, Amos Otis, Robbie Alomar, and others, of men who played utterly absent any flaws. Often compared to Derek Jeter, this is less apt given how much better Larkin was defensively (saving 73 fielding runs above average for his career). He won the MVP award in 1995, but was significantly better in ’96, ’90, ’91, ’88, ’92, and maybe ’98 and ’99 as well, which has to be historically unusual.
Great percentage player, walking more than he struck out, stealing bases without being caught. Fun to watch, he should coast into the HOF (whether or not he will is another question).
9. Lou Boudreau
Had a peak to compare with anyone above (excepting Honus Wagner). He didn’t log enough games to rank any higher. Additionally, his most impressive season, an incredible 14.7 win 1944, can be, in part, explained by a weakening of the competition due to the war. Given a normal decline period he might rank as high as number 4, but he was basically done at 31.
10. Bill Dahlen
Both he and Davis gave me a lot of trouble, they have bizarrely impressive totals, but they did it way before the game was the game that we know today. Dahlan’s defensive statistics are superior to Ozzie Smith’s, although that must be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
11. George Davis
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