After Lou Gehrig walked away with the first-base spot, I don’t immediately feel there’s as much of a clear-cut winner at second-base. Part of this may be due to sheer distance in time. We’re more than a century removed from 1915-16, the seasons when the top three by bWAR were all in action. Footage of them in action is thus extremely limited, and I feel fairly sure there’s no-one on the SnakePit who can claim to have seen them in action! But there’s a case to be made that this position is one that deserves more than just a mere statistical analysis, when you’re determining the all-time “greatest”.
But let’s start there. Below are, as usual, the top 10 career bWAR, anong non-active players who played a majority of their career at second-base. The names link over to their pages at Baseball-Reference.com for more details, and this link goes to an expanded version, beyond the top 10. There is one active player who would make the list: Robinson Cano: he has posted 69.6 bWAR to date, which ranks him 9th overall. He might well be one or two spots higher, if not for the 242 games potentially lost due to his pair of suspensions for PED use. Crossing him from the list allowed the first Diamondback to make one of these tables. For tenth place now goes to Roberto Alomar, who appeared in 28 games for Arizona in 2004.
Best 2B ever
Pure longevity seems key in reaching the top here. Three of the top four reached the majors while still teenagers, and all of them played there into their forties. That’s something you don’t see much of, on either end. There hasn’t been a position player aged 19 or younger, at any position in the majors, over the previous three seasons (and just one pitcher, the Blue Jays’ Elvis Luciano), with the last such being Juan Soto in 2018. Since Ichiro retired in early 2019, the senior position players have been Albert Pujols and Nelson Cruz, a 1B and DH respectively. The oldest to appear at second during that time was 38-year-old Ben Zobrist. Players these days reach the majors later and retire younger.
Inspired by that, I thought it might be instructive to take a look at who performed the best during their “peak years”, which I am, largely arbitrarily, defining as the age 24 to 30 seasons. This should help defuse the bias towards older players and their extended careers which helps them rack up counting stats like bWAR. Below are the same numbers, but just for the 24-30 seasons: I’ve not excluded active players like Cano in this table:
Peak 2B ever
While the top two remain the same, things are quite different in the rest of the table, with Chase Utley coming out of nowhere to claim third spot. Frankie Fritsch also moves up, while Nap Lajoie and Joe Morgan do not rate so highly using this “peak” metric. This is not dissimilar to the WAR7 measure, [worth clicking through to the chart, which has a lot of useful numbers you can sort by]. Though that is the seven most productive years a player had at any age. For example, Nap Lajoie put up 9.8 bWAR in his age 35 season, his second-best figure. In at least one case, it’s better than a 24-30 figure, because the player had little recorded data before age 28.
That, of course, is Jackie Robinson. His “major league” numbers preceding that point are just 34 games for the Kansas City Monarchs. Over the 6 year period from age 28 to 33 he had 3,394 PA and 44 WAR, or 7.4 WAR per year. He won Rookie of the Year his first season and was the NL Most Valuable Player in his third. Had he been playing in MLB from ages 22-27, it seems credible he would have been able to put up the same or similar numbers as he did well into his 30’s. A back of the beer-mat calculation would then conceivably put him around 110 WAR career, above Joe Morgan, the only second baseman in the integrated era to reach the 100 WAR threshold, whose MLB career began at age 19.
Personally, I would take into account the extraordinary circumstances of Robinson’s career, especially the early years, when he was plowing a lone furrow. Literal death threats, folks, and not just his first season - they were still arriving in 1951. Simply showing up every day is impressive enough, never mind continuing to perform at an All-Star level. Otherwise, the best 2B strictly from the Negro Leagues was Newt Allen. His peak years were age 24-36 when he averaged 4.6 WAR per 650 PA and 108 OPS+. He ended up playing into his middle 40’s, dragging down his rate stats a bit. A good player, but second appears a position not given as much emphasis as in MLB, anf seems the weakest in the Negro Leagues.
As usual, we need to narrow the candidates down to five or thereabouts, for the final poll. This will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!