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The All-Time MLB Team, Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr.

A blend of offense, defense and stamina won the day

9/6/95 - Orioles Cal Ripken reaches for fan in the stands as he takes a victory lap 9/6 to celebrate Photo by Rich Lipski/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

It was a two-man battle between Cal Ripken Jr. and Honus Wagner. For a while, I thought I might end up having to exercise a tie-breaker vote [let the record show, I abstained!], but Ripken ended up just edging it when I closed the poll last night, by a margin of 40-38%. I think RickDD summed it up very nicely with this comment: “In the original article, talking about Ozzie Smith, it was mentioned that Smith and Ripken were the only two in the top ten of both dWar and bWar. It needs to be pointed out then, that Ripken is the ONLY person in the top ten of all three, 4th in oWar, 3rd in dWar, and 2nd in bWar. Wagner may be the best hitter, or Smith the best defender, but Cal Ripken Jr. is the best shortstop.”

It’s surprising to realize that, in the 1978 draft, 47 players were taken before Ripken was selected by the Orioles, with the 22nd pick in the second round. None of them posted anything close to Ripken’s 95.9 bWAR; the nearest was former D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, chosen 12th overall (38.4 bWAR, not including fist-pumps). Even the Orioles chose three others before him: Robert Boyce, Larry Sheets and Eddie Hook. Only Sheets reached the majors, and was worth 1.9 bWAR. Being a high-schooler may have affected his standing, and it’s not as if he had a great pedigree. While Cal Sr. was a pro player, he never reached the majors [he did manage his son on the Orioles in 1987-88]

In high school, Ripken was both a pitcher and a shortstop. In his senior year, he pitched a complete game in the state championship, striking out 17 and allowing only two hits, and many teams scouting him were more interested in that role. After Baltimore drafted him, they decided to use him as a shortstop, on the basis it would be easier to go back to being a pitcher if necessary, than the other way round. However, he was moved to third-base when in A-ball, and spent the majority of his minor-league career there. That’s also how he initially started his major-league career, until Baltimore manager Earl Weaver shifted Cal back to short at the start of July 1982, to take advantage of his offense at that position.

Not that Ripken had hit particularly well to that point, with a line of .248/.281/.412 for an OPS of just .692 in his career to that point. But there had been palpable improvement, Ripken having batted over .300 in the fifty games prior to the change. He brought that to his new position, and hit .264 with 28 home-runs for the season. Ripken cantered to an easy win in the Rookie of the Year voting, getting 20 of the 24 first-place votes, despite trailing Kent Hrbek and Wade Boggs in OPS. Not that anyone noticed at the time, but The Streak had also started, after Cal sat out the nightcap of a double-header on May 29. It would be more than seventeen years before he would not be part of another Orioles game.

His sophomore season was even better, as he hit .318 with 27 home-runs, leading the majors in hits, as the Orioles won the World Series, beating the Phillies in five games - Ripken made the final out. He became first to be voted MVP, the season after being Rookie of the Year, getting 15 of 28 first-place votes, edging out Eddie Murray. But you could argue Ripken’s 1984 campaign was even better. He became just the third AL shortstop to post a ten bWAR season, after Lou Boudreau and Robin Yount. This was mostly due to his glove, Cal being worth 3.6 dWAR. For comparison, Nick Ahmed’s best was 3.7 dWAR in 2018, so that’s basically how good Ripken was as a shortstop - while also batting .304 with 27 home-runs again.

Though the Orioles went 12 years without making the playoffs after their World Series win, Ripken was a consistent presence. Never mind continuous games, he played 8,243 consecutive innings, a record no-one has challenged. From 1983 through 1991, he had an OPS+ of 128 and an average of 5.9 bWAR. Peak Ripken was achieved in 1991, when he won his second MVP award, batting .323 with 34 home-runs, despite Baltimore losing 95 games. Cal was worth 11.5 bWAR, a figure matched in shortstop history only by Honus Wagner’s 1908 campaign. He won MVP, once more with 15 first-place votes, also taking home the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for the season.

He would play for ten more solid seasons, though Father Time would inevitably catch up with Cal. He would not reach even five bWAR the rest of the way. However, September 6 1995 saw him surpass Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games, in a contest which is among ESPN’s most-watched regular season broadcasts ever. [Fun fact: future Diamondback Damion Easley made the out which turned the game official that night] The streak eventually ended near the end of the 1998 season, after 2,632 games, more than five hundred beyond Gehrig’s mark. By that point, he had moved to third-base, though in a memorable All-Star Game moment, Alex Rodriguez let Ripken take over at short in the 2001 contest.

That was Cal’s final appearance there, having announced in June that he would be retiring at the end of the season. His career ended on October 6 after more than three thousand games over 21 seasons. He was a near-unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibiliy. Ripken got 98.53% of the possible BBWAA votes, at the time the highest percentage by any position player. He has continued to be active in and around the game - an undoubted highlight was, as mentioned previously, his presence at the 2011 All-Star Game Fan Fest here in Phoenix. Though who it was a highlight FOR... well, perhaps not Ripken!

We’ll begin the next position, third-base, on Wednesday.