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Greatest Shortstops

 

by Aman Verjee

 

1. Honus Wagner

2. Ernie Banks

3. Cal Ripken, Jr.

4. Joe Cronin

5. Ozzie Smith

 

Honorable Mention: Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Alex Rodriguez

Best Defensively: Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger

 

     Shortstops live and die by the glove.  A great hitter who rings up extra base hits and drives in runs helps his team in ways that are measurable; various baseball formulas have been developed based on historical regression analyses to measure the contribution of the sluggers to their teams' success.  For instance, based on his 1998 season, Mark McGwire created 193 runs - that is, his offensive contributions were the equivalent of 193 of the runs that the St. Louis Cardinals scored that season (NL MVP Sammy Sosa created 149).

     Now, what if an average player had hit for McGwire?  What is the value-added?  By controlling runs created for ballpark effects and subtracting out a league average replacement player, we can see that McGwire contributed about 95 "batter runs" to his team.

     Now, what about a top-fielding shortstop?  Just how many runs can a shortstop save if he has great range and commits few errors?  One can determine how many hits a shortstop takes away from opponents by looking at how many putouts and assists he gets beyond the league average.  Although there is no way to tell for sure just how many runs a shortstop saves, we can develop an estimate.  Take Ozzie Smith, for instance - in 1980 he led the majors with 288 putouts and 621 assists.  That means that he got 16% more outs than the league typical shortstop - Total Baseball figures that he took 41 runs away from opponents that year alone, and that's before stepping into the batter's box!  As a point of comparison, the league MVP that year was Mike Schmidt, with 48 HR, 121 RBI and a huge slugging percentage of .624; according to Total Baseball, he added 49 runs with his bat above and beyond a league average replacement player. 

     No other position is so critical to the defense.  The best shortstops with the glove (Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Mark Belanger among them) frequently took over 20 runs away from opponents, helping their pitchers keep their pitch count low and often giving the team a psychological lift.  That said, defense alone won't get you on this list - sorry, Rey Ordonez.  There are too many good shortstops who could thrill with both offense and brilliant defense, starting with ...

 

 

1. Honus Wagner

Batting Titles: 8 (12 top five NL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 6 (10 top five NL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 4 (11 top five NL finishes)

 

     A shortstop who led the league in hitting 8 times and slugging 6 times??  They just don't make them like Wagner anymore.  He led the National League in RBI 5 times, total bases 5 times, extra base hits 6 times, stolen bases 5 times, doubles 7 times, hits twice ... well, you get the idea.  The most dominant player in the majors, next to Ty Cobb, for the first decade of this century, from 1900-1909 he hit over .330 and finished with 100+ runs scored and 100+ RBIs six times each.  From 1904 to 1908, he rang up five straight seasons in which he stole 50 bases or more, and his 723 career steals is in the top 10 overall.  He led the league in thefts 6 times.

     Defensively, he wasn't graceful, and he was known to throw pebbles, infield dirt and bits of grass to the first baseman along with the baseball.  Still, he was agile and quick, and by 1912 he had developed into a premier fielder - his fielding percentage was .962 while the league averages were around the .930 mark.  He was generally considered the top defensive shortstop of his era.

     Wagner's athletic prowess was such that most observers thought he could have been a Hall of Famer at any position, perhaps even pitcher.  When he retired in 1917, he led the National League in hits, runs, singles, doubles, and triples.  He has a lifetime batting average of .327.

     He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as part of the original class and tied Babe Ruth for second in total votes with 215 (Ty Cobb led with 222 total votes).

 

 

2. Ernie Banks

 

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     Imagine, if you will, a team with a solid shortstop - one good enough to lead the league in fielding average a few times, maybe even win a Gold Glove or two.  But when that shortstop went to bat, the team could send in a DH for him - say, a Juan Gonzalez or Mo Vaughn.  That, essentially was Ernie Banks - a hitter whose career stats from 1953 to 1961 closely match those of Gonzalez and Vaughn, and whose contributions with the glove at the most important of defensive positions improved to the point that in 1960 he won the Gold Glove.

     From 1955 to 1960, Banks hit more homers than anyone in the majors, including Mantle, Mays, and Aaron.  Early in his career, his fielding was erratic - he committed error totals of 34, 22, 25 and a league-leading 32 between 1955 and 1958 but he worked diligently to become a steady fielder.  In 1959, he cut the number of errors down to 12 (then a record for shortstops), and led NL shortstops in fielding in both 1960 (his Gold Glove year) and 1961.  He led National League shortstops in assists twice and in fielding percentage 3 times.

     This may be a controversial pick because he didn't play shortstop for more than half his career.  He actually played more games at first base than he did at short (1,259 to 1,125), because the Cubs moved him to first in 1962 to prolong his career.  Still, "Mr. Cub" played at shortstop from 1953 to 1961, and went to the All-Star game in 7 of his 11 selections from this position.  He finished his career with 512 career HR, a .500 slugging percentage, and drove in 1,636 runs - unbelievable for this position even if you cut those totals in half.

     Before moving to first base he routinely added 40 adjusted batting runs for his team.  By comparison, in his 1983 MVP season, Cal Ripken added 37 to his team; in his 1984 MVP year, Alan Trammell added 27.  If you list the top six offensive single seasons by a shortstop in the post-Wagner era, Banks' name will come up four times - the others are Ripken in 1991 and Robin Yount in 1981 (both MVP seasons).

     Banks won the league MVP award twice, 1958 and 1959, and should have won it in 1960 for a third straight time, when he hit 41 HR and drove in 117 RBI; but he finished fourth, doomed by the writers' urge to spread the wealth, the Cubs third straight losing season, and the fact that fellow shortstop Dick Groat won the batting title while playing for the pennant-winning Pirates.

     Erratic was the only way to describe a young Ernie Banks in the field.  But after averaging 28 errors a year over his first four seasons, Banks' hard work with the glove during the off-season finally paid off in 1959. Slicing his miscues in the field down to 12, Banks set an NL record (since broken) for the fewest errors by a shortstop during a single season. Weak legs forced a move to first before the 1966 campaign; Ernie went on to lead first basemen in assists five times.

 

 

3. Cal Ripken, Jr.

 

     Athletes are often remembered for something specific, because it's easy to reduce greatness to an image, a single swing of the bat, a single number.  It's almost a shame that Cal Ripken will be remembered for The Streak - yes, he broke the unbreakable record of  Lou Gehrig, but he was a great player as well.

     He has played over 20 seasons with the same team, and his 420+ career homers and 1,650+ RBI leads all shortstops by a comfortable margin.  (Ernie Banks played just six seasons at short, so I disqualify him from the career rankings.)  Ripken in his younger days was a perennial Gold Glove contender (he won two of them) and won two MVP awards - he has amassed 32 first place votes in his career, topped only by Ernie Banks at shortstop (32.5).

 

4. Joe Cronin

 

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     The original slugging shortstop - well, after Honus Wagner - the truest measure of Cronin's worth is that after the 1934 season, the Boston Red Sox purchased him from the Washington Senators for the grand sum of $250,000 - the most money paid for a baseball player up to that time.  

     His defensive work deteriorated late in his career, but he was always a premier hitter and a great strategist and leader.  In 1938, he led the major leagues with 51 doubles, and topped all shortstops with 17 home runs.  He topped 100 RBI on 8 separate occasions, and finished with a career .301 batting average.

     He could have padded his career stats after 1941, but as manager he restricted himself to pinch-hitting duties so younger players would have a chance.

 

5. Ozzie Smith

 

     "The Wizard of Oz" led National League shortstops in fielding percentage 9 times, assists 8 times, double plays 5 times, and range factor (total plays per nine innings) 8 times.  No other shortstop has ever dominated the defensive statistics like Ozzie did.

     His defense was so good that he probably lowered the ERA of his pitchers by a quarter of a run.  He was not a great hitter, but he did steal 580 bases over his career and in the middle years of his career (1984 to 1991) his bat probably didn't his team any runs since his adjusted Total Production was roughly equal to the league average.

 

 


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