Though the NL Central is a relatively new division, the teams that comprise it have been home to some of the best shortstops to ever grace Major League Baseball. Rabbit Maranville, Ernie Banks, Joe Tinker, Arky Vauhn, Honus Wagner and Bobby Wallace all played for teams who now play in the Central.
Arguably two of the best at the position, Barry Larkin, and Ozzie Smith played for now division rivals Cincinnati and St. Louis. The argument over who is better has been brought up numerous times and now more than ever since Larkin has been elected to the Hall of Fame.
I'm here to try and settle this debate, so let's first take a look at each player's career accolades:
- 2012 HOF inductee
- 1995 NL MVP
- 12x All-Star
- First Shortstop to go 30/30
- 3x Gold Glove winner
- 1993 Roberto Clemente Award Winner
- 1994 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award Winner
- 9x Silver Slugger
- 19 seasons played
- 2002 HOF inductee
- 15x All-Star
- 1985 NLCS MVP
- 1989 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award Winner
- 1994 Branch Rickey Award Winner
- 1995 Roberto Clemente Award Winner
- 13x Gold Glove Winner
- 1x Silver Slugger
- 19 seasons played
As you can see, both are highly decorated on and off the field. Ozzie is more decorated defensively, while Larkin was rewarded more for his offensive play.
I would argue that Ozzie's 1989 Gold Glove Award should have been given to Larkin, as his defensive numbers were better than Ozzie's that season (.976 fielding percentage, 5.33 RF/9, 4.99 RF/G vs. Ozzie's 9.76 fielding percentage, 4.66 RF/9 and 4.52 RF/G) but even so, Ozzie is arguably the best defensive shortstop of all-time.
While we're on the subject of defense, though, let's compare the two throughout their careers.
As you can see, Ozzie had a much larger number of chances on the field, which I attribute to Larkin's numerous trips to the DL. However, just looking at Ozzie's RF/9 and DWAR values shows that he's the better defender.
Ozzie's .978 fielding percentage was 12 points higher than the league average over his 19 year career. His 21.6 DWAR value is the fourth highest among all position players and the highest among shortstops (4 points above Ripken).
This isn't to say Larkin wasn't a great defender in his own right, though. When comparing his RF/9 to the league average during his 19-year career, he bests it by .05. His fielding percentage was also higher than the league at the time (.975 vs. .968).
Defensively, Ozzie was superior.
Now, let's examine the two's offensive games:
Larkin, by the numbers, is far and above the better offensive player. In nearly 400 less games and 1459 less at-bats, Barry Larkin compiled 170 more home runs, 167 more RBI and scored 72 more runs.
Smith bested Larkin in hits by 120 and stolen bases by 201, but that's about where he stopped beating Larkin offensively.
Just to hammer home my point, take a look at what Larkin's career numbers would look like if you calculated his 162-game averages out over his 19-year career.
I can't get an oWAR/162 figure for Larkin, so I just plugged in his career number. Now, these numbers are obviously a little high, but when given his 162-game averages, this is what he could have done had he played every game of his career.
However, six of Larkin's shortened seasons came between the ages of 25 and 33, so it's not out of the question to believe that his 162-game averages could be higher had he not been injured in the prime of his career. I'm a firm believer that if he were healthy more often, Larkin would have finished his career with 3000 hits and upwards of 250 home runs.
Now back to comparison. Larkin has three more things working in his favor. First, Larkin won nine Silver Slugger awards to Ozzie's one. Everyone knows Ozzie wasn't much of a hitter, but Larkin sure was.
Second, Larkin posted the first of only three 30/30 seasons by a shortstop in 1996. Larkin revolutionized the offensive aspect shortstop position, while Ozzie just flat out didn't hit that great.
Finally, Larkin won an MVP in 1995. Ozzie's closest MVP season was 1987, but he was miles behind beating Andre Dawson's monster season.
So, what does all this mean?
Well, given the stats and the impact that each player had on their position, as well as their team, I give the nod to Larkin. Call me a homer all you want, but if you factor in both facets of the game, it's very difficult to rank Larkin below Smith.
As I said earlier, Larkin revolutionized the position. He was the first shortstop who could hit for an average, steal bases and hit home runs. Larkin broke the mold for players like Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciapara.
Verdict: Larkin over Smith.
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