MLB History: 11 Greatest Shortstops of All Time, Part 2

Ben FeldmanCorrespondent IJanuary 21, 2008

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