Ranking the 10 Greatest Shortstops in MLB History

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2014

Ranking the 10 Greatest Shortstops in MLB History

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    Derek Jeter will be retiring after 2014, which raises the question: Where does he rank all-time among shortstops?
    Derek Jeter will be retiring after 2014, which raises the question: Where does he rank all-time among shortstops?Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Earlier this week, Derek Jeter announced he will be retiring from baseball at the end of the 2014 season, his 20th, all of which have been spent with the New York Yankees.

    When an all-timer like Jeter says he's planning to call it quits, well, folks start putting things into all sorts of context. With that endeavor in mind, the task at hand is to rank the 10 best shortstops ever, which has been Jeter's position throughout his career.

    There are two ways to tackle this. We'll get to the second later, but the first approach is to evaluate the top 10 shortstops, purely as players.

    To help with that comparison and provide some perspective, here's a look at the career leaders in wins above replacement (WAR) among shortstops who have played since 1900, according to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

    1119.8Honus Wagner127.2Honus Wagner
    295.5Cal Ripken Jr.92.5Cal Ripken Jr.
    377.0Robin Yount 73.8Derek Jeter
    476.5Ozzie Smith72.7Luke Appling
    574.4Luke Appling 72.6Arky Vaughan
    673.0 Arky Vaughan67.7Barry Larkin
    771.5Derek Jeter67.6Ozzie Smith
    870.3Alan Trammell 66.6Joe Cronin
    970.3Barry Larkin 66.5Robin Yount
    1066.3Joe Cronin64.5Lou Boudreau
    1166.2Pee Wee Reese63.7Alan Trammell
    1263.1Lou Boudreau 61.3Pee Wee Reese
    1356.9Bobby Wallace55.5Joe Tinker
    1455.5Luis Aparicio 49.2Dave Bancroft
    1553.7Joe Sewell 49.1Luis Aparicio/Bobby Wallace (tie)

    First, let's point out that there's no Alex Rodriguez or Ernie Banks on either list, because trying to determine the 10 best shortstops should be a focus on players who actually, you know, played shortstop. That means this considers only those who spent the majority of their career at the position. Rodriguez has played only 1,272 of 2,568 career games there, while Banks got in 1,125 of 2,528—both check in just below 50 percent. That disqualifies them.

    Some other noteworthy names that aren't on either top-15 WAR ranking? Miguel Tejada, Omar Vizquel, Nomar Garciaparra and Jimmy Rollins, among some of the more contemporary shortstops. Each one has a compelling case for the back end of the top 10, but ultimately, they came up...short.

    While Baseball Reference and FanGraphs don't calculate WAR the exact same way (hence the slightly different numbers for each player), it's clear from the above table that the statistic does a good job of pointing out the very best shortstops. In fact, among the top 15 leaders from each (16 if you count the FanGraphs tie), 14 appear on both.

    Which of those will make the final cut into the top 10 shortstops of all time? Let's find out.

10. Joe Cronin (1926-1945)

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    Associated Press

    One of the lesser-known Hall of Famers, Joe Cronin not only played for three teams over his 20 seasons in the majors, he also managed two of them, the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, for 15.

    On his way to .301/.390/.468 career line, eight 100-RBI campaigns and five top-10 MVP finishes, Cronin became player-manager for the Senators—replacing the legendary Walter Johnson, no less—at the age of 26.

    Cronin was so highly regarded in his day that when he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1934, the Sox included $250,000 cash—a staggering amount of money at the time—to get the deal done.

9. Alan Trammell (1977-1996)

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    Jason Lee/Associated Press

    One of the best offensive and defensive shortstops in history, Alan Trammell never quite got his due or recognition, primarily because he was a contemporary of the next three in this top 10 as well as the guy at No. 2.

    A .285/.352/.415 hitter who also swiped 236 bags and walked almost as many times as he whiffed over his 20 seasons—all with the Detroit Tigers—Trammell still is not in the Hall of Fame after 13 years on the ballot, making him the only non-HOFer (aside from Jeter, who's still active) on this list.

8. Robin Yount (1975-1993)

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    Joe Picciolo/Associated Press

    Robin Yount barely qualified for this by playing 1,479 of 2,856 career games at short (51.8 percent), but that doesn't mean he doesn't get docked for shifting to center field in the middle of his career.

    Yount's career triple-slash line of .285/.342/.430 is almost identical to Trammell's, and he, too, spent 20 seasons with the same team, the Milwaukee Brewers (that seems to be a running theme among these iconic shortstops).

    The differences that give Yount the edge? He reached 3,000 hits (3,142) and won two MVPs (1982, 1989) while being an overall and all-around more consistent offensive player.

7. Barry Larkin (1986-2004)

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Barry Larkin comes up one season shy of joining Trammell and Yount in the 20-with-the-same-team club, but he checks in just ahead for his steady production on both sides of the ball.

    The Cincinnati native made his hometown club look good for picking him fourth overall in the 1985 draft, as he sported a .295/.371/.444 line, helped win the 1990 World Series and captured the 1995 MVP.

    Larkin, a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee, also proved to be one of the most popular players of his era by being voted to 12 All-Star Games across three different decades.

6. Ozzie Smith (1978-1996)

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    Ed Reinke/Associated Press

    Ozzie Smith deserves this place among the top 10 shortstops of all time, even if only for his oh-so-fitting nickname: The Wizard of Oz.

    After all, the only thing Smith was known more for than doing backflips (pictured) was his outrageous wizardry with the glove. Having started his career with the San Diego Padres, Smith was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981 and proceeded to win the final 11 of his 13 consecutive Gold Gloves—most ever for the position.

    Even though he wasn't much of a threat with the bat—he's the rare player whose slugging percentage (.328) actually is below his on-base percentage (.337)—Smith still made getting into Cooperstown on the first try (91.7 percent) look as easy as converting a two-hopper into an out.

5. Arky Vaughan (1932-1948)

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    Associated Press

    For a player to have fewer than 100 career home runs and still be as impactful at the plate as Arky Vaughan was is no easy feat.

    Vaughan had the briefest big league career of this bunch—just 14 seasons—and while he finished with only 96 homers, he wound up hitting .318 with a .406 OBP and .453 SLG. He also walked (937) more than three times more than he struck out (276) and led the league in bases on balls three straight years from 1934 through 1936.

    In playing 10 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates followed by four with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Vaughan made the All-Star team in nine consecutive seasons from 1934 through 1942.

4. Luke Appling (1930-1950)

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    Charles Knoblock/Associated Press

    Yet another shortstop who played 20 seasons with the same team, Luke Appling hit .310/.399/.398 for his career with the Chicago White Sox.

    As the slugging percentage proves, Appling didn't possess much in the way of power, but he did post a 113 OPS+ and knew how to get on base (1,302 walks). Appling also led the league in hitting twice, batting .388 in 1936 and .328 in 1943.

    Although he was known as "Old Aches and Pains," Appling remains one of only four shortstops to play at least 100 games at the position in a season in which he was at least 40 years old. He did so twice, registering 139 at age 40 and 142 at age 42.

3. Derek Jeter (1995-2014)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    After going sixth overall in the 1992 draft, Derek Jeter answered any questions about his ability—not to mention, his knack for coming up big under pressure—by smacking an Opening Day homer in his rookie season of 1996. He won Rookie of the Year that season and never looked back.

    Entering his final campaign with a career slash line of .312/.381/.446, Jeter is already in the top 10 all-time in career hits (3,316) with a chance to join the same company in runs scored, too.

    Having reached double digits in home runs and stolen bases for 15 straight seasons (1996-2010), Jeter's 256 homers and 348 steals make him one of two shortstops ever, along with Yount, to reach 250 in both. So he wasn't the greatest with the glove.

2. Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-2001)

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Cal Ripken Jr. is most famous for breaking Lou Gehrig's long-standing record of playing 2,130 consecutive games. In all, the shortstop made it into 2,632 straight, which is some kind of ridiculous.

    Because that mark is so utterly incomprehensible, it actually overshadows Ripken's performance exploits, That's a difficult thing to do, especially given that he smacked 3,184 hits and smashed 431 home runs to go with 1,647 runs and 1,695 RBI. Among shortstops, Ripken ranks first or second in all four of those categories (only Jeter has more hits and runs).

    In many ways, because he stood 6'4", Ripken was also a game-changer, because his success as a two-time MVP (1983, 1991) helped usher in an era of taller, bigger shortstops, a batch that included the likes of Garciaparra (6'0"), Larkin (6'0") Jeter (6'3") and Rodriguez (6'3"), who started his career at the position.

1. Honus Wagner (1897-1917)

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    Associated Press

    The fact that Honus Wagner is the only shortstop in this top 10 to play his entire career during the dead ball era makes evaluating his performance a bit trickier. It also makes his numbers all the more outrageous.

    The dead ball era was coined as such because run scoring was low and, well, the ball was more or less dead. Despite that, Wagner, who played three years with the Louisville Colonels before 18 straight with the Pittsburgh Pirates, batted .328 for his career. That's the highest among any shortstop since 1900.

    Wagner also finished with 3,420 hits, 1,739 runs scored, 1,733 RBI and generally has black ink all over his Baseball Reference page, meaning he led the league in something about a bajillion times.

    No wonder he was enshrined in the inaugural Hall of Fame class of 1936, alongside Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. With 95.1 percent of the vote, Wagner actually tied Ruth.

The Shortstop with the Best Overall Career Is...

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    Derek Jeter after winning MVP of the 2000 World Series, his fourth of five championships.
    Derek Jeter after winning MVP of the 2000 World Series, his fourth of five championships.AMY SANCETTA/Associated Press

    As mentioned in the intro, there is a second way to measure the 10 best shortstops. The ranking you just read through was based strictly on the on-field performance (i.e., statistics, production). But when going by everything—taking into account things like accolades, awards, achievements, honors, championships and reputation—which shortstop had the best overall career?

    In other words: If every single shortstop's career was available in a fantasy draft-style format, would anyone really not take Jeter's first?

    Think about it: As the captain of the most successful, most popular franchise in baseball history in the sport's biggest media market, Jeter was the face of the Yankees for two full decades, during which he won five World Series, went to 13 All-Star Games, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting eight times, recorded a top-10 all-time hits total and is a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

    And that's not even considering the hundreds of millions he made in salary and endorsements, or you know, his impressive resume off the diamond.

    In the end, Jeter might not quite be the best shortstop ever to play the game, but as far as careers go, No. 2's is No. 1.

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11


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