The following essay is Part II of an ongoing series of articles about the contemporary role of the Hall of Fame as a cultural institution and as a benchmark for measuring baseball’s changing standards of excellence over time. ( Hall of Fame Part I )
One only needs to recall MLB’s recent “All-Century Team” marketing event to recognize the institutionalization of an older trend — the distinction between “all-time greats” and those who were “merely” great and memorable — but, well, “not quite” as great. As living super-immortals waved from the field to thunderous applause, long-forgotten old-timers begged for remembrance with little more than a brief statistical apology for their intrusion; and as the unintentionally awkward photos of the old-timers flashed reverently across the scoreboard and into our homes, many laughed at the thought of legitimate historical comparison to players of the modern game, stunned, perhaps, at the statistical abnormalities of a bygone era in which three-man rotations absorbed 1000 innings and won 60+ games, where hitting stars regularly reached .350 (or even .400) year after year, and fielding specialists made a living with those small, makeshift gloves.
As times change, standards change—but this is why the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee was founded, to bridge the gaps in our collective cultural memories and enable sound judgment to persist a few generations beyond the climax of a player’s actual career. With any luck, a new generation of sports writers will, like the Supreme Court, reject as unconstitutional the common law practice of excusing bad defense where gaudy hitting alone is allowed to suffice, and pave the way for a more egalitarian standard of evaluating players. The conservative tradition of measuring a player by his position is already under siege. Just as today’s crop of slugging, batting-champ caliber AL shortstops is shattering the myth on a more permanent basis, Bret Boone, Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar (and no doubt more, coming soon) are rewriting the standards for hitting at second base in the wake of Ryne Sandberg. Moreover, with the almost endless array of good-hitting, super-slugging first baseman currently in baseball, new distinctions will need to be drawn between those who just stood at first and slugged .550, and those who could actually field their position adequately—or even superbly—while doing so.
When it comes to the middle infield, defense has historically been the key to immortality. Mediocre defense was never excused, and one merely had to be a solid .260 hitter with good bat control and a little speed to complement on-the-field leadership and defensive excellence. Now that middle infielders have begun to hit like first basemen, the standard will surely change, just as defensive ability at positions like first base and left field will be of greater importance when judging the overall greatness of today’s high-tech, multi-tool professional athletes. With any luck, defense in general will gain greater significance in non-Veteran’s Committee elections than it has in the past, as greater and greater numbers of multi-tool players exceed the limitations of historical positional prejudices, and, moreover, as new statistical means of measuring defense are devised, popularized, and accepted as accurate and important indicators by ML management, labor unions, and broadcast journalists.
Frank Thomas, should he continue to excel with the bat, might furnish an excellent problem for Hall of Fame voters, just as the career of Edgar Martinez — a career DH (3+ full years at 3rd Base) with two batting titles, a .317 career average, and not quite enough milestones to merit induction—will cause rumblings about the possibility of a career DH making the HoF. While a healthy Frank Thomas could have the necessary offense for the HoF, his defense actually may be held against him by today’s voters, assuming that his final offensive numbers are not overwhelming.
In Part III of this series I will look in particular at the under appreciation of defense at the “real” hot corner—first base—and the transformation of that position, but for now I wish to focus on the position of shortstop, notably the career of Alan Trammell, as a way of problematizing historical benchmarks, and then briefly look at second base using Trammell’s long-time double-play partner, Lou Whitaker, and his surprisingly similar career numbers. However first we will look at Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto.
Setting a New Standard: Reese and Rizzuto
Hall of Fame Brooklyn favorite Pee Wee Reese did not put up the attractive offensive numbers of shortstop Joe Cronin, and certainly fell well below those of hyperstar Honus Wagner; he was not inducted to the HoF until 1984 by the Veteran’s Committee. Still, his induction set off a well-known debate as to the worthiness of his NY counterpart, Yankee Phil Rizzuto, a debate that seemed moot (most agreed they both deserved recognition) but was not settled until Rizzuto’s belated induction by the Veteran’s Committee (which then included Reese himself) in 1994. If we look at the careers of Reese and Rizzuto, the credentials of these two stars were often measured using the “weakest link theory”—that is, measuring candidacy against the “worst” player at that position already inducted into the Hall, and then considering the wider statistical deviation to the greatest player at that position, or to those who already failed to win support with similar numbers—focusing almost exclusively on offense.
This is actually the worst method of analysis one could devise, but it is the one mode of argumentation found most frequently in any HoF debate — the reductio ad absurdum — selecting the most extreme cases across the board to analyze one historically situated player. Modern sports historians tend to evaluate players by locating their careers historically, comparing players against their contemporaries: was he the best (or one of the best) at his position during the era in which he played? Was he an MVP, or an all-star during those years? Did he dominate in the post-season, or in a particular category? Was he exceptional off the statistics sheet? Was he consistent and durable? Did his defense make him a star or a liability in the field? How did his own contemporaries view him? The current system is actually quite good in that the prejudices of number crunchers are deflated by the wisdom of the veterans themselves. Today, players of the 1940s and 50s — and younger HoFers who perhaps saw them play — have the benefit of voting in the greatest of their era by peer consensus, and thus establishing a new historical standard. In the case of Rizzuto and Pee Wee, the position of shortstop is particularly difficult to assess, since only 6 shortstops were in the Hall of Fame until 1964: Honus Wagner (1936), Hughie Jennings (1945), Joe Tinker (1946), Bobby Wallace (1953), Rabbit Maranville (1954), and Joe Cronin (1956). By the time Reese was inducted, there were many more shortstops already in the Hall, and the Veteran’s Committee began to recognize greater numbers of deserving players.
Of these first six, Tinker was a .262 career hitter with excellent speed (Cf. Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio, also .262 career hitters), setting the precedent for the modern shortstop with his trademark defense alongside legendary DP-buddy, Johnny Evers, who was inducted the same year. Tinker later managed for four seasons. One of the game’s earliest household names, he would be hard to keep out of the HoF. Maranville hit .258 over 23 seasons, an early iron man playing a then record number of games at shortstop (still held at the time of his induction). If anyone wonders why he is a Hall of Famer, offensive statistics don’t tell the story. Certainly it is not for his managerial career, which consists of 53 games for the last-place 1925 Cubs. Maranville was voted-in by the baseball writers on 83% of the ballots, and is remembered for his tremendous range, durability and longevity.
Bobby Wallace, an old timer whose career began in 1894 with the Cleveland Spiders, was a very good fielding shortstop who got even better after moving the to the American League. In 25 seasons he hit .268, mostly for the Browns, hitting nearly 400 doubles, and 34 home runs (in the dead ball era). Remarkably, 12 of those 34 homers came in one year, 1899, when he hit .295 and drove in 108 runs. His longevity and consistency are noteworthy. Jennings was a .311 hitter from 1891-1906, first for Louisville and then mostly for the NL Orioles. One of the better players of his era, Jennings had a penchant for getting hit by the pitch, and became more famous for his managerial career, helping Detroit to three AL pennants in his first 3 years as manager (1907-09). He would not win again in Detroit (finishing second twice) and left the team in 1920, coming back to manage the Giants to first place in 1924 and a second place finish in 1925. Until 1964, when the great Luke Appling and the remarkable old-timer Monte Ward (1878-1894) were inducted (Ward, as you might guess, by the Veteran’s committee), these were the men remembered by the Baseball HoF as the game’s greatest shortstops. Five more shortstops would be added in the 70s, then four in the 80s, four in the 90s, and Ozzie Smith in 2002.
The Rizzuto-Reese debate is old, but looking again at their career statistics I was surprised to see that Reese’s numbers were significantly better in some ways, and Pee Wee played about 25% more than Rizzuto. True, Reese played 16 seasons to Rizzuto’s 13 (both players served in the military from 1943-1945 and did not play during those three years), and Rizzuto’s last 3 were poor, but the numbers are instructive:
Over his career, Reese averaged one double every 24.4 AB to Reese’s 24.3, and 1 triple for every 100.7 AB to Rizzuto’s 93.8. But Reese hit 2.5 times as many home runs, though their RBI numbers are closer (1RBI per 9.1 AB for Reese, 1 per 10.3 AB for Rizzuto). Walk-to-strikeout ratios are in Rizzuto’s favor (1.36 for Pee Wee to 1.64 for Rizzuto), though Reese did more of both, whereas Rizzuto was truly a superb contact hitter (as well as a superb bunter), striking out over 40 times in a full season only once, and leading the league 4 times in sacrifice hits during the 49-53 dynasty. Remarkably, Rizzuto struck out only once every 14.6 AB (that’s about once every 3.5 games), and also walked one time per 14.6 AB, whereas Reese struck out about once every 9 AB — still very good — and walked far more frequently, once every 6.7 AB. Naturally, Reese was no slouch in the fundamentals either, leading the NL in sacrifices in ’53 and finishing in the top ten eight times. Reese also stole 20+ bases 5 times — Rizzuto did so only once. However, Rizzuto is remembered for stealing bases when it counted most—when the game was on the line and the Yankees needed a run. In fact, Rizzuto and Jackie Robinson were considered the best overall baserunners of their era, as well as the top bunters in their respective leagues.
Reese was consistent in 7 World Series (44 games), hitting .272 with 2 homers with 16 RBI, but averaged only one extra base hit and about 3 runs scored per series. His opponent for six of those 7 World Series, Rizzuto played in a total of 9 WS (52 games) but hit only .246-2-8, and his numbers are equal or below those of Reese save a .352 OB%. Each of them had variously excellent and several poor World Series (Rizzuto’s MVP year was ironically among his worst post-season efforts, though he sparked the ’42 Yankees to the WS title with a .381 average, 2 walks and a home run). Despite Reese’s slightly better numbers, and a little more pop, Rizzuto and Reese were seen as roughly equal players — each had speed, tremendous character, played superb defense, and were daily clinics on the fundamentals. Reese was a 10-time all star and finished in the MVP Top Ten eight times. Rizzuto was a 5-time all star, finished second in the 1949 MVP elections, and actually won the MVP award in 1950. Reese never finished higher than fifth and most of his MVP balloting places him 8th or 9th. Rizzuto had more stellar years at his peak, and Reese’s last two years, like Rizzuto’s last three, were quite poor offensively.
As a defensive shortstop, Rizzuto was known for having an uncanny ability to position himself not only against the hitters, but also against the throw (for example, taking a double play feed or tagging out a baserunner on a throw from the catcher), and also knew exactly how much time he had to throw out every runner.
The idea that Rizzuto was an MVP caliber player for at least two years, if not more, was often ammunition for those who felt that Rizzuto deserved a place in the HoF alongside Reese. No doubt his 40 year broadcasting career with the Yankees made him a unique and instantly recognizable baseball personality (he called Roger Maris’s famous 61st home run at Yankee stadium, among other notable events in Yankee history). But in the end, the old-timers recognized that beyond the mere stats, Rizzuto and Reese were two of a kind, and each deserved his place. The Gold Glove was not awarded until 1957, but one could imagine these two great shortstops earning the lion’s share. The power of the MVP Award has always been a key for HoF voters: was Rizzuto the best player in the league for a couple years or even the better part of a decade at his position? Part of Rizzuto’s HoF appeal is that he fit the mold of the ideal shortstop at the time, so much so that he could be the MVP of the league in his own career-best years ahead of all the great hitters of his age (for example, Yogi Berra finished third in 1950 with .322-28-124 and .550 slugging, and players like Larry Doby and Joe DiMaggio finished 8th and 9th. Boston utility genius (and ostensible second baseman) Billy Goodman was second in voting that year with .354-4-68. For those who are wondering, Ted Williams was 21st that year with .317-28-97, but played only 89 games!
Most of Rizzuto’s career (1941-1956) was played after Joe Cronin had retired, and Cronin averaged only 60 games at short in his last 3 years with Boston (1942-44), not including 3 games in 1945. Cronin was really a player of the 20s and 30s, though his 1940 and 41 campaigns were still excellent. As a manager he had a .540 winning percentage with the Boston Redsox, winning the pennant in 1933 as a player-manager and then as the skipper in 1946. Rizzuto’s rookie year was therefore Cronin’s last great year. The other HoF shortstops who were contemporaries of Rizzuto in the AL are Luke “Old Aches and Pains” Appling, and Lou Boudreau.
Appling played from 1930-1950, still contemporaneous with many of Rizzuto’s best years. Appling’s last good year was ’49 at the remarkable age of 42 (.301-5-58 with 121 walks (.439 OB%), 7 steals and only 24 Ks in 492 AB). 1950 was mostly a washout. 1936 and 1943 were surely his best years, where he won batting titles and finished second in MVP voting both years (he hit .388 in ’36 with 128 RBI on only six home runs). Appling is one of the game’s truly finest hitters, striking out only once per 16.7 AB. Boudreau was also an excellent hitting shortstop, but neither he nor Appling could defend like Rizzuto, who was one of the best double-play men in history. Boudreau's career year in 1948 (.355-18-106) won him the MVP, thus linking him with Rizzuto in MVP shortstop lore of that era. After a solid year in 1949, Boudreau declined with limited playing time in 1950 and later in 1951 with the Red Sox. 1948-1949 was his last hurrah.
One might therefore say that Rizzuto began to replace Boudreau and Appling as the league’s best shortstop starting in 1949, especially now that he was in his prime defensively, and finished second in MVP balloting that year (when Appling was old and more error-prone, but also still hitting well—see stats above—and Boudreau played his last full season that year at the young age of 31, hitting .285); moreover, Rizzuto followed up by winning the MVP award itself in 1950. Although Rizzuto finished sixth in MVP voting in 1953 (Appling and Boudreau were now retired), and made honorable mention at 11th and 14th in 1951and 1952 respectively, Rizzuto’s last three years (1954-56) were injury-plagued and his offensive statistics were very poor. After Appling was elected in 1964, Boudreau was elected to the HoF in 1970, each by the baseball writers. Appling was one of the game’s great hitters (a career .310 hitter) who just happened to be a pretty good shortstop, and stands out as something of an exception, whereas Boudreau was excellent all around, but played fewer seasons, hitting .295 lifetime). It took the less offensively impressive Reese and Rizzuto another 14 and 24 years respectively for their recognition.
Until recently, shortstops that hit like Appling were rare indeed (hitters as good as Appling are always rare). This is no doubt why so many already consider Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter a future HoFer. He hits over .300 with 15-20 HR power and nearly 200 hits every year, has solid fundamentals, excellent speed and remarkable instincts. The newly minted team captain is also already a post-season legend, with four World Series titles and many memorable moments, both offensively and defensively. But if Jeter were only a .262 hitter, like Ozzie Smith, Joe Tinker or Luis Aparicio, would he be wearing the same halo? Or would he be more like a modern-day Reese, minus some of the defense?
ESPN sports analyst Rob Neyer has somewhat convincingly argued (by the numbers) for several years that Derek Jeter is at best an average defensive shortstop, and his most recent article supports that view even more strongly.1 Neyer demonstrates that current Yankee utility man Enrique Wilson had more chances at shortstop (per game) than Jeter over the past two seasons. Now, this alone may not be enough to condemn Jeter’s defense, for Jeter is surely a gifted athlete whose clutch performances (occasionally, even famously, at defense) have marked a brilliant early career and only enhance his Hall of Fame aura.
While Jeter does have extraordinary “roaming” range (i.e., he reaches pop-flys out in left field or in foul-territory as well as anyone in the game), his lateral range at shortstop is average at best. Jeter has relied too much on his exceptional arm and leaping athleticism, rather than careful positioning in the field. He surely will improve at shortstop over time—just as Wade Boggs worked his way to a Gold Glove by his late 30s. Because Jeter has the ability to make exceptional plays with his arm, and plays on a team loaded with strikeout pitchers and other stars who can pick him up when he makes an unforced error, his lapses in the field are as easily overlooked as the grounders that he cannot reach. By contrast, it was upon Rizzuto whom pitchers relied to keep the scoring down and make the clutch plays in the field. Yankee pitcher Vic Rashie, when once asked about his best pitch, is said to have responded that his best pitch is anything — flyball, line drive, grounder or pop up — hit to Rizzuto. Nonetheless, Jeter is probably a somewhat better shortstop than Neyer’s statistics indicate, at his best when under pressure. But if he were a .260 hitter, I do not think that Jeter would cut the impressive figure that he has surely become, and deservedly so.
Next in the series: Painting the Corner with a Career: A Look At Alan Trammell
1 Feb 7, 2001 http://espn.go.com/mlb/columns/neyer_rob/1415713.html and August 8, 2002: http://espn.go.com/mlb/columns/neyer_rob/1415695.html