A Cousin’s Reference to Hornsby’s Bat as “24-Carat” Prompts an Analysis of History’s Greatest Second Basemen
My first introduction to the world of sabermetrics came at the tender age of 14. Early in the summer of 1993, I purchased The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2nd Edition), then pored over the text with two like-minded cousins, Jerrett Andrew and Ryan Facer. The second edition of James’ classic work included the principles of peak and career value, powerful notions that influence my player analysis to this today. (Sadly, later editions of James’ Historical Abstract did away with this concept, making way for the flawed, extensively-criticized Win Shares rating system the author presumably developed in response to single-number rating systems such as WAR and Total Player Rating.)
Ryne Sandberg had long been my favorite player of all time, so James’ ratings of second basemen were of particular interest to me. In particular, his valuation of Joe Morgan as the game’s greatest second baseman in terms of peak value resonated heavily with me. After all, James noted, Morgan posted MVP-caliber seasons toiling in the Astrodome–and, later, in Cincinnati’s symmetrical concrete monstrosity, Riverfront Stadium. A glimpse at Morgan’s 1976 season reinforces James’ assertion that Morgan’s peak value far surpassed any other second baseman in baseball history:
Incredible! A second baseman who led the league in slugging percentage, OPS+, wRC, Offensive Winning Percentage, and WAR? Toss in his slightly above-average performance on defense and you’ve got, in terms of single-season performance, one of the most valuable players in baseball history.
Ultimately, however, there is a second baseman who makes Morgan’s contributions seem meager by comparison. This particular player, a notorious troublemaker wherever he went, someone who Bill James claimed couldn’t backpedal on pop flies, translating into an inordinate number of bloop singles for his opposition–and yet, simultaneously, a player who led the league in Wins Above Replacement an astonishing seven different times! I am referring, of course, to the legendary–perhaps notorious–Rogers Hornsby.
While Hornsby unquestionably benefited from the lively-ball era ushered in by Babe Ruth in 1920, the truly important metrics–WAR, WPA, OPS+, and adjusted Batting Runs are all adjusted to compensate for the era in which Hornsby played. Nevertheless, it is jaw-dropping to view Hornsby’s raw numbers during the roaring ’20s;
- Batting averages of .387, .397, .401, .403, and .424
- Six (!) consecutive seasons leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+
- Eight (!) seasons batting .370 or better
- A 1922 statistical line of 250 hits, 46 doubles, 42 home runs, 152 RBI, a .401 batting average, and 450 total bases
Only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds can boast such consistently astronomical statistical lines. And yet, be it his reputation for lackluster defense, his clubhouse troublemaking, or his existence in the shadow of Ruth, Hornsby is rarely included in discussions of the game’s greatest all-time players, even when the discussion is narrowed to just second baseman. Indeed, if I recall correctly, James had both Morgan and Jackie Robinson ahead of Hornsby in terms of peak value, the latter an utterly unjustifiable selection likely made as part of James’ agenda of political correctness.
(After all, in his most recent installment of the Historical Baseball Abstract, James selected Oscar Charleston as the third-best player to ever suit up, despite the fact that he never earned a single win share or faced Major League competition. Selecting Charleston ahead of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and many, many others may only be interpreted as James’ desperate attempt as a white liberal to include Negro League players despite the fact that the author’s entire book was based on rating players based on their statistical records.)
James’ maniacal liberalism aside, a closer look at Hornsby’s peak seasons reveals just how dominant a second baseman he was in the National League of the 1920s:
Hornsby’s reign at the plate during the ’20s was so complete that the two seasons not included in the table above–1920 and 1923–saw the legendary second-baseman hit .370 and .384, respectively. Of course, astronomical batting averages weren’t necessarily uncommon during Hornsby’s era, but you nevertheless didn’t find many players, regardless of position, who posted OPS+ figures of 185 (1920) and 187 (1923) in their off-seasons.
As previously mentioned, I long held that Joe Morgan was baseball’s greatest second-baseman, in terms of peak value. Later, I came to prefer Eddie Collins, who, despite hitting for virtually no power, got on base so often for so many years–and wasn’t shabby with the glove in his hand, either–that he, too, seemed a potentially worthy candidate. For the purposes of this exercise, I thought it useful to examine the individual components of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for Morgan, Hornsby, and Collins, for each players’ five best seasons and their respective careers, and see if doing so gets us any closer to a truly definitive answer.
Before examining the seasons and career of these legendary players, however, it is necessary to explain the terms that factor into the WAR figure we’ve become so familiar with as a litmus stick for our favorite baseball stars:
Rbat: Number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter
Rbaser: Number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all base-running events (SB, CS, PB, WP, defensive indifference)
Rdp: Number of runs better or worse than average the player was at avoiding grounding into double plays
Rfield: Number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all fielding events
Rpos: Runs from positional scarcity
WAR: Total Wins Above Replacement
If there was ever a case of the numbers reinforcing what we believe to be true, this is it. Hornsby was a monster with the bat in his hands, Collins was the steadiest on defense, and a huge part of Morgan’s value came from the havoc he created on the basepaths. Unsurprising, too, is that Hornsby wasn’t nearly the liability at second base that James, et al painted him to be over the years. Morgan’s defensive totals don’t align that closely with his reputation as a quality fielder, though -41 of his career -48 Rfield were accumulated over the final eight seasons of his career, when his range wasn’t nearly what it once was.
Conclusions? Well, Hornsby has the single-greatest season in terms of WAR (12.1; 1924) and the highest career total (127.0) despite having roughly 3,000 fewer plate appearances than Collins. Can we, finally, once and for all, declare “Rajah” the greatest second-baseman to play the game? It might not be as iron-clad as us absolutists would like, but, yes, I think the time is finally here.