The Tuesday Discussion: Who Was The Greatest Shortstop Ever?
We’re going to go position-by-position around the diamond asking our writers to tell us the greatest big leaguer at each position.
We’ll continue with shortstop.
We asked or writers, “Who was the greatest shortstop of all-time?”
Paul Semendinger – My gut told me that this would have to be Honus Wagner, but I wondered if Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez might somehow enter the discussion. Jeter, of course, holds the record for hits among shortstops.
I wanted to find an argument other than WAR (and such)…
The leader in Games Played is Cal Ripken, Jr. (That’s no surprise.)
The leader in hits is Derek Jeter with Wagner in second and Ripken in third.
The home run leader (again no surprise) is Ernie Banks, although A-Rod is listed as the leader on the Baseball-Reference JAWS page because it counts his entire career. (That’s a problem, as I see it. I don’t want to know who was the best player to appear for a time as a shortstop, I want to know who was the best shortstop.) This made me re-think Ripken as the all-time leader in games there. No, he also played third base giving the title to Omar Vizquel.
The leader in WAR, by a longshot, even counting A-Rods whole career is Honus Wagner (130.8 to A-Rod’s 117.5). Discounting Ripken as well, for his third base work, brings us to Arky Vaughan at 78.0.
The leader in WAR7 is Wagner (Vaughan again follows Rodriguez and Ripken).
JAWS also says it’s Wagner.
Honus Wagner has always been considered the greatest, and it seems clear that he was.
Lincoln Mitchell – There are some sentimental choices for greatest shortstop ever. Ozzie Smith was the greatest defensive shortstop and one of the players I most enjoyed watching. Derek Jeter was the greatest Yankees shortstop ever, but neither Smith nor Jeter are among my finalists for greatest shortstop ever. Similarly, Ernie Banks had hit 298 home runs, posted an OPS+ of 138 and accumulated 50.4 WAR by his 30th birthday, so was on track to be on the short list of greatest shortstops ever. However, he was never a full time shortstop after that and spent the remainder of his career, which lasted another decade, as a first-baseman and, by the standards of that position, not a particularly valuable one.
That leaves three major candidates. Cal Ripken Jr. is most remembered for the streak, but was also a wonderful player. He was not flashy so only won one gold glove, but was an extremely valuable defender who accumulated more than 35 defensive WAR throughout his career. Ripken was more known for his power, hitting 431 home runs and two MVP awards, bringing his career overall WAR to 95.9. Ripken is on the short list, but is probably not the greatest ever.
The next candidate is more complex. Alex Rodriguez was embroiled in PED scandals throughout much of his career. My view on this is that during the PED era many players used and MLB initially approved, and even encouraged, PED use, notably in the late 1990s, so I am not holding that against Rodriguez. As demonstrated by his career OPS+ of 140, compared to Ripken’s 112, Rodriguez was a superior hitter. Rodriguez was also a fine defensive shortstop, winning two Gold Gloves and accumulating 9.3 WAR while a full time shortstop. He was not Ripken’s equal with the glove, but was a much better hitter. The problem with Rodriguez’s candidacy is that, like Banks, he switched positions midway through his career. However, unlike Banks, Rodriguez did not change positions because he could no longer play shortstop, but essentially as a courtesy to a beloved, but-sorry Yankees fans-inferior defensive player. For that reason, Rodriguez is my pick for best shortstop of the last 100 years.
However, that caveat of the last 100 years is important. Honus Wagner, who played from 1897-1917, was viewed as the best defensive shortstop of his era but he was also a tremendous hitter. His .328 career batting average and 723 stolen bases reflect that he played in the deadball era, but there was more to Wagner’s offense than that. In the context of the first decades of the 20th century, Wagner was a slugger. He led the NL in slugging six times, OPS seven times, doubles eight times and triples three times. He is 24th on the all time RBI list, but only two players-Cap Anson and Ty Cobb, drove in more runs than 1930s.
It is a very tough call between Wagner and Rodriguez. Rodriguez used PEDs, but Wagner played in an easier league due to segregation. Wagner was a solid fielding shortstop into his 40s while Rodriguez moved off the position before we could know how we would age there. Both were among the greatest players ever, but my choice, by a very narrow margin, is Honus Wagner.
Ed Botti – We have been fortunate to have seen many greats during the modern era of Baseball. Players like Ripken, AROD, Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Robin Yount, Alan Trammel, Ernie Banks and of course Derek Jeter. But, when I look back one seems to stand out, even though none of us ever saw him play.
Wagner is first in WAR among shortstops, first in OPS+, fourth in OPS and won 8 batting titles.
There’s an argument that can be made for Wagner to be considered the greatest player of all time.
He was big, strong and fast, and while he didn’t hit many home runs because he played in the dead ball era, if you had a time machine and transported him to the current baseball landscape he would unquestionably hit for a lot of power.
He was also one of the best old players ever, winning six of his eight batting titles after turning 30.
In Hall of Fame voting, he received the same number of votes as Babe Ruth.
Tamar Chalker – Originally, I was going to say Honus Wagner, but I think I’ll give this to Cal Ripken. I may be biased since I got to see him play in my lifetime, but given some of the great shortstops I’ve seen play, he was on a different level.
Mike Whiteman – I think Honus Wagner was the greatest shortstop in baseball history. In fact, I think he’s on the short list in the discussion of the greatest players of all time.
The most eye-popping stat (to me) is the fact that four times, he led the National League in OPS and stolen bases. So, take your greatest all around hitter, then add blazing speed. Think about a Triple Crown caliber player who also leads the league in stolen bases. Drop that player into today’s game and he could be a .330, 40 HR/60 SB player. This while being a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop, and highly skilled in other positions too.
How much would that free agent contract be?
Tim Kabel – I will go with my heart on this one- Derek Jeter.
Ethan Semendinger – Would you believe that Alex Rodriguez played more games at shortstop in his career (1,272) than he did at third base (1,194)? He also played more at shortstop than Ernie Banks (1,125). I think it’s fair to say that he should qualify as a shortstop for these discussions.
Then we look at his numbers: 117.5 bWAR/113.7 fWAR with a .295/.380/.550 (.930 OPS/140 OPS+), 3,115 hits, 696 Home Runs, 2,086 RBI’s, 329 Stolen Bases, 3 MVP Awards. Now, the big thing against A-Rod is that he did use performance enhancing drugs- maybe even as early as when he was in high school.
For comparison lets look at Honus Wagner. 130.8 bWAR/138.1 fWAR with a .328/.391/.467 (.858 OPS/151 OPS+), 3,420 hits, 101 Home Runs, 1,732 RBI’s, 723 Stolen Bases, 8 Batting Titles. Now, a big thing against Honus Wagner is that he played during the turn of the century when baseball had not yet developed into the sport we know now.
Now, Cal Ripken Jr. has no serious steroid allegations against him, played in the modern era, and played the most important defensive position well while setting a record for consecutive games played (2,131). He accumulated 95.9 bWAR/92.5 fWAR, .276/.340/.447 (.788 OPS/112 OPS+), 3,184 hits, 431 Home Runs, 1,695 RBI’s, 36 (?) Stolen Bases, 2 MVP Awards.
In the grand scheme of baseball, I think Honus Wagner does rank as the best shortstop ever. I think A-Rod put up the best shortstop statistics in baseball, and I think Cal Ripken Jr. was the most valuable (if that makes any sense).