2019 a Death Knell for a Metallic Era of Second Basemen

A rash of injuries to Dustin Pedroia (left) and a down year from Robinson Canó (right) contributed to officially ending an era of great second basemen in 2019.

Every offseason I spend several days’ worth of hours creating spreadsheets so that I can compile a Top 10 list of players at each position for the coming season (aside: I will be releasing these lists in a series at some point when my Hall of Fame series is done). Earlier this week I began the list for second basemen, and discovered that finding ten deserving players to be quite a task. I yearned for the days when half of the second base list could be filled in automatically with legitimate star players, guys who could be counted on to produce 4-win seasons annually.

A new era for second basemen began with just one player in 2005, when Chase Utley played his first full MLB season. That year he kicked off an utterly dominant peak by hitting for a 134 wRC+ that, when coupled with his elite baserunning and defense, made him a 7-win player. Just one man though, does not make an era. As Utley was putting up this first MVP-type campaign, Robinson Canó was debuting for the Yankees. The following year, 2006, he posted 2.4 fWAR, while Utley reached 7.2. Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia would reach the majors for the first time in 2006, and both would produce their first 2-or-greater-win season in 2007. Ben Zobrist took a bit longer, but by 2009 he had himself a 9-win year. In every season from 2006 to 2018 at least two of these five players would have 2.0 or greater fWAR. That streak was snapped in 2019, with Utley now retired and the rest in decline, battling injuries, or both. The era has ended.

Thinking back on this, it truly was a remarkable collection of players at one position in one time. Going by my Score system, the five second basemen listed above all rank between 7th and 23rd of all-time at their position. They were an elite group undoubtedly, yet I want to know if they were the elite group of second basemen. Were these five the strongest collective assemblage of players ever to take their positions concurrently?

My method for determining this will be simple. I’ll use fWAR exclusively here, as I prefer it over bWAR (Score uses both). To be an era requires multiple years, so I will be using four season totals. For every four year stretch starting with 1901-1904—the first four year span for which the American League existed—I will take the five best second basemen by fWAR. They will be ranked by the geometric mean of the group, so that one outlier (Hornsby) can’t throw off the whole system. Quick note: I am using the leaderboards on FanGraphs with minimum plate appearances set to “qualified”; the players considered second basemen during a span may not have played there that entire time. Using this system, the 10 best four year spans for second basemen in MLB history are:

RankStart YearEnd YearGeometric MeanArithmetic Mean
11973197622.25824.080
21974197721.61822.940
31927193021.43322.000
41972197521.07222.980
52009201221.00021.120
61910191320.62221.460
72008201120.43720.720
81926192920.07621.340
91909191220.01221.220
101921192419.68322.160

Spans where the five second basemen discussed earlier are the five who make up the group being measured are bolded in the table. The other stretch with those five, 2010-2013, is 15th out of the 116 ranked. You’ll notice on the table, however, that all 10 periods listed on the table have an overlap of at least two years with another period. Three of the top four are from literally the same six year span. This isn’t really in the spirit of the exercise. For the next table, I hand filtered the results to avoid these overlaps. My rules were that for spans that had two or three years of overlap with each other, only the best one of them would be ranked (one year of overlap is allowed), but if three of the five players had changed that ineligibility was rescinded. The new rankings look like this:

RankStart YearEnd YearGeometric MeanArithmetic MeanOverall Rank
11973197622.25824.0801
21927193021.43322.0003
32009201221.00021.1205
41910191320.62221.4606
51921192419.68322.16010
61924192719.41321.32011
71997200019.21919.40014
81989199218.77219.06018
92005200818.43319.22023
102014201718.10718.36025

Now that we have the tables, it’s easy to identify which periods in baseball history had the best second basemen. The mid-1970’s, with a trio of Joe Morgan (4th all-time by Score), Rod Carew (8th), and Bobby Grich (9th) leading the charge, while Davey Lopes (41st) and Dave Cash (not ranked) consistently chipped in 3-win seasons. This group was so dominant that these five players took the first, second, and fourth spots overall. The only group who could challenge them played in the late 1920’s, and were headlined by four Hall of Famers. Rogers Hornsby (1st), Frankie Frisch (10th), Tony Lazzeri (22nd), and Charlie Gehringer (5th) were all active in this span, though not all were peaking, and the fifth member, George Grantham (not ranked) paled in comparison to his peers.

When compared to those two collections of talent, it is apparent that Canó (13th), Kinsler (20th), Pedroia (18th), Utley (7th), and Zobrist (23rd) did not comprise a Golden Age of second basemen, maybe not even a Silver Age. Yet it is clearly deserving of some sort of title. When I sorted on my spreadsheet all 116 four season spans I recorded by the amount of fWAR produced by the weakest of the five players considered, the three spans that were comprised of the aforementioned group ranked 1st, 6th, and 7th among them. Going by the 4th best player, they were 1st, 2nd, and 13th; by the third player, 9th, 10th, and 11th. Using the second best player, however, they topped out at just 16th, and were an unspectacular 46th by the best player. What made this array of second basemen so special was not that they played at an absurd peak, but that there were so many of them. A quintet of players, all at the same position, simultaneously performed at a high enough level that it had, in total, only been replicated twice in baseball’s history. Maybe that doesn’t make them the Golden or Silver Age for their position, but the uniqueness of their achievement defines an era just the same.

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