Who Is the Greatest Second Baseman Ever?

It was when I was in sixth grade that I first began to seriously examine baseball.  I made my first annual Top 100 MLB players list that year.  Of course I didn’t know about advanced stats at the time, so Miguel Cabrera was atop that list.  Ironically that was before his Triple Crown.  Brian Kenny had educated me by then, and Trout has been first on every list since.  Anyway, back to the point, I also received the Bill James Historical Abstract that year, and became obsessed with his all-time rankings.  There was his all-time Top 100, and a Top 100 at each position.  Thinking about this the other day, it occurred to me how unusual the second-base rankings were.  Far be it from me to question the Godfather of Sabermetrics, but they seem wrong to me.  Here is the Top 10:

  1. Joe Morgan
  2. Eddie Collins
  3. Rogers Hornsby
  4.  Jackie Robinson
  5. Craig Biggio
  6. Nap Lajoie
  7. Ryne Sandberg
  8. Charlie Gehringer
  9. Rod Carew
  10. Roberto Alomar

Again, this seems wrong, but it is Bill James I’m refuting, so some research is probably required.  First, let’s rank the group by career rWAR:

  1. Rogers Hornsby 128.7
  2. Eddie Collins 122.2
  3. Nap Lajoie 104.8
  4. Joe Morgan 99.6
  5. Charlie Gehringer 79.6
  6. Rod Carew 76.7
  7. Craig Biggio 65.5
  8. Roberto Alomar 65.2
  9. Ryne Sandberg 64.2
  10. Jackie Robinson 59.4

Career rankings are tricky, because at some point a great peak is better than a long career.  Volume does matter.  Players like Robinson, who played only 10 seasons, suffer in career totals.  Let’s see the players ranked by the total fWAR from their four top seasons.  The group is ranked here by four-year peak:

  1. Hornsby 45.6
  2. Morgan 38.7
  3. Collins 38.0
  4. Lajoie 36.4
  5. Robinson 33.2
  6. Gehringer 30.8
  7. Carew 28.7
  8. Sandberg 28.1
  9. Biggio 26.9
  10. Alomar 25.7

That’s nice.  We now know who the best among the group were for their career and for condensed excellence.  However, simply having a long career doesn’t mean a player is the best, nor does having the best brief period of dominance.  Luckily, there’s JAWS.  JAWS is a system used for ranking players that combines career WAR and WAR over a player’s seven-year peak.  It is often used for analysis of Hall of Fame candidacies.  Let’s check out our group when using the JAWS system:

  1. Hornsby 100.2
  2. Collins 94.1
  3. Lajoie 83.8
  4. Morgan 79.7
  5. Gehringer 65.6
  6. Carew 65.4
  7. Sandberg 57.2
  8. Robinson 56.8
  9. Alomar 54.8
  10. Biggio 53.4

After seeing these three lists it is evident that only four of the ten are in the running for the title of being the top second baseman of all time:  Collins, Hornsby, Lajoie, and Morgan.  So far all I’ve used to evaluate these players is WAR.  Now, WAR is definitely a great tool, but it is not the only tool.  How about comparing the remaining four players in a few other ways?  Let’s see career wRC+ and Def for starters.

  • Collins:  144, 68.3
  • Hornsby:  173, 126.5
  • Lajoie:  144, 86.3
  • Morgan:  135, 14.0

Hornsby is the top-rated player in both wRC+ and Def.  He lead all three lists of WAR metrics.  This doesn’t really look close.  Why then did Bill James have both Morgan and Collins ahead of Hornsby?  He was clearly the best hitter of the three, so then why?  He led both of them in defensive value, so that can’t be why either.  Maybe it’s baserunning?  Let’s check out these three players (sorry Nap Lajoie) in BsR.

  • Collins 42.3
  • Hornsby -1.8
  • Morgan 79.0

Here we go!  Finally, a reason to question Hornsby as the greatest second baseman.  Morgan was first for Bill James, so clearly he believes that the mediocre baserunning of Hornsby and the tremendous baserunning of Morgan makes a huge difference.  Let’s concede hitting to Hornsby, and focus on the two final candidates in just fielding and running the bases.  For their careers the difference in fielding was 112.5 runs, while in baserunning it was 80.8 runs.  Hornsby still wins.  No matter how it is examined, Hornsby always comes out on top.  The greatest second baseman in baseball history is Rogers Hornsby.

Sean is a student at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. He studies mathematics with a concentration in decision making and a minor in sports journalism. Occasionally, he submits articles to Fangraphs in the hopes that they aren't terrible. You can follow him on Twitter @srhkthew2.

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