Archive for the ‘birthdays’ Category

Happy Birthday…

September 4, 2009

Mike Piazza!

Mike, who sure seems like he should have a more Italian middle name than “Joseph,” is 41 today.

I don’t really have anything new to tell you about a guy like Piazza, but lookit (also just seeing how/if this new BBREF feature works):

Report Created on Baseball-Reference.com

[There we go! Took a few tries.]
So…yeah. A lot of people are saying Mauer’s having the best year by a catcher ever, and maybe he is when you factor in defense and such, but it’s pretty hard to compete with that.

Piazza outhit Larry Walker by OPS+, had only four points less of batting average and six fewer RBI…and Larry Walker was a RF who played in the best hitters’ environment in history, Piazza a catcher (technically) in a pitcher’s park (which doesn’t factor into the OPS+, of course, but the HR and RBI). The Dodgers even finished ahead of the Rockies in the standings. Where does this rank among the worst MVP snubs of all time? Would Mauer 2009 be worse?

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Happy Birthday…

August 27, 2009

Jim Thome!

I can’t think of a hitter in the last 10 or so years that has been more fun for me to watch than Thome, #1 on my now-two-man list of tolerable White Sox. He turns 39 today, and is in his nineteenth season in the major leagues. (Incidentally, his 20th seems at least somewhat likely to come with his fourth different ballclub. Maybe the Mariners?)

Three quick things about Thome:

(1) If he wants to, he’s now almost a lock to top 600 homers. He’s not the hitter he once was, with a 124 OPS+ in 2008-09 after a 154 OPS+ from 1995-2007, and he has to rest or miss games to injury a lot more than he used to, but there has got to be at least one AL team (like, say, the Mariners) who can use 120 games of a .250/.370/.500 DH. He’ll come close to 30 homers again this year, but even if he doesn’t hit another one this year and falls off precipitously after that, all he needs is 18 homers a year for two more years. If he’s healthy and wants to play, it’s almost impossible to see him not managing that. Maybe once he’s the eighth to hit #600 (only six right now, but A-Rod will almost certainly get there first), people will start noticing him a little.

(2) He’s got close to the most extreme splits of any Hall of Fame hitter ever. He’s hit a Bondsian .294/.430/.616 (1.046 OPS) vs. RHP, and a Todd Zeilean .239/.342/.423 vs. LHP. In fact, there’s little doubt that, just as is the case with Ryan Howard (more on that in the coming weeks, probably), for most of his career it would’ve made sense to platoon him, if not for the fact that his performance against righties (who are, after all, something like 70% of MLB pitchers) is so great that his overall line gives him a reputation that prohibits it.

Thome’s OPS against lefties is just 60% of his overall OPS. That’s kind of amazing (though since I brought him up, Howard’s is 58%). Obviously most lefties have a hard time hitting lefties, but consider some of the other all-time elite lefty hitters of the retrosheet era: McCovey, 75%; Reggie, 83%; Helton, 75%; Mathews, 70%; Bonds, 87%; Yastrzemski, 65%; Griffey, 85%; Mauer (couldn’t resist), 72%. Yaz was actually pretty dreadful against lefties, too, but even he had less extreme splits than Thome, and none of these other guys is anywhere close. Which kind of draws attention to how incredibly awesome he’s been in those other 70% of his PAs.

(3) He’s really quite funny in fictional, all-caps chatroom form.

Happy Birthday…

June 29, 2009

Harmon Killebrew!

Killer turns 73 today, and still looks like he could hit a baseball about 500 feet.

I never saw Killebrew play, but I grew up hearing stories, and I’ve gotten to meet him in person several times at fanfest types of things. He’s always come off as one of the true good guys. Maybe too good and soft-spoken for his own good; if he’d acted out a little, maybe more people would’ve remembered him.

Killebrew has the second-lowest batting average of any position player in the Hall of Fame (excluding those inducted as managers), at .256, three points ahead of Ray Schalk (who (a) was a catcher and (b) has no business in the Hall). He has the fifth-most HR, but he’s not in the top 20 in OBP, SLG, R or RBI. That’s the sixties for you; neutralized by baseball-reference to an environment where the average team scores 770 runs per season (which is about where the current AL is), his line is a much more HOF-like .270/.393/.535, and with 620 rather than 573 HR.

Five Twins have ever led the league (or tied for the lead) in home runs, and Harmon Killebrew is all five of them. Two Senators ever led the AL in home runs, and Killer was one of them, too…as a 23 year old in 1959, in his first full season, and really his only full season with the Senators (he only got into 124 games in 1960, and they were in Minneapolis the following April).

Most people will tell you that Killebrew was the model for the batter in the MLB logo. And it looks a lot like Killebrew’s stance and profile — in particular, the figure holds his hands low and close to his shoulder as the pitch comes in, kind of a Killebrew trademark. But MLB and the logo’s creator have flatly denied that the logo was based on Killer or on anyone else in particular.

Killebrew made appearances with the Senators as early as age 17. This was because his large contract for the time (for a whopping $50,000) triggered baseball’s short-lived Bonus Rule: for a few periods from 1947 until the amateur draft kicked in in 1965, amateurs who signed for more than a certain amount (at least initially, $4,000) had to be kept on the 40-man roster for two full seasons. From his age-18 season through his age-22 season, Killebrew played 113 games in the majors and posted an 85 OPS+.

Killebrew, helped to a large extent by his magnificent name, has probably the best-looking autograph I’ve ever seen.

Know how people complained that the HR Derby Era (posthumously renamed the steroid era) was going to change everything, because 500 HR always meant automatic induction to the Hall, and now it wouldn’t anymore? Well, consider that Killebrew retired relatively recently (1975), and at that time, his 573 homers put him second all-time to Babe Ruth (and thus first among all right-handed hitters) in the history of the American League…and it still took him four years of eligibility to get in. Nothing about how it “used to be” is ever as simple as people think.

Happy Birthday…

June 20, 2009

Dickie Thon!

Richard William Thon turns 51 today. He was born in South Bend, Indiana where his father was graduating from Notre Dame, but spent almost his entire childhood in Puerto Rico, from which he was signed by the Angels as an amateur free agent at age 16. Up and down with the Angels starting in 1979 at age 21, he was an Astro by the time he started to come into his own, in 1982. That year, he hit 10 triples and stole 37 bases in 45 tries. His overall line of .276/.327/.397 isn’t going to turn many heads, but for the Astrodome in 1982, that was awfully solid, good for a 110 OPS+. 1983, then, was like a dream: .286/.341/.457 (127 OPS+), 20 homers, 34 steals (though in 50 tries this time). He made the All-Star team, and finished 7th in the MVP voting.

Maybe another young shortstop over in the AL was doing even more impressive things at an even younger age, but at just 25, Thon looked like a star. Wikipedia even claims that some considered him a future Hall of Famer (and cites Bill James’ original Historical Baseball Abstract, which I wish I could find right now, as the source of that), and two pretty good seasons at ages 24 and 25 don’t seem to me likely to lead you down that particular path, but he looked poised for a long and successful career.

Then: April 8, 1984.

A fractured orbital bone sounds like a terribly unpleasant thing. You can read about it here, but probably shouldn’t do so while having lunch or anything. It can lead to serious vision problems…which is what Thon got when he was struck in the face with a Mike Torrez fastball on that day. His depth perception was shot.

The New York Times archives are full of references to Thon’s determination to return to the playing field…and his repeated setbacks. Thon never got back into the game in 1984, and while he played in the Winter Leagues at home in Puerto Rico that winter, he got only 84 games in in ’85. And frankly, he was terrible when he did play. He was a tiny bit worse in 106 games in ’86, and played 32 awful games in ’87, walking away from the team in July (presumably to undergo the eye surgery he had talked about wanting in March of that year) and acknowledging that his career might be over, as many writers seemed to be assuming it was. He’d just turned 29.

But it wasn’t over. He signed with the Padres, and did pretty well, putting up roughly average offensive numbers (which are, of course, better than average for a shortstop) as a part-time starter. From there he went to Philly, where he reminded the game of what it might have missed out on seeing a decade or so of, hitting .271/.321/.434 (117 OPS+) with 15 homers. The speed was gone, but otherwise he looked much more like the promising young All-Star he had been than the mediocre backup infielder he had since become.

That performance earned him two more full years with the Phillies (then half-time gigs for the Rangers and Brewers after that), but he was done. He ended with a solid career, above-average numbers for a shortstop in nearly 5000 PA. But of course there’s no telling what might have been.

You just have to admire a guy like Thon, though. Taking a fastball to the face would ruin (and has ruined) a lot of hitters. So would the continued setbacks and blurred vision and repeated trips to the minors or DL just a few years after finishing 7th in the MVP voting.

Even better? Thon was hit in the head with a pitch in 1987 — less than three years after the Torrez incident — while on a minor league rehab assignment. He missed five games. I’m pretty sure that if the first blindingly fast flying object to hit me in the head didn’t get to me, nerves-wise, the second one would.

So no, I don’t think it’s particularly likely that he was working on a Hall of Fame career when it happened. But he was an exciting player, and a damn good one. And his perseverence in coming back time and again after the incident(s), culminating in his second very good season in 1989, is the kind of thing Disney will (and [gulp] probably should) make a movie about someday. Next time you’re up against something that seems too arduous, think of Dickie.

So happy birthday, Mr. Thon. Hope you’re seeing OK these days.

Happy Birthday…

June 8, 2009

Mark Belanger!

Just proving he knows how to hold the thing

Belanger has one of the greatest and most widely known nicknames not to appear on his BBREF page: “The Blade.” Standing 6’1″ and weighing approximately nothing, that plus the alliteration made it just about a perfect nickname (if a little on the nose).

Belanger won eight Gold Gloves, and to hear the people who watched him or played with him talk about his play at shortstop, you’d think he was the reason the award was invented. My own subjective evaluation of the collective subjective opinions of the greatest defensive shortstops of the part of baseball history most living people still remember would go like this: (1) Ozzie Smith; (2) Omar Vizquel; (3) Mark Belanger. And with Mark, like with Ozzie (and unlike with Omar), the reputation appears justified. BBREF and BP both report that he saved about 235 runs over the average shortstop for his career; consider that “the average shortstop” is likely to be the best defensive baseball player on the diamond on any given night, and that’s pretty freaking impressive. (Ozzie had 380. Ozzie is so far above every other fielder who has ever played that they should probably rename the position after him.)

On the other hand, Belanger was an almost unbelievably terrible hitter, with a career line of .228/.300/.280 and 20 homers in 6602 PA. The amazing thing is that he had three years in which he was a considerably better-than-average-hitting shortstop, 1969, 1971 and 1976 (95, 97, and 100 OPS+, respectively), but that just underscores how horrible he was in his other 13-ish seasons, putting up full-season lines like .218/.303/.259 and .206/.287/.274. BP has him as being worth 40.4 wins above replacement for his career, which is fantastic for a guy who couldn’t hit at all. When he could hit a little, he played like a superstar; he gets 8.4 wins above replacement for his 97 OPS+ year in 1971 (which BP says was also his best defensive year, at an incredible 40 fielding runs above average).

So, here’s something a sabermetrician never would have admitted 10 years ago (someday I’m going to go back and try to find all those Rob Neyer posts about how baseball is 60% offense and 35% pitching and 5% defense, so we can laugh at ourselves): historically great defender at the most important defensive position + historically awful hitter = pretty damn good player. Belanger is one of those rare little “gamer”-type guys who deserved all the accolades he got (or most of them, anyway).

Some fun facts about The Blade:

  • He batted second in the Orioles’ batting order 54 times in 1968 (.208/.272/.248); 53 times in 1970 (.218/.303/.259); and 29 times in 1977 (.206/.287/.274), just as a sample. Worse, he hit first or second 43 times in 1979 at age 35, a year in which he hit .167 in 242 PA and wasn’t even playing good D anymore. He did usually bat 8th or 9th, but would occasionally also fill in at leadoff. He’s exactly the type of guy you probably don’t want hitting in front of the likes of Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray. Why not just stick Jim Palmer in there?
  • He was intentionally walked three times from 1973 on (actually four, but the fourth was as a Dodger hitting in front of Fernando Valenzuela, and I’m sure most or all of his 18 pre-1973 IBBs were in front of the pitcher as well). In 1973, with a runner on third and one out in the bottom of the 11th, Texas manager Whitey Herzog made the…interesting decision to walk both Elrod Hendricks and Belanger, hitters 8 and 9, intentionally to get to the top of the order with the bases loaded. To be fair, leadoff hitter Merv Rettenmund had been just as bad as Belanger, and was actually pinch-hit for here, and the Rangers got out of it when Bill Gogelewski struck out the next two batters (the first on a foul two-strike bunt). This game would have been a lot more frustrating to me had I been around to follow it 35 years ago.
  • Post-DH Intentional Walk #2 is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. In 1977, Cleveland manager Frank Robinson has his old teammate The Blade, the O’s #9 hitter, walked to bring up leadoff hitter Al Bumbry. The pitcher (Don Wood) was a shut-down lefty and Bumbry was a LH hitter. But: (a) Bumbry was a good hitter, particularly so in ’77, and was a better hitter even against lefties than Belanger was against anybody; (b) Cleveland was already down 4-0; and (c) there were two outs and a runner on third! So rather than take the near-automatic out and end the inning, F-Rob puts him on base to face the much better hitter, who predictably lines an RBI single, and the O’s go on to win 7-2. I wish that all IBBs (that don’t come right in front of the pitcher) would end this way.
  • IBB #3 was another head-scratcher, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer walking Belanger in front of Larry Harlow (a very unlikely candidate to have already made two appearances on this blog), who had already homered in the game. Harlow singled, but no runs scored. O’s won 5-3 anyway.
  • A candidate for his best offensive game would be August 18, 1969. The O’s spanked the Seattle Pilots, 12-3, and Mark went 4-for-5 with three doubles and 5 RBI.
  • Another is May 11, 1974: 5-for-5 with a double, stolen base and three runs scored. Managed not to drive in any of the twelve runs the O’s scored against Cleveland.
  • He seemed to like playing against Cleveland. On at least one occasion, he made Earl look like a genius for batting him leadoff, going 4-for-4 with 3 R, 3 RBI, a stolen base and a triple in a 7-0 win. I’d like to find a big offensive game where he carried the team to a win, but they’re all blowouts. Apparently, if Mark could hit your pitching, so could the rest of the team.
  • I’m guessing this might be the weirdest game he ever played: August 25, 1968. In 18 innings, the O’s beat the Red Sox 3-2. The Blade (batting second) comes up nine times. Three of those times he gets a hit, and he scores one of those precious three runs. One other time, he has a sac bunt. Each of the other five times, Belanger strikes out.
  • So over the course of a long career, even the worst hitter will have a handful of amazing games where it seems he can do no wrong, the kind you remember forever. By the same token, of course, even the best fielder can make an absolute ass of himself. Just like his teammate Brooks Robinson more famously did, Belanger (who retired with the highest fielding percentage of any SS in AL history) once committed three errors in one inning. The errors led to three unearned runs and gave the Twins a one-run lead. Luckily for Belanger, his teammates bailed him out and the O’s won the game.

Belanger would have turned 65 today. Sadly, he passed in 1998 at just 54, succumbing to cancer (or as his BBREF sponsor kind of irreverently says: “Unfortunately, he smoked cigarettes, and he died too young”). But happy birthday wherever you are, Mark.

Happy Birthday…

May 27, 2009

Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell!

Having kind of come of age as a baseball fan in the 1990s, it’s almost impossible for me to believe that The Big Hurt and Bags both turn 41 years old today.

I would like to suggest, first of all, that, even without regard to simultaneity and such freak coincidences, you’d have a hard time finding two truly great ballplayers who are more similar to each other than Bagwell and Thomas are. Having played parts of 34 combined seasons, they’re separated by 202 at-bats, 23 runs, 154 hits, 7 doubles (!), 20 triples, 72 home runs, 175 RBI, 4 strikeouts (!!), 4 points of batting average, 11 points of OBP, and 15 points of SLG. (And a ton of stolen bases and walks, but still.) Bill James’ Similarity Scores, for what they’re worth (which isn’t much), lists them as each other’s #1 comp.

But then of course there are those coincidences. Born on the exact same day in 1968, both drafted in 1989. Both had their first full seasons in 1991. Both had enormous offensive years and won their league’s MVP award in the strike-shortened season of 1994. Both were 37 year old non-factors in their last years with the teams they had spent their entire careers with in 2005, when those two teams met in the World Series, the first for both players (Thomas didn’t play but got himself a ring, while Bagwell went 1-for-8).

Differences, too, of course–Frank was huge and intimidating while Bagwell seemed a little small for the position; Bagwell reputedly played great defense, while Frank was a born DH; Frank was a first-round pick and instant star, while Bagwell was a fourth-round pick who the Red Sox traded for 22 innings of Larry Andersen; and so forth. But the similarities are more interesting, and quite a bit more numerous.

Thomas is apparently holding out for an offer until the All-Star break, but I think we can assume that his significant contributions to the equation here are pretty well over with.

So who do you suppose was better? Here are a bunch of different ways to look at it:

OPS+: 156 to 149, Thomas. Frank was a better hitter, and it’s kind of surprising that it ended up as close as that. Thomas was a legendary, Stan Musial-type hitter for the first eight or so years of his career, but then suddenly settled into being a more typical low-average, high-walk slugger like Killebrew. Bagwell was much more steady, though part of that is an illusion caused by a move from an extreme pitcher’s park to an extreme hitter’s park right around the time he started to decline.

WARP3: 105.3 to 97.2, Thomas. Baseball Prospectus’ wins above replacement player stat has Thomas ahead by a deceptively comfortable margin. 8 wins above replacement equals one excellent year; Bagwell’s WARP3 was exactly 8.1 in 1999, for instance, when he played all 162 and hit .304/.454/.591. A big part of that boost comes from Thomas’ longevity, though; per 700 plate appearances, Thomas was worth 7.32 wins above replacement, Bagwell 7.21.

Fielding: Bagwell did it and Thomas didn’t. This is theoretically accounted for in WARP3 — Bagwell gets 205 career fielding runs above replacement and 66 career fielding runs above average, while Thomas is 26 and 87 below — but I’m not convinced that it’s covered enough. For instance, UZR is available only for Bagwell’s decline years (2002 to 2005, years in which BP’s system says he was pretty much exactly average in the field), but still says he was worth 5.7 runs above average in 2003 and 5.4 in 2004. It seems safe to assume that he would’ve shown up as being worth quite a bit more than that during his twenties. Also, in Tom Tippett’s Diamond Mind Baseball simulation engine’s “all-time greatest players” disk, Bagwell was rated “average” and Thomas “poor” — a difference of about 20 runs over the course of a season.

Baserunning: Bagwell stole 202 bases at a respectable 72% clip and was known as a very smart, if not very fast, baserunner; Big Frank was a big slug, with 32 steals in 55 attempts and that special ability to go from first to third on a triple. We can assume that Bagwell was worth a handful of runs a season over Frank, and that measures like WARP and WAR only capture a portion of that value (the part that comes from stolen bases).

Bill James: In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, James ranked Bagwell the #4 first baseman of all time, and Thomas #10. In the comment to Thomas, he briefly noted the comparison, but simply said that Bagwell was a better all-around player. Of course, Thomas at that time had two more brilliant offensive seasons, two more brilliant partial seasons and one more very good full season to go, while Bagwell had two more good years and kind of skidded to the finish. Also, James’ comment about Bagwell at #4 was, in its entirety: “Pass.” Anybody ever figure out what the hell that was all about?

Other subjective measures: Thomas went to five All-Star games, starting two; Bagwell went to four and started two. Thomas won 2 MVPs and finished in the top 5 four other times; Bagwell had just the one MVP and two more top-fives. Thomas wins Silver Sluggers, too, four to three, though two of Thomas’ were at DH rather than 1B, so that’s not a fair fight. Bagwell wins in Black Ink Score (another James toy measuring how many times the player led the league in big-name categories like HR, RBI, etc.), 24 to 21, but Thomas led the league many, many more times in things like OPS, OPS+, Runs Created, and so forth. Bagwell won a Gold Glove, while Thomas appeared to actually use a glove made of gold, or perhaps a harder metal, when he was asked to play in the field.

Peak Value: From 1990-1997, Thomas hit .330/.452/.600, good for a 182 OPS+. Bagwell, meanwhile, had an OPS+ as high as 180 in only one single season, his MVP year of 1994. From 1993-2000, Bagwell did hit .311/.428/.583, 164 OPS+. Awfully impressive, but I’m not entirely convinced you can find me a right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby who has put up an eight-season hitting stretch like Frank’s.

So who wins? I went into this sure I was going to pick Frank, but having gone though it, I’m on the fence. I thought of Frank’s offensive advantage as being bigger than it really is. I tend to be a peak-value guy–give me Mantle over Mays, for instance–but I’m no longer convinced that Thomas’ peak is so much bigger than Bagwell’s that it cancels out Bags’ huge advantage in the field and on the bases.

So that’s it: I’m going Bagwell. But it’s ridiculously close, and I’m firmly convinced that they both deserve to be shoo-ins for the Hall.

What do you think?

Happy Birthday…

May 11, 2009

Gene Hermanski!

Gene turns 89 today, and he’s still around, according to everything I can find. He apparently claims to be the last living player from the starting lineup of Jackie Robinson’s first game (and–how morbid is this?–the people at the linked-to message board seemed to debunk that, but three years after that was written, I suppose he could be).

Hermanski got into 18 games with the Dodgers in 1943, and then didn’t show up again until ’46. The meta-reason for that is pretty obvious, but the details are hard to pin down; BBREF’s Bullpen page suggests the time was spent in the Coast Guard (I mean, Ted Williams went over there and all, and all you can manage to do is bravely defend our homeland from the very real danger of attack? Lame), and his Wikipedia page says that he was released from the Coast Guard to join the Navy in 1943 (playing those 18 games in the interim).

A big lefty with moderate power and an excellent eye who played left and right field about equally over the course of his career, Hermanski had one year as a full-time regular, 1948, in which he played 133 games, got up to the plate 470 times, and hit .290/.391/.493, good for a 135 OPS+, with 15 home runs. Three of those home runs came in consecutive at-bats in one nine-inning game on August 5.

Outside that, Hermanski was a solid-hitting half-time (platoon?) player, a fact that everything I can find attributes to his fielding difficulties. That’s surprising, though–his fielding percentage was almost exactly average (.977, league average was .979), and that’s pretty much all anybody has ever looked at. Maybe he just didn’t look right out there? Anyway, he ended his career a .272/.372/.404 hitter in 2295 career plate appearances coming in parts of nine seasons spent with the Dodgers, Cubs and Pirates. He played in two World Series — both Dodger losses to the Yankees, naturally — and, oddly, hit a triple in both.

It’s also Charlie Gehringer’s birthday today, but it’s no fun to pick on the best player in the group every time.

Why did they always strike these poses standing somewhere that was obviously nowhere near and pointing in a different direction than home plate?

Happy Birthday…

April 27, 2009

Rogers Hornsby!

The Rajah would be turning a spry 113 today, though he died here in Chicago in 1963 at the age of 66. Doesn’t it seem like Hornsby must have lived for so much longer than that? I think of him as a crotchety old man, but maybe that’s because he was essentially a crotchety old man all his life.

Hornsby’s career is pretty familiar to most devoted baseball fans. A second baseman who also played a little short, third, first and outfield, Hornsby hit a just plain silly .358/.434/.577 in his 23-year career spent pissing off five different teams. He also managed parts of fifteen seasons, twelve of them as player/manager (you have to assume he demanded that position once he established himself, right? I’m a little surprised no one like Barry Bonds has made that sort of demand in the last couple decades). He managed the 1926 Cardinals to a world championship, actually one of his worst seasons with the bat, the only season between 1919 and 1929 in which he didn’t lead the NL in OPS+.

Hornsby, of course, was the greatest-hitting second basemen of all time, quite easily. Whether he or Eddie Collins or Joe Morgan is the best overall second baseman of all time depends on what you think about defense, baserunning, the level of competition he faced and so forth.

Shouldn’t we just stop considering him as the same sort of beast as Collins and Morgan, though? For almost all of baseball history, second basemen have been lithe little guys who run fast, field well and make contact. Collins came before Hornsby, of course, but he fits the profile because very nearly everybody in the first two decades of the twentieth century fit that profile, at every position. But Hornsby was different; not a huge specimen, but strong, a bit stocky, and a bit slow. If he were making his hay in the forties or sixties or eighties, he just wouldn’t be a second baseman — that position (and short) would be removed completely from the realm of possibility for him. He’d probably end up at first base or in left field, though third may also have been a possibility. So it’s hard for me to consider his place among the best second basemen; he wouldn’t have been a second baseman if he had come along at any other time, and the things that made him great had nothing whatsoever to do with his being a second baseman. We might as well ask where Frank Robinson or Jimmie Foxx belong among the all-time second basemen.

Of course, there have been other guys who didn’t fit the mold, Jeff Kent being the most obvious. And now we’ve got guys who are nobody’s idea of second basemen, like Skip Schumaker (whose listed measurements are almost identical to Hornsby’s…would that he had a few other things in common with The Rajah) and Mark Teahen (who, at 6’3″ and 210, is closer to what Hornsby would’ve looked like in proportion to the ballplayers of his day) being forced into the position. Dave Cameron argued a few weeks ago that second base is overrated as a defensive position, and that the Schumaker and Teahen switches were evidence that (in slightly different words) teams would start putting more Hornsby and Kent types at that spot.

I actually disagree with his premise; a second baseman has a ton of ground to cover, and doesn’t need to get to the ball as quickly as a shortstop because of the length of the throw, but does actually need to get to the ball. I’ve seen too many easy two-hoppers slip past Alexi Casilla these past couple years to believe that defense at second isn’t especially important. Instead, what I see happening is teams becoming more in tune with the importance of defense in general, and putting guys at second base who can actually field the position (like Chase Utley, and very possibly like Teahen or Schumaker, though it’s not looking good for the latter) rather than guys who simply look the part (like Casilla). What Dave points out that I do agree with is that there are likely very tall players who are excellent second basemen, and very short players who are excellent third basemen, and eventually teams will learn to recognize these things and stop simply categorizing them based on size.

But if Dave is right, maybe someday we’ll have to have a couple different categories, and be arguing over who were the best Type-A second basemen (Collins) and who are the best Type-B ones (Hornsby). I just don’t see a reason to call Hornsby a “second baseman,” when he wasn’t one at all–or at least not in the way that almost anyone alive today thinks of them. Anyway, happy birthday, Rog!