Who's the most important defender? Shortstop! Shortstop! And who tops the league at shortstop each season?
The shortstop crop in the '60s and '70s was famously weak. In fact, from 1962 to 1977 there are no Hall of Fame toppers. Luis Aparicio has the reputation from that era, but he only leads his league twice. Ernie Banks, his crosstown counterpart, completely dominated the NL from 1955 to 1961. Cub fans didn't have much to cheer for in those days, but the best player in baseball at perhaps the most glorious position might have brightened up the North Side ever so slightly. Pee Wee Reese precedes Banks as the NL's best shortstop, and we can only wonder how many more times he was a league-topper in the pre-Retrosheet era. Harvey Kuenn also deserves some mention as a two-time leader.
The late Woodie Held was the American League's best shortstop three years in a row. Can you believe it? I remember coming across his entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia back in the day and wondering why you never heard about this guy, as he appeared to be pretty good. I guess he was better than even I realized.
After Banks was moved to first base the NL sees the likes of Maury Wills, Denis Menke and Dick Groat inherit his spot. Gene Alley surprised me with a three-year run at the top too. The best AL shortstop of the '60s era seems to be Jim Fregosi, who topped the league three times. One-hit wonders like Eddie Bressoud, Ron Hansen, Zoilo Versalles, Dick McAuliffe and Rico Petrocelli make up most of the remaining group.
The one AL guy from the '60s I didn't mention was Bert Campaneris. He topped the AL five times between 1968 and 1977, including all three years of the Athletics' three-peat. He's often struck me as severely underrated, and these findings back up that striking. He's no Hall of Famer, but he deserves to be remembered.
Cincinnati (and Joe Morgan) favorite Dave Concepcion shows up atop the NL four times. Impressive, but I don't think those credentials are enough for the Hall in such a weak era for shortstops. Bud Harrelson, Chris Speier and Garry Templeton each show up twice in the same era. Those first two surprise me more than the last. None were truly great, though. Mark Belanger was never much of a hitter, but his defense was so good that he was able to top the AL twice.
Poor Dickie Thon. Best National League shortstop twice before that beaning. Ozzie Smith was surely the NL shortstop of the '80s, but would he have held that title if Thon's career had stayed on track?
Robin Yount topped the AL four times in five years. Some consider him overrated, but his longevity combined with his peak make it clear why he's in the Hall of Fame. Cal Ripken almost couldn't help but be overrated due to The Streak. Still, he'd be my pick as AL shortstop of the '80s, and his six-in-nine topping stretch proves his reputation to be reasonably well-deserved. The guy who beat him out those other three years, Alan Trammell, was no slouch either.
Ozzie Smith's NL successor was Barry Larkin, a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Topping the league ten of twelve seasons? That's either an elite player or the best of a truly horrid group. All evidence suggests the former. The only guy to beat out Larkin in the NL during the '90s was Jeff Blauser, and that was only because Larkin was injured for half the season.
No wonder Pat Listach was Rookie of the Year in 1992. He was a league-topper. Too bad he fizzled out after that.
We all remember the AL's "Big Three" shortstops (Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter), but John Valentin was the best in the Junior Circuit for three years before they emerged. After Valentin, one of the Big Three topped the AL each year until 2004.
As much as we Yankee-haters want Derek Jeter to be overrated, he comes out on top twice in the '90s and again in 2006 (and probably will again once I run the numbers for this season). All the "Jeter isn't the best shortstop on his own team" talk seems a little weaker when you realize that A-Rod isn't quite the dominant force he's often portrayed as. Like I said last time, he's one of the great ones, but perhaps not quite as transcendent as his reputation would have you believe.
The 2000 NL season probably deserves an asterisk. Barry Larkin and Rafael Furcal fell just short of my minimum innings requirement, and both provided more value per game than Rich Aurilia. Would their production have dropped off had they played more? Who knows? All I know is that Rich Aurilia is now a two-time NL topper. Edgar Renteria follows in Aurilia's footsteps with the same accomplishment.
When Jimmy Rollins won the 2007 NL MVP there were some who argued that Hanley Ramirez was the more valuable shortstop. Looks like Fangraphs disagrees. Jhonny Peralta shows up twice, much to my surprise. Hey, would you have believed it? Felipe Lopez, Jose Reyes, Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera have each had turns at the top too.
The NL team with the most men on this list is the Cardinals, with four. The AL leader, also with four, is the Red Sox.
Next time we'll be getting to the outfield. While outfielders often get lumped into one big group, I think each individual outfield position is important enough to merit its own post. The frequent shifting of outfielders made data compilation frustrating at times, but I think the effort was worth it. Next time I post this blog will be sporting a list of left fielders.