Welcome to another edition of Top Ten! This week, we’re on to the keystone as we take a look at the best second basemen of all time. If you’re interested in any of the other positions we’ve covered to date, you can find them and a lot of other great content in the archive. Before we get to the players, below is some background on how the list was compiled.
As an “up the middle” position, defense was a more significant factor for second base than first base, though offense was still the primary driver. As always, value-based metrics formed the core of the evaluation process, including WAR ratings from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, which calculate it differently. As is always the case, we tried to balance the rankings between longevity and dominance to get a good cross-section. Thus, in addition to career WAR, we looked at WAR7 (seven best seasons), WAR/162 (Avg WAR per season), and the number of seasons the player was among the WAR leaders in the league.
Once we whittled down the list, we incorporated offensive stats and honors/awards to finalize it. Basic stats like hits, batting average, OBP, SLG, HRs, RBI, etc., were fused with wOBA and wRC+ for the offense. All-Star game appearances, MVP awards, and seasons where the player finished in the Top Ten in MVP voting covered the honors.
Without further ado, let’s get to it with Number Ten:
10. Roberto Alomar
Roberto Alomar may be best remembered for the worst moment of his career – when he spit on home plate umpire John Hirschbeck after being thrown out of a game for arguing balls and strikes in late September 1996. This incident ruined fan perception of Alomar for better or for worse. Between the lines, Alomar was about as good as it gets. He could run, hit, hit for power, and play stellar defense.
Alomar made it to the big leagues at the tender age of 20 in 1988 as a Padre and retired 17 years later with the White Sox. He played for seven franchises but is best known for his stints with the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Indians. Alomar won back-to-back World Series titles with Toronto in 1992 and 1993 but never made it back to the Fall Classic with the Orioles or Indians despite four playoff appearances. Alomar’s post-season totals are impressive: a .313 batting average, four HRs, 33 RBI, 32 runs, and 20 SBs in 58 games. Extrapolate that to an entire season, and you have an MVP candidate.
Alomar was decorated with many honors during his career, including 12 all-star selections, four silver sluggers, and ten gold gloves. He was a Top 10 MVP finalist five times. Alomar made into the Hall of Fame in his second year of eligibility after just missing on his first attempt – likely due to that famous spitting incident.
Some will balk at Cano’s inclusion on the list, given his two suspensions for PED use. It’s a fair argument, but as we mentioned when discussing Roger Clemens, it’s hard to know who did what throughout the game’s history. What we do know is that Cano owns the second-highest OPS among second basemen who’ve played in the last 50 years (first was Jeff Kent, in case you’re wondering).
Cano has always been an exceptional hitter, as evidenced by his career slash line of .301/.351/.489. He debuted with the Yankees in 2005 on a star-laden team and quickly made his presence felt, finishing second in the rookie-of-the-year voting. All he did his sophomore season was bat .342, win a silver slugger, and play in the all-star game. Cano won five silver sluggers and went to eight all-star games altogether, and even chipped in a couple of gold gloves.
Cano was a regular post-season participant in his time with New York and a member of the 2009 World Championship team. He seemed destined to be a Yankee for life but shocked the baseball world in 2013 when he left New York to sign a $240M contract with the Mariners. Cano continued to hit in Seattle, but his first positive test for an illegal substance caused him to miss half of the 2018 season. After that season, he was traded to the Mets. He had a resurgent 2020 back in New York before missing all of 2021 due to his second positive test.
Cano has not officially retired, but after being cut by the Mets and Padres this season, he may not get another chance. He’ll likely face heavy opposition when he eventually becomes eligible for Cooperstown. However it turns out, he should be remembered as a great hitter – albeit one who may have had help along the way.
8. Jackie Robinson
If character counted in the compilation of this list, Jackie Robinson would be number one. Heck, he may be number one in all of baseball when considering what he meant to the game. However, as Robinson’s career was relatively short, he lags in the counting stats. Jackie only played 11 professional seasons, including one with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, where he didn’t debut until he was 26. He was a tremendous all-around athlete and played multiple sports in college, which, along with World War II, delayed his eventual career in MLB.
Once Jackie debuted with the Dodgers in 1947, it became clear that he belonged. He won rookie-of-the-year that season, finished fifth in the MVP voting, and led the league in stolen bases. Robinson won the MVP a few years later when he batted .342 with 37 SBs and 124 RBI in 1949. He made his first of six consecutive MLB all-star games that season and led the league in stolen bases and batting average.
The Dodgers made it to six World Series with Robinson, all against the Yankees. They only won once in 1955, Jackie’s second to last season. Had Robinson played more seasons, he would have been towards the top of this list. He ranks second in all-time WAR-162 and sixth in WAR7 among second basemen, representing his dominance. In 1962 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. In 1997, MLB retired the number 42, which Robinson wore, across all of baseball.
7. Frankie Frisch
Frankie Frisch was a superb athlete and probably the best defensive second baseman in the Top Ten. His defensive rating on Fangraphs leads all second basemen all-time with over 1,000 plate appearances. On top of his defense, Frisch was fast as lightning, leading the league in SBs three times. Oh, and he could hit, too, as his .316/.369/.432 slash line illustrates.
Frisch broke in with the New York Giants in 1919 and played for 19 seasons. He went to four consecutive World Series with the club from 1921 through 1924, coming out a winner in the first two. After a falling out with Giants’ manager John McGraw in 1926, he was traded to the Cardinals after the season. This didn’t slow him down, though. Frisch went to four more World Series with St. Louis, this time coming out on top in the latter two. He also won an MVP with the Cards in 1931 and made it to three all-star games after the inaugural game in 1933.
Frisch became a player-manager for St. Louis in 1933 and continued managing after he retired. In 1947, he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA with 84.5% of the vote.
6. Rod Carew
Rod Carew was one of the greatest hitters of his generation. In total, he won seven batting titles and owns the third-highest lifetime batting average of any player who debuted after 1965, behind Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. Carew was an all-star for an incredible 18 consecutive years, starting with his rookie year in 1967. He also won rookie-of-the-year that season for the Twins. His best season came in 1977 when he took home the AL MVP after hitting .388/.449/.570 with a league-leading 16 triples and 100 RBI. By that time, Carew had shifted to first base, where he would remain for the second half of his career.
Despite his personal success, Carew’s Twins teams did not win much. They only made the playoffs twice in his tenure and never went to a World Series. When it became evident Carew was destined to leave, the Twins traded him in February 1979 to the California Angels. Unfortunately for Carew, he wouldn’t find much post-season success in Anaheim either.
Carew retired after the 1985 season despite a still-productive season in which he hit .280 with a .371 OBP. In 1991 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 90.5% of the vote.
5. Joe Morgan
Joe Morgan had a few brief stints with the Houston Colt 45s before latching on with the now Astros in 1965. He finished second in rookie-of-the-year voting that season and led the league in walks. Morgan made his first of ten all-star teams the following season, but it wasn’t until he was traded to the Reds in 1971 that his career really took off. In his first season with Cincinnati, Morgan led the league in runs, walks, and OBP; and finished fourth in the MVP voting. “The Big Red Machine” also made it to the World Series that year, losing in seven games to the Oakland A’s.
The next four seasons were magical for Morgan, especially 1975 and 1976. He was a World Champion and the NL MVP in both seasons. Morgan was an on-base machine who could run, hit for power, and play excellent defense. He took home five gold gloves in Cincinnati and led the league in OBP four times.
As the Reds’ dynasty began to collapse, Morgan eventually moved on and played his final five seasons with four different teams. “The Little General” retired in 1984 with a career OBP of .392. The BBWAA wasted no time adding him to the group at Cooperstown, electing him in his first year of eligibility in 1990.
4. Charlie Gehringer
Charlie Gehringer’s nickname was “The Mechanical Man.” He was dubbed so because of his robotic consistency and durability. Gehringer did everything well. He hit, ran, and played defense with the best of them. He’s also the only player in this Top Ten who played his entire career with one organization – the Detroit Tigers.
Gehringer debuted in 1924 but wasn’t a regular until 1926. Once established, the Tigers wouldn’t have to look for a second baseman until 1942. Over that span, The Mechanical Man would lead the league in games four times; hits, runs, and doubles twice; and triples, stolen bases, and batting average once. In 1937, when he won the batting title, Gehringer was also the AL MVP after hitting .371/.458/.520. In addition, he played in the first six all-star games, beginning in 1933.
Gehringer made it to the World Series three times, winning a World Championship in 1935. In 20 World Series contests, he batted .321 with a .375 OBP. In 1949, seven years after he played his last game, Gehringer was elected to the Hall of Fame.
3. Nap Lajoie
Napolean LaJoie is the oldest member of our Top Ten and is considered the first superstar in American League history. He debuted in 1896 with the Phillies at first base but moved to second in 1898, where he would become famous. It didn’t matter where Lajoie played in the field; he was excellent everywhere. More important than his stellar defense, though, was his ability at the plate. In an era before awards, Lajoie led the league in key offensive categories several times during his 21-year career, including hits (4x), doubles (5x), RBI (3x), batting average (5x), SLG (4x), and HRs (1x).
Lajoie was a fierce competitor, often getting into it with umpires. However, his biggest fight came when he jumped his contract with the Phillies to join the insurgent American League Athletics in 1901. This move helped legitimize the AL, but Lajoie’s time with the A’s was short-lived as legal action by the NL prevented him from playing in Philadelphia for any team other than the Phillies.
After one season with the Athletics, in which Lajoie dominated the league in almost every statistical category, including the Triple Crown, he moved on to Cleveland. To illustrate how big Lajoie was in his day, the Bronchos renamed themselves “The Naps” after their leader in 1903.
Lajoie played most of the rest of his career in Cleveland, finally returning to the A’s for his final two seasons in 1915-16. At that point, he was in his 40s and starting to show his age. Lajoie retired following the 1916 season. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, with the second group of Cooperstown legends.
2. Eddie Collins
Eddie Collins debuted with the A’s just five seasons after Nap LaJoie’s jump. He was only 19, though, and didn’t stick with the team until 1908. Collins’ career would last another 23 seasons before he eventually retired in 1930. His long career puts him high in the record books among second basemen. He ranks first in stolen bases; second in games played, plate appearances, triples, and runs; third in batting average; and sixth in RBI. Collins can also boast an MVP win in 1914 and six top 5 MVP finishes.
Collins was a member of the legendary Connie Mack’s Athletics until 1915. He made it to four World Series with the club, winning the first three. After losing the 1914 World Series, Mack broke up the A’s and sold Collins to the White Sox for $50k. Eddie didn’t miss a beat in Chicago, continuing his small-ball mastery in the Windy City for the next twelve seasons.
The Sox made it to two World Series during that time – in 1917 and 1919 – winning the first one. The loss in 1919 became known as the “Black Sox Scandal” when it was later revealed that several players conspired to throw the World Series. Collins was not implicated in the controversy, but the scandal gutted the team.
Collins returned to the A’s for his final four seasons and retired in 1930 at the age of 43. He was elected in 1939 to the Hall of Fame with the fourth set of illustrious entrants.
1. Rogers Hornsby
The great Rogers Hornsby was the clear choice for the best second baseman of all time. Hornsby led the pack in nearly every category and dominated in WAR. His offensive prowess is among the greatest of all players, not just second basemen. He ranks ninth on Fangraphs WAR for all offensive players and 12th on Baseball-Reference. Only Ty Cobb has a higher lifetime batting average than Hornsby’s .358.
Hornsby got a taste of the show in 1915 and was a regular with the Cardinals the following season. In 1920, he won his first of six consecutive (and seven total) batting titles when he hit .370. That was the lowest BA of his title years. Three times Hornsby hit over .400, including his .424 average in 1924. No player in history has a higher single-season batting average with as many plate appearances as Hornsby had in 1924.
In addition to his batting titles, Hornsby led the league in runs five times, hits/doubles/RBI four times, triples/homers twice, and OBP/SLG nine times. He is on the short list of the greatest right-handed hitters ever. Despite his success in St. Louis, Hornsby was traded to the Giants after the Cardinals won the World Series in 1926. Coming back to the Cards was, you guessed it, Frankie Frisch. Hornsby bounced around considerably for the rest of his career for a player of his caliber. Yet he remained an offensive force. In 1929 he won his second MVP as a member of the Cubs and also made it to the World Series again that year (which, of course, they lost).
Hornsby began player-managing in 1925 with the Cards and continued to do so throughout most of his remaining career. He didn’t play much during his final five seasons with the St. Louis Browns, but he still hit over .300 four times. Hornsby retired from playing in 1937 and was elected to the Hall of Fame five years later in 1942.
In a few weeks, we’ll keep moving around the diamond and rank the Top Ten Shortstops. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both and tons of other great content in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)