Welcome to another edition of Top Ten! This week, the shortstops are on tap. 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 we compiled the list.
Outside of catcher, shortstop is probably the most important defensive position on the diamond. As such, we put a bit more emphasis on defense than we did at first and second base. Specifically, we added Total Zone to the criteria. We used TZ instead of UZR or DRS as it is the only defensive metric available historically. Please note that even though defense was weighed more heavily, the player still needed to be a premier hitter. For this reason, defensive masters like Ozzie Smith, Joe Tinker, and Luis Aparicio didn’t quite make it as their offensive WAR dragged them down.
The core of the evaluation was based on several types of WAR, including ratings from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, which calculate it differently. We rely heavily on WAR as it is difficult to compare players of different eras to each other, given how the game has changed over the years. WAR measures players versus their contemporaries, thus putting players on as level a playing field as possible. As always, 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.
Traditional offensive stats such as hits, BA, OPS, HRs, RBI, SBs, etc., were fused with wOBA, wRC+, and OPS+ for the offense. All-Star game appearances, MVP awards, and seasons where the player finished in the Top-Ten in MVP voting were given consideration, though not weighed as heavily as MVP votes and All-Star games didn’t exist in the early years.
Enough with the background, let’s get to it with Number Ten:
10. Derek Jeter
If we could quantify leadership, Derek Jeter would probably rank higher on the list. He would also rank higher if this list were based only on offense – likely in the top-five. Jeter is the only player in the top-ten with a negative defensive rating, which speaks to the strength of his offense.
“The Captain” made his debut in May 1995 as an injury replacement and returned as a September call-up. Despite limited playing time, he made enough of an impression to earn the starting job the following spring. It was a wise decision by the Yankees as Jeter won Rookie of the Year that season and New York won its first World Series since 1978.
Being a World Champion suited Jeter. During his tenure, the Yankees went to the Fall Classic often. By the time Jeter retired after the 2014 season, his teams had only missed the postseason three times, and he was a five-time champ. Jeter would play in 158 playoff games in his career – essentially an entire season’s worth. He acquitted himself nicely in October and November, batting .308 with 20 HRs, 111 runs, 61 RBI, and 18 SBs. In addition, he took home the World Series MVP in 2000.
As the leader of so many great teams, Jeter was showered with honors over his career. He went to 14 All-Star games and won five Silver Sluggers and five Gold Gloves. Jeter never won the MVP, but he did finish in the top-five three times. In 2017, the Yankees retired Jeter’s jersey (#2), and in 2020, he was voted into the Hall of Fame on his first attempt with nearly 100% of the vote.
9. Lou Boudreau
Lou Boudreau broke Spring Training in 1940 as the Indians’ starting shortstop after playing one game in 1938 and 53 in 1939. He quickly established himself as an All-Star, making his first of eight appearances that season. Boudreau was excellent on defense, leading the AL in fielding % eight times and defensive WAR four times. He could also hit, winning a batting title in 1944 and leading the league in doubles three times. His best season was 1948 when he hit .355 with 116 runs, 18 HRs, and 106 RBI en route to winning the AL MVP. It was his only MVP win, but Boudreau was top-10 in MVP voting eight times in the 1940s.
In addition to being a great player, Boudreau became Cleveland’s player-manager, starting with the 1942 season. He was only 24 years old and is still the youngest MLB manager in history. As manager, Boudreau was the first to employ the “Williams shift,” aligning six defenders to the right of second base when Ted Williams was at the plate. In 1948, the year he won MVP, Boudreau’s Indians won the World Series, making him a champion as a player and a manager. It was the last time Cleveland was the World Champion.
Boudreau player-managed the Indians through 1950, at which point he left the team and signed with the Red Sox. By this time, his skills were declining, and he retired as a player in 1952. It took a while, but Boudreau was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. That same year, the Indians retired his number 5.
8. Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks began his career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1950 but had his rights sold to Chicago in 1953. Banks became a fixture at shortstop for the Cubs in 1954 and led the league in games played for six of the next seven seasons. He made his first of 14 All-Star appearances in 1955 and won back-to-back MVPs in 1958 and 1959, leading the league in RBI both seasons. Banks hit over 40 HRs five times over a six-year span from 1955 to 1960 and led the league in the category twice.
Banks transitioned to first base for the second half of his career despite winning the Gold Glove at shortstop in 1960. The Cubs made the move to extend his career, which lasted through the 1971 season. Banks earned his nickname, “Mr. Cub,” due to his sunny disposition and great quotes, his most famous of which was “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two.” Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility in 1977 with 84% of the vote. Five years later, the Cubs retired his number.
7. Barry Larkin
Barry Larkin debuted late in the 1986 season and finished seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in only 41 games. By Larkin’s third season, he was an All-Star, a feat he would repeat 11 more times in his career. He also won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, and the NL MVP in 1995. That season, Larkin batted .319, scored 98 runs, drove in 66, and stole 51 bases. Without a doubt, Larkin was the dominant shortstop in the NL for over a decade.
The Reds only made the playoffs twice in Larkin’s 19 seasons. The first time, in 1990, they won the World Series. Larkin batted .353/.421/.529 in that series which was a four-game sweep for the Reds over the A’s. Despite the lack of team success, Larkin stuck with Cincinnati until the end, retiring after the 2004 season at 40. He remained the team’s shortstop until the end and was still productive when healthy, batting .289 in his final season and making the All-Star team.
Larkin was a great leader off the field, winning the Roberto Clemente Award in 1993 for his charitable work and the Lou Gehrig Award for his character and integrity in 1994. In 2012, the BBWAA elected Larkin to the Hall of Fame with 86% of the vote. A month after his induction, the Reds retired his number 11.
6. Luke Appling
Luke Appling debuted with the White Sox in September 1930 and remained with the club for his entire 20-year career, retiring after the 1950 season. Despite his nickname, “Old Aches and Pains,” Appling was a durable player who rarely missed time outside of a broken leg in 1938 and his final season. His 2,218 games at short rank him eighth on the all-time list. His total would be even higher had he not missed almost two seasons due to World War II.
Appling’s career really began to blossom in 1933, when he hit over .300 for the first of nine consecutive seasons. He would hit over .300 15 times in total and twice won batting titles in 1936 and 1943. He also had a great eye, evidenced by his lifetime .399 OBP and his nine seasons over .400. Appling never won MVP but was runner-up twice, including 1936 when he hit .388 and drove in 128 runs despite only six homers.
Appling had an excellent arm, leading the AL in shortstop assists seven times. He played in seven All-Star games and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1964. He was further honored in 1975 when his number 4 was retired by the White Sox.
5. George Davis
George Davis was one of the many early stars who has been largely forgotten. But he was a titan in his day, producing superior offensive numbers in the dead ball era. Davis first emerged with the Cleveland Spiders in 1890 as an outfielder. Three years later, he was traded to the New York Giants, where he was initially deployed at third base before moving to shortstop in 1896. New York suited Davis as his batting average spiked over 100 points after the trade. In his first year with the Giants, he batted .355, and he would hit over .300 every season with the club until he jumped to the American League White Sox in 1902.
After one season in Chicago, Davis attempted to return to the Giants. However, this violated the peace treaty between the leagues, and he only managed to play four games with New York before being blocked for the rest of the season. The following year Davis returned to the ChiSox and played the rest of his career with them, retiring after the 1909 season.
The highlight of Davis’ career may have been the 1906 World Series, in which the Sox faced the heavily favored crosstown Cubs. The Chisox prevailed in six games, much to everyone’s surprise, with Davis hitting .308 with six RBI. In terms of personal accomplishments, Davis ranks high in several of the all-time categories for shortstops, including runs (7th), RBI (5th), stolen bases (3rd), and triples (3rd). Davis also player-managed for parts of three seasons with New York in 1895, 1900, and 1901. Davis largely disappeared after his playing days, but after several years of historical research, the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee elected him post-humously in 1998.
4. Arky Vaughan
Arky Vaughan was a premier hitter and his .318 lifetime batting average is second all-time among shortstops (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). He only hit under .300 twice in his career, one of which was during his last season. Vaughan led the league with a .385 average in 1935, his fourth season after debuting with the Pirates in 1932. He had an excellent eye at the plate, leading the league in walks and OBP three times.
Vaughan was also fast. He led the league in stolen bases once, with 20 in 1943 (teams didn’t run much during this era). In addition, he led the league in triples and runs three times. Vaughan made the All-Star team for the first time in 1934 – the second year of the game’s existence. He was a regular at the Midsummer Classic for the following eight seasons. In the 1941 contest, Vaughan hit two HRs and drove in four runs.
Following the 1941 season, the Pirates traded Arky to the Dodgers, where he clashed with manager Leo Durocher, for whom he lost respect after the manager lied about a teammate in the press. After the 1944 season, Vaughan opted to retire and missed the next three years. He returned to the club in 1947, however, when Durocher was suspended for the year. At 35 and out of baseball for three years, Vaughan was a bench player at this point. However, he did get to play in his only World Series in 1947. Arky went one-for-two with a walk in three pinch-hit appearances, and the Dodgers lost the series to the Yankees in seven.
Had he not missed those three seasons, Vaughan would rank higher in multiple offensive categories for shortstops. Tragically, Vaughan died in a boating accident a few years after his retirement in 1948. The Veteran’s Committee inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1985, 33 years after his death.
3. Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken is famous for his consecutive game streak, but he was a great player beyond his incredible durability. His career accolades are numerous. He won Rookie of the Year in 1982, two Gold Gloves, and eight Silver Sluggers. He was an All-Star every season from 1983 through 2001 and won two MVPs in 1983 and 1991. Among shortstops, Ripken ranks first in games and plate appearances, second in doubles, third in HRs and RBI, and fourth in runs. While much of his success can be attributed to his longevity, he also ranks third in WAR7, indicating that he was among the best shortstops of all time at his peak.
Ripken’s defense is often overlooked. He ranks third in all-time defensive WAR among shortstops on Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. He is known for his positioning and led all AL shortstops in double plays eight times, assists seven times, putouts six times, and fielding % four times.
Despite his long career, Ripken’s Orioles only made the postseason three times during his tenure. The first resulted in the 1983 World Championship when Baltimore defeated Philadelphia in five games. After that, Ripken didn’t see any October action until 1996 and 1997, both times falling in the ALCS. Ripken performed well during the post-season, batting .336/.411/.455 in 124 PAs.
After the 2001 season, Cal finally called it quits at the age of 40 and 21 major league seasons. Ripken was such an icon in Baltimore that the team retired his number during his final season. In 2007, Cal Ripken was elected to the Hall of Fame in a near-unanimous vote.
2. Alex Rodriguez
In terms of raw numbers, Rodriguez is probably the greatest shortstop of all time. He leads all shortstops in HRs, RBI, SLG%, and OPS (+1,500 plate appearances). Of course, he also has been linked to steroid use. In 2009 he admitted to taking them while in Texas after allegations were put upon him. Five years later, he was suspended for 211 days for his link to Biogenesis and missed the entire 2014 season. We’ll never know how much steroids influenced Rodriguez’s success, but we do know he took them.
That said, we still have ARod ranked number two all-time as that is what the statistics dictate. As with Roger Clemens and Robinson Cano, we will leave it up to the individual to pass judgment. Rodriguez began his career in 1994 as an 18-year-old phenom in Seattle. In his third season, he led the AL with a .358 BA, won his first of ten Silver Sluggers, and attended his first of 14 All-Star games. He also finished second in the MVP voting. At the tender age of 20, he was already a star.
In addition to his batting title, ARod led the league in runs and HRs five times, slugging % four times, OPS and RBI twice, and doubles once. He won three MVPs, one with the Rangers and two with the Yankees. For good measure, Rodriguez took home two Gold Gloves, both while he was still playing shortstop in Texas.
ARod left Seattle on a massive free agent contract in 2001, joining the Rangers. After three monster seasons, he was traded to the Yankees as the Rangers felt they couldn’t compete with so much money dedicated to one player. In New York, he shifted to third base as Derek Jeter was firmly established at short. Joining the Yankees almost assured Rodriguez of postseason action, which had eluded him in Texas. In his 12 years with the Yanks, Arod played into October nine times. He only made it to one World Series, however, which New York won over Philadelphia in 2009.
Rodriguez played two more seasons after his 2014 suspension and remained productive in 2015 when he hit 33 HRs and drove in 86, primarily as the DH. The following season, injuries slowed him, and he called it quits in August. His final two seasons were redemptive for him to a certain extent as fans embraced the comeback. It may not get him into the Hall of Fame, however. In his first year of eligibility, ARod only garnered 34% of the vote. Perhaps in time, players linked to steroids will see more leniency from the voters, though that remains to be seen.
1. Honus Wagner
Most of the historical batting categories that Alex Rodriguez does not lead in are led by Honus Wagner. Wagner is the all-time leader in batting average (+3,000 plate appearances), doubles, triples, and stolen bases among shortstops. “The Flying Dutchman” broke in with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 and, three years later, made his way to Pittsburgh after the Colonels were dissolved. That season he won his first of eight batting titles, hitting a remarkable .381 in what is commonly known as the dead-ball era. Over his first 17 seasons, Wagner hit below .300 only once – in 1898, when he hit .299. He also led the league in OPS eight times, doubles seven times, SLG six times, stolen bases five times, OBP and RBI four times, triples three times, and hits and runs twice. Eleven times Wagner had the league’s highest WAR among position players.
Wagner didn’t exclusively play shortstop as he was a good enough athlete to line up almost anywhere on the field. Throughout his career, he played everywhere except catcher, including eight innings at pitcher. Shortstop was his primary position, though, as he lined up there 83% of the time. He was a good one, too, leading the NL in fielding %, range factor, and double plays four times.
The Pirates advanced to the World Series twice with Wagner, winning once in 1909 over Ty Cobb’s Tigers. Wagner’s baseball card from the following season, the 1910 T-206, became famous in 2000 when it fetched $1M at an auction.
The Flying Dutchman finally retired after the 1917 season at the age of 43. In 1936, Wagner was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the first class along with Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson – pretty good company. In 1956, the year after he passed away, the Pirates retired his number 33.
We’ll move to the hot corner in two weeks and reveal our Top Ten Third Basemen of All-Time. 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)