Sunday, August 21, 2011

Best Infields Ever

NOTE:  One commenter correctly pointed out that the 1934 Tigers infield should have made this list.  I just figured out that the list below only goes from 1954-2010.  I'm an idiot for not noticing that the Tigers infields of the 30s were missing.  The all-time list can be found here

Earlier in the year, I presented the best outfields in the history of baseball according to the Baseball-Reference WAR statistic.  Most of the best outfields played before 1970 and some played as early as the 19th Century.  In fact, it was difficult to find modern outfields which compared to those of the early days of the game.

Of particular interest to readers here were the Tigers outfields of the early 20th Century featuring Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann and Bobby Veach.  Those great Detroit outfields took three of the top 15 spots on the major league list.

I decided to do the same exercise with infielders.   With teams shifting towards more offensive infielders in later years, my guess was that some of the best infields would be more recent. This turned out to be more true than I realized.

First, remember that WAR is an estimate of the number of wins a player contributed to his team's win total above what you would expect from a replacement level player - a player who could be acquired for league minimum salary.  An example of a replacement player would be a player in Triple-A, who is good enough to get some time in the majors, but is not regarded as a top prospect.  WAR takes into consideration everything a player does on the field, including hitting, fielding and baserunning.

I use the WAR system developed by Sean Smith, now a statistician for a major league team.  Most of my analysis uses a database purchased from Sean a couple of years ago.  The data are now housed at Baseball-Reference.  There may be a few small discrepancies between the old database numbers I'm using and Baseball-Reference due to recent upgrades of the sytstem, but nothing that should significantly change the conclusions.  A very accessible explanation of the system can be found at Beyond The Boxscore.

Basically, what I did was sum the WARs for the four most commonly used infielders (one each at first base, second base, third base and shortstop).  I required that each of a team's infielders  to have 400 or more plate appearances and to have played at least half of his games at his primary position.  This guaranteed that each qualifying infield would have four regulars. For example, an infield with a star first baseman, second baseman and shortstop and group of marginal players sharing the third base spot would not qualify.


The 15 top single season WAR totals in the history of the game are shown in Table 1 below. 


The Athletics infield of Jason Giambi at first, Frank Menechino at second, Eric Chavez at third and Miguel Tejada at shortstop (24.8 total WAR) is the best of all-time according to this statistic.  That means that, theoretically, these infielders added 24-25 wins to their team above what you'd expect from four replacement level players.  The 2004 Cardinals infield of Albert Pujols, Tony Womack, Scott Rolen and Edgar Renteria finished second at 24.3.


Looking at the entire list, you'll notice that six of the infields occurred since 2000 and ten since 1990.  The earliest infield on the list is the 1969 Twins quartet.  The main reason is the proliferation of power hitting infielders over the last couple of decades.  The second base and shortstop positions in particular were historically defensive minded positions, but that is no longer true.

The only Tigers infield on the list was the 1990 group of Cecil Fielder at first, Lou Whitaker at second, Tony Phillips at third and Alan Trammell at shortstop.  They finished fifth with an impressive 21.4 WAR.


 Table 1: Best Single Season Infields According to Baseball-Reference WAR

Year
Team
first baseman
WAR
second baseman
WAR
third baseman
WAR
shortstop
WAR
Total WAR
2001
OAK
Jason Giambi
10.3
Frank Menechino
3.7
Eric Chavez
6.4
Miguel Tejada
4.4
24.8
2004
SLN
Albert Pujols
9.4
Tony Womack
3.2
Scott Rolen
9.2
Edgar Renteria
2.5
24.3
1975
CIN
Tony Perez
3.1
Joe Morgan
12.0
Pete Rose
4.4
Dave Concepcion
3.4
22.9
1976
CIN
Tony Perez
1.8
Joe Morgan
10.0
Pete Rose
6.7
Dave Concepcion
3.8
22.3
1990
DET
Cecil Fielder
6.7
Lou Whitaker
3.5
Tony Phillips
4.4
Alan Trammell
6.8
21.4
2001
SEA
Edgar Martinez
5.5
Bret Boone
9.3
David Bell
3.1
Carlos Guillen
3.2
21.1
1999
NYN
John Olerud
5.3
Edgardo Alfonzo
5.7
Robin Ventura
6.7
Rey Ordonez
2.7
20.4
2005
NYA
Jason Giambi
4.3
Robinson Cano
1.8
Alex Rodriguez
8.4
Derek Jeter
5.5
20.0
1998
NYA
Tino Martinez
3.3
Chuck Knoblauch
3.1
Scott Brosius
5.7
Derek Jeter
7.8
19.9
1995
BOS
Mo Vaughn
4.2
Luis Alicea
2.3
Tim Naehring
4.4
John Valentin
8.5
19.4
2002
NYA
Jason Giambi
7.3
Alfonso Soriano
4.7
Robin Ventura
3.9
Derek Jeter
3.4
19.3
1984
BAL
Eddie Murray
6.8
Rich Dauer
0.6
Wayne Gross
2.4
Cal Ripken
9.2
19.0
1977
TEX
Mike Hargrove
5.1
Bump Wills
4.9
Toby Harrah
5.5
Bert Campaneris
3.3
18.8
1969
MIN
Rich Reese
2.8
Rod Carew
5.1
Harmon Killebrew
6.1
Leo Cardenas
4.6
18.6
2009
LAA
Kendry Morales
4.0
Maicer Izturis
3.4
Chone Figgins
6.9
Erick Aybar
4.3
18.6


One criticism of WAR is that the fielding portion of the system is not that reliable if we are only looking at one year of data.  It is even more shaky in very early years where less detailed data are available.  Thus, I also wanted to construct a list with fielding excluded.  The Offensive WAR (oWAR) results are shown in Table 2.

In this case, the the top infield still involves first baseman Jason Giambi, but it's a different year and a different team - the 2005 Yankees.  That infield of Giambi, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter finished with 23.0 oWAR (They are eighth on Table 1 which includes fielding).  Giambi's 2001 Athletics are second on Table 2 with 22.5 oWAR.  The 1990 Tigers are 11th with 17.8 oWAR.

In a later post, I'll look at just the Tigers infields throughout history.


Table 2: Best Single Season Infields According to Baseball-Reference oWAR

Year
Team
first baseman
OWAR
second baseman
OWAR
third baseman
OWAR
shortstop
OWAR
Total OWAR
2005
NYA
Jason Giambi
5.1
Robinson Cano
2.4
Alex Rodriguez
9.5
Derek Jeter
6.0
23.0
2001
OAK
Jason Giambi
9.9
Frank Menechino
3.0
Eric Chavez
5.1
Miguel Tejada
4.5
22.5
2002
NYA
Jason Giambi
7.2
Alfonso Soriano
6.0
Robin Ventura
3.6
Derek Jeter
5.2
22.0
1976
CIN
Tony Perez
1.4
Joe Morgan
10.1
Pete Rose
6.5
Dave Concepcion
2.9
20.8
1975
CIN
Tony Perez
2.4
Joe Morgan
10.5
Pete Rose
5.6
Dave Concepcion
1.9
20.4
2006
NYA
Jason Giambi
4.0
Robinson Cano
3.2
Alex Rodriguez
5.4
Derek Jeter
6.6
19.1
2000
OAK
Jason Giambi
9.1
Randy Velarde
1.9
Eric Chavez
3.6
Miguel Tejada
4.4
18.9
1998
NYA
Tino Martinez
2.9
Chuck Knoblauch
3.5
Scott Brosius
4.5
Derek Jeter
7.6
18.5
1987
SLN
Jack Clark
7.2
Tom Herr
2.0
Terry Pendleton
3.6
Ozzie Smith
5.7
18.5
2004
SLN
Albert Pujols
7.9
Tony Womack
2.0
Scott Rolen
6.5
Edgar Renteria
1.8
18.2
1990
DET
Cecil Fielder
6.6
Lou Whitaker
2.5
Tony Phillips
3.1
Alan Trammell
5.7
17.8
1969
MIN
Rich Reese
2.5
Rod Carew
4.5
Harmon Killebrew
7.8
Leo Cardenas
2.9
17.6
2004
BAL
Rafael Palmeiro
1.5
Brian Roberts
2.3
Melvin Mora
6.8
Miguel Tejada
6.8
17.5
1976
OAK
Gene Tenace
5.5
Phil Garner
3.2
Sal Bando
5.5
Bert Campaneris
3.2
17.4
1963
SLN
Bill White
4.7
Julian Javier
2.1
Ken Boyer
4.9
Dick Groat
5.5
17.3

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