Monday, December 03, 2018

Top Ten Tigers Shortstops

Alan Trammell is the Tigers only Hall of Fame shortstop
(Photo credit: Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

I recently wrote about the top Tigers third basemen of all time.  Today, I'll look at the shortstops.  Number one is our new Hall of Famer Alan Trammell and nobody else in his vicinity.  The rest of the list is more difficult.  

First, let's review the ground rules.  We are only including players who played at least half their games at shortstop.  Dick McAuliffe comes close with 42% and someone could reasonably put him on a list of Tigers shortstops if they were only looking at shortstops.  If we did include him among shortstops, he would most likely be in the top five, but we are not going to do that.  He was primarily a second baseman and we'll be constructing that list later.  

Another rule is that we will only consider games played with the Tigers.  Jhonny Peralta would do better if he we included his games with the Indians and Cardinals, but we are going to ignore those.  
We are also only going to include players with at least two full seasons at shortstop for the Tigers.  

Measuring offense is fairly easy.  Measuring defense, especially for players that played many decades ago, is more difficult.  We do not have enough information to rank player defense precisely.  However, I believe we have enough to identify who was a great defender and who was a bad defender and that will be taken into consideration.  Some sources which attempt to measure historic defense are:

Wizardry by Michael Humpreys
Win Shares by Bill James
The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia by Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer

For more recent players such as Jose Iglesias and Jhonny Peralta, we can also look at measures such as Defensive Runs Saved found at FanGraphs.com.

One way to start the analysis is to look at Wins Above Average (WAR) at Baseball-Reference:

WAR Leaders
Alan Trammell 70.7
Donie Bush 38.5
Billy Rogell 24.9
Harvey Kuenn 21.0
Carlos Guillen 18.6
Topper Rigney 10.9
Jhonny Peralta 9.1
Kid Elberfeld 8.1
Ramon Santiago 7.3
Jose Iglesias 7.1

WAR is a good place to start but not a good place to end.  The biggest problem with WAR in a ranking like this is we don't have a very accurate measure of defense, especially for the old timers.

WAR also does not tell necessarily tell us enough about quality or peak value.  For example, Ramon Santiago makes the top ten according to WAR, but he accumulated that WAR over many years as a utility player.  He was a fine utility man but never a regular other than the 119-loss 2003 team. 

We can remove fielding performance by looking at Offensive WAR or OWAR.

OWAR Leaders
Alan Trammell 63.0
Donie Bush 43.1
Harvey Kuenn 25.6
Carlos Guillen 22.9
Billy Rogell 19.4
Topper Rigney 13.0
Jhonny Peralta 9.2
Kid Elberfeld 8.0
Jose Iglesias 6.5
Eddie Lake 6.0

Santiago falls off the list, but there are no dramatic changes here.

Trammell and Bush lead in WAR and OWAR, but neither was the top peak performer offensively.  We can get an idea of offense by looking at OPS+

OPS+ Leaders
Carlos Guillen 121
Harvey Kuenn 112
Alan Trammell 110
Kid Elberfeld 109
Jhonny Peralta 106
Topper Rigney 105
Donie Bush 92
Billy Rogell 89
Eddie Lake 85
Jose Iglesias 83
Johnny Lipon 83

Guillen is the OPS+ leader, but he does not approach the longevity of Trammell and Bush.  Both peak and career will carry some weight in this ranking.  Now for the Top ten Tigers third basemen:

1. Alan Trammell (1977-1996  70.7 WAR 63.0 OWAR 110 OPS+)
I posted to this blog regularly for about 10 year and during that time I often discussed Alan Trammell's Hall of Fame credentials.   So, it feels good to now be able to refer to him as "Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell".  Arguments which say that player X is in the Hall of Fame and player Y is better than player X are flawed because there is a chance that player Y is only better than one guy who doesn't really belong.  In Trammell's case, my argument was always that he was better than half the shortstops in the Hall of Fame.  He is 8th among 21 inducted shortstops in WAR, 9th in Wins Above Average (preferred by some for Hall of Fame discussions because it puts more weight on excellence and a little less on longevity than WAR), 9th in OWAR and 11th in OPS+.  So, now he's in and he's the only Tigers shortstop so honored.

2. Donie Bush (1908-1921  38.5 WAR 43.1 OWAR 92 OPS+)
According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, Bush spent 65 years in organized ball as a player, manager, scout and owner.  That's a lot of baseball - from the first decade of the American League's existence to the early 1970's or from Ty Cobb to Marvin Lane.  This ranking is strictly based on his time as a player with the Tigers though.  He played more games at shortstop (1,867) than any Tiger other than Trammell and had some excellent individual seasons exceeding 5+ WAR five times.  His best year was his 2009 rookie campaign when he had 6.5 WAR, an OPS+ of 115 and a league leading 88 walks (one of five times he led the league in walks).

3. Billy Rogell (1930-1939  24.9 WAR 19.4 OWAR 89 OPS+)
Bill Rogell was one of the top defensive shortstops in the league in a Tigers career which spanned the the 1930s.  A long-time Detroit City Council member after his career, Billy Rogell teamed with Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer as the keystone combo of the 1934-35 pennant winning teams.  He could hit pretty well for a middle infielder too averaging 5.1 WAR and a 101 OPS+ from 1933-1935.

4. Carlos Guillen (2004-2011  18.6 WAR 22.9 OWAR 121 OPS+)
Carlos Guillen was acquired from the Mariners before the 2004 season in what turned out to be one of the team's best trades ever.  He was an integral member  of a team that became a perennial contender after two decades of futility.  Guillen was neither durable nor a plus defender, but nobody questioned his offense.  His combined good on-base skills and solid middle infield power produced an OPS+ of 100+ six times.  His 136 OPS+ and 6.0 WAR in 2006 made him probably the best player on a team that made the playoffs for the first time since the 1980's.

5. Harvey Kuenn (1952-1959  21.0 WAR 25.6 OWAR 112 OPS+)
I went back and forth on Harvey Kuenn and Guillen for the 4th spot.  Kuenn played more games and accumulated more WAR, but Guillen was a little better offensively.  Additionally, Kuenn's reputation and numbers at shortstop were very poor which is why he became an outfielder at age 27.  He could hit though.  His best season was 1959 when he hit .353 to win the American League batting title.  Interestingly, he was traded to the Indians after the season for outfielder Rocky Colavito who led the league in home runs in 1959.  This trade also turned out great for the Tigers.

6. Topper Rigney (1922-1925  10.9 WAR 13.0 OWAR 105 OPS+
Topper Rigney played only three full seasons, but was one of the Tigers best offensive shortstops.  He posted an OPS+ of 108 from 1922-1924.

7. Jhonny Peralta (2010-2013  9.1 WAR 9.2 OWAR 106 OPS+)
Peralta always looked awkward and out of place at shortstop, but he consistently posted average numbers on defensive metrics and continued to do so when he joined the Cardinals in the National League.  He was certainly a solid hitter for a shortstop two times posting an OPS+ above 120.  He and Rigney are interchangeable on this list.  I chose Topper because I liked his name, but the odd spelling  of Jhonny's first name made this a a tough choice. 

8. Kid Elberfeld (1901-1903  8.1 WAR 8.0 OWAR 109 OPS+)
The  5'-7" 158 pound Elberfield was the the epitome of grit.  According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, The Tobasco Kid was spiked often and when cut he would go back to the bench, cauterize his wound with whiskey and then continue playing.  He only played two full seasons for the Tigers, but was fourth among Tigers shortstops in OPS+.

9. Jose Iglesias (2013-2018  7.1 WAR 6.5 OWAR 83 OPS+)
Iglesias makes this list because we have run out of guys that could hit and he was a highlight reel at shortstop during his Tigers career.  Including good field no hit Eddie Brinkman of the 1970s Tigers would have allowed me to talk about another great Tigers trade, but his numbers didn't match up. 

10. Johnny Lipon (1942-1952  5.2 WAR 5.8 OWAR 83 OPS+) 
To give you an idea of what kind of player Johnny Lipon was, the final choice came down to Lipon and Deivi Cruz.  It was pretty close, but Lipon missed three years due to military service from 1943-1945.   It does not appear to have affected his career much since he didn't play regularly until 1948, but it might have.

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