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Second Thoughts

Well, that was nice to see for a change, wasn't it? A Cardinal team on the field that didn't include anyone playing wildly out of position, and a victory to boot. It was also nice, for me at least, to see the Cards beat up on Randy Johnson. Not for any reason related to the team itself, mind you, but simply because I don't really like Randy Johnson. No, I'm not really sure why. I don't have a particularly sound reason; the guy just bugs me. Maybe it was having to watch him in an Astros jersey and then having him come back and torment us some more in a DBacks uni in '01.

Anyhow, a lot of the talk this whole season has centered on the middle of the Cardinal infield, and with good cause. With no real exaggeration, it's pretty safe to say that the Cards' middle infield corps has been one of the worst, if not the worst, in all of baseball this year. Wait, let me qualify that. The Cards' MI has been one of the worst offensive units in all of baseball. Defensively, Kennedy and Izturis have both been quite good. Miles is eh at second and badly out of his depth anywhere else, and Felipe Lopez as a fielder is a pretty good hitter. Still, overall, it has been an extremely sore spot for most of this year.

Not too long ago, Lb looked at Brian Roberts of the Orioles, and what it would take to get him. Roberts certainly would represent an upgrade, at least on paper. The question, of course, as is always the case when looking at a potential trade, is whether or not the size of the upgrade would be worth the cost. The jury is still very much out on that, but something struck me while the debate over Roberts was going on. Most of us here have focused on second base as an excellent spot to upgrade offensively for the coming season; the rest of the field is manned by players who, for the most part, are quite adequate and usually better than that with the bat in their hands. We look at a guy like Roberts, project his performance into the Cards' lineup, and begin drooling copiously over what could be.

But a certain point was brought up several times in the discussion over Mr. Roberts that got me to thinking. His age. Roberts is not old, by any means, being thirty one, but the aging curve for second basemen, as several people pointed out, is a brutal one. I was curious as to whether or not that was as true as I thought it was. It's one of those things that just instinctively makes sense, honestly; second baseman are often- I don't want to say 'fringy'- sort of in between players. Often, second basemen are players that used to be shortstops, but lacked the range or the arm. Sometimes they're third basemen didn't fit the power profile most ML clubs look for at the hot corner. Whatever the reason, second basemen as a group are often defined by what they can't do, tools-wise. And any time you have a group of players with less than overwhelming tool sets, you would expect age to rear its ugly head in a big way. (see: Eckstein, David, circa 2007)

But is that really true? Or is it just one of those things that we've all thought for so long that no one even notices anymore that it really isn't true?

So what I wanted to do was to look at some of the better second basemen who have ever played the game, and see if there was any sort of pattern that emerges. I purposely didn't look at strictly average players because, honestly, it would have been much tougher to research. This way, all I had to do was go down the list of the top 50 second basemen of all time over at the Baseball Page (which is a lot of fun, by the way), pick  a couple handfuls of them out, pretty much at random, and then look them up. I was going to put the whole shebang in table format, but I didn't, because, to be honest, I simply don't like tables that well. So I didn't.


First, a word about my methodology. As I said, I simply went down the Baseball Page list and picked out several names of players whom I was a little familiar with, at random. I didn't look at any of their bios or stats ahead of time. For offensive performance, I'm simply using OPS+ for this. It's simple, easy to read, and makes an outstanding comparative stat. Yes, there are more in depth ones, but for the purposes of this exercise, OPS+ is pretty much ideal, I believe.

Eddie Collins- Collins is the greatest second baseman ever on the list, which is absolute BS. Just wanted to get that out of the way. He played his entire career with two teams, the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox. He played from 1906-1930, being one of the few players who escaped the taint of the Black Sox scandal.

Sadly, Collins does nothing to support my hypothesis. He played all the way up to age 43, though his last season as anything resembling a full time player came at age 40 in 1926, when he appeared in 95 games and amassed 226 at bats. That season, he posted an OPS+ of 124, so even at 40, playing probably somewhat intermittently even then, Collins was still a very good offensive player. Of course, that could also be why he's in the Hall of Fame, and all that. The three years before that, Collins posted OPS+ numbers of 134, 135, and 139. His career OPS+ was 151, so those years are pretty well in line with what he accomplished, with very little age related fall off.

Rogers Hornsby- Hornsby is the real best 2bman ever. Just saying.

Most of us know the story on Hornsby, for the most part, since he was a Cardinal great, so I won't give you all the history. He played with the Cards and Cubs primarily, with a little time spent with Boston and the New York Giants. He also finished out his career playing with the Browns.

Hornsby did have a fairly significant age curve. Through age 30, Hornsby was a holy terror. He posted an OPS+ better than 185 six years in a row, from 1920-25. Then, at age 30, he suddenly had a big time down year, with an OPS+ of 124. Still a good year, obviously, but not a Rogers Hornsby sort of year. He rebounded and made that season look like a blip, posting OPS+ of 175, 200(!), and 178 the next three seasons. At that point, age really started to kick in. In 1930, at age 34, Hornsby appeared in only 42 games with 104 at bats and an OPS+ of 96. It was the lowest he had posted since his cup of coffee as a nineteen year old back in 1915. He was better in '31, with 100 games played and an OPS+ of 163, but then received only 58 at bats in '32. He was 36 that year.

Hornsby never again took more than 92 at bats in a season as he played for five more years, serving mostly as player coach of the St. Louis Browns. He was still relatively effective the few times he did step to the plate, but for our purposes, Hornsby's career was mostly over at age 35, maybe 36.

Ryne Sandberg- Sandberg was a Cub. Eewww. He played from 1981-'97, with a career OPS+ of 114. He went into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

At age 24, Sandberg won the NL MVP award with an OPS+ of 140 in 1984. He also put up a 132 the next season, but mostly posted league average offensive numbers his first seven years in the bigs. Some years he was a little above, some a little below, but he was within 10-15 points most of those seasons.

Beginning at age 29, Ryno reeled off four consecutive seasons of 134 or better OPS+. At 33, he posted a 108. He went 83, 96, 83 from ages 34-37 and retired after his age 37 season. He was largely the victim of knee injuries, which probably cut his career short by about two or three years. He was an outstandingly consistent producer even after his body started to wear out, but even so, he was done at 37.

Roberto Alomar- Alomar had his best season in a Blue Jays uni, though he also played for the Padres, Indians, Orioles, Mets, and White Sox. He played 17 seasons, with a career OPS+ of 116.

From age 20 through age 33, Alomar was a model of consistency. He posted an OPS+ of better than 100 every year except one, his age 22 season, when he put up a 98. His two best years were in 1993 with Toronto, at age 25, when he put up a 141 OPS+, and in 2001 with Cleveland at age 33, when he posted a 150.

After that, though, Alomar's career took a turn for the worse. He played only two more full seasons and one partial after age 33, posting OPS+ numbers of 89, 80, and 81. He retired following the 2004 season at age 36.

Frankie Frisch- Another Hall of Famer, Frisch played 19 seasons with the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. The career OPS+ for the Fordham Flash (by the way, why do we not have great nicknames like that for players anymore? My kingdom for a sportswriter from the 30s!), was 111. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1947.

Frisch broke into the league at age 20. Beginning at 22, he reeled off eleven straight seasons of better than 100 OPS+ ball, through age 32. At 33, he slumped to an 85 OPS+. He rebounded the next season to 111, but failed to crack 100 his remaining four seasons. He was a part time player the last two years and retired after the 1937 season, at age 38.

Eddie Stanky- Stanky was a big part of Dem Bums, the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the mid to late 1940s and on into the 50s. He played only eleven years of major league baseball, mostly with Brooklyn, though some with Boston, the Giants, and the Cards. Career OPS+: 109.

Stanky didn't make it to the bigs until age 26, making him a bit of a rarity here. I believe it was partially because of the war, though I don't honestly have the time to fully research his bio at the moment. He put up OPS+ numbers of better than 100 from age 27 through 34, with the exception of his age 30 season in 1947. At 35,
he joined the Cardinals and posted an 83 OPS+ in part time duty. He put up an 80 at age 36 in even more limited duty, then retired after the season. I don't really know if this was a case of a player who simply fell off very quickly healthwise or if there were issues between the player and his new team, but Stanky still was out of the game at 36.

Red Schoendist- We know him. We love him. 'Nuff said. Red played 19 seasons, mostly with the Cardinals and Milwaukee (the Braves at the time), and posted a career OPS+ of 93. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1989, for his career as both a manager and player.

Red was a bit of a late bloomer offensively, posting OPS+ figures mostly in the 80s for the first seven years of his career. He did have a career high of 97 at age 28. Beginning at age 29, Red put up numbers of 113,135, and 106. At age 32, he fell to an 85, then rebounded to a 97 at 33. He had an excellent year at age 34, with a 116 OPS+, before dropping to a 77 at 35. He played five more seasons, until age 40, but was never a full time player after 35. His last really good season came at 34.

Bill Mazeroski- Mazeroski hit perhaps the greatest home run ever; the homer that won game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees for the Pirates. He broke into the bigs at 19 and played seventeen seasons, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career OPS+ was 84, He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.

The thing about Mazeroski is that he was never much of a hitter. He never once posted an OPS+ over 100, with his best season coming in 1958 at the age of 21, when he put up a 98 OPS+. Still, he was pretty consistent in his performance, sitting primarily in the 80-90 range most years of his career. At age 32, though, Mazeroski suddenly dropped off, getting only 227 at bats that with a 72 OPS+. He played three more years with OPS+ numbers of 65, 69, and 33 while receiving less and less at bats. He retired at age 35 after the 1972 season.

Manny Trillo- Manny Trillo played seventeen seasons in the big leagues with Oakland, the Cubs, and the Phillies, among others. The Baseball Page has him as the 32nd best second sacker ever. His career OPS+ is 81.

Trillo is another guy who just wasn't much of a hitter. He posted OPS+ numbers better than 100 only twice in a full season, at ages 29 and 30 in 1980-81, respectively. What is more pertinent is that his last season as a full time player came at age 34 in 1985, when he posted a 66 OPS+. He played four years after that and had some success as a part timer for the Cubs, but again, we have a player who was essentially done as a full time starter by age 34.

Tom Herr- Ah, yet another name from our collective Cardinal past. Herr played 13 seasons in the bigs, the first eight and part of a ninth with the Birds. He was traded early in the 1988 season for Tom Brunansky. Not so good.

Herr was a pretty decent hitter, but nothing that was going to set the world on fire. He did have the best year of his career in 1985, posting a 123 OPS+ in almost 600 at bats. Other than that, he was mostly a high 80s/ low 90s player. He had a very nice year for Philly at age 33, with a 107 OPS+. He bounced around his last two years, at ages 34 and 35, and retired after the 1991 season. His OPS+ the last two years of his career were 77 and 86. Again, out of baseball at 35.

I honestly considered Chuck Knoblauch, but I'm not really sure we could learn anything from his career arc.

Del Pratt- Alright, last one. Del Pratt is probably the best second baseman you've never heard of. The Baseball Page has him as the 15th best 2B ever. Pratt played 13 season in the majors, beginning with the St. Louis Browns (mostly why you've never heard of him), then going to the Yankees, Boston, and finally Detroit. His career OPS+ was 112.

Pratt broke in at age 24 in 1912 and did so in style, posting a 125 OPS+. He continued his fine offensive showing over the next four years, averaging a 122 OPS+. He dropped below 100 for the first time in 1917, at age 29. He moved on to the Yankees after the 1917 season and produced OPS+ numbers generally in the 100-110 range, never below 100, for six more years. In 1924, at age 36, Pratt appeared in 121 games, posting an OPS+ of 94. He hung it up for good that winter. We have no real age curve for Pratt, but yet again, a player done at 36 years old.

So what do we really see here? Well, it appears that the conventional wisdom on this one is pretty well correct. Even using just some of the best second basemen of all time, who are certainly by and large exceptional individuals, we have players who mostly were out of the game or seeing quite limited action by right around age 35. Like I said, I used the list of the best to draw from, not only because it was easy, but also to see if the top players at the position aged well. For the most part, it doesn't appear that they did.

What does this mean for the Cardinals? What it means is that if they plan on trying to go out and get a significant upgrade with a player in the middle infield, specifically at second, they should probably pay attention to some history and be cautious. When looking at a guy like Roberts, for instance, the Cards need to weigh his age and everything very carefully. If you're going to target that sort of player, you have to be aware that a four or five year deal that the team might look to get done with this player that they just spent so much in talent on may include a year or two at the back end that isn't up to par. Age 34, 35, and 36 seasons are not good to second basemen historically.

Buyer beware. Or, just go out and find a guy in his mid 20s. Either way. I'll bet I know which one Tony would prefer.

See, now that was just an unprovoked shot. You were so good today.

I know. Sorry. Couldn't help myself.