The St. Louis Cardinals are an old franchise—they've played 129 seasons, if you count the American Association St. Louis Browns, and you should—and it seems almost strange to me, striking, at least, that one of their positions was monopolized so late in that history by one player. Ozzie Smith, I mean—he joined the Cardinals in 1982, 100 years after error-prone Bill Gleason manned shortstop for the fifth-place Brown Stockings, and up to that point Marty Marion would have been the Cardinals' all-time great shortstop. Now there's no contest, and I can't see a situation in which there ever will be.
I've started on the player capsules for this year's Maple Street Press annual, and when I got to Brendan Ryan's, which was an excuse to rhapsodize about his 2009 instead of worrying about his 2010, I wondered how many other Cardinals have managed such plausible imitations of an Ozzie Smith season. Since Baseball-Reference has finally given us an easily acceptable, admittedly rough fielding system that extends into the past, I decided to do it in leaderboard format. Here are the top Cardinals careers for shortstops not named Ozzie Smith. (For your control group: Ozzie Smith was worth, per B-R's Total Zone stat, 197 fielding runs as a Cardinal, with a peak season of 32.)
Honorable Mention: Bobby Wallace: Bobby Wallace put together 117 fielding runs in St. Louis in 20 years in St. Louis, but unfortunately he did most of it for the St. Louis Browns. From 1899 to 1901 he was a Cardinal—more accurately, a Perfecto, and then a Cardinal—but he jumped to the new American League Browns in 1902 and stayed there until 1916, when he returned briefly to the Cardinals as a 43-year-old utility infielder.
In 1901 Wallace had one of the better shortstop seasons in team history, hitting .324 with 34 doubles and 15 home runs while earning 25 runs on defense.
1. Marty Marion: 132 fielding runs, 24 peak: The fielding statistic revolution hasn't exonerated Marion for his inexplicable 1944 MVP campaign; he was +24 on defense that year, but that only brought him up to 4.0 WAR, which gets you a little less than halfway to the value Stan Musial amassed that season.
But there are worse things than winning an MVP Award you don't deserve, and Marion was an outstanding defensive shortstop and a passable offensive shortstop, which is certainly the Ozzie Smith formula. He also has one of the better full-name fields on Baseball-Reference: Martin Whiteford Marion (Slats or The Octopus). So many options!
2. Dal Mavill—49 fielding runs, 14 peak: Yeah, there's a bit of a drop-off after Slats or The Octopus. Maxvill at his best looks a little like Brendan Ryan last year—in 1966, his first season as a starter, he was -18 on offense and +14 on defense, culminating in 1.5 wins above a replacement player. For his career: 3.8 WAR.
3. Brendan Ryan—40 fielding runs, 18 peak: That was quick! Ryan's played what amounts to a little less than three full seasons, and picked up 40 fielding runs. It's a shame it took him so long to get started—defense often peaks extremely early, but Ryan is arguably the best shortstop in baseball at 28. John Dewan's DRS is even fonder of his defense—it gives him 20 runs in 2009 and 27 in 2010.
What impressed me as I was looking up former Cardinals starters was how rarely they played somebody who was clearly terrible at the position. The two players who accrued the most negative defensive value at short in Cardinals history are none other than Leo Durocher, whose 1937 season could be the worst in team history at the position, but mainly for his offense; and Arnold George Hauser (Peewee or Stub), 1910-1912, whose full-name field is nearly as good as Slats or The Octopus's.
So for our official shortstop butcher we'll have to choose another Honorable Mention, Browns star Vernon Decatur Stephens (Junior or Buster). Buster, whose nickname is as evocative as any I've used in this blog entry, was basically a nineties shortstop transported back in time to lose the World Series to the Cardinals in 1944. He won a home run title and three RBI titles in his career, and was worth -35 runs on defense as a Brown. That's what I'm talking about.
Of course, then he went to Boston and was worth 19 runs as a shortstop in three years before he was moved to third base. So maybe defensive stats aren't perfect yet.