Where does Alomar rank among game's best second basemen?
Roberto Alomar will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. Including Rod Carew, who played 54 more games at first base than second, Alomar is the 17th major league second baseman to be inducted as a player, but the first to be voted in by the writers since 2005, when Ryne Sandberg made it, and only the fourth since Jackie Robinson in 1962. That alone paints Alomar as one of the greatest second basemen in the game's history, but where exactly does he rank on that list?
Rogers Hornsby was the greatest hitter ever to spend the bulk of his career at second base, but he was, by all accounts, a brutal fielder, and spent just 12 of his 16 seasons as a major league regular at the position. The greatest fielding second baseman of all time is widely believed to have been Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, an eight-time Gold Glove winner who was a below-average hitter but is ironically best remembered for his World Series-winning home run in 1960. Robinson was the most important player ever to spend the bulk of his career at second base, but that was his primary position for just five of his 10 major league seasons.
The greatest second baseman of all time was either Eddie Collins or Joe Morgan. Collins, a deadball-era superstar for the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Sox, hit .334/.424/.430 with 3,217 hits and 734 stolen bases in his 19 seasons as a starter at the position, won the American League MVP in 1914, played on six pennant-winners, and was a four-time world champion. By the numbers, he was clearly the best second baseman in the game's history, but given the wildly disparate eras in which the two men played, there's room to argue for Morgan, who hit .272/.393/.428 with 688 steals in his 20 seasons as a starter at the position, won five Gold Gloves, and was the National League MVP in 1975 and '76, when his Cincinnati Reds won the World Series.
Alomar does not enter into those discussions. He was not the greatest, most productive, best-fielding, or most significant second baseman in the game's history. Can we at least say he was the best second baseman of the last 20 years?
Sandberg's last great season was 1992. Alomar won the first of his 10 Gold Gloves and first appeared on an MVP ballot (something he did seven times, five times in the top six) in 1991. Since then, the only men to challenge his career value at the position have been Craig Biggio, whose first season at the keystone was 1991, and Jeff Kent, who didn't become a star until he arrived in San Francisco in 1997. Among active players, Chase Utley appears to already be in decline in just his seventh season as a full-time player, and it's too early to know what kind of careers Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia or Ian Kinsler will have.
As a starting point for measuring Alomar against Kent and Biggio, we can use Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which attempts to combine a player's hitting and fielding contributions into a single value that is measured against the replacement-level standard of their position and league (which thus accounts for changes in scoring levels across eras). There are competing versions of WAR provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, but the latter doesn't factor in baserunning, which was a big part of Alomar's game (he stole 474 bases in his career at an 81 percent success rate), so let's stick with Baseball-Reference and dub their version "bWAR." If we consider only those seasons in which the players in question played more games at second base than anywhere else, an important distinction in evaluating Biggio as a second baseman seeing as he also spent four years as a catcher and two as an outfielder, we get these career totals:
In terms of peak value, Biggio's 1997 performance (.309/.415/.501, 146 R, 22 HRs, 47 SBs at 82 percent, 34 HBP, Gold Glove, 9.6 bWAR) ranks as the best season by a second baseman since Morgan's peak (which included four superior seasons). However, Alomar's second-best season was better than Biggio's second-best, and if we take the average value of each players' top five seasons, we get this:
Given the imprecision of these statistics, that's a push for Alomar and Biggio at their peaks. However, in part because Biggio moved around the diamond, Alomar has a significant edge for his career as a second baseman, while Kent doesn't quite measure up to him in either regard. On that alone, it can be said that Alomar was, and remains, the best second baseman of the last 20 years, which is no small accomplishment. In fact, there's reason to believe that Alomar was even better than these statistics show.
Specifically, advanced, range-based fielding metrics don't have a particularly favorable view of Alomar's play at second base. For example, TotalZone, the defensive metric used by bWAR (and by FanGraphs' WAR for all seasons prior to 2002) rates Alomar as below average in the field in six of his 10 Gold Glove seasons and effectively as an average defender during the prime of his career prior to his sudden and unexpected collapse at age 35.
Yet fielding statistics remain somewhat specious, and, short of going back and rewatching hundreds of games, I'm not quite ready to cast aside Alomar's reputation as an elite defender just because the numbers tell me it wasn't so. Alomar may still have been very good in the field, just not one of the all-time greats, as so many believe he was. Thus the statistics serve to temper our praise of Alomar's fielding, but need not mute that praise entirely.
With that in mind, feel free to round Alomar's WAR totals up as we head into the home stretch.
Using the same method that I used above for Biggio and Kent, here are the all-time career leaders in bWAR at second base, using only seasons in which second base was the listed player's primary position:
And here are the leaders in peak performance at second base using the average bWAR of the five best seasons during which second base was the listed player's primary position:
Looking at the career list, Whitaker and Randolph had much lower peaks (5.66 bWAR and 5.36 bWAR, respectively). Looking at the peak list, Robinson only played those five seasons at second base, and Joe Gordon played just 11 seasons, losing two to World War II. As a result, neither of those two players could compete with Alomar's career value at the position. That leaves six players who topped Alomar on both lists and Sandberg, who had a higher peak, but a slightly lower career value.
In comparing Alomar and Sandberg, note that WAR is already adjusted for the ballparks in which the players played, so we can't budge Ryno, who played all but 13 of his games as a Cub, by pointing out that his career OPS was 116 points higher at Wrigley Field than elsewhere. WAR is also already adjusted for era, so we can't dock Alomar for playing the bulk of his career during the Steroid Era.
Sandberg won nine Gold Gloves to Alomar's 10 and was more highly-regarded by TotalZone, but still was rated below average in four of those seasons. Sandberg won the 1984 NL MVP, but only finished in the top six two other times. Alomar never finished higher than third in the MVP voting, but finished in the top six five times. Alomar won four Silver Sluggers and made 12 straight All-Star teams. Sandberg won seven Silver Sluggers and made 10 straight All-Star teams. Both combined power and speed, but Sandberg hit for more power and Alomar stole more bases. Alomar topped 20 home runs three times with a career high of 24, and Sandberg had at least 30 stolen bases five times with a career high of 54. Leaving out his cup of coffee with the Phillies in 1981, Sandberg played just 15 seasons, but Alomar was only good for 14, suffering a severe decline with the Mets at age 34 in 2003 after a near-MVP season at age 33 with the Indians in 2002. All of which only goes to show how difficult it is to rank one above the other.
Still, if pressed, my list of the top 10 second basemen of all-time would probably look like this:
1. Eddie Collins
2. Joe Morgan
3. Rogers Hornsby
4. Nap Lajoie
5. Charlie Gehringer
6. Frankie Frisch
7. Roberto Alomar
8. Ryne Sandberg
9. Bobby Grich
10. Lou Whitaker
That would make Alomar the second-best second baseman since integration and the seventh-best second baseman in the game's 140-year history. Your list may differ, but no matter how you shuffle those rankings, Alomar's status as an all-time great and a deserving Hall of Famer is clear and secure.