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Larkin's underrated greatness goes beyond his place among shortstops


This Sunday, longtime Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Larkin, who received 86.4 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot, is a clearly deserving inductee. Over his 19 seasons, all with his hometown Reds, he made 12 All-Star teams and won eight Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and the 1995 National League Most Valuable Player award.

He was a slick fielding shortstop who hit for solid averages (.295 career, .300 or better nine times, albeit some in injury-shortened seasons) and had an excellent plate approach (.371 career on-base percentage and 122 more walks than strikeouts over the course of his career). He possessed modest power (15 home runs per 162 games over his career with a single-season high of 33 in 1996) and great speed (379 career stolen bases at an 83 percent success rate, including a career-high 51 in 56 attempts in his MVP season).

There wasn't anything Barry Larkin didn't do well on the baseball diamond, and he upheld similar standards off of it, winning the 1993 Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes involvement in the community, and 1994 Lou Gehrig Award, which recognizes character and integrity.

So why did it take Larkin three years to get his invitation to Cooperstown? For the answer, let's take a look at the table to the right showing where Larkin ranks on the list of the greatest shortstops in major league history. Counting only the seasons in which shortstop was the player's primary position, those are the career leaders in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) at shortstop:

If you don't recognize their names, Dahlen and Wallace were defensive specialists from the turn of the century. Dahlen and Trammell, the latter of whom is still on the ballot, are the only two who aren't in the Hall of Fame.

There are two ways to interpret that list. The first is to take it as gospel and say that Larkin was the seventh-best shortstop in baseball history. The other, preferable method, is to notice that everyone below Ripken is pretty tightly bunched and that some of the greatest shortstops in baseball history didn't make the top 10. In an attempt to address both of those issues, let's look at peak value. Here's a list of the greatest shortstop peaks in history ranked by the cumulative bWAR of the players' five best seasons in which shortstop was their primary position:

The first thing you'll notice there is that we found all of those missing greats: Rodriguez, Banks, Boudreau, Yount, even Garciaparra, all of whom show up in this top 10. However, this list doesn't help us much with sorting out that clump of similarly valued careers above; with the exception of Pirates great Arky Vaughan, who ranks sixth, players three through 10 on the career list show up in the tightly bunched second half of the peak list. From a cursory look at these lists, the only thing that's absolutely clear is that Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr. were the two greatest shortstops in major league history, but you probably didn't need these lists to figure that out.

Everyone on the career list shows up on the peak list, so let's focus on the latter in an attempt to pare down and sort through those 19 men. First, let's eliminate everyone in the second half of the peak list who didn't make the career list. Goodbye, Hall of Famers George Davis (career bWAR in shortstop seasons: 52.9) and Dave Bancroft (46.5), who plied their trade at the turn of the century and at the dawn of the liveball era, respectively. So long, Jim Fregosi (43.3), who ceased being both a star and a shortstop after being traded to the Mets for Nolan Ryan at age 29.

Let's keep Pee Wee Reese, however, as he ranks 11th on the career bWAR list at 62.9 and lost three full seasons to World War II in between seasons of 5.5 and 5.7 bWAR. It's reasonable to assume he could have compiled 15 bWAR during those lost seasons, and if he did, he would have ranked third on the career bWAR list.

The result is a group of eight shortstops of alarmingly similar value. Here they are with their career and peak bWAR totals as well as an average of the two, just to make the comparison easier:

Reese is last, but, again, he shouldn't be penalized for his military service. If you give him 15 extra career wins above replacement, he tops this list with a 53.9 average. If you split the difference, he's right in the middle of the pack at 50.2. Smith and Wallace seem to stand out a bit as the best and worst of this group, but I'm not confident that bWAR, particularly its defensive component -- Total Zone, which factors in heavily for both of those men as well as Dahlen -- is accurate enough to make such distinctions.

The only firm conclusion to be drawn from the list of eight, six of whom are Hall of Famers, is that Alan Trammell, who is Larkin's most similar player according to Bill James' Similarity Scores, has been mistreated by the Hall of Fame voters and is every bit as deserving of induction as Larkin. It's probably too late for Dahlen, whose case is largely dependent on his fielding, something we'll never be able to accurately evaluate from more than a century away, but Trammell got 36.8 percent of the vote on this year's Hall of Fame ballot and deserves to go in before he runs out of chances in 2016.

What about the seven men with significantly higher peaks, but lower career totals? Can we fairly conclude that any of them deserve to be placed below Larkin on our all-time shortstops list?

Yes. Yes we can.

Start with Hughie "Ee-Yah" Jennings, another turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer. Jennings' peak value comprises the vast majority of his career value. There were just six seasons in which shortstop was his primary position that he stayed healthy enough to play in 100 or more games. His peak with the 1890s Baltimore Orioles was impressive, but his career bWAR in his shortstop seasons was 37.2.

Next up is Garciaparra, who looked like a future Hall of Famer in his early 20s, but never fully recovered from a wrist injury suffered at age 27 and whose last big impact season as a shortstop came in 2003 at the age of 29. Nomar's career shortstop bWAR: 40.8

Next, Yount, who's MVP-winning 1982 season stands as one of the greatest seasons ever by a shortstop, but who moved to centerfield for his age-29 season due to a shoulder injury. Yount was an offense-first shortstop who had an OPS+ above league average in just six of his seasons at the position and his career shortstop bWAR is just 47.9.

Ernie Banks is the only man on any of the above lists who didn't play at least half of his career games at shortstop. Through his age-30 season, Banks was a superstar at the position, one of the best hitting shortstops ever and the winner of back-to-back MVP awards in 1958 and 1959 despite his Cubs' losing record and fifth-place finish both seasons. However he had limited range at short, and in 1962, his age-31 season, he moved to first base and never played so much as an inning at shortstop for the rest of his career. At his peak, Banks' bat made him one of the best shortstops ever, but he only had seven star-quality seasons at the position and his career bWAR in his shortstop seasons was 52.0, not that far above Yount's. It's a tougher call than the previous three, but I think due to Banks' lack of longevity and fielding prowess at the position, I'm going to drop him behind the Larkin group as well.

An even tougher call is former Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau. Shortstop was Boudreau's primary position throughout his career, and he won the 1948 Most Valuable Player award at the position. He could hit and field, and despite a short career (he was effectively finished at age 33), he has a solid 59.2 career shortstop bWAR. The catch is that, with the exception of his MVP season, his best offensive seasons came during the three war years that Reese missed, 1943, 1944 and 1945. Boudreau had an arthritic ankle that caused him to be rejected by the draft board, so he got to feast on war-time pitching for three years, and that is a large part of what has him this high on the list. Like Reese, we don't really know how his numbers would have changed without the war, and it seems a bit unfair to say that he wouldn't have had excellent age-25 to -27 seasons facing the same competition he did at the age of 30 in '48. Still, the combination of his short playing career and the confluence of his peak and the war years seems like enough to knock him down a peg.

That leaves just four shortstops that I would comfortably rank above the Larkin Eight: Wagner, Ripken, Vaughan and Alex Rodriguez (who compiled 61.6 bWAR in his shortstop seasons before agreeing to move to third base at the age of 28 in deference to Derek Jeter, an inferior player, to facilitate a trade to the Yankees). That makes Larkin one of the dozen best shortstops in baseball history by my accounting, and an argument could be made to place him as high as fifth on that list.

In 2001, Bill James ranked Larkin, who played until 2004, sixth on his list of the all-time greatest shortstops in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. That was before Rodriguez and Jeter had cracked the top 10, but James took into account Yount and Banks' entire careers to place both ahead of Larkin, so it's easy to swap those two out for the younger players. In those rankings, James wrote that, "Larkin is one of the 10 most complete players in baseball history. He's a .300 hitter, has power, has speed, excellent defense, and is a good percentage player. He ranks with DiMaggio, Mays, and a few others as the most well-rounded stars in baseball history."

So, again, why did it take Larkin three years to get into the Hall of Fame?

Most likely, there were two reasons: injuries and context. Setting aside his rookie season, in which he didn't debut until August, Larkin averaged just 119 games played per season over the course of his career. Four times in 18 years he failed to play in 100 games and on four other occasions he failed to reach 120. He played in 140 or more games just seven times, 150 or more just four times. If Larkin had the health of Ripken, Jeter, Rodriguez or Smith, just to name a few, he'd have broken away from that clump of eight similarly valued shortstops in both career and peak* value, but injuries muted what could have been an inner-circle-quality career.

*The most glaring examples: In 1989, before the league's offensive explosion, Larkin hit .340/.368/.444 through July 9, but tore the medial collateral ligament in his throwing elbow in a skills exhibition before the All-Star game and didn't return to action until September, and then only as a pinch-hitter. In 1997 he hit .317/.440/.473 but played in just 73 games due to a variety of injuries in his left leg.

As for the context, note that of the top 15 shortstop peaks listed above, seven of them were authored by men whose careers overlapped Larkin's (1986 to 2004). In the '80s there was Ripken, Smith, Yount and Trammell. In the '90s, there was the Big Three of Rodriguez, Jeter and Garciaparra. Smith is the only fellow National Leaguer in that group, but he was so popular with the fans and around the league that Larkin didn't start an All-Star Game until his age-29 season and didn't win a Gold Glove until he was 30 (though he started winning Silver Sluggers at 24).

Ripken's last great season was his MVP campaign in 1991, by which point Yount was in centerfield and Smith and Trammell were in their twighlight years, and the Big Three didn't make an impact until 1996, when Rodriguez won the American League batting title and was the runner-up for MVP, and Jeter won the AL Rookie of the Year.

So, Larkin did have his moment as the best shortstop in baseball, but it was brief, briefer even than that four-season window of 1992 to 1995. In '93, his season ended on August 4 due to a thumb injury. The next year brought the strike, which shortened both the '94 and '95 seasons, and the latter was dominated by Ripken who, though no longer an elite hitter, eclipsed Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable consecutive games streak just in time to help bring fans embittered by the strike back to the game.

Given the misfortune of the remarkably similar Trammell, it's probably a small miracle that Larkin made it into the Hall as quickly as he did. It could be that the concurrent eligibility of another very similar player, 2011 inductee Roberto Alomar, was a factor in helping voters realize just how good Larkin was. Another might have been the regression of the shortstop position from the heights of the Big Three's peak to the point that Elvis Andrus has made the All-Star team in two of the last three seasons.

Ultimately, how or when Larkin got into the Hall is less important than the fact that he is where he belongs, among baseball's greatest players.