The Best Shortstops in Baseball History

All stats in this column are through Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Most of the great Yankees have been outfielders. Babe Ruth. Mickey Mantle. DiMaggio. Reggie. Bernie Williams. Earle Combs. Even Yogi Berra logged a couple thousand innings in the outfield. I know: Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, the pitchers ... the Yankee tradition has always been first and foremost about the outfield. Until Derek Jeter. The Captain, who collected his 3,000th hit over the weekend, has been the face of the Yankees for a decade, through 11 division titles, 7 World Series appearances, and 5 championships.

Jeter reached his milestone with a 5-hit game, his first since June 2005 and only the third time this season he's hit more than twice in a game. Obviously, Jeter can still play, but just as obviously, he's not the player he once was. With a new milestone on his résumé and a career that appears to be gradually winding down, where does the pinstriped wizard now rate among the greatest shortstops ever?

Below, you'll find my list of the finest shortstops in major league history. Notably, I didn't include Negro Leaguers in my evaluation. I'm certain that Pop Lloyd would rate very high on the list, and a couple other Negro Leaguers (such as Willie Wells) might as well, but I just don't have the appropriate background to rank those players with confidence. Were Wells and Lloyd great players? Obviously. Were they better than Robin Yount, Joe Cronin, Pee Wee Reese? I simply don't know.

Please note that I'm ranking complete players here. Shortstop is perhaps the most important fielding position in baseball, so defense counts for a great deal, but a lesser defensive player can still help his team with a big bat — and a defensive genius who can't hit is more a liability than an asset.

1. Honus Wagner
.327 / .391 / .466
3415 H, 101 HR, 1732 RBI, 1736 R

He has to be number one. Barring some extreme prejudice regarding the improvement of quality over time, there's nowhere else to go. Who has ever been more dominant than Wagner? Babe Ruth, maybe Barry Bonds. Maybe Ty Cobb or Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle. I think that's it. Wagner led the NL in a major offensive category 56 times. In 1908, he led the majors — not just the National League — in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, doubles, RBI, total bases, stolen bases, and OPS. Wagner actually led the NL in all three rate stats (BA, OBP, SLG) four times (1904, 1907, 1908, 1909). He batted .300 fifteen times and led the league in batting average eight times. This from a guy who was a tremendous baserunner (723 steals, led NL five times; 252 triples, led NL three times) and the greatest defensive shortstop of his era.

The knock on Wagner, for people who desperately want one, is power. But Wagner played from 1897-1917. No one hit home runs then. Frank Baker, who played around the same time, retired with 93 dingers and a season-high of 12. He was nicknamed "Home Run" Baker. Wagner led the NL in slugging six times; he was a terrific power hitter. But before the lively ball, in stadiums with huge outfields, and managerial strategies that focused on moving the runner up, Wagner was never going to hit 500 home runs. No one was. When Wagner retired, the career HR record was 138, by Roger Connor. I think 101 is pretty good in that context, especially for a middle infielder who hit .327 with 700 stolen bases.

If you dropped Wagner into the 1990s or early 2000s, how many dingers would he hit? I haven't the faintest idea, except that it would be a lot more than 101. I think an easier question to answer is, if you asked modern sluggers like Alex Rodriguez to hit in Exposition Park in 1908, how many times would they go yard in a season? I suspect the answer is about 12. Certainly it's not 40 or 50. Put A-Rod in 1912, and he'd have 12 homers, but he might hit .350 and he'd probably steal 30 bases. It's a different context.

What separates Wagner from every other player in baseball history is that he was simultaneously the best offensive player and the best defensive player. Wagner was universally regarded as the finest defensive shortstop of his era, and he was also the best batter until Cobb.

2. Alex Rodriguez
.302 / .386 / .569
2762 H, 626 HR, 1883 RBI, 1810 R

We're getting to the point that I wonder if he should still be ranked as a shortstop. A-Rod has played 1,272 games at shortstop and 1,065 at third base. The innings difference is under 2,000. If Rodriguez plays long enough to challenge Bonds and Aaron, I think future generations will remember him more as a third-bagger than a shortstop. Even when he did play short, A-Rod was a good fielder, not a great one. He won two Gold Gloves, but he wasn't a defensive wizard like Ozzie Smith or Rizzuto or Wagner. There's no shame in that. Shortstop is an incredibly demanding defensive position, and many great shortstops finished their careers at other positions.

But it's also why Rodriguez isn't comparable to Wagner. It's true that Wagner played other positions before settling in at shortstop, but when he did he was the greatest defensive shortstop in the majors. A-Rod was a good shortstop, but not on Wagner's level, and he's not anything special as a defensive third baseman.

Rodriguez, over 2,383 games, has produced 3,067 runs. If you add his runs and RBI, then subtract HR, you get the total number of runs produced for his teams; we subtract homers because otherwise they count in both categories. Wagner, playing 2,792 games, produced 3,367. That's 1.29 per game for A-Rod, 1.21 for Wagner. Advantage, Rodriguez. But A-Rod plays in the steroid era, and Wagner played during the deadball era. In 1908, the average NL team scored 3.33 runs per game. In 2000, the average AL team scored 5.30 runs per game. estimates that if Rodriguez had played his whole career in the context of the 1908 Pirates, he'd have 1,274 RBI and 1,223 R. That's how stark this difference is. And remember, Wagner was a better defensive player, too.

This tool — what would stats look like in the context of a different year, league, or ballpark — is probably my favorite of the many awesome toys at Baseball-Reference, so let's look at a couple more items. First, Rodriguez's stats in 2000, projected to the 1908 Pirates, along with Wagner's actual stats for the '08 Pirates:

A-Rod: .270 / .368 / .519, 133 H, 31 HR, 88 RBI, 89 R
Honus: .354 / .415 / .542, 201 H, 10 HR, 109 RBI, 100 R

Now let's look at both seasons in the context of the 2000 Seattle Mariners:

A-Rod: .316 / .420 / .606, 175 H, 41 HR, 132 RBI, 134 R
Honus: .417 / .480 / .637, 272 H, 13 HR, 172 RBI, 157 R

Look, we have to take these numbers with a grain of salt. Would Wagner really have batted .417 in 2000? No. But I bet he would have hit 30 homers, and the 172 RBI I don't think is entirely out of the question if he was hitting between Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey, Jr. Would Rodriguez have crushed 31 home runs in 1908, blowing away the previous record? No, I'm sure he wouldn't have. But I suspect he would have hit well over .300, with a bunch of doubles and triples giving him a slugging average right around that .519 the site estimated, which was phenomenal in 1908.

It's extremely difficult to compare players a century apart, but I think Wagner's degree of dominance makes it fairly easy in this case. The Dutchman ranks at the top, and it isn't close.

3. Cal Ripken, Jr.
.276 / .340 / .447
3184 H, 431 HR, 1695 RBI, 1647 R

I wrote a full article this Spring looking back on Ripken's career and explaining why I rank him here. I don't want to just reprint the thing, so I'll keep this short. Ripken is one of only eight players with both 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. The others are all outfielders or first basemen. Here you have this terrific defensive shortstop, and he hits like a corner outfielder.

4. Derek Jeter
.313 / .383 / .450
3003 H, 237 HR, 1159 RBI, 1727 R

How do you objectively evaluate such a polarizing player? As the biggest star for the New York Yankees, during a time when the team has been wildly successful (5 World Series titles), he is celebrated by fans of the team and reviled by the many people who loathe the Yankees as a symbol of much that is wrong with baseball. His smoothness and calm leadership inspire roughly equal amounts of hatred and admiration. His defensive play inspires soliloquys from the managers who have voted him five Gold Gloves, and disdain from the statheads whose numbers show Jeter as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the history of baseball. No one feels neutral about this guy.

Now that Jeter is at 3,000, has he passed Ripken? Not that I can see. Ripken still has more hits, and almost 1,000 more total bases, even though Jeter has played his whole career in the big-hitting Selig Era, and Ripken was years past his prime when the home run era came in. Plus, Ripken was a much better fielder.

Of course, falling short of Cal Ripken is nothing to be ashamed of. Jeter has seven 200-hit seasons. He's scored 100 runs 13 times. He's a 12-time All-Star, 1996 AL Rookie of the Year, top-10 in MVP voting seven times. He's been the leader in the clubhouse and on the field for multiple world champions, and has the most postseason at-bats of any player in history. He's a career .300 hitter at a demanding defensive position, and now he has 3,000 hits. Jeter actually is the only career shortstop in the 3,000-hit club. Wagner played several other positions before he settled in at short, Ripken ended his career at third, and Robin Yount spent almost half his career in the outfield.

5. Arky Vaughan
.318 / .406 / .453
2103 H, 96 HR, 926 RBI, 1173 R

In the 2003 New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James named Vaughan the second-best shortstop in history (behind Wagner). He had Ripken third, Rodriguez and Jeter effectively unrated because they were still so early in their careers. James placed enormous emphasis on peak performance, and while that's certainly appropriate to a point, I think in Vaughan's case it went too far, almost arguing what might have been rather than what was.

Vaughan's career was quite short, 1,817 games, and everybody listed above him has played at least 500 more. I don't want to reward hang-around value any more than James did, but Vaughan left the game at age 31. Think about what Wagner and Rodriguez and Ripken and Jeter accomplished after turning 32. That's not hang-around value. Wagner at 32 was the best player in baseball. So was A-Rod. Ripken was AL MVP at 31, had over 1,000 hits after his 32nd birthday. Jeter has three 200-hit seasons since turning 32. That's not hang-around value. You don't judge a player by his five best seasons if he was a difference-maker in his sixth- and seventh-best.

James' argument for Vaughan centered largely on the excellence of Vaughan's 1935 season, when Vaughan led the majors in batting average (.385), on-base percentage (.491), OPS (1.098), and OPS+ (190). He led the AL in walks (97) and slugging (.607), scoring 108 runs and driving in 99. That's an incredible season. Was it better than Lou Boudreau in '48 or Yount in '82? Better than Ripken's MVP seasons? Maybe, I guess. I don't see that Vaughan's season stands out.

Boudreau in 1948 batted .355 with 106 RBI and 116 runs, and posted one of the most impressive BB:SO ratios in history, walking 98 times with just 9 strikeouts. Yount in 1982 hit .331 with 114 RBI and 129 runs. He led the majors in hits, doubles, total bases, slugging, and OPS. He won a Gold Glove at short. Ripken in '83 led the AL in hits, runs, and doubles, with 102 RBI for the eventual World Series champions. In '91, he batted .323 with 85 extra-base hits, led the majors in total bases (368), and was the best fielder in the league. Maybe Vaughan's season was a little better than those, maybe it wasn't. I wouldn't want 1935 to be the basis of my argument for ranking Vaughan ahead of Ripken or Jeter, though.

6. Robin Yount
.285 / .342 / .430
3142 H, 251 HR, 1406 RBI, 1632 R

A terrific hitter, but as a shortstop ... well, he was a better outfielder. Yount actually was quite a good center fielder, but (despite a Gold Glove in '82) he was not a particularly good defensive shortstop. His fielding percentage at short was just .964, and he was DH-ing regularly by the time he was 28. Like A-Rod, it's borderline whether he should even be listed as a shortstop, since Yount changed positions before his 30th birthday.

Rated as a shortstop, of course, his offense makes him one of the best players in history at the position. Yount is one of four shortstops with at least 3,000 hits (Wagner, Ripken, Jeter), plus he had some power (250 HR, 1400 RBI), he would take a walk (966 BB), and he was an aggressive baserunner (126 3B, 271 SB).

7. Barry Larkin
.295 / .371 / .444
2340 H, 198 HR, 960 RBI, 1329 R

Other than Wagner, probably the most well-rounded player on the list. Larkin hit for average (batted .300 eight times), had some power (double-digit HR nine times, high of 33), ran exceptionally well (379 SB, 83.1 SB%), and was a good fielder (three Gold Gloves). His weakest point is the power, but Larkin's slugging percentage is basically the same as those of Ripken (.447), Jeter (.450), Vaughan (.453), and Yount (.430).

He's likely to be elected next year, but Larkin's snubbing by the Hall of Fame voters is totally mysterious to me. He's a 12-time All-Star, won 9 Silver Sluggers and 3 Gold Gloves, 1995 NL MVP, with no scandals, no steroids, and no real weaknesses in his game. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote an interesting piece following Roberto Alomar's election to Cooperstown comparing Alomar and Larkin. On paper, there's not much difference between them, and you almost wonder if the notoriety Alomar got from spitting on John Hirschbeck helped him get selected a year earlier than Larkin. No such thing as bad publicity.

8. Ernie Banks
.274 / .330 / .500
2583 H, 512 HR, 1636 RBI, 1305 R

A lot of people have started listing him as a first baseman instead of a shortstop. Banks did play more games and more innings at first, but his prime years were at short — that's where people remember him. Of course, the reason Banks played half his career at first is because he was a defensive liability at short, and that's an important aspect of his evaluation.

Banks was the first modern shortstop to hit with any power. Honus Wagner was the greatest slugger of his era, but that was before people hit home runs. Banks hit 40 HR five times, at a time when you were happy with your shortstop if you could hide him sixth or seventh in the lineup, maybe second if he could run a little. Banks couldn't run at all (50 SB, 53 CS), but he could hit the long ball.

9. Luke Appling
.310 / .399 / .398
2749 H, 45 HR, 1116 RBI, 1319 R

If Wagner and Larkin were the most well-rounded of the great shortstops, Appling and Banks fall on the other end of the spectrum. Banks was a great power hitter who couldn't do anything else. Appling hit .300 and walked 90 times a year and he could field, but he had no power and he wasn't a great baserunner.

Appling received MVP votes in 11 seasons, finishing second in 1936 and 1943. In '36, Appling hit .388 with 128 RBI. He walked 85 times and struck out just 25, scored 111 runs, and set career highs in almost every major batting category. The 1943 numbers came against wartime competition, but Appling led the AL in batting average (.328) and on-base percentage (.419). He walked three times as often as he struck out, stole 27 bases, and hit 33 doubles.

Appling's fielding acumen and ability to draw walks made him an effective player long after most shortstops have retired or moved across the infield. He hit .300 13 times, including five seasons after he turned 35. He was top-10 in MVP voting at 40, and at age 42 posted a .439 OBP, the second-highest of his career, in a full season (619 PA).

10. George Davis
.295 / .362 / .405
2665 H, 73 HR, 1440 RBI, 1545 R

Davis is a Hall of Famer, but I recognize that this is an unorthodox ranking. Davis played in the 1890s and the early 1900s. He wasn't on television, and he was long retired when baseball reached its zenith of popularity. You can get away with that if you're Honus Wagner and you're the most dominant player this side of Ruth. Davis was a great player, but he wasn't Wagner.

Davis' best year was 1897. He hit .353 with power (31 doubles, 10 triples, 10 HR), walked twice as often as he struck out, stole 65 bases, scored 112 runs, and led the majors in RBI (136). I don't know what his second-best season was. Maybe 1893, when he hit .355 with 27 triples and 119 RBI. It might have been 1905, when he was top-10 in the AL in BA, OBP, R, 2B, BB, and SB, and rates as probably the best fielder in baseball. It could have been 1904, or '06, or 1894, or several other years. Davis was a regular from age 19 to 37. He was a well-rounded offensive player who hit for average (.350 three times), walked more than he struck out, ran the bases well (163 3B, 619 SB), and played good defense. He's sort of been lost in the shuffle of time, and that's understandable, but I think a strong argument could be made that Davis should rank even higher than this.

11. Pee Wee Reese
.269 / .366 / .377
2170 H, 126 HR, 885 RBI, 1338 R

Pee Wee Reese never won an MVP award. But he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting eight times. That's more than Ripken (3), Jeter (7), Vaughan (2), Yount (2), Larkin (2), Banks (5), or Appling (3). Reese received MVP votes in 13 seasons, and he was a 10-time All-Star. He was a manager's wet dream of fundamentals: a great defensive player who walked a ton (1,210 BB), scored 90 runs eight times (NL-leading 132 in 1949), and in various years led the league in steals and sacrifice hits. Modern "smallball" managers would love Reese (as long as they recognized the value of a walk). He lost three seasons of his prime to World War II.

12. Alan Trammell
.285 / .352 / .415
2365 H, 185 HR, 1003 RBI, 1231 R

Worshipped by stat geeks, scorned by Cooperstown. Trammell was a four-time Gold Glove at shortstop, and he could hit. He batted .300 seven times and had some power, won three Silver Sluggers and would have had more except for Ripken. How is that not a Hall of Famer? A celebrated defensive player at the game's most important fielding position, and he can actually hit? Trammell's career is not terribly long, so he doesn't have the counting stats. He didn't get anywhere near 3,000 hits, and the '80s were not especially hitter-friendly, so he was below .300 for his career.

Trammell in 1987 hit .343 with 100 runs, 100 RBI, 30 doubles, 28 homers, stole 21 bases and was caught stealing just twice.

Outside the Top 12

Joe Cronin
.301 / .390 / .468
2285 H, 170 HR, 1424 RBI, 1233 R

An exceptional player, obviously, but like many stars of the big-hitting '30s, he's overrated. Cronin was a career .300 hitter, but he never ranked higher than 10th in batting average.

Lou Boudreau
.303 / .384 / .497
2176 H, 284 HR, 1205 RBI, 1186 R

Like Reese, he was top-10 in MVP balloting eight times. Unlike Reese, he did win, in 1948. Boudreau hit exactly 45 doubles three times, leading the majors each year. He also led the league in caught stealing and grounding into double plays once each.

Ozzie Smith
.262 / .337 / .328
2460 H, 28 HR, 580 RBI, 1257 R

I'm a Cardinals fan. Ozzie is a hero in St. Louis, probably more than anyone this side of Stan Musial. He was perhaps the greatest fielder in history, truly deserving of his "Wizard" nickname. But he couldn't hit. Ripken hit as many home runs as a rookie (28) as Smith did in his whole career. Ozzie saved a lot of runs with his glove, but give me Trammell's bat instead and I'll take it.

Dave Concepción
.267 / .322 / .357
2326 H, 101 HR, 950 RBI, 993 R

My colleague Davan S. Mani asked where Concepción might rate among shortstops. I don't have an exact number in mind, but certainly not in the top 20. He was a good fielder, but his fame was mostly a result of playing for the Big Red Machine, being in the right place at the right time. Subtract Bench and Morgan and Rose, and Concepción was Ozzie Lite. Both were good baserunners, but it didn't matter because they were never on base. They didn't hit for average, they didn't hit for power, and they didn't walk. Ripken was the best player in the American League two or three times. Concepción was never even the best player on his own team.

Tino Martinez won four World Series. Does that make him a great teammate whose extraordinary talents weren't obvious to fans, or does it just mean that he held down a job on the same team as guys like Jeter and Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera? Concepción could have been Neifi Perez and the Reds were still going to win.


Cronin, Boudreau, and Smith fill out my top 15, probably in that order. The rest of the top 20:

16. Bill Dahlen
17. Nomar Garciaparra
18. Jim Fregosi
19. Phil Rizzuto
20. Miguel Tejada

Comments and Conversation

July 14, 2011


A couple of things. Banks and Yount both moved because of injuries. Banks, the knees, (and he did win GGs just like Jeter) and Yount his throwing shoulder.You also cite Fielding percentage (to me its like rating hitters by strikeouts/PA) avg, 100 runs and such. That being said the rankings are actually pretty interesting, major props for George Davis, Bill Dahlen and Jim Fregosi.

August 3, 2011

Davan S. Mani:

I would say Davey was the best player in 1979 where they beat the Houston Astros for the NL West Pennant. Rose was gone, Morgan bitter, Bench’s knees were shot, and George Foster was injured. He hit 16 homers and drove in 84 runs.

September 3, 2011

Brad Oremland:

I suppose an argument could be made for Concepcion in 1979, though both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR rank him behind Bench and Foster, and Ray Knight got more MVP votes. Ranked by OPS:

Davey .281/.348/.415 (.764)
Knight .318/.360/.454 (.814)
Bench .276/.364/.459 (.824)
Foster .302/.386/.561 (.948)

Concepcion had fewer total bases than Foster despite 150 more at-bats, and 84 RBI to Foster’s 98.

Even if you want to give him ‘79, though, I don’t see how that puts him in a class with players like Ripken and Jeter. Concepcion had a career OPS+ of 88, meaning he was a significantly below-average hitter. He had no power (101 HR in a 19-year career, .357 SLG) and he grounded into 266 double plays, one of the highest totals in history.

He was a good player, and we can excuse the light bat in a shortstop, but when you’re comparing him to guys like Banks and Trammell, I just don’t see how he measures up.

September 26, 2011


So underrated 285a 1200+runs 2300+hits 460+doubles 300+hr 18 rbis from 1300
Add mvp
1 of 3 ss to ever have 5 seasons in a row 100 RBI
1 of 3 ss to habe 8x 30 doubles atleast
He is now 3rd alltime in ss hrs
5th most games played in a row 1152
when he got his 150RBI that was most by a ss in 55 yr at the time in 04 or 5

October 13, 2012

Harry Rowley:

What about Hall of Fame SSs, known for great fielding, back when great fielding meant something to the fans: like Rabbit Maranville or Wallace? Marion or Belanger?

October 11, 2014

James Bagby:

You have no idea of whatg a great shortstop entails. The reason why he is so great besides his great prowess in fielding and decent numbers for a ss in offense, but he didn’t over promote himself like Ripken, Smith or Jeter. He came to play, not to be in the limelight or preen his feathers. He is a great shortstop in every sense of the word, and he didn’t ask or want the accolades, but he offensively and defensively deserved them. He doesn’t get the respect of people like you, because he wasn’t a hotshot, and you don’t know baseball.

December 29, 2016

Dru ross:

Concepcion had better stats then several SS in the HOF. He was better defensively then most. The early days and the last few years hurt his stats. He hit 300 and was consistent 275-285 hitter during a 10-12 year span. Trammel was terrible in the field

January 1, 2017

Brad Oremland:

Trammell won four Gold Gloves, had a higher fielding percentage than Concepcion, turned more double plays per inning than Concepcion, and is shown by advanced analytics to be a better defensive player than Concepcion. He was emphatically NOT “terrible in the field”.

Davey was a .267 hitter, not “a consistent 275-285 hitter during a 10-12 year span”: in seasons when he qualified for the batting title, he hit .275 or better only six times. He didn’t hit with power, and the only offensive category in which he ever led the league was grounding into the most double plays in 1983.

Dru, Concepcion was a good player, but almost nothing you wrote in your comment is true.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site