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July 25, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Stuck in the Middle with You

by Jay Jaffe

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Buoyed by the occasion of Bert Blyleven's election, I had hoped to make the trip to Cooperstown to attend this year's Hall of Fame inductions for the first time. The dream died when my ride backed out, and so I settled for watching Pat Gillick, Roberto Alomar, and Blyleven reap their reward on television, in front of an estimated crowd of 17,500 on a clear, warm day. It was still a joy to behold, not only the three inductees' speeches but also the introductory videos, with Sandy Alomar Jr. narrating his brother's clips—which included as good a defensive highlight reel as you'll see this side of Ozzie Smith—and Jim Kaat narrating Blyleven's. To these ears, the Dutchman's speech was the funniest and therefore the most memorable, but all three had their poignant moments, with the first two more visibly overwhelmed by the emotion of the occasion.

In the comments section of my recap of the players' qualifications, one reader asked if the double-play combination of Alomar and Cal Ripken Jr. rated as the best ever. There's no definitive answer to that question; indeed, there are many ways to frame it, but if you're going by JAWS score and don't set any limit as to how long the two played side by side, that appears to be the case. That duo's time as a double play combo was fleeting; after 15 full seasons as the Orioles' shortstop (1982-1996), the last of them pairing with Alomar, Ripken shifted to third base, where he played during the final two seasons of Alomar's stay in Baltimore.

By my count there are 10 enshrined tandems that spent at least two seasons playing together as regulars; fueled by an extremely outdated article, my initial count was much lower, but a few hours scouring Baseball-Reference set me straight. What follows is a ranking of those combos according to total JAWS score, along with two honorable mentions that would rate well were it not for the small technicality of somebody actually getting the necessary votes for enshrinement.

1. Joe Gordon (55.9) and Lou Boudreau (68.4), Indians. Total: 124.3
A 2009 Veterans Committee selection, Gordon was a potent hitter who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Yankees (1938-1943 and 1946, losing two years to the Army; see below) before he was traded to the Indians for Allie Reynolds. He had bottomed out after returning stateside, hitting just .210/.308/.338 in 1946 while sharing time with Snuffy Stirnweiss, who had starred against weaker competition during his absence. Alongside player-manager Boudreau, Gordon revitalized his career in Cleveland. In 1948, he hit .280/.371/.507 while Boudreau hit .355/.453/.534; joined by fellow future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Satchel Paige, the Indians won what still stands as their last world championship. The two played side-by-side through 1950, after which Gordon hung up his spikes and Boudreau was released; the latter headed to Boston, where he served as a backup in a crowded infield detailed below.

2. Bobby Doerr (54.9) and Joe Cronin (62.9), Red Sox. Total: 117.8
As Boston's regular second baseman from late 1937 through 1951 save for one season (1945) spent in the Army, Doerr was a nine-time All-Star who played with three different shortstops who earned All-Star honors themselves, namely Cronin, Johnny Pesky, and Vern Stephens. Doerr spent four full seasons playing next to Cronin (1938-1941), during three of which the Sox finished second to the Yankees in the AL standings; only in 1946, when paired with Pesky, would the Sox make the World Series. It's worth noting that Pesky's career got off to a Hall of Fame-caliber start, as he collected over 200 hits in each of his first three seasons (1942, 1946, and 1947, interrupted by three years in the Navy), leading the AL each time. Thereafter, he was moved to third base to accommodate Stephens, and began a gentle decline that accelerated with injuries and a 1952 trade to Detroit; he was done at age 34, having played just 10 seasons in the majors.

3. Paul Molitor (58.8) and Robin Yount (57.4), Brewers. Total: 116.2
Yount already had four full seasons under his belt when he began the 1978 campaign playing next to Molitor, and the two had more than a little in common: Both men made their major-league debuts less than a year after being chosen with the third overall pick in their respective drafts (1973 and 1977). Molitor, who converted from shortstop, spent three seasons (1978-1980) playing alongside Yount before battling injuries—he missed at least 50 games in six of his first 13 seasons—and undertaking an odyssey around the diamond that would take him to center field, third base, and ultimately designated hitter before all was said and done. He was at the hot corner, on the other side of Yount, when the Brewers won their only pennant in 1982. The two remained teammates through the 1992 season, by which time Yount had moved to center field and joined the 3,000 Hit Club. Molitor would join the club in 1996, as a Twin.

4. Jackie Robinson (58.7) and Pee Wee Reese (50.8), Dodgers. Total 109.5
Mere numbers can't capture the importance of this combination; as I wrote last week, the public acceptance of the man who broke the color barrier by his Kentucky-born teammate as a hostile Cincinnati crowd hurled epithets and even death threats made for an indelible moment that's now preserved as a statue in front of Brooklyn's KeySpan Park. A shortstop in the Negro Leagues, Robinson shifted to second base in 1946 in Montreal, then moved to first base upon joining the Dodgers in 1947; Reese had been their shortstop since 1940, save for a three-year hitch in the military. When Eddie Stanky was traded following that season, Robinson moved to the keystone; the Dodgers won pennants in 1949 and 1952, separated by two agonizing near-misses in between. The 1953 arrival of Jim Gilliam sent Robinson bouncing between third base and left field during his final four seasons as he helped the Dodgers win three more pennants and, in 1955, their lone Brooklyn world championship.

5. Billy Herman (58.6) and Reese, Dodgers. Total: 109.4
Herman earned All-Star honors seven straight times and was part of three pennant-winners during his first decade with the Cubs (1931-1940). Traded to the Dodgers in May 1941, he would join Reese in helping the franchise to its first pennant in 21 years; alas, a muscle tear hampered him in the club's World Series loss to the Yankees. Herman spent three seasons in Brooklyn—the first two opposite Reese, the third opposite an aging Arky Vaughan—then missed another two while serving in the Navy during World War II. Two months into the 1946 season, he was traded to the Braves, and by the next year, he was the Pirates' player-manager.

6. Frankie Frisch (60.1) and Dave Bancroft (41.6), Giants. Total: 101.7
Frisch spent his first eight seasons playing for the Giants, splitting his time between second and third base, with a bit of shortstop thrown in. He played beside Bancroft for four of those years after the latter was acquired from the Phillies midway through the 1920 season. Frisch was the Giants' regular second baseman for 1922-1923 and was an offensive force, hitting .348/.395/.485 in the latter season. Bancroft, who hadn't hit much(.251/.330/.319) during his first five years and change in the majors, ripped at a .310/.382/.413 clip during his time as a Giants, more or less turning from a three-win player to a six-win player in transit. The Giants, who were in the midst of a streak of four straight pennants (1921-1924) and two championships, traded Bancroft to the Braves prior to the 1924 season; he was 33, with one more excellent season ahead of him. Decades later, while serving a seven-year stint on the Veterans Committee, Frisch ran something of an underground railroad between the Polo Grounds of his heyday and Cooperstown, helping seven former teammates, including Bancroft, gain election; all have JAWS scores below the positional averages, and over the years, some have ranked as the single worst enshrined player at their positions, with scores so low that by definition they're thrown out before the computation of those standards.

7. Gordon and Phil Rizzuto (39.9), Yankees. Total: 95.8
Gordon was a force during his early career with the Yankees (1938-1943), hitting a combined .278/.364/.482, earning All-Star honors five times, and winning the 1942 MVP award. The Yankees won five pennants and four world championships during that span, with Rizzuto holding down the shortstop spot in his first two seasons (1941-1942). The Scooter headed off to war in 1943, Gordon followed a season later, and not until 1946 would they reunite, with less-than-spectacular results for a third-place team. As noted above, Gordon was traded to Cleveland, where he revitalized his career.

8. Tony Lazzerri (44.0) and Joe Sewell (50.5), Yankees. Total: 84.5
After walloping 60 homers in 197 games (!) at the Pacific Coast League's Salt Lake City outpost in 1925, Lazzerri joined the Yankees and spent his first 12 seasons as their regular second baseman, a span during which they won six pennants and five world championships. Sewell had already enjoyed a strong 10-season run with the Indians; after being released from Cleveland, he fell in with the Yankees. His bat still had some life, but in those high-scoring days, everyone's did. The Yankees won it all with this duo in 1932, the only time in a seven-season span they won anything—the most barren stretch the franchise would experience during the 1921-1964 epoch that produced 20 championships.

9. Nellie Fox (42.1) and Luis Aparicio (36.8), White Sox. Total: 78.9
Best remembered as the middle infield of the 1959 Go-Go Sox, Fox and Aparicio paired together for seven seasons (1956-1962) before the latter was traded to Baltimore. Aparicio, a 10-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glover, was the speedier and the flashier of the two, though Fox, a 12-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover himself, was the one who took MVP honors in 1959. With career True Averages of .253 (Fox) and .244 (Aparicio), neither is much to write home about as Hall of Famers; both rank among the bottom three at their respective positions according to JAWS, the perceptions of their defense having far outweighed its actual value.

10. Johnny Evers (34.9) and Joe Tinker (39.3), Cubs. Total: 74.2
Forever united in Franklin Pierce Adams' poem "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," Evers and Tinker spent from late 1902 through 1912 as the Cubs' regular keystone combo save for 1911, when the former was injured. The Cubs won four pennants and two World Series from 1906-1910; the first of those teams won a record 116 games. That didn't make for happiness for this duo; after a 1905 fistfight over a cab, the two refused to speak a word to each other, and by all accounts, they kept to it.

As you can see from the descriptions above, most of those tandems' time together was fleeting, with World War II playing a particularly disruptive part. That's all the more reason why any list of the best double-play tandems in history should these two honorable mentions:

Joe Morgan (94.1) and Davey Concepcion (57.6), Reds. Total: 151.6
Before he became an obstinate broadcaster for ESPN, Morgan was one hell of an electrifying player. His JAWS score ranks third among second basemen, tightly wedged between Rogers Hornsby and Nap Lajoie, and significantly behind only Eddie Collins (100.3); the four of them tower over Alomar. Acquired from the Astros in November 1971, Morgan was already 28 years old when he settled in alongside 23-year-old Concepcion. Over the next eight seasons, the Reds—the Big Red Machine, with Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson at the helm, and Johnny Bench and Pete Rose in tow—would win four division championships and two World Series, with Morgan the MVP in both of their championship seasons (1975 and 1976). The two were more or less perennial All-Stars and Gold Glovers during that span; though below average as a hitter, Concepcion set the defensive standard by which shortstops were measured until Ozzie Smith came along. Morgan gained entry to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, but Concepcion never even cracked 20 percent of the vote despite lingering on the ballot for the full 15 seasons. According to JAWS, his case was borderline; he scores better than a dozen enshrined shortstops, and just below the standard (59.0), but remains on the outside looking in. If he were in, they'd top this list by a wide margin.

Lou Whitaker (57.7) and Alan Trammell (65.5), Tigers. Total: 123.2
Whitaker and Trammell debuted in the same game late in the 1977 season and spent the following 17 seasons as the Tigers' double-play combo, anchoring their 1984 champions and providing a ton of offense and some more-than-solid defense in the process. Neither has been able to get the time of day from voters, however. Whitaker fell off the ballot after just one go-round, having received 2.9 percent of the vote when he needed five percent. More modern judgments of his defense have pushed him further below the Hall standard for second basemen (67.3) than he was when I began JAWS back in 2004; he still scores better than eight enshrined second basemen, but Bobby Grich, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Kent all score higher. Trammell ranks eighth among shortstops in JAWS, and significantly above the standard (59.0), but he's now 10 years into his candidacy, and hasn't even gotten 25 percent of the vote for his trouble.   

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Pennants,  A's,  Worst Seasons,  The Who,  Time,  Joe Morgan

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