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March 31, 2009

You Could Look It Up

The Ballad of the Old Shortstops

by Steven Goldman

Both here at BP (and in the annual) and at my other home, I've been waging a desultory war about Derek Jeter's future. His contract is up after the 2010 season, and though he'll be knocking on the door of 3,000 hits, I have argued that the Yankees should say goodbye. Jeter's defense is already a problem at short and is unlikely to have improved as he enters his age-37 season. With his bat sliding and his speed seemingly ebbing, a transfer to another position seems unlikely to bear fruit. As I said in my most recent chat, "I don't know that Jeter is a viable major leaguer in three years. My standard line—his glove will no longer play in the middle infield, his bat won't play anywhere else."

With 2010 in mind, I decided to go hunting through baseball history for those teams that put considerations of age aside and used a regular shortstop of Jeter 2010 vintage, age-37 and up. "Regular" here is defined by a season of more than 400 plate appearances. Before we get into the actual AARP all-stars, a note about the results. This group has an inherent selection bias. A shortstop only lasts into his late 30s because his defense was so good to begin with, or perceived to be so good, that the teams felt that they were still worth playing despite declining powers. Thus in the first group, the 37-year-olds, you will find that of 15 players, seven are Hall of Famers, two more (Dave Concepcion and Bad Bill Dahlen) are frequently mentioned as belonging in the Hall of Fame, and another (Omar Vizquel) may one day get there on the strength of his defense.


Group One: Still Spry 37-Year-Olds
                  Year Team       PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Omar Vizquel      2004 Indians   651  148  .291/.353/.388    2   4.2   80-82  N
Pee Wee Reese     1956 Dodgers   648  147  .257/.322/.344   -5   2.2   93-61 Lost WS
Rabbit Maranville 1929 Braves    634  146  .284/.344/.366   15   4.3   56-98  N
Dave Concepcion   1985 Reds      620  155  .252/.314/.330  -15   0.2   89-72  N
Dave Bancroft     1928 Dodgers   591  149  .247/.326/.303    3   1.4   77-76  N
Ozzie Smith       1992 Cardinals 590  132  .295/.367/.342   21   7.2   83-79  N
Maury Wills       1970 Dodgers   578  132  .270/.333/.318   -2   2.5   87-74  N
Honus Wagner      1911 Pirates   558  130  .334/.423/.507    4   6.8   85-69  N
Larry Bowa        1983 Cubs      544  147  .267/.312/.339   12   2.9   71-91  N
Luis Aparicio     1971 Red Sox   541  125  .232/.284/.303  -17  -1.3   85-77  N
Bill Dahlen       1907 Giants    529  143  .207/.291/.254   14   1.2   82-71  N
Bones Ely         1900 Pirates   503  130  .244/.272/.282   16   1.8   76-90 N/A
Bobby Wallace     1911 Browns    464  125  .232/.312/.271    3   0.3   45-107 N
Tommy Corcoran    1906 Reds      460  117  .207/.242/.249    1  -2.0   64-87  N
Art Fletcher      1922 Phillies  431  110  .280/.325/.409    0   1.0   57-96  N

So far we have learned very little, except that Honus Wagner was a great player at any age. We've also learned that very few teams thought their shortstop was good enough that keeping him around at this age was a worthwhile thing to do, or that you can have a good record while doing it, and even win a pennant.

One change in this group resulted in a near pennant-winner the following season: after Dahlen's offensively inert season in 1907, the Giants switched to the more potent Al Bridwell. This and other key moves, including the return of slugger Turkey Mike Donlin from self-imposed exile, helped the Giants improve to 98-56 and a controversial second-place finish (for more, see our book It Ain't Over).


Group Two: The 38-Year-Olds Hang on for Dear Life
                  Year Team       PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Maury Wills       1971 Dodgers   654  149  .281/.323/.329   12   4.8   89-73   N
Omar Vizquel      2005 Giants    651  152  .271/.341/.350    8   3.2   75-87   N
Honus Wagner      1912 Pirates   634  145  .324/.395/.496   31  10.4   93-58   N
Rabbit Maranville 1930 Braves    628  142  .281/.344/.367    0   2.0   70-84   N
Ozzie Smith       1993 Cardinals 603  141  .288/.337/.356   14   4.3   87-75   N
Bill Dahlen       1908 Braves    588  144  .239/.296/.307   22   3.8   63-91   N
Barry Larkin      2002 Reds      567  145  .245/.305/.367   -6   0.4   78-84   N
Luis Aparicio     1972 Red Sox   474  110  .257/.299/.351  -15   0.7   85-70   N
Jimmy Austin      1918 Browns    442  110  .264/.359/.324   -1   0.0   58-64   N
Bones Ely         1901 Bucs/A's  435  110  .212/.232/.265   -2  -1.8    N/A   N/A
Larry Bowa        1984 Cubs      423  133  .223/.274/.269   -2  -0.7   96-65   Y
Dave Bancroft     1929 Dodgers   403  104  .277/.331/.332   -6   0.3   70-83   N

Moving our age cut-off up by a year, we find that in the entire modern history of baseball, just 12 teams tried to compete with a 38-year-old shortstop. Again, the implication seems to be that unless you have one of the top shortstops of all time—or Bones Ely, who our translations suggest was a defensive standout in his day—the younger guys had more range.

There are two strong teams here. Honus Wagner's 1912 Pirates won at a .616 percentage, good enough for a pennant in many seasons, but were simply outclassed by a Giants team that won 103 games. The Flying Dutchman was clearly part of that team's assets. Less clear-cut is the case of Larry Bowa and the 1984 Cubs. In January, 1982, the Cubs and Phillies had consummated the infamous Bowa/Ryne Sandberg-for-Ivan DeJesus trade, a swap of shortstops in which the future MVP second baseman was a throw-in.

Bowa was never much of a hitter, but his already weak bat flat-out flatlined in 1984. Nonetheless, the Cubs won the NL East in a season in which just about everything went right. The Cubs have fooled themselves about many things over the past century, but Bowa wasn't one of them—they tried to replace Bowa with Shawon Dunston, the first overall draft pick of 1982, as soon as the next Opening Day, but Dunston struggled during the first month and was sent down until August, at which point Bowa was released. He was signed by the Mets, who were perhaps hoping that the five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover would inspire Rafael Santana to greater range afield. It wwas not to be, and Bowa's 16-season playing career was over.


Group Three: The Seven 39-Year-Olds (a Film by Akira Kurosawa)
                  Year Team       PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Luke Appling      1946 White Sox 659  149  .309/.384/.378   12   7.4   74-80   N
Omar Vizquel      2006 Giants    659  153  .295/.361/.389    0   3.6   76-85   N
Rabbit Maranville 1931 Braves    636  145  .260/.329/.317  -16   0.4   64-90   N
Luis Aparicio     1973 Red Sox   561  132  .271/.324/.309   -5   1.9   89-73   N
Honus Wagner      1913 Pirates   454  114  .300/.349/.385    5   4.0   78-71   N
Ozzie Smith       1994 Cardinals 433   98  .262/.326/.349   -6   1.4   53-61  N/A
Bones Ely         1902 Senators  417  105  .262/.301/.310   -3   0.4   61-75  N/A

Note that the last three seasons of Louis Aparicio's career, spent with the Red Sox, are represented here. As a hitter, Aparicio wasn't far off from the center of his career, which is to say that he still couldn't hit, but at least he wasn't much worse than that. His prolific basestealing was largely a thing of the past. The Red Sox, in their typical pre-2004 way, had found the way to make the most of Aparicio's weaknesses by batting him second and occasionally first. The 1971-73 Red Sox were a good team, winning 85, 89, and 84 games, with the 1972 unit finishing just a half-game behind the division-winning Tigers in a season infamously shortened by labor strife (another race we covered in It Ain't Over). Having Aparacio playing at a replacement level clearly didn't help; not only were his offensive and defensive contributions pushing the Sox in the wrong direction, but the club finished last in the league in defensive efficiency (eighth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, or PADE, but still in negative territory). Aparacio was also a hindrance in 1973, when the team finished second, eight games behind the Orioles, despite solid pitching; receiving no offensive contribution from second base, third base, and shortstop didn't help. Seen in this light, Boston's promotion of Rick Burleson to starting shortstop, which came midway through the 1974 season, should be placed alongside the elevation of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn as key moments on the road to the 1975 pennant.

Similarly, the 1994 Cardinals, Ozzie Smith's last stand as a regular, finished last in PADE, albeit for reasons beyond Smith's declining powers. After a transitional year in 1995, the Cardinals won the NL Central with a re-aligned defense that included Royce Clayton as the regular shortstop.


Group Four: Which Lacks a Fourth 40-Year-Old
               Year Team       PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Honus Wagner   1914 Pirates   616  150  .252/.317/.317   18   4.6   69-85   N
Omar Vizquel   2007 Giants    575  145  .246/.305/.316    8   1.3   71-91   N
Luke Appling   1947 White Sox 572  139  .306/.386/.412  -12   4.2   70-84   N

Just three teams have employed a 40-year-old shortstop, and only one in more than 60 years: those veteran-lovin' Giants of 2007. Appling was still a force at the plate if not in the field, while Wagner had the reverse problem.


Group Five: Honus, 41, Alone
                Year Team     PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Honus Wagner    1915 Pirates 625  156  .274/.325/.422   15   6.8   73-81   N

Even with his bat no longer the devastating weapon that it had been during his prime, Wagner was still good enough to play. It should be obvious at this point that there has been just one Wagner in baseball history, and for good reason: it's not necessarily that a man born 135 years ago was a greater physical specimen than the generations that have come after him, though this is possible. Rather more likely is that Wagner was an exceptional player, and an exceptionally slow-aging one, who towered over the league to an extent impossible now because the league of his time simply wasn't that good. In the present day, Wagner might still be worth playing in his 40s, but the distance between him and the league on both offense and defense would surely have eroded.

Luke Appling takes a year off from the list because the White Sox had him spend most of 1948 hanging out at third base. He'll rejoin us momentarily.


Group Six: The 42-Year-Olds (And There Are No 43-Year-Olds)
                Year Team        PA   G    AVG/ OBP/ SLG FRAA2 WARP3   W-L  Postseason?
Luke Appling    1949 White Sox  619  142  .301/.439/.394    1   4.4   63-91   N
Honus Wagner    1916 Pirates    484  123  .287/.350/.370    4   4.2   65-89   N

Both Appling and Wagner played another season, the latter spending most of his time at first base, the former going to the bench in favor of Chico Carrasquel, who was 20 years younger.

Although this list contains just two post-season teams, there is nothing conclusive about that aspect of the study; many of these teams had more problems than would have been solved by replacing the shortstop with a younger, more agile man, and in the case of some teams, such as the 1946 White Sox, such a move would have robbed the team of its best player. Still, the attrition on the list suggests the problem with re-signing Jeter. In the modern history of baseball, just a handful of players have been able to handle shortstop defensively at an advanced age. These were primarily players who were among the best defenders of their day in their prime. When they lost a step or two, they still had something to give. Not even Jeter's most ardent supporters place him in this category. Perhaps worse, even when the players were deemed capable of playing shortstop the attrition rate is high, dropping by a fifth in one year and by more than half in two years. As such, any multi-year contract is going to be a risk to the signing team.

The Jeter dilemma really is a juicy one, involving a popular player, a winning player in both senses of the word, who will be chasing the 3,000-hit mark in 2011. It's difficult to let go of a star, of course, but a team's first duty is to win, something which inevitably caters to a larger subset of its fans than belong to the cult of any one player. After 2010, the Yankees may be better served settling for a less spectacular player than their idealized memory of Jeter in his prime, a player who likely neither exists now nor will have returned three seasons hence. As this list shows, the rewards of staying too long at the ball with one's shortstop are both fleeting and few.

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

Related Content:  Shortstop,  The Who,  Omar Vizquel,  Larry Bowa

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