The group of young shortstops emerging in major-league baseball has gotten a lot of deserved attention, with Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager — all 23 or under — potentially ushering in a renaissance at the position. Third base gets a lot of attention, too, offering a combination both of young stars (like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Manny Machado) and the American League’s most recent MVP (in Josh Donaldson). Historically, second basemen tend to generate less attention — perhaps because players often end up at second only when they appear unable to adequately handle shortstop or lack the size to play third. This season, however, second basemen have turned the tables and are having quite possibly the best collective season ever at that position
Second basemen have not typically been responsible for great offensive seasons as a group. Last year, Wendy Thurm looked at offense by position throughout history. Second basemen, Thurm found, have generally hovered around the low-90s when it comes to wRC+, easily below average. The graph below shows the league-average wRC+ for second basemen over the past 50 years, including this one.
Second base has rarely reached (or crossed) the 95-wRC+ threshold. This season, however, they’ve produced a 101 wRC+ on the season. We can go back further and the trend continues. In the last 100 years, the only time second basemen have recorded a collective mark above 100 wRC+ is 1924, the year Rogers Hornsby hit .424/.507/.696 and accounted for more than 5% of second-base plate appearances. With Hornsby, second basemen produced a collective 103 wRC+; without him, it would have been 96 on the season. This year’s top second baseman, Jose Altuve, has recorded an impressive 167 wRC+ is impressive, but that figure doesn’t have nearly the same impact as Hornsby’s did in the 1920s.
The chart above considers all players considered second basemen in those years, but since 2002 we have more precise split numbers for positions, and we can see the numbers for the games actually played at second base. The chart below tracks second-base offense during that time.
The MLB-wide group of second basemen has gone from Jose Valentin‘s career wRC+ to Ichiro‘s career wRC+ in just one season. While offense is up throughout baseball, wRC+ is league- and park-adjusted so the improved numbers this year are relative to the league as a whole. Here are the principal rate stats and how they’ve changed since last year:
|2015||6.6 %||17.4 %||.318||.393||.129||.305||-64.7||.309||94|
|2016||7.2 %||17.4 %||.334||.434||.158||.313||154.9||.330||105|
Not only have second basemen improved this season, they’ve done so at a level in competition with other positions more associated with offensive production. The graph below shows offensive production by position this season.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that first base is on top with traditionally offense-first positions like third base, designated hitter and right field falling not too far behind. What is a surprise is that second base is close behind in the top tier and not near the bottom. The difference between second base and either center field or right field is greater than the gap between first and second base. Left field is actually posting its lowest numbers in the last decade, having previously posted a wRC+ in excess of 100 in 13 of the past 14 years.
Of the positions situated in the top half of the graph above, first base, designated hitter, and right field all have considerable negative positional adjustments while second base and third base are all on the positive side of the defensive spectrum. As a result, when looking at WAR totals by position, those two leap to the top of the list.
Only third base is above second base in WAR this year. After those two, there’s a decent-sized gap to center field followed by another one to shortstop, then down the line. In a normal year, second base would likely fall right in line with catcher and right field. The 23-WAR difference is made up essentially by the extra 220 runs the position is producing on offense.
It might be easy to conclude that second base is a position of considerably more depth, but is lacking in the best players of the game. That might be true in terms of players you would choose to start a franchise, but based on individual WAR totals this season, second base stacks up as well as any position. Jose Altuve is right near the MLB lead, but the first page of the WAR leaderboards is littered with second basemen.
Second and third base feature more players than any other position among the top 30 of the WAR Leaderboards and second base has players just beyond the top 30, as well. Still, second basemen don’t get a whole lot of attention. As mentioned, the position itself does not lend itself to stars and hype generally — and it seems as though another factor is probably hurting them in terms of notoriety: age.
While second basemen are producing at high rates, there aren’t rising stars in the group. The closest is Jose Altuve, who is a star, a fantastic player and still just 26 years old. However, he’s in his sixth big-league season, hardly seems new, and he’s the youngest one of the group. Of the top-10 second basemen by WAR this year, Altuve is the only one younger than 29 years old, and four of the top 10 are 32 years of age or older.
|Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox||517||12||.144||.307||.372||.451||120||3.8||32|
The list above does not include Cesar Hernandez, Rougned Odor, Joe Panik, Jonathan Schoop, Devon Travis or Kolten Wong, who are all young and have shown some degree of success in the big leagues, but that group is behind the veterans above and well behind the young groups of players at third base and shortstop. The jump in production at second base has been led by veterans like Cano and Pedroia and Zobrist, with Murphy continuing his power surge and Kipnis continuing to play well. Given the age of the players in the chart above, we are likely not seeing the start of a multi-year trend. Second basemen have been great in 2016, and while it is just a blip, what a blip it has been.
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