MLB Historical Positional Title Belt – 2B

Have you ever wondered who the best baseball player alive was in any given year? No? Well, I have. Check out the first article in this series for an explanation of the rules. Next up, Second Base. To the list!

Pre-Deadball 1871-1900

At the beginning of time or around 1871, baseball, more or less as we know it, became a professional sport. The first 29 years are known as “Pre-Deadball” because they preceded the next era, “Deadball” and came before the first World Series. It’s like Baseball’s B.C. Second base was a revolving door of fairly productive players through the early days of the sport. 

Ross Barnes 1871-

Playing both short and second base, the first title belt holder for the keystone was an incredible hitter. He won three batting titles, exceeding a .400 season average in four of his nine professional seasons. He also led the league in doubles 3x, triples 2x, walks 2x, and stolen bases once. Barnes piled up 60 Black Ink in only 499 games and was regarded by his peers as an unmatched force on the diamond. He is credited with the first actual Home Run in National League history in 1876 and mastered a nearly indefensible hitting technique the league eventually banned called fair-foul hitting. His career brevity, caused by a mysterious illness, and the outlawing of fair-foul technique has so far prevented his induction into the Hall of Fame, but he is undoubtedly one of the greatest two-baggers the game has ever seen.

Hardy Richardson 1879-

Despite Barnes’ domination in the early seasons, the short career left the door open for the belt to change hands several times. In ‘79 Hardy Richardson debuted and he would go on to a 14-year career marked by solid offensive production including leading the league in HRs twice. His reign was short-lived because a year later Sure Shot Dunlap debuted.

Fred Dunlap 1880-

Fred Dunlap played for 12 years including stints in the Union Association, American Association, Players League, and National League. In 1884, for the St Louis Maroons, Dunlap reached his career heights with a triple crown, a .412/.448/.621 slash for a 214 wRC+. Like Hardy, Dunlap’s peak was short and his hold on the belt short.

Bid McPhee 1882-

The first great 2B was Cincinnati Red Stockings-Reds’ great Bid McPhee. John Alexander McPhee played 18-straight seasons for the Cincy franchise finishing his career with 2200+ hits, 560+ stolen bases, and 189 triples (11th all-time). He’s the first 2B to raise over the 100 wcWAR+ line with 114.6 and held the crown till one of the all-time greats grabbed it.

Nap Lajoie 1896-

Napoleon Lajoie set a new standard for hitting when he slashed .426/.463/.643 with 48 doubles, 14 HRs, and 232 hits for the triple crown. His stardom and persistent excellence was so prominent that the Cleveland franchise assumed his name, the Cleveland Naps, when he played there from 1903-1914. He secured 5 batting titles, had over 200 hits 4x, over 40 doubles 5x, with 51 in 1910, and finished with a .338/.380/.467 slash, 144 wRC+ after 21 seasons of pro ball. Nap is top-20 all-time in position player bWAR and one of only three over 200 wcWAR+ 2Bs.

Deadball 1901-1919

The Deadball era was known for speed, bat-to-ball skills, terrible fields, horrible defense, and dominant pitching. An all-time great dominated the era all on his own.

Eddie Collins 1906-

With a career spanning 25 years and 2,826 games, Eddie “Cocky” Collins has some enormous numbers. He stole 741 bases, 8th all-time, racked up 3315 hits, 12th all-time, and is currently considered the all-time leader in sacrifice hits/bunts with 512. He was the cornerstone of Connie Mack’s turn of the Century A’s dynasty and secured the 1914 MVP. He collecting 6 World Series rings and his 254.1 wcWAR+ is second among 2Bs behind the man who took the belt from him.

Liveball 1920-1941

Ruth symbolized the transition from Deadball to Liveball as he began hitting baseballs over fences in great numbers. The twenty-one years that followed saw the sport grow in popularity before reaching a critical point in American history and pushing into the next era, Integration. The greatest second baseman of all-time held the belt for nearly the entire era before handing it off to a transitional star.

Rogers Hornsby 1915-

The man Babe Ruth called the greatest hitter of all time (take that Cobb) was Rogers Hornsby. From 1920-1925 Hornsby led baseball in AVG/OBP/SLG all six seasons, and hits and doubles five of six. He blasted 42 HRs in 1922 and launched 301 for his career, still 3rd all-time for primarily 2B. 7 batting titles, 2 MVPs, 2 triple crowns, 125 Black Ink (5th all-time) and an astronomical 330.9 wcWAR+ has Hornsby in the inner circle of all-time great players.

Charlie Gehringer 1938-

While spending most of his career in Hornsby’s shadow, like other keystone standout Frankie Frisch, Charles Leonard Gehringer was a potent offensive performer for the Detroit Tigers for a full 19 years. He led the ‘35 Tigers to a title and won the ‘37 batting title and MVP. He finished with 574 doubles and a .320/.404/.480 slash and held the belt until retirement in ‘42.

Integration 1942-1960

Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and so many more burst into the major leagues as the color barrier fell. Their brilliance and impact were immense in their own right and furthered the disappointment that so many greats toiled in obscurity behind the veil, such as Josh Gibson, Bullet Rogan, and Oscar Charleston.

Joe Gordon 1943-

Joe Gordon was a forgotten cog in the 40’s Yankees dynasty. Like many of his peers, he went off to war and lost a pair of prime seasons but still managed 9 All-Star selections, an MVP, and 5 World Series rings. He and Gehringer shut out some other 2B greats such as Tony Lazzeri, Bobby Doerr, and Billy Herman.

Jackie Robinson 1945-

In 1945, one of the most important cultural moments in American history occurred on a baseball field in Brooklyn. He moved around the diamond, probably capable of short but alongside HOFer Pee Wee Reese he provided excellent production from the keystone with a .313/.410/.477 slash and a career wRC+ of 137. He won the ‘47 ROY, ‘49 MVP and batting title. He debuted late and had a stunted career due at least in part to the abuse he suffered as the first black ballplayer to cross the line. However, his greatness is unquestionable and he carried the belt for his entire career.

Nellie Fox 1957-

After Jackie and before the Expansion era’s superstar, a stop-gap 2B rose to the top. The light-hitting defensive wizard Nellie Fox got the belt. He did lead the league in hits 4x and won the ‘59 MVP. His 174.5 def trailed only shortstop Roy McMillan from 1950-1963.

Expansion 1961-1976

In 1961, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (Texas Rangers) joined the league. Then in ‘62 the New York Mets and Colt .45’s (Houston Astros) joined. Again in 1969 four more teams were added, the Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Pilots (Milwaukee Brewers). There have been three other expansion years but the sudden influx of major league roster spots in the 60s and 70s had competing effects of diluting the talent pool and giving more players opportunities to shine. A star often considered the greatest modern 2B dominated the era.

Joe Morgan 1963-

The Big Red Machine had several players who will be featured in these articles. The best player of them all was the steadily excellent and balanced superstar Joe Morgan. Joe hit between all-timers Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, and both feasted on RBI opportunities with 1133 for his career and set the table for Bench leading the league in OBP and BBs 4x. At his height, he won back-to-back MVPs and led the Machine to the ‘75 and ‘76 titles. His 213.5 wcWAR+ held the belt into the Free Agency era and almost wiped out the next guy’s entire chance at a belt.

Free Agency 1977-1993

As the Mariners and Blue Jays were added signaling the end of the expansion era in ‘77, the reserve clause fell in ‘75, and a new Basic Agreement went into effect in ‘76, Players were now free to move around the league. Several elite 2B stood out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s but two in particular stood above the rest.

Rod Carew 1985-

While most of his career was covered by Morgan, Rod Carew held the belt for a single season at the end of his career. Carew won seven batting titles, the ‘67 ROY, and the ‘77 MVP. He tallied 3053 hits and slashed .328/.393/.429 over 19 years spent with the Twins and Angels.

Lou Whitaker 1986-

Carew’s retirement left the belt to Sweet Lou. Still waiting for his call to the Hall, Lou was the model of consistency for the Tigers for nearly two decades. He provided positive value on both sides of the ball nearly every season of his career and racked up an impressive 144.4 wcWAR+. He and the next star shutout other greats such as Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, Ryne Sandberg, and Roberto Alomar.

Wild Card 1994-2011

After the disaster, which I blame on Bud Selig personally, of the ‘94 stoppage, the players and owners agreed to add more playoff teams, restructure the league, and it took the shape of the “modern” game. This era could also be called the Steroid Era but I went with Wild Card. One second baseman held the belt but the margin above his contemporaries was thin.

Craig Biggio 1996-

After Whitaker, Sandberg (133.6 wcWAR+), Alomar (131.0 wcWAR+), and Kent (111.7 wcWAR+) all had excellent careers. They were unable to ever wear the belt, however, because of the Houston Astros’ converted catcher Craig Biggio (136.0 wcWAR+). Biggio piled up 3060 hits, 668 doubles, 414 stolen bases, and wildly led the league in hit-by-pitches 5x. 

Expanded Playoffs 2012-Now

Coming up with a name for the current era was difficult. It hasn’t quite been long enough to truly evaluate the years since they added another playoff team. Rules have changed, teams have changed names and divisions, and the game has rapidly transformed into an extremely efficient display of athleticism and power. Almost the entire era was dominated by two 2B but their careers nearly matched length-wise so only one held the belt.

Robinson Cano 2008-

Robbie Cano edged out Chase Utley 128.5 to 125.8 in wcWAR+. Utley’s first four seasons were covered by Biggio as were Cano’s first two and Cano played as recently as 2022 while Utley retired in 2018. Was Cano better than Utley? That’s a great debate for another article. By this metric, Cano held a slight edge and it was likely due to his unprecedented power from 2B. 335 HRs (second only to Jeff Kent) and middle-of-the-order production for a nine-year stretch have Cano on the cusp of a HOF resume. 

Jose Altuve 2023-

If Cano magically pops up in the next month then he’ll keep the belt but while he’s out of the game (and I think likely finally finished) it leaves the throne unoccupied. The player with the highest wcWAR+ without accumulating 50+ fWAR or bWAR (as of July 1st) was Jose Altuve. By the end of the year, he’ll almost certainly reach the 50 mark in both metrics. A hitter whose impact contrasts his stature, Altuve has 3 batting titles, an MVP, and has led the league in hits 4x. At only 33, Altuve could significantly add to his legacy and cement his hold on the 2B title belt for years to come.

So there you have it, the first base title belt holders:

Ross Barnes 1871-1878
Hardy Richardson 1879-1879
Fred Dunlap 1880-1881
Bid McPhee 1882-1895
Nap Lajoie 1896-1905
Eddie Collins 1906-1914
Rogers Hornsby 1915-1937
Charlie Gehringer 1938-1942
Joe Gordon 1943-1944
Jackie Robinson 1945-1956
Nellie Fox 1957-1962
Joe Morgan 1963-1984
Rod Carew 1985-1985
Lou Whitaker 1986-1995
Craig Biggio 1996-2007
Robinson Cano 2008-2022
Jose Altuve 2023-2023


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