The Best Year at Second Base… Ever

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.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 12.31.16 PM

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.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 12.20.00 PM

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:

Second Base Production: 2015 and 2016
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
CHANGE +0.6% 0.0% +0.016 +0.041 +0.029 +0.008 +219.6 +0.021 +11

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.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 1.02.13 PM

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.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 1.08.12 PM

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.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 1.32.02 PM

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.

Best MLB Second Basemen
Jose Altuve Astros 532 19 .208 .365 .429 .573 168 6.3 26
Daniel Murphy Nationals 456 22 .263 .348 .388 .611 159 4.6 31
Jason Kipnis Indians 502 20 .209 .294 .354 .503 130 4.5 29
Ian Kinsler Tigers 523 22 .198 .286 .342 .484 121 4.3 34
Robinson Cano Mariners 522 26 .224 .291 .347 .515 133 4.0 33
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 517 12 .144 .307 .372 .451 120 3.8 32
Brian Dozier Twins 500 26 .261 .265 .339 .526 128 3.6 29
Ben Zobrist Cubs 474 13 .167 .276 .384 .443 123 3.4 35
Neil Walker Mets 440 22 .191 .279 .341 .470 120 3.3 30
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 395 15 .255 .289 .406 .545 153 3.0 30
DJ LeMahieu Rockies 485 9 .156 .342 .415 .498 129 2.9 27
Jean Segura Diamondbacks 512 10 .151 .312 .361 .463 117 2.8 26
Logan Forsythe Rays 393 15 .196 .280 .341 .476 123 2.4 29

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.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

New slide rule having an impact?

5 years ago
Reply to  GlassOnion

Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy are having an impact.

5 years ago
Reply to  amdennis1990

Ryne Sandberg took heat for not attempting the pivot on many DP chances, said it helped him to remain healthy (and kept his bat in the lineup). if more 2nd basemen can avoid injuries (minor or otherwise) related to the pivot, they may perform better offensively.

I suppose one could check the number of DL days by 2nd basemen, though that wold only catch the more severe ones.

Bobby Ayala
5 years ago
Reply to  GlassOnion

No. Not even on Shortstops, who are far more likely to be affected by the rule.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

Probably are right, but do remember Bill James saying 2nd basemen had the shortest career of any non catcher, and he guessed it was due to pivot related injuries.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

SS has the runner in front of them. They can see the runner when waiting for the throw from the 1b and 2b. Second baseman have their backs to the runner when catching a ball form 3b and SS. I’d think for this reason it would be more dangerous for the 2b than SS.

5 years ago
Reply to  GlassOnion

Just a guess, but ….

I think shifting has meant that all-fields hitters are doing better relative to their peers.

This favors middle infielders overall.