Hall Watch 2004-The Shortstops- Barry Larkin

Wednesday, January 26 2005 @ 09:04 AM EST

Contributed by: Mike Green

Barry Larkin is perhaps the most anonymous great player of our time. That's not a selling point when the time comes for him to be considered for a ticket to Cooperstown. In 2004, he performed exactly how a great 40 year old shortstop should, providing below average but not horrible defence and hitting .289/.352/.419. Not that this performance affects his Hall chances one iota.

Larkin, a Cincinnati native, was the 4th overall pick of the 1985 draft by the Reds, out of the University of Michigan. He spent the remainder of 1985 in double A, and then went .329/.373/.525 in triple A Denver in 1986 to earn a late season call-up to the big club. After an adjustment year in 1987, he emerged as a fine shortstop in 1988. He was consistently great from 1988-2000, hitting .300 with fine plate discipline and medium range power. He was a prolific and effective basestealer, succeeding on 83% of his attempts. His bugaboo has been injuries. He has played 150 games or more only 4 times in his career.

Placing him offensively among the great shortstops is fairly easy. He was clearly better than Alan Trammell, and comparable to Joe Cronin. For his chart, we have these greats for career comparison, and also a comparison with his contemporaries Jeter and Garciaparra as of age 30.

Player    G      AB     H     HR    W     BA     OBP    SLUG    OPS+     
Larkin-40 2180 7937 2340 198 939 .295 .371 .444 116
Trammell 2293 8388 2365 185 850 .285 .352 .415 110
Cronin 2124 7579 2285 170 1059 .301 .390 .468 119

Larkin-30 1045   3933   1164   87   388   .296   .360   .431    116
Jeter 1366 5513 1734 150 559 .315 .385 .465 121
Nomar 1099 4133 1330 182 295 .322 .370 .549 133

Larkin had a fine defensive reputation, and won 3 Gold Gloves from 94-96 (when he was 30-32 and probably past his defensive prime). With the help of Jonny German and using the files of retrosheet.org, I decided to see if I could get an objective read on his defensive performance in his prime, using a play-by-play evaluation. I chose his 1991 season, as the information was readily accessible and Larkin was 27 during that year. The results are described here. Taking into account only his efficiency at turning ground balls in the hole, up the middle and at him into outs, Larkin recorded 12 more assists than would be anticipated. This may be converted into 9 runs in a 119 game season. As we shall see later in our series, Larkin was also above average at turning the double play.

We do not have a play-by-play analysis of Larkin's defence from 1987-1990, but each year his assists/game ranged from 3.01 to 3.26 whereas the league average ranged between 2.74 and 2.83. After 1991, his assists/game dropped to the 2.8 to 2.9 range until 1996.

Putting offense and defense together

As Larkin has essentially completed his career, we will attempt to apply the standards described in my initial shortstop Hall watch article. Larkin has 271 Runs Created Above Average, according to Lee Sinins' Baseball Encyclopedia. How many Runs Saved Above Average has he on defence? It seems likely that he saved 15-20 runs per 150 game season during his prime, taking into his above-average fielding percentage, and his out conversion rate on ground balls, and his double play performance. His prime lasted from age 23-27 (1987-1991), and taking into account his lost time accounted for approximately 4 seasons; he appears to have been a modestly above average defensive shortstop from age 28-31 (1992-1996) and perhaps saved 5-7 runs per season. I estimate that he saved about 100 runs above average over his career.

Adding the two together, we have a total of 371 Runs Created and Saved Above Average. This places him clearly behind Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan and George Davis. We do not have enough reliable historical defence data for others to run totals. However, for any other retired shortstop, from Banks, Cronin and Boudreau to Yount, Cal Ripken Jr. and Alan Trammell, there are solid arguments that Larkin was as good or better. My best estimate is that Larkin is in a close knot with Boudreau and Ripken for 4th best shortstop, leaving aside the trinity (A-Rod, Garciaparra and Jeter) currently in their prime. To give a flavour of the argument, Ripken had 161 Runs Created Above Average, but appears to have been a superior defender to Larkin. Whether he was 110 runs better is dubious, and it is hard to know absent play-by-play information from Ripken's defensive prime in the early 1980s.

Obviously a player who is at the end of his career arguably the fourth best of all time at his position should go into the Hall of Fame. Will Barry? That's a tough one. There is precedent for him to be excluded by the writers. Arky Vaughan was at the time of his retirement the 2nd best shortstop of all time, and clearly one of the top 3-4 players of the 30s, and yet the BBWAA passed him by. Fortunately, he was picked up by the Veterans Committee many years later. In 2010 or so, when Larkin becomes eligible for the Hall, the comparisons will be made with A-Rod and Nomar (with glossier power numbers), and Jeter (with all those rings and the hype). I can see Larkin being passed by, as Vaughan was. And then, it will be left to the Veterans Committee after 2025.