January 7, 2004

Baseball's Greatest Keystone Combinations

By Matthew Namee

Trammell and Whitaker. Evers and Tinker. Jackie and Pee Wee. Rivas and Guzman (okay, maybe not Rivas and Guzman). Of course, I'm referring to some of the greatest 2B-SS combinations in baseball history. More often than perhaps any other group of teammates, keystone combinations stick together in our memories. Who was Jeff Kent's double-play partner? Rich Aurilia, of course. How about Derek Jeter's? Why, Alfonso Soriano. Duh. Naturally, this is all leading to a question - which Keystone Combo was the greatest in baseball history?

To determine this, all sorts of things need to be taken into account: Peak value, career value, longevity. I did my best to combine all of these factors. To measure value, I've decided to use Win Shares, but with a twist. Rather than simply add up the single-season Win Share totals for each keystone combo, I decided to find their harmonic mean (the same thing as Power-Speed Number, but with 2B Win Shares in place of homers and SS Win Shares instead of steals). That way, both players have to be good for the duo to merit consideration...

Let's call it the Keystone Score. I used Keystone Scores as a guideline, but I've made some (gasp!) subjective judgements in coming up with this list. On with the countdown...

10) Jeff Kent and Rich Aurilia | Giants | 1998-2002

This duo is recent enough that you all know as much about them as I do. Kent won the MVP award in 2000, and the next year Aurilia had one of the greatest seasons in recent memory by a shortstop not named Alex. Their Keystone Score of 30 in 2001 is one of the top 10 in baseball history.

With Kent's move to Houston last year, the baton of Best Active Keystone Combo was passed to Mr. Clutch and Alfonso Soriano, with Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera (1999-2003) next in line if Soriano becomes an outfielder (or the Yankees wise up and move Mr. Clutch to third).

9) Larry Doyle and Art Fletcher | Giants | 1912-16, 1918-19

Of all the pairs on this list, Doyle-Fletcher surprised me the most, but they were really good for a long time. You might be wondering why they played 5 years together, took a year off, and then played a couple more. It's actually really interesting...

Late in the 1916 season, Doyle was traded to the Cubs, allowing the Giants to make newly-acquired Buck Herzog the regular second baseman. Doyle and Herzog both had disappointing years in 1917, and on January 4, 1918, Doyle was traded to the Boston Braves. Four days later, the Braves sent Doyle back to his old club, the Giants, for Buck Herzog, the man who had replaced him. Apparently to sweeten the deal (which is odd, since Herzog was older than Doyle and not as good), the Braves also gave the Giants a young pitcher named Jesse Barnes, who went on to win 25 games in 1919.

What all that means is that Larry Doyle and Art Fletcher were reunited as a double-play combination for a couple more years, playing well enough to push themselves into the top 10 on this list. Which I'm sure was their goal all along.

8) Eddie Collins and Jack Barry | Athletics | 1909-14

Collins and Barry made up half of what may have been the greatest infield of all time - Connie Mack's "$100,000 Infield." Along with his double-play combination, Mack's infield had Home Run Baker at third base and a couple good first basemen, Harry Davis and Stuffy McInnis. Eventually the $100,000 Infield got too expensive for Mr. Mack's taste, with the arrival of the Federal League in 1914 pushing up salaries.

After the last of four pennants as a group, the infield was broken up following the 1914 season. Barry was shipped to the Red Sox, where he found himself right in the middle of another dynasty. Collins went to the White Sox and led the team to the 1917 World Series. At least one of these two players was a member of eight of the 10 AL champions in the decade of the teens.

7) Buddy Myer and Joe Cronin | Senators | 1929-34

In 1933, Cronin was named player-manager of the Senators. That year, he earned 34 Win Shares and Myer picked up 23, and Washington won the American League pennant. The next year, Cronin met owner Clark Griffith's niece Mildred, they fell in love, and...well, they got married.

And with Griffith acting as a sort of foster-father to his niece, the union of Joe and Mildred must have at least made for some interesting dinner-time conversation in the Griffith household. Then, after a disappointing '34 season, Clark sent his newest family member packing to Boston, ending Myer and Cronin's stellar run.

6) Charlie Gehringer and Billy Rogell | Tigers | 1931-38

Gehringer was known as "The Mechanical Man," in part because he was good for a .320 average and 100 RBI every year, and in part because he was a quiet, somewhat boring player (if a .320-hitting second baseman could be considered boring). Rogell, on the other hand, was combative and not the least bit passive. Bill James relates a great story about Gehringer and Rogell in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, which does a nice job of illustrating their personalities:

"One time Gehringer and Rogell messed up covering second base on a hit and run play. Mickey Cochrane, managing the team from behind the plate, rushed out to second base and started to chew them out. Rogell, astonished, looked at Gehringer to see if he was going to say anything. Gehringer, of course, had nothing to say.

"'Goddamn you,' yelled Rogell. 'Don't you come charging out here telling me how to play shortstop. You go back and do the catching, and I'll play shortstop. If I'm not good enough, you can find someone else.' Cochrane went back to his own position."

The combo's best year together was in 1934 - the Tigers won the pennant and Gehringer and Rogell combined to drive in 227 runs (127 for Gehringer, 100 for Rogell).

5) Claude Ritchey and Honus Wagner | Pirates | 1901, 1903-06

Not only were Ritchey and Wagner double-play partners, they were roommates. The two played together at Steubenville of the Inter-State League, Warren of the Iron-Oil League, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. While Wagner was the greatest shortstop (and arguably the greatest player) the game has ever seen, Ritchey was pretty good himself - he had more Win Shares than any other second baseman in the National League during the years he and Wagner manned the Pirate keystone.

4) Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell | Tigers | 1978-94

If we were ranking keystone combos solely on career value, these guys would be at the top of the list. Whitaker and Trammell were the regular double-play combo for the Tigers for seventeen consecutive seasons. The second-longest string? Nine, by Davey Lopes and Bill Russell of the Dodgers, and Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger of the Cubs.

It's hard to imagine two players being more linked in history than Whitaker and Trammell. The pair both made their major-league debuts on September 9, 1977. The following year, they teamed with Lance Parrish to form one of the greatest single-team rookie classes of their generation. Both were solid regulars until 1983, when both had their breakout years - Trammell hit .319, Whitaker .320.

The next season, they led the Tigers to 104 wins and a World Series victory, and remained stars into the early '90s. Their last great year together was 1993, when Trammell batted .329, and Whitaker hit .290 with a .412 on-base percentage. It may never happen, but I'd love to see these two go into the Hall of Fame together.

3) Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker | Cubs | 1903-10, 1912

Evers (pronounced EE-vers, not Eh-vers) was kind of nuts, and got on everyone's nerves. He and Tinker didn't even speak to each other for years, despite playing a few feet apart in the field. Everybody has heard of the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield, but a lot of people don't realize that Franklin Adams' famous poem, written in 1910, was actually called "Baseball's Sad Lexicon":

These are the saddest possible words:

Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

The words were "sad" because Adams was a New York newspaperman, and the Cubs always seemed to beat the Giants back then. Tinker and Evers aren't this high on the list because of poetry, though - they were good. From 1908-1910, both players averaged 26 Win Shares per season, with an outstanding peak Keystone Score of 30.

That old Cubs infield was pretty good for poetry, though. Years later, in 1947, Ogden Nash "tinkered" (okay, that was lame) with Adams' composition:

E is for Evers

His jaw in advance

Never afraid

To Tinker with Chance.

2) Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese | Dodgers | 1948-52

In terms of peak value, this pair is #1. In their five years together, neither Reese nor Robinson ever had a season with fewer than 20 Win Shares. In 1949, they put together the greatest season for a double-play combo in baseball history. Robinson won the batting title, earned 36 Win Shares, and took home the MVP Award. Reese collected 32 Win Shares of his own (an MVP-level total), led the league with 132 runs scored, and finished 5th in MVP voting.

Perhaps the most famous story about Robinson and Reese came in 1947, when Jackie was still a first baseman. In late April, the Dodgers went to Cincinnati to play the Reds. Reese was from Kentucky, just across the river from Cincy. I'll let Rex Barney, Brooklyn's starting pitcher that day, describe the event (from Bums, by Peter Golenbock):

"I was warming up on the mound, and I could hear the Cincinnati players screaming at Jackie... and then they started to get on Pee Wee. They were yelling at him, 'How can you play with this -----?' and all this stuff, and while Jackie was standing by first base, Pee Wee went over to him and put his arm around him as if to say, 'This is my boy. This is the guy. We're gonna win with him.' Well, it drove the Cincinnati players right through the ceiling, and you could have heard the gasp from the crowd as he did it. That's one reason Pee Wee was such an instrumental person contributing to Jackie's success, Pee Wee more than anyone else because Pee Wee was from the South. Pee Wee understood things a little better... They became very close friends, and they understood each other."

1) Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion | Reds | 1972-79

Concepcion and Morgan didn't get along very well off the field, according to Morgan in his 1993 autobiography. On the diamond, though, they worked together fine. "I was able, largely because I knew Davey's moves as well as I did, to pick up a double-play grounder and flip it sideways toward the bag without having to pivot," Morgan said. "So far as I know, I was the first second baseman to do that."

The eight seasons that Morgan and Concepcion played together cover the core years of the Big Red Machine. With this keystone combo, the Reds won at least 90 games every season, including five division titles, three pennants, and two World Series. In six of those eight years, both Morgan and Concepcion made the All-Star team.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Aaron asked me to write something for this website while he's in Vegas, and say what you will about this article, but it's definitely "Gleeman-length."

I'm told there are some charts around here somewhere...

Highest Average Keystone Score		

Second Base Shortstop Team AVG
Robinson Reese BRO 27.4
Ritchey Wagner PIT 27.2
Collins Barry PHA 23.2
Morgan Concepcion CIN 23.1
Kent Aurilia SFG 22.4
Cronin Myer WAS 22.2
Gehringer Rogell DET 21.8
Lajoie Turner CLE 20.6
Doyle Fletcher NYG 20.6
Evers Tinker CHC 20.3
Highest Single-Season Keystone Score			

Year Second Base Shortstop Team Score
1949 Robinson Reese BRO 34
1908 Abbaticchio Wagner PIT 32
1906 Ritchey Wagner PIT 31
1909 Miller Wagner PIT 31
1906 Lajoie Turner CLE 30
1946 Doerr Pesky BOS 30
1927 Hornsby Jackson NYG 30
1908 Evers Tinker CHC 30
1974 Morgan Concepcion CIN 30
2001 Kent Aurilia SFG 30

There, you can see the top Keystone Scores of all time, as well as the best average scores for a combo that was together for at least five seasons.

Believe it or not, I've got more to say on the subject of Keystone Combinations, so I'll be back tomorrow. I'll be turning the tables, though, and discussing something close to a Twin fan's heart - the worst keystone combos in baseball history.

Matthew Namee is the research assistant to baseball author Bill James, and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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