January 8, 2004

Keystone Chasms

By Matthew Namee

Yesterday we looked at the greatest second base-shortstop combinations in baseball history. Today, we'll check out the other extreme - some of the worst keystone combos of all time. It's appropriate that we're discussing this here at Aaron's Baseball Blog, where your regular proprietor is frequently bewailing the wretchedness of the Twins' "Keystone Chasm" of Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman.

Truth be told, Rivas and Guzman aren't that bad. Rivas has legitimately stunk it up as a regular second baseman, but Guzman has compiled at least 13 Win Shares each year the duo has been together (2001-2003). 13 Win Shares for a starting shortstop is nothing to brag about, but it's not horrible either. Guzman belongs in the same class of players as Travis Lee, Alex (S.) Gonzalez, Adam Kennedy, and Melvin Mora - not stars by any means, but all adequate players.

There have been dozens of awful keystone combos for a single season, but because they were so bad, most of them only lasted one year. I searched high and low, and came up with the following list of nominees for the title "Worst Multi-Year Keystone Chasm":

Bobby Young and Billy Hunter | Browns/Orioles | 1953-54

The Browns lost 100 games in 1953, and at least some of the blame has to go to their double-play combo of Young (.255/.309/.326) and Hunter (.219/.253/.259). With both players appearing in nearly every game that season, St. Louis got a mere 17 Win Shares combined from its keystone combo. Hunter's performance is especially impressive, as he didn't miss a game and compiled an OPS+ of 37.

After that 54-100 record in '53, the Browns were no more, packing up and moving to Baltimore. Now the Orioles, the franchise employed the very same double-play duo in '54 and got basically the same results - Young (.245/.329/.331) and Hunter (.243/.281/.304) combined for 14 Win Shares, and the new Orioles finished 54-100, just as they had as the Browns the year before.

Tito Fuentes and Hal Lanier | Giants | 1966-67

In '66, Lanier was the regular second baseman and Fuentes the shortstop. The next season, they traded roles (and were just as horrible). Fuentes and Lanier combined to bat .231/.260/.301 in their two seasons together.

The amazing thing is, despite their historically-bad keystone pair, the Giants managed to win over 90 games and finish in second place both seasons. If San Francisco had employed even a Grade D keystone combo (as opposed to the Grade F of Lanier and Fuentes), they probably would have won the pennant - the Giants' 93 wins were just two games fewer than the first-place Dodgers.

Duane Kuiper and Tom Veryzer | Indians | 1978-79, 1981

Doug Flynn and Frank Taveras | Mets | 1979-81

These two pairs are direct contemporaries, so I thought it might be interesting to compare their totals. In three seasons together, Kuiper and Veryzer compiled 43 Win Shares, while Flynn and Taveras had 44. Kuiper and Veryzer combined to bat .257/.299/.301 in 2,323 at bats; the totals for Flynn and Taveras are .253/.284/.317 in 2,803 at bats.

While these two keystone combos were equally bad, their teams were not. For the most part, Kuiper and Veryzer''s Indians hovered around .500, but the Mets of Flynn and Taveras lost 90+ games every year.

And that's it. To my surprise, I only found four multi-year keystone combos that were bad enough to merit consideration as the worst ever, and all of them came in a 30-year time span (I'm still not sure why that is). In the process of doing this study, however, I discovered a couple more interesting Keystone Combinations:

Best Keystone Combo for a 100-loss team:

Jerry Lumpe and Dick Howser | 1961 Kansas City A's

Howser was one of the top rookies in baseball this year, batting .280 with 92 walks and 108 runs scored, and earning a spot on the AL All-Star team. Lumpe wasn't too shabby himself, hitting .293, and the pair sported a solid Keystone Score (which I explained yesterday) of 19.

Worst Keystone Combo for a 100-win team:

Tommy Helms and Dave Concepcion/Woody Woodward | 1970 Reds

Though Dave Concepcion had a fine 19-year career, as a rookie in 1970 he was nothing special (.260/.324/.317 in 265 AB). Concepcion split time at shortstop with future GM Woody Woodward, who actually managed to hit a weak .223. The second baseman on this team, Tommy Helms, was worse than either of his partners - despite playing in 150 games, he collected just 7 Win Shares while posting a nasty .237/.262/.282 batting line. The Reds overcame this paltry performance from their middle infield to win 102 games and the NL pennant, and within a couple years, they would feature the best middle infield in the history of baseball.

So, Twins fans, don't despair - teams have won with keystone combos far worse than Luis Rivas and Crisitan Guzman.

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

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