If you thought I was done beating you over the head with players I feel have completely flawless cases for the Hall of Fame, think again. But don't worry—the end is in sight. There are just a few more. I've already listed three players from the 19th century and four players returning to the next BBWAA ballot. Then I started covering the players in between, specifically Kevin Brown, Lou Whitaker, and Ted Simmons. Today, we're headed back to second base with Bobby Grich.
One of the hardest questions for me to answer, through all of this Hall of Fame research, is who the best second baseman outside of the Hall is. For me, it's a tossup between Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker.
Let's look at Grich through the same lens we looked at Whitaker through—rankings among all second basemen in history (bold denotes Grich ranked better):
- Hits: 35th (Whitaker was 13th)
- Walks: 8th (Whitaker was 4th)
- Times on Base: 18th (Whitaker was 8th)
- Home Runs: 9th (Whitaker was 8th)
- Extra Base Hits: 19th (Whitaker was 9th)
- Runs Batted In: 24th (Whitaker was 12th)
- Games: 19th (Whitaker was 5th)
- OPS+: 6th (Whitaker was tied for 12th, min 6000 PA)
- WAR: 8th (Whitaker was 7th)
- WAR Runs Batting: 9th (Whitaker was (15th)
- WAR Runs Fielding: 15th (Whitaker was 19th)
- wWAR: 8th (Whitaker was tied for 9th)
Grich has the edge in hitting and fielding value. But Whitaker has Grich beat in consistency and career length. Basically, Grich wins in the peak column while Whitaker wins for longevity. What's interesting is that they basically arrive at the same career WAR (they are separated by 2.1 WAR with Whitaker having the advantage). If you use wWAR, they are still close, but the leader is now Grich (by 6.5 wWAR).
Grich had a long peak, but had an injury right in the middle of it. As a result, he looks like he has two peaks—and they are very different. The first peak, with the Orioles from age 23 to 27, was heavy on defense with some solid offense thrown in. In those five seasons, he averaged 6.4 WAR thanks to an average of 22 batting runs and 13 fielding runs per season. In the five seasons from age 30 to 34 (now with the California Angels), he averaged 4.8 WAR per season, with 26 batting runs and just about one fielding run per season.
In 1973, Grich had perhaps the best defensive season ever for a second baseman (by Total Zone). He won the first of four consecutive Gold Gloves. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Grich became the first second baseman since Rogers Hornsby to lead the league in home runs (Grich tied with several others). He won his only SIlver Slugger award that year. He also was part of six all star teams, starting three times (twice at second base and once at shortstop).
Grich's career totals—1833 hits, 224 home runs, 864 RBI, 104 stolen bases—are not what you usually see from a Hall of Fame second baseman. Even his .266 batting average looks low to the casual fan. But his combination of patience, power, and defense along with the fact that he played in a low-offense era makes him the perfect storm of underratedness. Even the slightly less modern stat OPS+ has him at 125, in the neighborhood with such Hall of Famers as Rickey Henderson, Johnny Bench, Ron Santo, and fellow second baseman Charlie Gehringer.
While it is surprising that Lou Whitaker is not in the Hall of Fame, it is slightly less surprising with Grich. It's not that he's any less deserving—you just need to be clued into modern methods of evaluating a player's performance to appreciate him. I mean, 8th at his position all time in WAR and wWAR? It doesn't get more egregious than this one.