To me, something always seemed incongruous about Cal Ripken’s Baseball-Reference page. The numbers don’t look like they should add up. To accumulate 95.9 bWAR, third most ever by a shortstop, he needs to have been unbelievably good on offense and defense for a very long time.
Ripken certainly was every bit that special, but with a 112 OPS+ it seems like his bWAR shouldn’t be quite as stratospheric. For comparison, Alan Trammell (110 OPS+) and Barry Larkin (115 OPS+) were also stellar all-around shortstops and legitimate Hall of Famers. All three played 19-21 years, mostly in the 1980s and 90s. Yet Ripken’s bWAR is more than 25 wins higher than either of his contemporaries.
The difference comes simply from taking the field every day. Larkin surpassed 150 games in a season “just” four times, and Trammell “only” thrice. Ripken, of course, played 2,632 consecutive games from 1982-1998. That playing time advantage, compounded over a two-decade career, is enough to account for most of the 25 WAR gulf between three otherwise similar players.
Fast forward to the present day, where A’s shortstop Marcus Semien has just completed a very Ripken-like regular season. He paired a 138 OPS+ with superb defense. Normally, that’s a commendable 5-6 bWAR season, but his final number is an astonishing 8.1— third best in the American League. His value bump comes from the same place as Ripken’s: he played all 162 games.
Naturally, it’s not easy to play every single day. One has to avoid injuries of course, but also provide substantial enough value over one’s replacements that the manager never wants to actually use them. It also requires some hardheadedness from the skipper. A lot of managers believe in giving days off to keep regular players fresh. In other words, Astros manager A.J. Hinch believes he can get more value out of Alex Bregman in 156 games than he could in 162.
What kind of player does go the full 162? There have been 21 of them over the last five seasons, including five in 2019. Let’s take a look at them to see if we can find any trends.
The 162 Club
There are really only 18 members of this club over the last five seasons, but three players have joined twice. The Royals used Alcides Escobar every day in both 2016 and 2017. Freddy Galvis played 162 games for the Phillies in 2017, then again for the Padres the following season. Manny Machado did it with the 2015 Orioles, as well as in 2018 for the Orioles and Dodgers. He actually had the opportunity to play in 164 games that year due to the midseason trade and the Dodgers playing a 163rd game, but he took two days off. Slacker.
The club has some star power. We find 2017 Joey Votto, 2018 Freddie Freeman, 2016 George Springer, and 2018 Trea Turner, as well as 2019 Semien and a pair of Machados. Despite the big names, the group as a whole is almost exactly league-average offensively.
162 Club vs. Averaged Qualified Starters, 2015-19
|Metric||162 Club||Average Qualified Starter|
|Metric||162 Club||Average Qualified Starter|
It seems as though a great hitter is no more or less likely to play 162 times than any other starter. Alternatively, maybe 2017 Rougned Odor’s .204/.252/.397 combined with two Escobar seasons just drags down the whole group! Comparing the median numbers yields similar results, though.
Defensively, we can see some separation. The 162 Club has an average of 0.2 on FanGraphs’ DEF metric. While that doesn’t look like much, it’s a lot better than the -1.0 averaged by all qualified starters. It makes sense that there would be more of a correlation between defensive prowess and playing 162 games. Both require more sheer athleticism and fitness than hitting— or at least a different variation of athleticism anyway.
Here’s a chart of their primary positions:
It’s no surprise to see a lot of shortstops (and no catchers, of course). 12 of the 21 are middle infielders, and really so is the third baseman (2015 Machado). Interestingly, only two outfielders made the list: 2016 Springer and 2018 Nick Markakis. A handful of other players spent significant time in the outfield as a secondary position, including 2018 Cody Bellinger, 2019 Whit Merrifield, and 2019 Jorge Soler (the only designated hitter).
Five players joined the club this year: Semien, Merrifield, Soler, Jonathan Villar, and Starlin Castro. In case you were wondering, Kevin Pillar, Pete Alonso, and César Hérnandez all played exactly 161 games in 2019. The former group gets black ink on their baseball cards; the latter does not.
Playing all 162 games is a rare and difficult feat. Each year, only about four players can last the entire season. Even the best players in the game usually need a day off somewhere along the way. Semien made it, and it’s part of the reason why he’ll finish top five in the AL MVP voting. He just needs to do it about 16 more times to catch Ripken.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.