The “five best” series continues today with a look at the five best second basemen in Chicago Cubs history. This is a thinner position for the Cubs than catcher or first base; just five players who played at least half their time at second for the Cubs have accumulated 10 WAR or more. The drop-off after Hornsby is steep.
This series is based on last year’s all-time top 25. Statistics are for each player’s tenure as a Cub unless otherwise noted. References to WAR are to the Fangraphs version unless otherwise noted.
5. Rogers Hornsby 1929-32, .350/.435/.604, 160 wRC+, 16.7 WAR
Hornsby had already surpassed Eddie Collins to become the best second baseman in MLB history when the Cubs obtained him from the Boston Braves in November, 1928. The Cubs sent back $200,000 and five nondescript roster fillers, and the 33-year old Hornsby went on to have the best single season (sub required) in Cubs second base history. He led the majors in runs and total bases, and the National League in OBP, OPS, and OPS+, leading the Cubs run-scoring juggernaut to the 1929 World Series.
Leg and heel injuries would severely limit his contributions in1930, but he surged back in 1931 to post a .996 OPS over 419 appearances. This would be the last effective season of his career; the Cubs released him in 1932. A cold, abrasive man, Hornsby managed to alienate the majority of players, managers, and front office people with whom he came into contact. This makes his most famous quote all the more painful: When somone asked Hornsby what he did in the off season, he said “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
4. Fred Pfeffer 1883-91, 1896-97, .252/.308/.375, 94 wRC+, 22.8 WAR
Pfeffer broke in as a 20-year-old with the remarkable 1882 Troy Trojans. They would finish seventh in the eight-team National League and disband after that season, sending four future Hall of Famers to the team that would become the New York Giants, and Pfeffer to the team that would become the Cubs. Pfeffer was Cap Anson’s second baseman. Known more for his glove and speed than his bat, Pfeffer would nevertheless put together a solid offensive run from 1884-88, achieving at least 100 wRC+ each season except 1885, and producing a .901 OPS in his two World Series appearances in 1885 and 1886. Even in the 19th century, owners recognized the players over 30 were a performance risk, so the Cubs dispatched Pfeffer to the Louisville Colonels in April, 1892. Pfeffer delivered proper offense (113 wRC+) in 1892, his age 32 season, but would fade thereafter, returning to Anson’s fold for two lackluster years at the end of his career.
3. Billy Herman 1931-41, .309/.366/.417, 114 wRC+, 40.4 WAR
The last great Cubs second baseman before Sandberg, and an all-time top-25’er, Herman lacked Pfeffer’s blazing speed but more than made up for that with intelligent defense and consistent gap power. Herman is second only to Sandberg in doubles by a Cubs second baseman, although he hit just 37 homers over his 11-year Cubs career.
Hornsby didn’t need a reason to hate people, but Herman gave him one nonetheless by displacing The Rajah from second in 1932. The dugout atmosphere became so toxic that the Cubs released Hornsby in August. After the World Series, Cubs players voted Hornsby a zero share of the postseason bonus money.
2. Johnny Evers 1902-13, .276/.354/.345, 111 wRC+, 41.0 WAR
What if Johnny Evers could have trained at Driveline? The youngest of the Cubs early 20th century Big Three, and number 15 on the all-time top 25, Evers became the Cubs starting second baseman at age 21. His bat was adequate until 1908, when at age 26 he went on an offensive tear. From 1908 through 1913, Evers murdilated opposing pitchers to the tune of a 122 OPS+ with nearly 700 hits. If Evers could have benefitted from more than the rudimentary OJT available to baseball players in his era, perhaps he could have tapped into that hitting brilliance earlier, and been an even greater player. Joe Tinker, a year older and Evers’ great nemesis, would also have his best offensive years over the same stretch.
1. Ryne Sandberg 1982-97, .285/.344/.452, 115 wRC+, 61.0 WAR
The 1982 trade of Ivan de Jesus to the Phillies for Sandberg still has Phillies fans reaching for the medicinal brandy. Sandberg filled the Herman-shaped hole at second and then some, becoming the fourth-best Cub of all time, and at least the 15th best second baseman in MLB history (Baseball Reference has him at 10th). Remembered best for his stellar defense and consistent power, Sandberg also delivered with speed, maintaining double digit stolen base totals until he turned 33 in 1993. And they were smart steals: Sandberg’s had a career stolen base success rate of 76 percent, eight points higher than the MLB average over his career. He the second-best season ever for a Cubs second baseman in 1984, and owns four of the top seven best seasons.
Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
It’s pretty slim pickings in the Cubs second base attic. Let’s see … Eric Young (4.9 WAR) is here. There’s Gold Glover Darwin Barney (4.0 WAR) in the corner. Remember Todd Walker (3.4 WAR)? Steve Stone sure does.
Ok, there are some guys a bit higher on the WAR list. Glenn Beckert (1965-73, 9.7 WAR) had a nice long career with the Cubs; a good fielder with a high but empty average. Players like this were among those to suffer most from the sabermetric revolution.
We covered Ben Zobrist (2015-18, 8.3 WAR) elsewhere. He was a key contributor to Cubs history in his relatively short stay. Young George Grantham (1922-24, 7.8 WAR) had two good years with the team as a starter before being traded for a couple of grizzled veterans and Charlie Grimm.