Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.
Second base often suffers, positionally, in the modern imagination because of the deep-seeded sense that all second basemen are failed shortstops. This has never quite been fair: Joe Morgan probably could have played shortstop -- and he certainly could today -- but he remains the platonic ideal of a second baseman. Jose Altuve, for example, got pushed to second base, much like Morgan, because of his size … but to have a second baseman who can do what he does allows you endless possibilities elsewhere.
And a second baseman can be a bit of anything. Some second basemen are speedsters; others provide power; others are so gifted defensively that any offense they give you. is. a bonus. But you know a second baseman when you see one. It is, perhaps above any other, a uniquely baseball position -- and often, body type.
Let's now look at the 10 best second basemen of this decade. For the sake of clarity, we looked at players who played at least 50 percent of their games at second over the decade, according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Here are the best this decade.
1. José Altuve (Astros 2011-19)
Altuve didn’t play his first full season until 2012, which is the only thing keeping him from lapping the field. If anything, if current career trajectories continue, he might have a clearer path to the Hall of Fame than Cano. Altuve has led the American League in hitting three times and in hits four times. He also is the only person at this position to win an MVP Award this decade … and that World Series wasn’t shabby either.
2. Robinson Canó (Yankees 2010-13, Mariners 2014-18, Mets '19)
Cano’s Hall of Fame case, particularly in the wake of his PED suspension in 2018, may be up in the air, but it’s difficult to make that compelling of a case for anyone else to be the second baseman of the decade. He leads second basemen in (deep breath): home runs, RBIs, hits, doubles, games, at-bats, All-Star appearances and Baseball Reference WAR since '10. He’s on the cusp of 2,500 hits and 3,000 is within reach for his career. We’ll be debating Cano’s career for years to come, but his teams have always been better because of him.
3. Ian Kinsler (Rangers 2010-13, Tigers 2014-17, Angels '18, Red Sox '18, Padres '19)
Few players are as habitually underrated as Kinsler. Since his rookie year in 2006, he is seventh among all MLB players in bWAR, behind only Adrian Beltre, Cano, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto. Rather heady company! Kinsler is seventh overall this decade, too. His secret? Play solid defense, get on base a ton, have sneaky-good power and rarely miss games. Kinsler has been so well-traveled that we barely notice him. But we should.
4. Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox 2010-19)
Pedroia hasn’t appeared in a game yet this year and he has only played 108 games since 2016, but don’t let that distract you from just how good he has been this decade. (Even though his AL MVP Award-winning season came in the previous decade.) He has the second-highest OBP among the position and third-highest batting average and, oh yeah, those two World Series titles (for a total of three, of course) are handy as well. Pedroia might not be Laser Show anymore, but once he’s healthy, there’s still plenty of life left in that bat.
5. Ben Zobrist (Rays 2010-14, A's '15, Royals '15, Cubs 2016-19)
For the purposes of these rankings, you have to put Zobrist somewhere, so the notoriously flexible utility player goes here, the position he has played the most games in his career. Zobrist would surely rank this high even if he didn’t have two World Series rings -- in two consecutive seasons -- and a World Series MVP Award, but yeah, those certainly help. It is fun to imagine what would have happened had the Cubs not won the bidding for Zobrist in the 2015 offseason. Do they have a World Series championship without him? Does the team that got him have one instead?
6. Jason Kipnis (Indians 2011-19)
This is where we start to drop off a bit, though that’s not meant to be an insult to Kipnis, who garnered down-ballot AL MVP Award votes in 2013 and '15.
7. Chase Utley (Phillies 2010-15, Dodgers 2015-18)
Utley was already 31 when this decade began, which speaks to how impressive it was how he long he kept going as a quality player. He only made two All-Star Games this decade, but he was a key piece of six playoff teams, though he won his one World Series the year before the decade started. Plus, Utley even got a rule named after him, even if that might not be the sort of honor he would want. The real question: Is he a Hall of Famer? It’s closer than you think.
8. Brandon Phillips (Reds 2010-17, Braves '17, Angels '17, Red Sox '18)
There was a time that Phillips was one of the most polarizing players in baseball. A Cincinnati Magazine cover story called him “the most entertaining player in baseball.” I wouldn’t necessarily go that far -- and definitely don’t ask Yadier Molina what he thinks of him -- but Phillips was a key part of several contending teams and even got himself a World Series ring last year.
9. Neil Walker (Pirates 2010-15, Mets 2016-17, Brewers '17, Yankees '18, Marlins '19)
Walker has been well-traveled the last few years, but the Pittsburgh-area native will always be most closely associated with the Pirates, though his 2013 National League Division Series against the Cardinals, in which he went 0-for-19, is better off forgotten. (He’s actually 3-for-35 in the playoffs for his career, which is downright bizarre.) Walker has always had splendid on-base skills, and his switch-hitting has always been of a big help.
10. Daniel Murphy (Mets 2011-15, Nationals 2016-18, Cubs 2018, Rockies '19)
Murphy was a perfectly respectable hitter, albeit one with a concrete glove, until he changed his approach in 2014. But it wasn’t until he became such a terror in late '15, including that postseason for the Mets, that he became a star. And his '16 year for Washington will not soon be forgotten: He actually led the NL in OPS that year, a serious rarity for second basemen. Murphy is mostly a first baseman now in Colorado, the park he was born to hit in.
Honorable mentions: Javier Baez, Brian Dozier, Dee Gordon, DJ LeMahieu, Howie Kendrick