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Pirates' Top 5 shortstops: Berry's take

@adamdberry
April 21, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Adam Berry’s ranking of the top 5 shortstops in Pirates history. Next week: left field.

Pirates' All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B

1. Honus Wagner, 1900-17
Key fact: Inducted into the Hall of Fame’s first class in 1936 along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson

There’s no argument here. Wagner is far and away the best shortstop in Pirates history and, with all due respect to the iconic Roberto Clemente, the greatest overall player in the 133-year history of Pittsburgh’s National League club. Wagner has a strong case as the best shortstop of all time -- it says so on his Hall of Fame plaque, for starters -- so there’s no doubt he is deserving of the top spot here.

It might be difficult for us to appreciate Wagner’s excellence given the era in which he played, but let’s start with a few accomplishments. He won eight NL batting titles in his 21-year career. He led the league in RBIs four times, steals five times and doubles seven times. He led the Pirates to the 1909 World Series championship and ranks first in franchise history -- by a significant margin -- with 120.1 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference. His career WAR total (130.8) is the 10th-best figure in Major League history.

“The Flying Dutchman” finished his career with 3,420 hits, 643 doubles, 252 triples, 1,732 RBIs and 723 stolen bases, and most of those came during his 18 years with his hometown team. Hall of Fame manager John McGraw once called Wagner “the nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him.”

2. Arky Vaughan, 1932-41
Key fact: Hall of Famer was a nine-time All-Star and hit .300 or better in each of his 10 seasons with the Pirates

With Wagner the no-doubt No. 1 choice here, Vaughan is an equally clear-cut second choice. Joseph Floyd Vaughan, who was born in Arkansas and therefore known as “Arky,” was the best shortstop of his time with a potent bat that made him an elite player. Baseball analyst Bill James once ranked Vaughan as the second-greatest shortstop of all time, in fact -- behind only Wagner.

Overall, Vaughan hit .324/.415/.472 with 84 homers, 291 doubles, 116 triples and 764 RBIs in his 10 seasons for Pittsburgh. He had a great eye at the plate, leading the league in walks three times and drawing 778 free passes compared to only 227 strikeouts during his time with the Pirates.

His best season came in 1935, a statistically absurd campaign in which he slashed .385/.491/.607 -- leading the Majors in all three categories -- with 19 homers, 34 doubles and 99 RBIs in 137 games. Modern metrics show Vaughan was worth 9.7 WAR in that season alone, yet he finished third in the NL MVP Award voting that year.

3. Jay Bell, 1989-96
Key fact: The 1993 All-Star, Gold Glove Award winner and Silver Slugger started for NL East champs from '90-92

After two Hall of Famers, Bell earns the third spot on this list as a solid overall player who peaked for Pittsburgh in 1993, the start of the Pirates’ 20-year losing streak. That year, Bell snapped Ozzie Smith’s run of 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards while slashing .310/.392/.437 with nine homers, 32 doubles, 51 RBIs and 16 stolen bases.

There have only been two shortstops among the Pirates’ Gold Glove Award winners, Bell and Gene Alley (1966-67), and Bell is the only Pittsburgh shortstop to win a Silver Slugger Award. Playing for manager Jim Leyland, Bell led the Majors in sacrifice hits in 1990 (39) and '91 (30). Overall, he hit .269/.339/.402 with 78 homers in eight seasons with the Bucs -- not nearly at the level of the first two shortstops on this list, but superior to most of his organizational competition.

Bell also enjoyed a fine career after leaving the Pirates, earning another All-Star nod in 1999 and scoring the winning run of the 2001 World Series for the D-backs.

4. Dick Groat, 1952, '55-62
Key fact: Pittsburgh native was named NL MVP in 1960, when he won the batting title for the eventual World Series champions

In nine seasons with the Pirates, Groat hit .290 and led the NL in double plays turned as a shortstop four times -- an accomplishment undoubtedly made easier because he manned the middle infield alongside Bill Mazeroski.

Groat enjoyed a fascinating career, having been a standout college basketball player at Duke; the Blue Devils retired his No. 10 jersey, he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, he played for the NBA’s Fort Wayne Pistons from 1952-53 and he was the Pittsburgh Panthers men's basketball color commentator until last year.

Groat’s best season with his hometown Pirates was his 1960 NL MVP Award campaign, when he batted .325 with 50 RBIs and only 35 strikeouts in 138 games. He was worth 6.1 WAR that season, a total he bested only once -- for the Cardinals in 1963 -- in his career.

5. Gene Alley, 1963-73
Key fact: Gold Glove Award winner in 1966 and '67 formed a historically productive double-play tandem with Mazeroski and ranks third among Pirates shortstops with 24.2 WAR

The strength of Alley’s glove helped him earn the fifth spot on this list. Alley had some fine offensive seasons, particularly from 1966-67 when he batted .293 with a .740 OPS. But he earned back-to-back All-Star nods in '67 and '68 primarily because he was such a steady defender.

Alley led NL shortstops in putouts and assists in '67, in double plays turned in '66 and '67, and in defensive WAR and total zone runs in '65 and '68. Alley played 114 games for the '71 World Series champion Pirates, although Jackie Hernandez did most of the heavy lifting at shortstop during that postseason.

Honorable mentions
Jack Wilson (2001-09) ranks sixth among Pirates shortstops with 21.3 WAR, and he was an NL All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner while hitting .308/.335/.459 in 2004. He also led all NL shortstops in assists in '04 and '05. … Glenn Wright (1924-28) ranks seventh among Pirates shortstops with 16.8 WAR despite a relatively brief tenure in Pittsburgh. Wright was a member of the 1925 championship team and the '27 team that lost to the Yankees in the World Series. Overall, he hit .298/.332/.441 with 50 homers, 55 triples and 480 RBIs for the Pirates.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.