Career length of players by position played

Well, I’ll say it: if you aren’t reading Joe Posnanski’s blog every day, or buying his book, then you are missing the best sports writing there is. I don’t think I’m more excited to see a post show up in my RSS reader than I am when I see a new post from Joe.

Yesterday, Joe posted 4,400 words exploring the make-up of the Hall of Fame, trying to walk us (and himself) through its 75 year history, to see if we can get a handle on what it truly is, and not just what it claims to be. The post is informative, well-written, and thought provoking. I highly recommend it.

As good as the post is, though, the comments are just as good, with people chiming in on what makes the Hall special and why certain people were inducted when others weren’t. Reading through the comments, I came across this one from Brent, who is apparently a big fan of second basemen in general. He asks this question:

I think 2B is a hard position for the Hall to judge. The only two recent (if the early 80s are recent) are Joe Morgan and Ryne Sandberg (and the dubious inclusion of Rod Carew as a 2Bman). Why is that? Let me propose two possible reasons.

The two reasons he proposes are sensible, and boil down to this: second basemen, due to the unique nature of the base on the field and due to the physical toll one takes turning double plays and the like, play much fewer games than players at other positions. So, when the Hall comes along, their counting stats are inferior to those of other positions, leaving them in the cold.

It seemed like a good theory to me, so I went looking at the data to prove it. For each defensive position on the field, I found everybody who played 1000 games at the given position (it seemed like a decent threshold for a “long-time” player), and then I found the average total games that those players played (for example, Cal Ripken would be on the “SS with 1000+ games” list, but his games at SS and 3B would be added into the average total games, since it shows how long he was able to play the game). I also ran the list for players who played 1200 games at a given position, to try to limit it to longer tenured players. This is the data that I came up with:

…………MIN: 1000 G ……………………MIN: 1200 G
……………
#Avg Games……………#……Avg Games
C…………
109…1406.83………………67…1576.25
1B…………125…1709.25………………92…1823.05
2B…………107…1623.43………………72…1748
SS…………120…1716.86………………90…1862
3B…………100…1667.15………………67…1825.64
OF…………424…1583.91………………288…1754.27
DH…………8………2181.38………………5……2237.6

Taking a quick look at the counts, it seems that the 1200-G group might be the better dataset. The count of players at the infield positions stay pretty steady between the two datasets, but the outfield count seems a little high in the 1000-G group. We would expect the ratio of outfielders to, say, first basemen to be about 3:1, since there are three outfield spots. In the 1000-G group, however, the ratio is a little more extreme. The ratio in the 1200-G group is much closer to our expectations.

Now to look at the games played by position player: Catchers play the fewest games in their career, by far, with more than a season’s worth of fewer games played than the next lowest position in each dataset. Besides catchers, the next lowest position is inconsistent between the two, with outfielders taking that ranking in the 1000-G group and second-basemen taking that ranking in the 1200-G group. But we’ve already established that the 1200-G group is likely the better dataset, so we’ll use that. And it does show us that second-basemen play the fewest career games outside of catchers. Outfielders are very close behind, though.

The count of players at each position is also an interesting datapoint. In both groups, the third-basemen give us the least number of players with the qualifying number of games. Does this tell us something about the demands of the position, or is it more a comment on the types of players who play that position (eg, are they more injury prone, etc)? In both groups, however, the count of second basemen is at the bottom of the list.

With the shortest average career besides catcher, and with the fewest number of players even able to play that long, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s something about the second base position that keeps players from having long careers. Whether its for the reasons Brent brings up – not able to switch to another position, the physicality of turning the double play – or some other reason, I can’t really say, but I believe that there’s something there.

One final note about the numbers: in both groups, shortstops have both the longest careers and the (second-) most players making the list. I haven’t investigated this further to prove this suspicion, but I suspect that this is because both high-offense and high-defense shortstops can hang around for a long time, either as a bopper at another position (Banks, Cal) or as a defensive specialist whose offense can be overlooked (Ozzie, Vizquel). It’s good to be the shortstop.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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