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Book excerpt: Alan Trammell was the best shortstop in Tigers history

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Jim Turvey’s book ‘Starting IX’ explains why Tram is the all-time best

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Tigers Photo Day Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Baseball blogger Jim Turvey, who has contributed to DRays Bay, Beyond the Box Score, Baseball Prospectus Bronx, and many more, published his first book in November, Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball's Best Players takes a look at the best players at each position for every team in baseball. He was kind enough to share an excerpt of the book with us, explaining why new Hall of Famer Alan Trammell is the best shortstop in Tigers’ history.

It should be noted the book was published before the Hall of Fame vote.


It seems wrong having Trammell here without his P.I.C. Lou Whitaker up the middle, but we’ll have to forge ahead. Another lifetime Tiger,[1] Trammell was an incredible fielder and a strong hitter, who rode these talents to a borderline Hall of Fame career. I think he deservedly isn’t quite in, but he is also a guy who, if the Veteran’s Committee voted him in one day, I wouldn’t have as much an issue with as, say, Freddie Lindstrom. [Editor’s note: Trammell was voted into the Hall of Fame on December 10, so take that, Jim.]

Trammell, the long-time double-play mate of a man who just missed this team (the aforementioned Whitaker) helped to form core of the Tigers throughout the 1980s. Much like Melissa McCarthy when paired with Paul Feig, Trammell and the Tigers seemed to have a symbiotic relationship in that the team’s greatest success came when Trammell had his greatest success. His two best seasons by WAR (8.2 in 1987 and 6.7 in 1984) were the two times the Tigers made the playoffs while he was there. Even within the playoffs themselves, Trammell’s importance can be seen. Just check out his line from the 1984 World Series team: .419 batting average, .500 on-base percentage, three home runs, seven runs, and nine RBI; versus his line from the Tigers’ 1987 first-round exit: .200 BA, .238 OBP, three runs, zero homers, and two RBI.

Trammell has basically the exact same career WAR[2] as Barry Larkin (70.4 for Trammell and 70.2 for Larkin), which provides an interesting opportunity to look at their two careers in comparison. Both were shortstops who played over 2,000 games with one franchise for their entire careers. Both were excellent fielders, Trammell netting 22.0 dWAR, four Gold Gloves, and a fielding percentage significantly above league average throughout his career (.977 to .967 league average). Larkin netted 13.8 dWAR, three Gold Gloves, and a fielding percentage of .975 compared to league average of .968. Larkin started his career about a decade after Trammell so his power numbers are a little higher (13 more home runs and 29 extra slugging percentage points), but Trammell collected 25 more hits, and their OPS+ (which, again, adjusts for park and era) are very close, with Larkin leading 116 to 110. Their RuBIns are tight, with Larkin having 55 more, as well as a slight advantage in total bases. Both players won one championship and were excellent postseason performers. In fact, looking at their postseason stats, they mirror each other nearly as much as the regular seasons stats:

Trammell: 10 runs, three home runs, and 11 RBI with .333/.404/.588 BA/OBP/SLG

Larkin: 11 runs, three home runs, and eight RBI with .338/.397/.465 BA/OBP/SLG

Where Larkin probably gained some favor in Hall of Fame voting[3] is his significant advantage on the base paths (143 more steals than Trammell), his MVP season (as sad as it is that the difference between Larkin’s MVP year and Trammell’s second place finish in 1987 is part of the difference in their legacy, it is still undeniable), and his 12 All-Star appearances to Trammell’s six. Two of these are subjective – a method that the Hall of Fame has been known to use… a lot.

People think of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada as ushering in the hard-hitting shortstop revolution, but really Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken Jr., and Trammell did it 15 years before that. It is interesting to note that Rob Neyer thinks that the second shortstop revolution of Jeter and his crew actually hurt Trammell’s Hall of Fame case. Just as Trammell was becoming eligible for the Hall, a time in which a player’s legacy is often rejuvenated through articles about whether they will join the Hall, Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar, and Tejada were completely modernizing the position and putting up numbers that no one had ever had seen from shortstops before. In comparison, Trammell’s numbers would have panned, despite the obvious caveat that they were playing in completely different eras.

These are the types of things that slip under the radar, and it’s why guys like Rob Neyer are so good at what they do.

Notes:

[1] If nothing else, the Tigers seem to have some of the most loyal players of any franchise Starting IX.

[2] I think Trammell’s career WAR overrates him a little bit because of his position. He is 93rd all-time ahead of – by my count – 140 Hall of Famers including Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Ernie Banks, Ed Walsh, Willie McCovey, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Yogi Berra, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax… The list could really go on for about a chapter, and it probably shouldn’t be able to.

[3] Unlike Trammell, Larkin made it into the Hall on his third try.


If you want to read the rest of the Tigers chapter, including write-ups on greats like Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg, as well as seeing who Turvey selected for other teams, you can buy Starting IX from all online retailers in both digital and print.