Commentary

Underrated Larkin deserves spot in Hall

Longtime Reds shortstop had career that should easily earn him a place in Cooperstown

Originally Published: December 29, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

If you're hanging out in a Skyline Chili or in the Montgomery Inn right now, you already know all about Barry Larkin.

But if you're not someone who has passed through the inimitable 513 area code in the past quarter-century, please listen up. I have some important news for you about this man:

[+] EnlargeBarry Larkin
US PresswireBarry Larkin had a career .295 batting average and also had a career .371 on-base percentage in 19 years in the majors.

Barry Larkin is one of the greatest shortstops who ever lived. Period.

I'm not sure why this is a fact lost on most of the non-Ohioans on our fine planet. But it's a fact I can assure you is 100 percent true. And because it's true, you should also know this:

Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer. An easy Hall of Famer.

That doesn't mean he'll go sailing into Cooperstown next week on the first ballot, of course. I've already resigned myself to that. For whatever reason -- injuries, geography, forgetting to change his name to Ozzie Smith, etc. -- Larkin just seems to lack that first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame aura.

But if he doesn't get elected, let me be the first to say that that will be a grave voting injustice. And I'll be happy to explain exactly why that is.

Matter of fact, I already did.

Three years ago -- (Caution: Shameless book plug ahead) -- I wrote a book called "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History." Guess who got named The Most Underrated Shortstop of All Time in that book?

Uh, right you are. Barry Larkin. Heck, you were expecting maybe Deivi Cruz?

In fact, I even suggested at the time that everybody stick a candy wrapper or an expired credit card in that chapter, so they could pull it out in January of 2010, when Larkin appeared on his first Hall of Fame ballot. And then they'd be ready -- ready to explain to the world why this man is a Hall of Famer, an easy Hall of Famer.

So now, for all of you who mysteriously neglected to purchase that book, I'm going to save you the $24.95. I'm going to explain it all again.

For most of the 19 seasons (1986 to 2004) that Larkin spent patrolling shortstop in Cincinnati, a fellow named Ozzie Smith was known as the National League's most famous shortstop. But inside the game, baseball people knew the truth -- that the real pre-eminent shortstop in the league was actually Barry Larkin.

So why wasn't that fact recognized by the rest of civilization? Because Larkin was a victim, to some extent, of his era. But it's important to define that era, because you should recognize that Barry Larkin came along before the modern age of Masher Shortstops. Before A-Rod. Before Nomar. Before Tejada. Before Jeter.

Cal Ripken beat him to the big leagues by a couple of years. But for the most part, our definition of what a great shortstop was, or was supposed to be, back then was Ozzie.

Not that I'd quarrel with any scouting report that included "great" and the Wizard in the same sentence, obviously. I'm not that big a knucklehead. The point is that, during Larkin's time, our concept of what constituted a superstar shortstop changed dramatically. Yet Barry Larkin fit all the definitions, flashing a multifaceted kind of brilliance that worked in any generation.

You want to talk offense? OK, let's talk offense.

Larkin won nine Silver Sluggers. Want to name all the infielders in history with more? It won't take you long. There has been precisely one of them -- A-Rod (with 10).

Want to name all the other players in history with more Silver Sluggers at any position? That won't kill your day, either. There have been only two others: Barry Bonds (12) and Mike Piazza (10). And that, believe it or not, is it.

As thumping shortstops go, Larkin was never a threat to win a home run title like A-Rod or Ernie Banks. But he did hit 33 homers one year (1996). He also slashed more than 50 extra-base hits five times.

And his .815 career OPS is higher than Ripken's. Higher than Miguel Tejada's. Higher than Jimmy Rollins'. Higher, in fact, than all but five players in the modern era who got more than 5,000 at-bats as a shortstop.

But there was more to this man's game than thunder.

Unlike Rollins or Jose Reyes, Larkin wasn't the kind of burner you could easily have imagined running anchor on somebody's 4x100-meter relay team. But he was still the only shortstop to steal 50 bases in any season in the '90s, and the first shortstop ever to join the 30-30 Club. And yes, that word was "ever."

And when this man did decide to run, he was going to be safe. Well, he was safe 83.1 percent of the time, anyway -- which is merely the fifth-best stolen-base success rate since the invention of the caught-stealing stat, among members of the 200-SB Society.

I'm not going to argue that, when this guy threw a glove on, it was impossible to tell the difference between Larkin and Ozzie. Who exactly could you say that about, anyhow?

But Larkin did win three consecutive Gold Gloves (1994 to 1996) after the Oz apparently realized it wasn't fair for one guy to win about 30 of them in a row. And you should take into account that, besides the Wizard, only three other NL shortstops in the past 50 seasons ever won three straight Gold Gloves -- Jimmy Rollins, Dave Concepcion and Rey Ordonez.

Larkin's awards don't stop there, though. Here's the rest of his accolade collection: One MVP award (1995); more All-Star teams (12) than any shortstop in history except Ozzie and Ripken; those nine Silver Sluggers; and both major off-the-field awards that honor character and contributions to society at large -- the Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig awards.

But now that we've got all those preambles out of the way, let's make it absolutely, positively clear why Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer:

When you stack him up against the other shortstops in the era in which he played, this competition turns into a Kentucky-Drexel basketball game (in other words, no contest).

In my book, I cited a study done by Aaron Gleeman, over at the ever-thoughtful hardballtimes.com, after Larkin retired. What he found was another important fact that's been lost on the masses -- that very few shortstops in history have ever outperformed their peers to the extent Larkin did. Here's the breakdown:

Larkin's career batting average -- over 19 seasons, remember -- was .295. The average shortstop in that time hit .256. That's a difference of 39 points -- or 15 percent.

Larkin's career on-base percentage was .371. The average shortstop's OBP was .317. So Larkin beat that by 54 points -- or 17 percent.

Larkin's career slugging percentage was .444. The average shortstop slugged .361. So that's an 83-point gap -- or 23 percent.

And that brings us to OPS. Larkin (.815) was 137 points -- or 20 percent -- better than the average shortstop of his time (.678). The only two shortstops in the past 35 years who had an OPS that much better than the rest of their generation were A-Rod (31 percent) and Nomar Garciaparra (25 percent). But both of them moved to other positions before end-of-career declines shrunk those gaps.

All right, let's spring a little quiz on you: What names weren't on that list? How about Ripken's, for starters? He beat the average by "only" 18 percent. Other names you didn't find: How about Robin Yount, Alan Trammell, Miguel Tejada and Ozzie himself? Perhaps you've heard of them.

The next-closest National League shortstop? That was Concepcion -- who outperformed the competition by only 8 percent. So friends, there's only one word for how Barry Larkin compared to the other shortstops of his time: Domination.

And Larkin was so good for so long, he created 488 more runs during his career than the average shortstop, according to one of my favorite inventions -- Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia. Know where that ranks in the history of baseball?

How about fourth -- behind only Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan and Derek Jeter, who just passed Larkin this year. Among shortstops who started their careers since the end of World War II, just seven other men even got halfway to 488.

So why is all this greatness such a gigantic secret? Not sure, exactly. But it probably had something to do with the one stat Larkin is no doubt least proud of -- Most Visits to DL Land.

Yes, there's no telling how much more Larkin might have achieved -- beyond his 2,340 hits, 379 steals and 198 homers -- if he hadn't been such a frequent tourist through the old trainer's room. It's not true he spent more time on the disabled list than he did on first base, but it seemed like it sometimes.

I've often compared Larkin's presence on those Reds teams to Derek Jeter's presence on the Yankees of 1996 to 2009. And just as you can't measure what Jeter means to the Yankees just by counting up his home run trots, numbers alone didn't measure Larkin's greatness, either.

He landed on that DL 14 times, with injuries to his fingers, toes, elbows, shoulders, knees, ankles, hamstrings, back, neck, Achilles tendon and groin. As far as I know, he never had any serious issues with his eyelashes or nostril hairs. But I can't personally vouch for that, either.

In the book, I got to tell my favorite Barry Larkin health-mishap story of all time -- about the day in 1992 that he even managed to hurt himself while he was hanging out in the on-deck circle.

So how'd that happen? Plate umpire Terry Tata saw a bat lying on top of the plate as Larkin's teammate, Bill Doran, was racing home to score on a single. So Tata heaved the bat away -- and somehow conked Larkin on the ankle. Whereupon Doran told Tata: "Next time, just let me step on the bat and break my ankle. Don't be hurting Barry."

But that wasn't a quip merely delivered for a chuckle. It was a quip that told you all you needed to know about what Larkin meant to the men he played with. His 1995 MVP award -- in a season in which he had only 15 home runs and 66 RBIs -- was a testament to Larkin's never-ending presence and leadership.

I've often compared Larkin's presence on those Reds teams to Derek Jeter's presence on the Yankees of 1996 to 2009. And just as you can't measure what Jeter means to the Yankees just by counting up his home run trots, numbers alone didn't measure Larkin's greatness, either.

But those numbers, as I believe I mentioned someplace, are not to be confused with, say, Ricky Gutierrez's numbers. They are numbers that tell the story of a man who dominated his position, in his time, in a way few other shortstops have.

So there's a term we often use to describe men like that. I believe you're familiar with it:

Hall … of … Famer.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com