If you’ve read my work at other sites, I’ve written periodic “positional case studies,” looking at how various clubs have staffed a particular position over multi-decade time spans, revealing interesting trends. Here are the ones I’ve done so far:
- May 16, 2013: Atlanta Braves Center Fielders
- June 20, 2013: New York Mets Second Basemen
- Oct. 24, 2013: San Diego Padres Shortstops
- Apr. 13, 2015: Colorado Rockies Starting Rotation
- Dec. 2, 2015: Minnesota Twins Third Basemen
- Dec. 2, 2016: Cleveland First Basemen
- Feb. 9, 2017: Chicago Cubs Catchers
- March 6, 2018: Seattle Mariners Left Fielders
- Feb 11, 2019: Boston Red Sox Outfielders, 1935-1965
Some clubs staff positions almost exclusively with farmhands, like Cleveland’s approach at first base; some supplement occasional stars with trades for journeymen, like the Braves in center field; some effectively use a position as overflow when there are too many players at another position, like the Mets at second.
Some spend their money at other positions and try to fill the spot as cheaply as possible with a mixture of farmhands and cheap journeymen, like Minnesota at the hot corner. And some try everything to see what sticks, like Colorado’s starting pitching.
Today, I’d like to look at how the Braves have staffed the keystone. That nickname for the position — keystone — indicates just how important it is. Shortstops and centerfielders are flashier and in higher demand, but everyone knows that the up-the-middle positions are the most important ones on the diamond.
Yet it can also be something of an afterthought. Second basemen are generally undersized — a lower center of gravity is helpful on the double play turn — and because it’s one of the leftmost positions on the defensive spectrum, it can frequently be staffed by, for want of a better description, banjo-hitting glove-first 7-hitters.
As brilliant as their career highlights frequently were, this description fits fairly well for the Braves’ two longest-tenured second basemen in the two-league era: Glenn Hubbard and Mark Lemke, who between them started nearly half of the seasons under my microscope.
In general, the Braves have not had many stars at the position. The only Hall of Famers to play the position have been much-better known elsewhere:
- An ancient Rabbit Maranville played second base in his 40s, far less effectively than he’d played shortstop two decades earlier
- Rogers Hornsby played a single brilliant year in Boston, probably the least-remembered whistle stop in his career
- Red Schoendienst contributed to the Braves’ 1957 and 1958 pennants, but he was enshrined for his beloved seven decades of service in St. Louis
Put simply: the best second baseman in the history of the franchise is, or in very short order unequivocally will be, Ozzie Albies. Second-best is Marcus Giles, and third place is basically everyone else. So here’s what happened over the last four decades.
- 1979-1987: Hubbard
- 1988: Gant
- 1989-1991: Treadway
- 1992-1997: Lemke
- 1998: Graffanino/Lockhart
- 1999: Boone
- 2000-2001: Veras
- 2002-2006: Giles
- 2007-2008: Johnson
- 2009-2010: Prado
- 2011-2014: Uggla
- 2015-2016: Peterson
- 2017: Phillips
- 2018-2019: Albies
1979-1987: The Hubbard Years
If you’ve been here a while, you know all about this guy. A 20th-round pick drafted out of high school in Utah, it’s safe to say that Glenn Hubbard was not viewed as an All-Star.
(Hubbard is probably the second-best prep player drafted from a Utah high school, behind only Bruce Hurst. Baseball-Reference tracks 243 players drafted from Utah high schools, 35 of whom made the majors. Of those who did, the only players to reach at least 2000 AB or 2000 IP were Hubbard, Hurst, John Buck, and Vance Law. Law was a 39th-rounder, Hurst was a 22nd-rounder, and Buck was taken in the 7th round; Utah high schools are not viewed as hotbeds of prep talent.)
Hubbard was known for his glove, of course. How good? Googling yields the following instructive passage from a book called “Reasoning with Sabermetrics: Applying Statistical Science to Baseball’s Tough Questions,” published in 2012:
Bill James in his book Win Shares gave school-style letter grades, while in Wizardry, Michael Humphries lists the top ten fielders at the position based on his metric. In addition, there are the Zone ratings of STATS, Inc. All three seem to agree on six players as the greatest defensive second basemen of all time: Mark Lemke, Frank White, Rennie Stennett, Bobby Grich, Glenn Hubbard and Bill Mazeroski.
Hubbard could pick it, but couldn’t really hit. He was basically a Quad-A hitter: though he was essentially the Braves’ starting second baseman starting in 1979, his age-21 season, he was on the Richmond shuttle in each of 1978, 1979, and 1980. He hit .330/.404/.496 over 663 PA in Richmond those three years, and .244/.308/.336 in 1023 PA in Atlanta. And he didn’t ever really get much better: his career major league line is .244/.328/.349.
It was probably a classic case of a guy whose glove was so far advanced past his bat that he was skipped past his real challenge: Double-A. In 87 games in Double-A in 1977, he hit just .225/.310/.349, but they advanced him anyway. Maybe they shouldn’t have. By wOBA, among qualified hitters from 1978 to 1987, Hubbard was the 30th-worst-hitting second baseman in baseball, back in a time when there were only 26 teams.
So he was worth about three to four wins with his glove and gave back about a win with his bad, making him roughly a two-win player every year for nearly a decade. And he may have been worth just as many wins as an instructor in the Braves system, as we’ll see later.
The thing is, while he was a regular at the position, he never played more than 148 games at second and in many years he played fewer than that. As Mac explained in his Hubbard writeup:
The Braves apparently were disappointed in his major league production and kept trying to replace him… They kept trying to make Jerry Royster their second baseman even though he could no more play the position than he could the harp, and he wasn’t any better a hitter than Hubbard anyway. After Royster, they tried to make Ken Oberkfell the second baseman, apparently in an attempt to get both Andres Thomas and Rafael Ramirez on the field at the same time. Eventually, the pitchers would revolt and Hubbard would be back in the lineup, hitting eighth.
Hubbard’s glove and secondary skills made him basically league-average at the position; Royster was replacement-level. The Braves didn’t gain anything by platooning the two. But they kept trying to. The Braves got between 1.0 and 2.5 wins from the position every year from 1980 to 1987, except for 1981 (a strike-shortened year) and 1986, when Hubbard’s defensive stats slipped. He was gone after the following season. But he’d be back with the club as a coach. More on that later.
1988: Ron Gant is Not a Second Baseman
Square peg, round hole. Gant was the Braves’ fourth-round pick in the 1983 draft, a six-foot-tall, muscular shortstop who quickly got shifted to second base and slugged his way through the low minors. He generally struggled with position changes: the Braves tried shifting him to third in the majors in 1989, a position he’d never played in the minors, and he was miserable. Finally, he ended up in the corner outfield, and everything clicked. Once he got there, he had a terrific career — more than 30 career WAR, 321 HR/243 SB. He just really wasn’t a second baseman.
The Braves got 1.3 wins at second base in 1988, which was pretty typical production, but instead of solid fielding and weak hitting, it came from solid hitting and weak fielding. So they converted Gant to keep his bat in the lineup, and found a new starter for the position.
1989-1991: The Treadway Years
Jeff Treadway‘s name was apt; playing him was treading water. Not bad, not great, just good enough. I’m being a little unfair: he really wasn’t that bad for us. A Columbus native who went to Middle Georgia College, High Jeffrey Treadway was drafted by the Expos in 1981 but didn’t sign; three years later, the Reds picked him up as an undrafted free agent. The called him up to the majors and he played adequately for a couple of years, then the Reds sold him to the Braves, who used him as a platoon second baseman for four years, then released him.
Treadway made 348 starts in those years, with more or less league-average offense and defense. In 1989 and 1990, he was the main second baseman, with additional starts going to Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke. In 1991, the split was more even, as Treadway started in just over half the games, with Lemke and Blauser splitting the rest. By 1992, Lemke was the starter and Treadway made just 30 starts, roughly the same proportion as 1989 and 1990 in reverse.
The platoon, such as it was, was effective in 1989 — 2.5 team wins, mostly attributable to Treadway — but it yielded limited returns in 1990 and 1991. It was basically already over in 1992, when the team received roughly replacement-level value from the position. It was clear by then that Treadway, about to turn 30, was no longer the answer. So the Braves gave the job permanently to Lemke, who probably needs no introduction.
1992-1997: The Lemmer
Mark Lemke was, if anything, an even more extreme version of the Glenn Hubbard archetype than Hubbard was. Hubbard’s wOBA was .307, and he retired with 34 Fielding Runs Above Average in his 12-year career. Lemke’s wOBA was .288, and he retired with 74 Fielding Runs Above Average. And Lemke was drafted even later than Hubbard had been, as Lemke was taken in the 27th round in 1983.
He was, as previously mentioned, one of the best second base glovemen of all time. But, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t score, and as much as Lemke was a better defender than Hubbard, particularly compared to his peers, he was even worse than that as a hitter.
As Mac wrote in his 44 Greatest Atlanta Braves writeup, in ranking Lemke #41 just behind Hubbard at #39:
Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning: Mark Lemke could not hit…
His glove was special. It’s absurd that Lemke never won a gold glove; he was the best second baseman I’ve ever seen, which is why he’s on this list. He had terrific range, one of the best throwing arms at the position, turned the double play with the best of them, and almost never made an error. In Win Shares, Bill James gives A+ ratings to only five postwar second basemen. Lemke is in that group. He was like an order of magnitude better than the rest of the league, but they decided to give four gold gloves in a row to Craig Biggio instead. One year they gave it to Robby Thompson. If you can explain that as anything but winning it with your bat, be my guest.
The “Mark Lemke can’t hit” narrative has a bit of an asterisk, of course: his career postseason batting line of .272/.335/.353 was significantly better than his regular-season line of .246/.317/.324. And in the 1991 World Series, he was literally the team’s best hitter, with 10 hits including a double and three triples and a Bondsian triple slash of .417/.462/.708.
The Braves got -0.9 wins at second in 1992, as an aging Treadway and a young Lemke were pretty hopeless between them. But the team got 3.1 wins at second in 1993. In 1994, 1995, and 1996, the production was between 1-2 wins: not bad, but certainly no improvement over the previous two decades. His final year with the Braves was his best, as the team got and 3.6 wins at second. Lemke become a free agent, and the Braves returned to a two-man platoon.
1998: A Platoon That Didn’t Work: Lockhart and Graffanino
One member of the platoon was a perfectly decent candidate for that sort of role: their former 10th-round draft pick Tony Graffanino. Graffanino would eventually evolve into something like a Treadway type: not outstanding in any way, just a more or less average bat and glove. He just wasn’t much good in 1998. And then the Braves did a silly thing: they gave the other half of the platoon to Keith Lockhart.
As it happened, Graffanino’s bat collapsed and he was released at the end of spring training the following year; he went on to have a very respectable decadelong career following his abbreviated Atlanta tenure.
And Lockhart was Lockhart: one of the most-loathed players in the history of this blog, a decent fielder but a very bad hitter who for some reason Bobby kept on pencilling into the lineup vastly out of proportion to any rational hope for his production. In six years as a Brave, Lockhart was worth 1.6 total WAR. He sucked.
In all, the team got 1.1 WAR at second that year.
1999: A Trade That Didn’t Work: Bret Boone
For the first time, the Braves chose to fill their second base gap with someone who was neither a farmhand nor a cheap scrap-heap pickup. They completed a blockbuster trade with the Reds, sending over Denny Neagle, Michael Tucker, and pitching prospect Rob Bell in return for Mike Remlinger and Bret Boone.
Remlinger was magical, of course — as Mac pointed out, “Mike Remlinger was the best reliever the Braves had from 1999-2002, and one of the best they’ve ever had, though nobody noticed since he didn’t get the glory job.”
But Bret Boone was the bigger target, since the Braves needed a second baseman. He just sucked on both sides of the ball. A year after making the All-Star Team, his OBP and SLG both dropped, and he was almost exactly replacement-level.
Well, we all hated him. The Braves got -0.1 WAR from the position that year.
2000-2001: A Marginally Better Trade: Quilvio Veras and Friends
The Braves had seen quite enough of Boone, thank you, so they shipped him out of town much the way they’d acquired him, as part of a big multiplayer trade. This time, they traded Boone and Ryan Klesko to the Friars for Wally Joyner, Reggie Sanders, and Quilvio Veras.
Sanders promptly had the single worst year of his extremely distinguished career, and Joyner had a forgettable year near the very end of his distinguished career, but Veras was a pretty good second baseman. Unfortunately, he was hurt all the time, so he only played 155 games across his two seasons in Atlanta. Most of the rest of the plate appearances went to Keith Lockhart in 2000, and to Marcus Giles in 2001.
Veras was a speedster who typically also had a high OBP — his career batting line of .270/.372/.362 is exactly what you’d want from a leadoff man. He could field pretty well, too. He did everything the Braves could have asked, except stay on the field. The team got 2.8 wins from second base in 2000 and 2.2 wins at second in 2001, but they released Veras in August, shortly after his last injury.
2002-2006: Marcus Giles
Actually, Marcus Giles wasn’t the full-time starter in 2002; he basically played almost exactly as much as he had in 2001, as Bobby inexplicably decided once more to give the lion’s share of starts to Keith Lockhart. But it was basically a three-way platoon between Lockhart, Giles, and Mark DeRosa, and Giles and DeRosa combined for more starts than Lockhart. By 2003, the job firmly belonged to Marcus.
All in all, for his relatively short peak, he was the best second baseman the Braves ever developed, and that’s largely thanks to Glenn Hubbard, who worked with him until his defense improved from unplayable to effective. Giles was one of the Braves’ most successful draft-and-follow picks, as they took him in the 53rd round of the 1997 draft.
And while his production collapsed in 2006, during his peak from 2003-2005, he was one of the better players in the National League. (With 14.9 fWAR over that period, he’s tied with Lance Berkman for the 9th-highest total, just behind Bobby Abreu, big brother Brian Giles, Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Barry Bonds, and Albert Pujols.)
The team only got 0.8 WAR at second in 2002, but Giles exploded in 2003, and the Braves got 6.7 WAR that year, the highest total in the entire four-decade period, and another 3.0 WAR in 2004 and 5.5 WAR in 2006. With Giles’s collapse in 2006, the Braves only got 0.5 WAR, and it was time to move in a different direction.
2007-2008: Kelly Johnson
They went back to the farm, and it worked once more. Unlike the Braves’ other homegrown second basemen, Kelly Johnson was actually taken with a high pick, 38th overall in the first round of the 2000 draft. Drafted as a shortstop, he played some outfield and third base in the minors, and initially came up with the Baby Braves in 2005 as a left fielder.
But he had a severe elbow injury and was one of the rare position players to undergo Tommy John Surgery, missing all of 2006. He really didn’t play second base until the Braves pressed him into service there in 2007.
But unlike Gant, who struggled with switching to a position he’d never previously played, Johnson spent a lot of time with Glenn Hubbard, just as Marcus Giles had done, and while his glove was more serviceable than stellar, he had a potent bat for doubles and a healthy walk rate. He could be quite streaky, but in all, he was very good in 2007 and 2008. The Braves got 3.3 wins at second base in 2007 and 3.7 wins in 2008.
2009-2010: Back to the Platoon: Martin Prado b/w Kelly Johnson and Omar Infante
Kelly’s bat could be erratic, and he went back to the DL in the summer in 2009 with wrist tendinitis, which the team said accounted for his slump. So the team turned to Martin Prado, whom they’d signed as a 17-year-old in Venezuela.
(The fact that he signed when he was 17 suggests that he wasn’t a high-profile prospect, as those players are signed on their 16th birthday after a bidding war between multiple teams — just like Julio Teheran was.)
Prado mainly played second and third in the minors, and his minor league hitting numbers were not eye-popping: Prado’s career minor league triple slash of .298/.354/.388 is not much better than Mark Lemke’s .266/.350/.388, and it’s actually worse than Hubbard’s .307/.386/.455. But while hardly any of us could have expected it at the time, Prado actually swung a pretty good stick in the Show.
So the Braves didn’t miss a beat in 2009, with 4.0 WAR at the position. In 2010, Prado played the first half at second base, then when he shifted over to third for an injured Chipper Jones, Omar Infante stepped in at second and was terrific, so the team got 5.5 WAR at the position — numbers the team hadn’t seen since vintage Marcus Giles.
Prado had had a career year in 2010, making the All-Star team. And the team needed a left fielder. So the team did perhaps the least sensible thing they could have done: they traded for an All-Star second baseman so they could fill their hole in left field with their existing All-Star second baseman, thereby destroying much of the value they derived from his glove.
You don’t need much of a recap of the Uggla trade (Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to the Marlins for Dan Uggla), nor the Uggla extension; I think the trade was reasonable in terms of player value but strategically incomprehensible, and the extension was insane the moment it was inked. And so it proved.
Uggla’s first year was actually pretty good. (That was the year when he didn’t hit at all in the first half, then caught fire in the second half — .185/.257/.365 at the ASB, .296/.379/.569 the rest of the way.) The team got 2.9 WAR at second that year.
He was okay in 2012, too: he played 154 games and the team got 3.3 wins at the position. Then the wheels fell off. He was replacement-level in 2013 and 2014 — the team actually released him midway through the 2014 season, with one more year left on his contract, and got no better production from Tommy La Stella, who held the job for much of the rest of the year.
In all, the team got 0.8 wins from second in 2013 and 0.0 wins in 2014, the worst production since the Bret Boone debacle.
2015-2016: Jace Peterson
It wouldn’t get much better. The next man to get the job was Jace Peterson, a former first-round pick of the Padres who came over to the Braves in the Justin Upton trade. From his minor league batting line of .285/.378/.416, you might have thought that he could hit, but just like Lemke, he simply couldn’t put bat to ball in the majors. Unlike Mark Lemke, he wasn’t a good enough fielder to make up for it. The team got 1.5 WAR at second in 2015, which wasn’t great but also wasn’t much worse than what they’d gotten from Hubbard or Lemke.
But the production was three wins worse in 2016, when Peterson was slightly worse and his platoonmates (Gordon Beckham, the return of of Kelly Johnson, Chase d’Arnaud, and Daniel Castro) were disastrous. The team got -1.7 wins from second base that year, the worst production over the entire four-decade period.
2017: Brandon Phillips Keeps the Seat Warm For Ozzie
While the team had not had the best of luck with second basemen brought in from outside the organization, the team tried it one more time, and just like Treadway, their target was a player who had gone to school in Georgia: Brandon Phillips. Phillips was 36, nearing the end of a distinguished career, and he was unhappy in Cincinnati. So the Braves swung a trade for him and handed him the job.
But while his bat was significantly better than Peterson’s, he was clearly below-average, and the Braves had a top prospect knocking on the door. By the second half, the second base job belonged to Ozzie Albies. The team got 3.3 WAR from second base that year, though more than half of that was due to Ozzie even though Phillips received far more starts.
2018-2019: Ozzie Albies
Another pint-sized dynamo — like Marcus Giles, Ozzie is listed at 5’8″, and in both cases that seems generous — Ozzie Albies was signed as a 16-year-old in Curacao. (Andrelton Simmons was drafted out of college, so the Braves have only signed three amateur free agents out of Curacao: Albies, Andruw Jones, and Randall Simon.) A shortstop in the minors, he was converted to second base to make way for his frequent double-play partner, Dansby Swanson.
He came up and was instantly productive and soon thereafter signed an extension that feels almost embarrassingly low — $49 million through 2027, and the last two years are club options, in the unlikely scenario that his bat collapses or he suffers a career-ending injury. So he could even exceed Hubbard in his total games started at second for the team.
With Ozzie at the keystone, the Braves got 3.8 WAR at second in 2018 and 4.6 WAR in 2019. And he’s still just 23; he won’t turn 24 till next year. He continues to learn and refine his game. While Lemke and Hubbard were never able to correct the holes in their game after they were called up, Albies very clearly already has done so. With him and Acuna written into the lineup card in sharpie for the next decade, the team has a very bright future to look forward to.
Throughout most of the last four decades, the Braves have staffed second base with homegrown players, many of whom were taken with low draft picks. The team handed hundreds of starts to players who couldn’t hit, from Hubbard to Lemke to Peterson. And most of the players brought in from outside the organization have been stopgaps, even if that wasn’t the original intention — Bret Boone and Dan Uggla both collapsed, Quilvio Veras couldn’t stay healthy, and the team always knew that Brandon Phillips was just a bridge to Ozzie Albies.
All of this suggests that, for Atlanta, second base has generally been more of an afterthought than a strategic fulcrum for organizational strategy. And that’s okay: it’s at the left of the defensive spectrum, and players like Lemke or Hubbard, who can contribute two or three wins with their glove alone, are likely much cheaper than players who can contribute two or three wins with their bats.
But there’s always a risk that their offense could get slightly worse, and their defense could get slightly worse, and then the position becomes a morass. That’s ultimately what happened with Peterson.
The best second basemen, Giles and Albies, could succeed on both sides of the ball. Generally speaking, because it’s so hard to import a star who hasn’t already played the best years of his career in his previous city, a player like that almost has to be homegrown.
And it can be especially difficult to find a player like that at second, since a guy tabbed as a future star may be more likely to play a higher-profile position, like shortstop, or even third base. Too often, second base is a position for quick short guys with weak arms, and there aren’t many superstars in that group. Like many of the best third basemen, the best second basemen are generally former shortstops — and the tall guys with strong arms are the ones who move to the hot corner.
It’s so hard to find someone who can both hit and field at second base that if you do find one, you should probably keep him there. That’s why jerking around Prado was such a poor use of resources. Second basemen take a lot of punishment, they get a lot of injuries, and many of them aren’t much good past thirty. (I don’t know what the stats are, but it certainly seems like the injury rate at second is higher than average, which would make sense, given the collision rate at the bag.)
So if you can find a five-foot-eight-inch guy with doubles power in his bat, you should probably sign him. And introduce him to Glenn Hubbard. You just might have a cornerstone at the keystone.