Conlin threw up this article recently. Before I even clicked on it, I knew it would include Tinkers to Evers to Chance. Of course, he discusses the potential place of Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Polanco among great infields (yet to be determined, I might add, as 2010 has not been played).
For fun, I decided to look at the question a bit (real baseball still being fairly far off). I excluded the position of catcher from the infield, since Conlin did, though I disagree with the idea. Consider the effect of that on teams such as the Reds of the 70's, the A's of the late 20's/early 30's, the Dodgers from the late 40's-50's, and the recent Yankee teams.
I do not possess a comprehensive, omniscient view of baseball history -- the selections below are just the ones I picked based on my base of information. Feel free to chime in with the teams you think I missed. Some of mine are one-hit wonders, some have more staying power. Mostly, they were good teams with one or two standouts and at least average play at the worst position(s). I'll address the issues that raises later.
I also included some of the better Phillies infields, even though they clearly do not belong with some of the others listed. I am not suggesting that they do -- they are there just for local flava. I was surprised at what the best Phillies infield turned out to be. [Drama!]Candidates - Year/Team/1B/2B/3B/SS:
- 1967 Orioles: Powell, Johnson, Robinson, Aparicio. 407 OPS+. Not the best offensively, but that left side is tight.
- 1977 Dodgers: Garvey, Lopes, Cey, Russell. 422 OPS+. Substantially overrated. Included just to remind Russell Martin that the Dodgers of the 70's were overrated, too.
- 1976 Phillies: Allen, Cash, Bowa, Schmidt. 436 OPS+. Why couldn't the Phillies just get along with Dick Allen? Or vice versa? At least they got Willie Montanez out of it.
- 2009 Phillies: Howard, Utley, Feliz, Rollins. 443 OPS+. Rollins had a terrible year and Feliz had a normal (but terrible) year.
- 2006 Phillies: Howard, Utley, Bell, Rollins. 480 OPS+. A prelude that needed pitching.
- 2010 Imaginary, no-injury Guesstimate Phillies: 480 OPS+. Howard (140), Utley (135), Polanco (100), Rollins (105). Good, but not all-time great, unless someone goes nuts.
- 1998 Braves: Galarraga, Lockhart, Jones, Weiss. 482 OPS+. It wasn't just pitching that made the Braves good -- they had production at the corners.
- 1908 Pirates: Swacina, Abbaticchio, Leach and Wagner. 497 OPS+. The Wagner effect.
- 1981 Phillies: Rose, Trillo, Schmidt, Bowa. 511 OPS+. Mike Schmidt's best year. He was sort of good. Surprising to me that, at least using OPS+ totals, that this group outperformed recent Phillies infields.
- 1993 Blue Jays: Olerud, Alomar, Sprague, Fernandez. 528 OPS+. Surprising to me at first, but then less-so on reflection.
- 1927 Giants: Terry, Hornsby, Lindstrom, Jackson. 552 OPS+. Hall of Famers, every one.
- 1976 Reds: Perez, Morgan, Rose, Concepcion. 553 OPS+. The Big Red Machine.
- 2009 Yankees: Texiera, Cano, Rodriguez, Jeter. 557 OPS+. It still stings, but the Yankees didn't win because of a fluke.
- 1994 Astros: Bagwell, Biggio, Caminiti, Cedeno. 574 OPS+. Looks like the 1993 Phillies weren't the only ones on steroids.
I lack a good source of VORP or WAR for the whole data set from 1908 to present. Either/both would be really, really helpful. I'm left with OPS+, and a somewhat awful tactic of combining the OPS+ for several players. This inflates the value of first basemen (among other many and manifest ills), since I've biased toward offense alone and since I provide no adjustment for position. Essentially, this is an analysis of "good offensive" infields. Other metrics would be much, much better. I think the '67 Orioles would fare much better, for instance. I think the 2009 Phillies would fare better as well, honestly.
What of the Wagner effect? The 1908 and 1909 Pirates infields are virtually the same in total OPS+, but the only player that is the same from year to year is Honus Wagner. Incidentally, he provides much of the OPS+. This is not a good "infield"; this is just Honus being Honus. I discount the 1908/9 Pirates on that basis. The 1981 Phillies have a bit of that, too, since 199 of the OPS comes from Schmidt. On the other hand, Rose was very good that year. Bowa and Trillo were average. The 1981 Phillies also had a shortened season, which potentially hurts them -- maybe Schmidt would have cooled off, even though he was similarly good for pretty much all of 1980, for instance. It's arguable, anyway.
The Yankees of 2009 represent the flip side of the Wagner effect. Each player contributed at a rate well above league average: 149, 129, 147, 132. In addition, each of the players has a track record of being good for a fair period. Last year was no fluke, in other words. Texiera and Rodriguez are both very good defensively. Jeter less so, but not to the point of Knoblauchiness.
The 1994 Astros have a couple of problems, including steroids and a shortened season. Nevertheless, Biggio and Bagwell were unquestionably good for long stretches. Caminiti was excellent, though he was comprised nearly entirely of creatine and durabolin. Their numbers are just as authentic as the Yankees' numbers last year and the numbers of the 27 Giants, who benefited from the exclusion of black players from MLB.
Maybe the true winner here is the 1976 Reds:
- Strong OPS+ from all 4 positions (Perez/118, Morgan/187, Rose/141, Concepcion/107)
- Played before widespread steroid use (but not before amphetamines)
- Played during integration
- Long, productive careers from each (no fluky years)
- Supplemented, but not overwhelmed, by Morgan's ridiculous 1976 numbers
- The 76 Reds also perform well if the catcher is included, so I am less uneasy about the exclusion of catchers used unfairly at the outset
On a final note, Conlin suggested that the current Phillies team may be "...potentially the greatest all-around infield of a modern era that began in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson kicked down the door that had barred players of color from the major leagues."
Clearly, it isn't. While great, it is not objectively better than the Yankees infield of last year. The offensive production is just not there. The infield may not even be the best Phillies infield ever. Schmidt and Rose together were good for an OPS+ total of 318 in 1981. Utley and Howard have never combined for a total that high. If you throw in a catcher, the Phillies fare even worse compared to the true greats, including some teams not on this list because of the catcher exclusion.
If someone could flesh this out with some VORP or WAR data, I would be really interested in seeing it, as well as suggestions of infields I missed or excluded.