Determining the best Pirate infield ever is mainly a matter of figuring out how to delineate the various infields that Honus Wagner was a part of. He dominated the game in his day like few other players have dominated it. Not only that, but during his prime, which lasted through 1912, the Pirates generally surrounded him with good players.
Still, the Pirates have had some other very good infields. They’ve tended to be made up of a combination of outstanding defensive players and solid hitters. The Pirates have never had a great first baseman to run up big hitting numbers, so their best infields have mostly been balanced affairs.
Who Didn’t Make It. There were five Pirate infields that stood out from the others, but I was a little disappointed that none of them included Arky Vaughan, who played for the Pirates from 1932-41. You can make a good case that Vaughan is the most underrated player in the game’s history. He’s seldom remembered now, even by Pirate fans, yet it wasn’t long ago that Bill James rated him the second best shortstop ever, after Wagner. Unfortunately, he never had any truly good infield mates until Elbie Fletcher became the first baseman in 1940. Vaughan was around for Pie Traynor’s declining years and he played with a solid first baseman in Gus Suhr for most of his career. Otherwise, he spent his career with a medley of more-or-less replacement level second and third basemen. Vaughan’s huge 1935 season (385/491/607) was wasted on an infield with two negative WARs (2B Pep Young and 3B Tommy Thevenow) among the regulars and Suhr having one of his weakest seasons. The two really good Vaughan infields were widely spaced: 15.4 WAR in 1933, with Traynor having his last decent season; and 15.3 in 1940, with Fletcher (an on-base machine who drew 119 walks) in his first full season and utilityman Debs Garms winning one of baseball’s flukier batting titles.
I was also disappointed that none of the Pirates’ 1920s infields qualified. Those were good, but not outstanding, infields that centered around Traynor and a series of talented but erratic shortstops in Rabbit Maranville, Glenn Wright and Rowdy Richard Bartell. Traynor himself is often regarded nowadays as having been overrated, a good but not great player who usually put up WAR totals between 4 and 5. Those infields also featured one of the most under-appreciated players in Pirate history, George Grantham. He alternated between first and second, shifting as needed while the Pirates brought in a series of veteran stopgaps to man one position or the other. He was a better hitter than Traynor, consistently hitting .300 with OBPs over .400 and lots of extra base hits. In seven seasons with the Pirates, he never had an OPS+ below 121. Unfortunately, he’s mostly remembered now for his nickname, “Boots,” which was indeed a reference to his fielding. The best of those 1920s infields was the 1925 world champions, which accumulated a 16.4 WAR thanks to good seasons from Traynor, Wright and Grantham, a solid season from veteran secondbaseman Eddie Moore, and a .368 average from the aging Stuffy McInnis, who platooned with Grantham at first.
Fifth Best: Maz and Groat. The Pirates spent most of the 1950s building the team that would win a World Series in 1960 and it started to come together when Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat took over at second and short in 1956. They both had their first good seasons the next year, but it took the Pirates a couple more years to find the corner players to go with them. The team actually got good production out of a variety of part-time first and third basemen in 1957-58: Dee Fondy and Ted Kluszewski at first, Gene Freese at third, and Frank Thomas at both spots. In mid-1958, though, Dick Stuart came up with his light-tower power and leaden glove. (His glove really was that bad; his error totals were right out of the deadball era, with its primitive gloves and lopsided baseballs.) The following year, the Pirates added Don Hoak, a solid all-around player, to man third, and veteran Rocky Nelson to serve as a quasi-platoon partner with Stuart. Over the four years from 1957-60, this group averaged 15.23 WAR, with a high of 19.0 in 1960. They got a big assist that year from Dick Schofield, who had a huge September while subbing for the injured Groat. A lot of the value that year came from defense, especially Groat, who was worth 16 fielding runs, according to Fangraphs. Nobody had a big year at the plate, with only Hoak among the four regulars reaching an .800 OPS, barely. But all four were solid, Groat won the batting title, and the bench was great.
Fourth Best: The Early 1970s. The Pirates’ farm system in the late 1960s and early 1970s was probably one of the most productive ever, and it was readily apparent from their infields early in the ‘70s. They had a string of players reach the majors, eventually accumulating more talent than they had room for . . . well, except at shortstop. Richie Hebner took over third in 1969, although he platooned with Jose Pagan for several years. (Pagan also was needed because Hebner had to be away on reserve duty periodically.) Al Oliver won the first base job from Bob Robertson in 1969, but Robertson returned in 1970 and had the team’s hottest bat during its division title run, so Oliver moved to the outfield. Freddie Patek temporarily took the shortstop job from the injury-plagued Gene Alley, but the Pirates traded Patek to Kansas City after the 1970 season. Dave Cash gradually replaced Maz at second in 1970-71, only to find himself battling to hold off Rennie Stennett. Of course, the Pirates traded their best secondbase prospect, Willie Randolph, to the Yankees.
Despite all the comings and goings, the team’s primary infield from 1970-72 was Robertson, Cash, Hebner and Alley. Partway through 1972, Willie Stargell moved to first, as Robertson began struggling with the back problems that would shorten his career. Alley struggled with knee and shoulder problems, and shared his position in 1971-72 with Jackie Hernandez, who was basically Rafael Belliard without the glove. This group averaged 16.47 WAR from 1970-72, getting solid or better offensive production from Robertson, Hebner and the two secondbasemen, Cash and Stennett. It also got good defense from Robertson, Cash and, when he was healthy enough, Alley, as well as passable defense from Hebner, who became a serious defensive liability starting in 1973. Their best year, 1972, generated a 20.2 WAR, the best ever by a Pirate infield that didn’t include Honus Wagner. Stargell spent most of that year at first and accounted for 5.7 WAR (293/373/558, 33 HRs, 112 RBIs), but the biggest surprise is Hebner’s 6.4 WAR (300/378/508, 19 HRs and his best defensive year).
Third Best: Maz and Alley. The Pirates’ teams of the 1960s were built for their ballpark. Forbes Field had massive acreage in left and center, and slow infield grass. Except for Bob Veale, the Pirates had a low-walk, low-strikeout, high-groundball pitching staff. They also had arguably the best double play combination ever. In fact, Gene Alley was one of the more under-appreciated Pirates ever. If you judge by WAR, from 1965-68 he was the team’s best player aside from Clemente. In those years he averaged 5.15 WAR, with a high of 5.7 in 1966. During that stretch he was probably the Pirates’ third-best shortstop ever, in fact probably their third-best infielder ever. This was an unusually stable infield. With Donn Clendenon at first throughout, the only change was at third. Bob Bailey played there in 1965-66, then was included in a trade for Maury Wills, who took the job for two years. Even then, super-sub Jose Pagan often played third throughout the period.
Although this infield’s strength was defense up the middle, it provided good offense. Clendenon had good power in some years, Bailey and Maz had decent power, and Alley and Wills hit for average. It’d be interesting to see what the group would have done in a neutral hitting park. Few players in history have been handicapped by their home park as much as Maz and Clendenon, both right-handed flyball hitters, were by Forbes. Maz hit 93 HRs on the road in his career and only 45 at home. Clendenon during his Pirates career hit 71 HRs on the road and only 35 at home. In 1966, when he hit a career-high 28, all but three came on the road. At their peak, in 1966-68, this infield averaged 17.6 WAR, with a high of 19.0 in 1966.
Second Best: The Later Wagner Infields. During the first half of Honus Wagner’s prime years, the Pirates had a mostly stable infield, but after 1906, when they traded secondbaseman Claude Ritchey and moved Tommy Leach from third to the outfield, the unit changed frequently. Still, Wagner was so dominant in those years that it really didn’t matter. It’s tempting just to refer to this period’s infield as “Honus and Some Guys.”
Still, the Pirates generally had good players at second and third. They traded Ritchey for another secondbaseman, Ed Abbaticchio, who played well in 1907-08. In the championship year of 1909, rookie Dots Miller replaced him and had an outstanding season. Miller wasn’t able to duplicate his success, though, and moved to first in 1912, which was Wagner’s last great year. Leach returned to third for one outstanding season in 1908, then moved back to center. After going with a lesser light, Jap Barbeau, for most of 1909, the Pirates replaced him just in time for the World Series with Bobby Byrne, who had several good seasons for them afterward. First base was in constant flux for the Pirates. Nine different players, none of them more than decent, filled the position for all or parts of the six seasons between 1907 and 1912.
Despite all the changes, these infields were able to average 18.75 WAR in those six years. From 1907 through 1909, with Wagner well into double figures every year, they averaged 20.93, topped by 24.2 in 1908, the highest single-season total in team history. Those years featured probably the weakest hitting in MLB history. Players like Leach, Byrne and Miller were very productive relative to the league because they generally managed to hit in the .260-.290 range and post OBPs in the .330-.360 range in years when the league typically hit in the .240s and had an OBP barely above .300. But their contributions paled in comparison to Wagner’s. In 1908, the entire NL hit 239/299/306, yet Wagner hit 354/415/542, with an OPS+ of 205 and WAR of 12.9. Leach’s 259/324/381 was good for another 6.0 WAR. In 1909 he was nearly as dominant, hitting 339/420/489, good for a 176 OPS+.
The Best: The Wagner/Ritchey/Leach Infields. The Pirates’ best infield ever took shape in 1901, when Wagner first started spending a lot of his time at short instead of in right. He played there roughly 60% of the time in 1901-02, with Bones Ely taking the rest of the time in 1901 and Wid Conroy in 1902. For four years, the rest of the infield, first to third, was Kitty Bransfield, Ritchey and Leach. Bransfield had a bad year in 1904, leading the Pirates to trade him. They went with Del Howard in 1905 and Joe Nealon in 1906, and both played decently. Bransfield was a solid but not outstanding firstbaseman from 1901-03. Ritchey was one of the best secondbasemen of his day, a good hitter and very good defensive player. Leach was a well above average offensive player for the majority of the decade. He started replacing the fading Ginger Beaumont in center in 1905 and spent only about half of his time at third that year and the next, but his replacements, Dave Brain and Tommy Sheehan, were passable. In the five years from 1902-06, this infield averaged 20.46 WAR, topping 20 in 1903 (20.8), 1905 (20.7) and 1906 (22.7). For sheer production, and because this was the most stable infield the Pirates had until the mid-1960s, this was the best infield in team history.
The Worst. Two infields deserve mention here, one for long-term and one for single-season ineptitude. The worst single-season WAR ever compiled by a Pirate infield was 0.0 in 2000. The names will all sound familiar. First baseman Kevin Young collapsed from his career-best 1999 season and second baseman Warren Morris from a strong rookie season, posting WAR figures of -1.0 and 0.2, respectively. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez spent his time being jerked around by rookie-phobic manager Gene Lamont and ended up with -0.5 WAR. Pat Meares added a nail to Cam Bonifay’s coffin with a 0.0 figure. What saved this unit from a negative WAR was defensive wizard Mike Benjamin’s 1.1 total, compiled mainly when Meares was mercifully relegated to the bench.
Truly the worst Pirate infield ever was the 1951-54 group, which somehow managed to average only 0.78 WAR over four years. Their “best” showing was 2.4 in 1953, an amount that was attributable in its entirety to thirdbaseman Danny O’Connell. This wasn’t really a “unit” or “group,” though, but instead was an ever-changing cast of random bodies brought in by Branch Rickey to mark time until Maz and Groat could take over. In four years the team had seven different regulars or semi-regulars at first (five with negative WARs); seven at second, including Danny Murtaugh; three at third; and six at short. None was a regular for more than a single season except Pete Castiglione, who manned third in 1951-52 and part of 1953. There’s a reason somebody thought up the moniker “Rickey Dinks.”