This is the third installment in the enormously popular Top Ten series, wherein we name the top ten players at each position in Reds franchise history.
Today, we take a look at the all-time best Cincinnati second basemen. In terms of depth, this may be the weakest of all the positions that we’re going to examine; only eight second baseman have ever compiled 10+ bWAR in a Reds uniform. But the top of the list could not be stronger.
In most corners, Morgan is considered the greatest second baseman in the history of this grand game of baseball. He’s certainly the best one to play in Cincinnati and, again, it’s not even close. Take a look at his numbers over an eight-year Cincinnati career:
–152 home runs, 612 RBI, 406 stolen bases, 220 doubles, 27 triples
–1155 hits, 816 runs
Morgan ranks in the top three of all-time Reds 2Bs in pretty much every offensive category (except games played, where he ranks fourth). No Reds second baseman has ever posted a higher on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wRC+, wOBA, or OPS+. In most of those categories, no one is in the same stratosphere as Morgan. He’s so far ahead of every other 2B in Reds history that it’s almost laughable. It’s like he was playing a different sport.*
*As Jules Winnfield might say: “Ain’t the same *** ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same *** sport.”
Morgan was known as the catalyst of the Big Red Machine, and the 1972 trade that brought him to Cincinnati immediately paid dividends. The top five single seasons by a 2B in Reds history were all posted by Joe Morgan (and six of the top eight). That includes Morgan’s 1975, in which he hit .327/.466/.508 with 17 HR, 94 RBI, 132 walks, and 10.9 wins above replacement. At season’s end, Morgan was rewarded with the National League MVP. “I have never seen anyone, and I mean anyone, play better than Joe has played this year,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson.
The following season, 1976, Morgan almost topped himself. He won his second consecutive MVP award as the Reds won their second consecutive World Series. Morgan hit .320/.444/.576 with 27 HR, 111 RBI, 114 walks, and 9.6 bWAR. He also won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove; in 1977, Morgan would run that streak to five Gold Gloves in a row.
The Reds parted ways with Morgan following his age-35 season in 1979, but his eight years in Cincinnati represented the high point of this franchise’s history. He’s an inner circle Hall of Famer, and one of the best players ever to wear a Cincinnati uniform. Add one more honor to his resume: Redleg Nation has named him the greatest Reds second baseman of all-time. Very impressive, eh?
2. Bid McPhee. 1882-1899. The only other baseball Hall of Famer on this list, McPhee played his entire 18-year career in Cincinnati. It was a career that almost didn’t happen:
However, as the spring of 1882 approached and the time of reporting to Cincinnati drew near, McPhee, who held the position of bookkeeper in a business house in Akron, became possessed with the idea that he had achieved all the fame he desired in baseball and that he would settle down to be a. businessman. It required considerable persuasion to induce McPhee to give up his books, and it was only after dozens of letters had been written and several trips made to Akron by Cincinnati officials that he decided to continue his career on the diamond.
McPhee was lauded in the Cincinnati newspapers as an “honest man and the best second baseman in the world.” However, in his and his team’s first game against Pittsburgh on May 2 in Cincinnati, McPhee made a very poor showing. McPhee later referred to his own play as “rotten” and he provoked hoots and jeers from the Cincinnati fandom, who suffered through a 10-9 loss. In an 1890 interview, McPhee recalled. “What broke me up worse than anything else was a little episode that occurred after the game. I boarded a Clark streetcar as soon as I changed my clothes, and leaned against the rail of the rear platform, which was crowded with baseball enthusiasts going home. In my citizen’s attire none of the cranks knew me. They had evidently lost some money on the game and, as I had contributed more than anyone else to the Waterloo, I was the special target for their abuse. ‘That stiff they played on second base today made me sick,’ said one of the crowd. ‘What’s his name? McPhee? Yes, that’s it. Maybe he didn’t work the Cincinnati Club about wanting to keep books! He ought to have staved in Akron. He might be a good bookkeeper, but he is a rotten ballplayer!’ And so it went. I dropped off the car without making my identity known, and at that time fully coincided with their views that I could do better at bookkeeping than I could at ball playing.”
You may have noticed that it was a different time. McPhee stuck around Porkopolis, and lived up to his advance billing as the best second baseman in the game. Over his 18 years in Cincinnati, McPhee compiled 52.4 bWAR (62.7 fWAR) while hitting .272/.355/.373. He played in more games (2138) than any other Reds 2B, and he also tops the club charts in walks (982), stolen bases (568), triples (189, nearly three times more than the next-highest total), and Def –Defensive Runs Above Average — (193.1).
McPhee could hit, certainly, but he made his name with his prowess defensively. That’s all the more interesting, given that he mostly played bare-handed:
McPhee led American Association second basemen in double plays every season the Red Stockings played in that league. In six out of eight seasons, McPhee led in fielding percentage. Playing bare-handed for most of his 18 seasons in Cincinnati, McPhee led American Association (1882-1889) and National League (1890-1899) second baseman in putouts eight times, assists six times, double plays eleven times, total chances per game six times, and fielding percentage nine times. McPhee remains the all-time leader among second basemen in putouts (6,552), and his 529 putouts in 1886 is the single-season major league record. He is also second in total chances (14,263) and fourth in assists (6,919).
Only three players have spent their entire career in Cincinnati and been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, and Bid McPhee. McPhee’s election came in 2000, more than a century after he last appeared on a big league field.
3. Lonny Frey. 1938-1946. The next two spots on this list were the most difficult for me, and I flip-flopped them several times. Ultimately, I believe that Lonny Frey barely edges out the guy below him.
Linus Reinhard Frey was purchased by the Reds from the Chicago Cubs in February 1938, and it was a perfect fit. But more on that in a moment. I’m a sucker for stories like this one:
Initially, soccer was his sport. He enjoyed baseball and grew up a rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan, but never thought very seriously about making a living at the game. As Frey entered his twenties, he secured a job as a secretary at a meat-packing plant. He played sandlot baseball in the evenings and on weekends, but that was as far as it went.
Then one day in 1931, he arrived at work to find a layoff notice. In the throes of the Great Depression, Frey and the other junior staffers were out of a job. After weeks of searching for work unsuccessfully, he decided to attend an open tryout with the Cardinals. Frey needed a job and baseball was one of his few marketable skills.
Ultimately, Frey worked his way up to the big leagues, debuting with Brooklyn at the tender age of 22. For four seasons with the Dodgers and one with the Cubs, Frey was a decent-hitter but a miserable defensive shortstop.
Upon coming to Cincinnati, Reds manager Bill McKechnie immediately converted the scrawny Frey to second base. The rest, as they say, is history.
After an acceptable initial season with the Reds, Frey went on a five-year tear that ranks among the best ever seen by a Reds second baseman. From 1939 to 1943, Frey posted bWAR totals of 5.9, 5.9, 3.6, 5.2, and 4.5, making three National League All-Star teams and leading the Reds to two National League pennants and the club’s first World Series championship in more than two decades. Three of those seasons rank among the top ten individual single seasons ever posted by a Reds 2B.
More amazingly, Frey became a brilliant defensive player at second base. Certainly, he was recognized in his own time as the league’s top defensive second-sacker, but the defensive metrics we have available seem to bear this out. Frey is second only to Bid McPhee in career Def; he’s far ahead of #3 on that list, Brandon Phillips, despite playing four fewer seasons than BP in a Reds uniform. Similarly, Frey posted 13.4 career defensive WAR for the Reds, compared to Phillips’ 8.5.*
*I point this out only to show how good Frey was as a defender, and why I gave him a slight edge over Phillips in these rankings. It is certainly not intended to denigrate Phillips, who was an amazing defensive player in his own right, and who will be complimented thoroughly in the next section.
Unfortunately, after an excellent 1943 season, Frey’s career was interrupted by the war. He spent two seasons in the service, and when he returned, he wasn’t the same player. “I just didn’t have it anymore,” he said. “Two years in the service and you lose it…. I was just too old, I guess.”
In April of 1947, the Reds sold Frey back to the Cubs, putting a cap on a brilliant Cincinnati career. He continues to rank among the greatest Reds 2Bs ever in a number of categories, including wRC+ (108, 3rd in Reds history), wOBA (.344, 4th), OPS+ (103, 6th), and OBP (.358, 6th).
Phillips’ entire Cincinnati career has unfolded during what will be known to baseball historians as the “Redleg Nation Era.” His first mention here at RN was a brief post on April 7, 2006, the day he was traded here from Cleveland for a player to be named later (who was later named Jeff Stevens):
Reds have acquired Brandon Phillips from the Indians for a PTBNL. Phillips was out of options.
Phillips is expected to report to Cincinnati in time for Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, which will require some move on the 25 man roster.
To make room on the 40 man roster, they designated Matt Kata for assignment.
A couple of days later, I noted the corresponding roster move, along with my brief thoughts:
I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but Chris Denorfia was sent to AAA Louisville last night to make room for Brandon Phillips on the Cincinnati roster. Wayne Krivsky’s hopes for a roster full of middle infielders remain alive.
All joking aside, I look forward to seeing Phillips play. He was an outstanding prospect at one time, and there’s still a chance he can live up to that reputation. Of course, everyone said that about D’Angelo Jimenez, too, and he seemed to have similar issues as Phillips.
Yes, you could say Phillips lived up to that reputation. Early on, we were just hoping for “a younger cheaper version of [Tony] Womack.” What we got instead was a Reds Hall of Famer.
Early last season, I wrote a piece for Cincinnati Magazine that summed up my thoughts about Brandon Phillips:
It’s because I love Reds history, and BP is a really significant player in the history of this franchise.
Did you know that only seven players in club history have accumulated more plate appearances in a Reds uniform than Brandon Phillips? This team has been around forever, and BP is 8th on the list, behind guys like Rose, Concepcion, Larkin, and Bench. Similarly, Phillips is eighth all-time in games played for Cincinnati. There’s something to be said for that longevity.
He’s been fairly productive, too, depending on how you look at the numbers. Brandon is ninth on the Reds all-time hits list, with 1,635 (I bet you can guess who’s number one). He’s ninth all-time in doubles (282), 13th in home runs (181), 11th in RBI (794), eighth in stolen bases (183).* Yes, these are counting numbers, and I’m not trying to say that BP has been a better player than a bunch of names behind him on these lists. But Phillips actually did those things, on the field, for your Cincinnati Redlegs. It makes him a significant figure in the history of the club.
*And he’s 29th in bases on balls, behind Bobby Adams and Ron Oester.
It’s even starker when you compare Phillips to other second basemen in Reds history. He’s played 200-plus more games than any other Cincinnati second sacker, and tops the lists of hits, home runs, doubles, and RBI. And though we don’t have the metrics to prove it definitively, Phillips is as good defensively as any of the rest of them, or at least in the neighborhood.
(Note: BP is actually only #2 in games played and runs batted in. I wasn’t counting pre-1900 Bid McPhee when I wrote that piece.)
It has been an incredible 11+ year career, almost any way you look at it. Phillips has hit .279/.325/.429, he’s made three All-Star teams, and won four Gold Gloves. He has been a regular fixture on the nightly highlight reels for his miraculous fielding exploits, and he also swung a pretty mean bat over the last decade. In addition to the counting stats mentioned above, Phillips’ slugging percentage is fourth-best among Reds 2Bs, and he ranks highly in OPS+ (99, 7th all-time) and wRC+ (98, also 7th). He’s third in both bWAR and fWAR.
As I’ve noted here (and on the podcast) many times, we’ll always have a soft spot for Brandon Phillips in my household. He’s my son’s favorite player, as you’d notice if you watched him play second base every summer in his #4 uniform on the local diamonds. In fact, my son thinks I’m insane, and many of you may concur. He thinks Phillips should be number one on this list.
5. Tony Cuccinello. 1930-1931. This may be a reach — Cuccinello was only a Red for two seasons — but I think it’s defensible to place Cuccinello this high. That’s based almost exclusively on his brilliant 1931 season — plus one more little contribution he made to Reds history.
More on that in a moment. Cuccinello was exactly what you might expect: a “diminutive Italian from Astoria, New York, on Long Island.”
Cuccinello had a solid rookie season, batting .312 with 10 home runs and 78 RBIs. In 1931 the Reds shifted Tony to second base and he responded with a .315 average and 93 RBIs, a club record for second basemen until broken by Joe Morgan in 1975. In his best offensive performance that year he got hits in six consecutive at-bats, including two doubles and a triple. He led the league’s second basemen in putouts, assists, errors, and double plays.
Despite Cuccinello’s performances on the field, he refused to sign the contract the Reds tendered to him and found himself shipped to the Brooklyn Dodgers to begin the 1932 season.
Again, more on that in a moment. Cuccinello compiled 7.0 bWAR in his two-season stint with the Redlegs. Those were his first two seasons in the big leagues, at ages 22-23. As noted above, 1931 was his masterpiece. “Cooch” hit .315/.374/.431, with a 122 OPS+, 39 doubles, 11 triples, .371 wOBA, 120 wRC+.
That’s a 5.2 WAR season. Only Joe Morgan, Lonny Frey, and Pete Rose have ever had a better season as a Cincinnati second baseman.
Yes, it was only two seasons, but Cuccinello’s batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS+, wRC+, and wOBA all rank second only to Joe Morgan in Reds history. He makes it onto this list thanks to the classic Hall of Fame argument: peak vs. longevity. Frankly, there aren’t a ton of great second baseman in this club’s history. For a short time, Cuccinello was an amazing player.
Remember when Cuccinello refused to sign a Cincinnati contract for the 1932 season? Well, the Reds traded him to Brooklyn. Coming back to the Reds in that deal: Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi, who would win an MVP and play in 7 All-Star Games during a brilliant decade in the Queen City.
So Cuccinello helped the Reds even in his departure. For his part, Cooch would go on to play in a couple of All-Star Games himself, and played a solid 15 years for Brooklyn, Boston, the Giants, and the White Sox. He’s sort of forgotten in Cincinnati.
But Redleg Nation remembers.
6. Johnny Temple. 1952-1964. An enormously popular player during his nine seasons in Cincinnati, Temple was a three-time All-Star who hit .291/.372/.361, the second-highest batting average and third-best on-base percentage ever for a Cincinnati 2B. His wOBA (.338) is the fifth-best in Reds history, and his 15.2 bWAR is sixth.
Temple was one of seven Reds voted into the starting lineup for the 1957 All-Star Game by ballot-stuffing Reds fans in that memorable episode of baseball history. Two seasons later, in his final season in a Cincinnati uniform, Temple put together perhaps his best performance: .311/.380/.430 with 35 doubles.
7. Miller Huggins. 1904-1909. A Hall of Fame manager known for his work at the helm of the “Murderer’s Row” Yankees in the Twenties, Huggins began his career in baseball as the diminutive second baseman for the Reds in the Dead Ball era.
Listed at 5’4″ and 140 pounds, Huggins was reported to be even smaller:
“He [Huggins] was grievously handicapped by his lack of size,” wrote John Sheridan in the Sporting News. While databases list Huggins at 5’ 6” and 140 pounds, he was actually much smaller, around 5’ 1”-5’2” and 125 pounds.8 When John McGraw had a chance to acquire Huggins for his Baltimore Orioles in 1901, he declined to do so. “That shrimp?” he said to himself. “He’s too little to be of any use as a big leaguer.”
Perhaps to compensate for his size, Huggins had a fierce and relentless determination to succeed and use his head to win. “Because he was so small and slight, he must overcome by clear thinking,” wrote Frank Graham, “obstacles that other players could surmount by force.”
It mattered little to the determined Huggins, a Cincinnati native who debuted with the Reds as a 26 year-old in 1904 and played six very effective seasons for the club. During that span, Huggins hit .260/.362/.310 — remember, this was the Dead Ball era — with a 104 OPS+ and 107 wRC+. Huggins ranks in the top five in Reds history (among second basemen) in bWAR (16.4), walks, stolen bases, on-base percentage, OPS+, and wRC+.
Critz made his major league debut with the Reds as a 23 year-old in 1924 by picking up a couple of hits against future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander. He went on to post a 3 WAR season in that rookie campaign, hitting .322/.352/.448. Extremely well-respected at the time, Critz finished in the top four in MVP voting twice in his career.
In 1926, the 25 year-old Critz lost the MVP balloting to St. Louis catcher Bob O’Farrell, after Critz hit .270/.316/.371, played stellar defense, and posted 3.7 WAR as the Reds finished second in the National League. Two years later, Critz finished fourth in MVP voting (St. Louis’ Sunny Jim Bottomley won the award) when he hit .296/.335/.387.
I was prepared to state that Critz deserved admission to the Reds Hall of Fame based on a very productive seven-year career with the ol’ Redlegs. Shows how much I know. Critz was inducted in 1962. Who knew?
Oester was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2014, and I’m going to depend upon their description of his career for this piece:
Selected by the Reds in the ninth round of the 1974 amateur draft, Oester made his Major League debut in 1978 and began making regular appearances in the Reds lineup in 1980 when he appeared in 100 games and finished fourth in voting for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. In 1981, Oester enjoyed the first of six consecutive seasons as the Reds starting second baseman, a streak that was interrupted by a major knee injury he suffered in July of 1987. He won Major League Baseball’s Hutch Award in 1988 after his successful return to the Reds everyday lineup. In his final season in 1990, Oester was a key player off the bench during the Reds World Championship season and scored the winning run in the Reds pennant-clinching game over the Pirates in Game 6 of the 1990 NLCS. After his playing career, Oester spent six seasons with the Reds as a Major League coach. He remains a Cincinnati resident.
Oester is third all-time among Reds second basemen in games played, fourth in doubles (190), fifth in HR (42) and RBI (344), and seventh in walks (369). The most enduring memory I have of Oester, however, is the fact that he was on a “Reds Leaders” Topps baseball card back when I was a kid, based upon the fact that he led the miserable 1983 Reds with a .264 batting average.
10. Bret Boone. 1994-1998. I dunno, take your pick here. I’m going with Boone, who was an exciting defensive second baseman, and ranks in the Reds 2B top five in home runs (70, third on the list), RBI (346, fourth), and SLG (.412, fifth). Boone made an All-Star team and won a Gold Glove in his final season in Cincinnati (1998) before going on to greater fame in Seattle.
—Mariano Duncan. 1989-1995. A valuable member of the 1990 World Series champs, Duncan played with the Reds in two different stints, and he was probably better than you remembered. Ranks in the top six among Reds 2Bs in BA (.279, sixth), SLG (.436, third), OPS+ (104, fourth), and wRC+ (105, sixth).
—Sam Bohne. 1921-1926. Posted 7.9 bWAR in a six year Reds career. Ranks among the top five Reds 2Bs in Def, and his 45 triples is tied for third in franchise history.
—Pokey Reese. 1997-2001. I dunno, he was good at defense.
—Tommy Helms. 1964-1971. Rookie of the Year in 1966. Made two All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves. Was the Reds’ first base coach when Pete Rose cried on his shoulder after 4,192.
—D’Angelo Jimenez. 2003-2005. He was actually okay during his three years in Cincinnati, despite what you think you remember. His OBP (.359) was fifth among all Reds 2Bs, his SLG (391) was sixth (among 2Bs with 1000+ plate appearances), his wOBA (.335) was seventh, and his wRC+ (98) was eighth.
—Pete Rose. He’ll show up on this list at a different position, as you might imagine, but his
1968 1965 season was one of the top ten single seasons ever for a Reds second baseman.