You may recall last year I wrote about “The Battery – Baseball’s Power Source”, where I discussed the symbiotic relationship between pitcher and catcher and how all the energies on the field funnel down that path.
There’s another relationship between two players on the field, different in nature but just as important to a team’s success: the Keystone Combination, the second baseman and the shortstop. Together, they are the anchors of the infield defense.
It’s a baseball truism that successful teams are “strong up the middle”, i.e., from catcher through pitcher to the second baseman and shortstop and the center fielder; those players are literally the backbone of a team’s defense. Teams that have weaknesses in those positions typically are less successful.
Second base and shortstop are regarded as “premium” defensive positions, where the ability to make the plays is the paramount consideration for player success. These are typically the domain of the “glove man”, the “leather expert”, etc. Usually offensive production out of these players is regarded as a bonus, although in the past three decades we have seen an emerging breed of top-quality middle infielders who are also offensive forces. Of the twenty Hall of Fame second basemen, only three have more than 3,000 hits (Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Rod Carew), and only one has more than 300 career home runs (Rogers Hornsby with 301). The more recent inductees such as Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar were noted offensive contributors during their years in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Jeff Kent, and offensive powerhouse who was no better than average defensively, will soon be eligible and is almost certain to attain the required number of votes (although perhaps not on the first ballot, as Mr. Kent was not known for cultivating the media, i.e., the voters).
Twenty-three shortstops have been elected to the Hall, and currently you can expect Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and his teammate Alex Rodriguez to get the votes, although A-Rod has been moved over the third base; players like Cal Ripken, Jr., Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox, Rodriguez and Jeter began to define an offensive-minded nature to the position.
The second baseman and the shortstop engage in split-second ballet around the base in executing the double play; accurate throws from one to the other and nimble footwork in contacting the bag and getting out of the way of the onrushing baserunner are the pitcher’s joy to behold and have ended many a burgeoning threat.
It’s no wonder that long-standing partnerships on either side of the keystone become the stuff of legend and glory, from the time of the Cubs’ Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers through the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson to the Tigers Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. It’s a partnership that when realized between two excellent players frequently results in pennants and world championships.