Unless you've spent the last few days under a rock, you've heard that Alex Rodriguez just became the youngest player in major-league history to hit 300 home runs. The facts that 1) he's a shortstop, and 2) he got there 79 days faster than the next guy on the list make his feat look all the more impressive.
Rodriguez still hasn't won an MVP award, of course, but there's little doubt that he's been the best player in the American League since 1996 (his first full season).
That's impressive, too. So impressive that I off-handedly suggest, in my new book, that Rodriguez is already the greatest shortstop that anybody's ever seen.
Well, let me take a page out of David Wells' book -- whether figuratively or literally, I'm not exactly sure -- and disassociate myself from something that will, I'm embarrassed to admit, actually appear in print. Because it's simply too early to place Rodriguez on the same level with the great Honus Wagner.
To illustrate the point, let me fall back on Bill James' Win Shares. Specifically, in the table below I've listed the greatest 10-year stretch of Wagner's career, 1900 through 1909. In nine of those 10 years, he's credited with more Win Shares than any other hitter in the National League; in the other year, he's a very close second.
Rodriguez hasn't yet been around for 10 seasons, so I simply started with 1996, his first full season (and his first great season). Remember, the numbers below describe each player's Win Shares ranking among hitters in his league.
1 1st 1st
2 2nd 19th
3 1st 2nd
4 1st 17th
5 1st 2nd
6 1st 2nd
7 1st 1st
8 1st ?
9 1st ?
10 1st ?
I should mention that Win Shares is something of a blunt tool. In 2000, Rodriguez is credited with 37 Win Shares, right behind Jason Giambi with 38. Well, Bill James would be the first to tell you that the difference between 37 Win Shares and 38 Win Shares is meaningless, and that it's quite possible that Rodriguez did more to help his team than Giambi did (and for that matter, Carlos Delgado and his 36 Win Shares might have been better than both of them).
My point is that finishing second in Win Shares is not, in most years, much different from finishing first. So we shouldn't hold those three 2's against Rodriguez. But we can hold the 19 (1997) and the 17 (1999) against him. It's true that Rodriguez would have done better if he hadn't spent time on the disabled list in both seasons, but that's a reason rather than an excuse; part of greatness is staying in the lineup for enough games to put up the great numbers.
So as impressive as Rodriguez has been, he's still years short of even being comparable to Wagner.
And there's still another problem with suggesting that Rodriguez is the greatest shortstop ever. Wagner, you see, is arguably the second-greatest player ever, behind only Babe Ruth. So if you're going to argue that Rodriguez is the greatest shortstop, then you have to also argue that he's the second-greatest player.
Which is, I realize now, impossible to argue.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is email@example.com.