The Best Infield of the Modern Era Debate – Good Cannot Compete With Great

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

In an article published last week, Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Columnist Bill Conlin claimed that the Philadelphia Phillies infield of third baseman Placido Polanco, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, and first baseman Ryan Howard is potentially the greatest infield of baseball’s modern era. He then follows that claim up with an open invitation to solicit opposing arguments.

Don’t mind if I do!

I could POSSIBLY accept that they are the best infield in the game today (although Conlin himself points out the 2009 World Series Champion New York Yankees infield of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira as being worthy challengers to that claim). I could also accept an argument that they are AMONG the best infields of the modern era. But that is as far as I am willing to go.

In response to Conlin’s very bold statement, which eliminates those qualifiers, I offer three simple words: Big. Red. Machine.

Career Comparisons

Polanco, Rollins, Utley, and Howard may be good, but when compared to the Cincinnati Reds infield of 1975 and 1976 they may as well be the Bad News Bears.

The names of the four Reds infielders during those seasons are probably enough to win this debate:

1B – Tony Perez (Hall of Fame, 7x All-Star)

2B – Joe Morgan (Hall of Fame, 10x All-Star, 5x Gold Glove winner, 1x Silver Slugger, 2x League MVP)

SS – Dave Concepcion (9x All-Star, 4x Gold Glove winner)

3B – Pete Rose (SHOULD BE in the Hall of Fame, 17x All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 2x Gold Glove winner, 1x Silver Slugger, 1x League MVP, MLB’s all time hit leader)

Compare those totals to the current Phillies infield, which has only 10 All-Stars, eight Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, one Rookie of the Year, and two League MVPs.

With all due respect to the Phillies’ infield today, they have a very long way to go before they can consider their collective careers on par with four legends.

Season-Specific Hitting Statistics

Conlin uses the hitting statistics of the four Phillies infielders to justify his claim of “best infield.” Using the very same criteria he selected, let’s compare the results of the 1975 Reds, 1976 Reds, and the 2009 Phillies. (Note that Placido Polanco’s 2009 stats were actually earned while with the Detroit Tigers).

1975 Reds
In 585 total games in 1975 the Reds infield combined for 2,178 at-bats and amassed 656 hits for a combined batting average of .301. They scored 355 runs, and racked up 326 RBI, 125 doubles, 14 triples, 49 homeruns, and 101 stolen bases. Each player also earned an All-Star selection, Morgan and Concepcion were awarded Gold Gloves, and Morgan was also named League MVP.

1976 Reds
In 594 total games the same four players combined for 2,240 at-bats, 665 hits, and an average of .297. They scored 394 runs, knocked in 334 runs, and hit 132 doubles, 24 triples, 65 homeruns, and notched 100 stolen bases. Once again, each player earned an All-Star selection, Morgan and Concepcion were awarded Gold Gloves, and Morgan was also named League MVP.

2009 Phillies
In 624 total games, Polanco, Utley, Rollins, and Howard combined for 2,477 at bats, 677 hits, and a batting average of only .273 (compared to .301 and .297 for the Reds). They scored 399 runs, knocked in 383 runs, and hit 139 doubles, 17 triples, 107 homeruns, and only 69 stolen bases. Only Howard and Utley were named as All-Stars, Utley also earned a Silver Slugger Award, and only Rollins and Polanco earned Gold Gloves.

What do these statistics reveal?

The current Philadelphia infielders – who last season combined for at least 30 more games played than did the 1975 or 1976 Reds – had a lower batting average and only 12 more hits than the (1976) Reds, five more runs, 49 more RBI, seven more doubles, and seven fewer triples.

Make no mistake, the 2010 Phillies offense has the potential to put up phenomenal numbers. But they have much to improve upon if they hope to compete historically with the Big Red Machine.

What Matters Most

At the end of the day, only one thing matters – winning. That is something Cincinnati’s infield of the mid-1970s was able to accomplish at will. During the 1975 and 1976 seasons, the Reds went on to win a combined total of 210 out of 324 games (a win percentage of .648), all en route to TWO World Series Championships.

That is the bar that has been ultimately set by the Reds, and THAT is the standard to which the Phillies must be compared.

The infield of the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies cannot yet match the collective career achievements, in-season production, or (most importantly) the wins of the 1975-1976 Cincinnati Reds. History may prove otherwise, but for today, Mr. Conlin, “the BEST of the Modern Era” is a claim that the 2010 Phillies cannot make.

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