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Best MLB Players of the 2010s: Second Base

by Chris Brown

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, 110 Sports is taking a look back at the best players of the last decade at each position. There’s no one perfect way to evaluate baseball players. For these rankings, we weigh statistics such as OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) and WAR (wins above replacement), which, while imperfect, are good at assessing hitting contributions and overall value, along with various other factors like the player’s best years in the decade, length of high-level production, speed, defense, reputation, playoff experience and awards. 

A general note about eligibility for this exercise: Players are being considered for the top 10 only at the position they played most in the decade. If a player made a significant contribution at another position in the 2010s, they may receive an honorable mention there as well. Let’s get to it.

In the last three MLB seasons, eight different players who handled second base for at least 50 games in a year hit 30 or more homers. In the previous seven years of the decade, just five such players reached that mark.

The recent power surge across baseball has no doubt affected the second base position, as teams have also grown more confident in sacrificing defense for offense at the position, particularly given the increasing implementation of defensive shifts across the league.

While a large number of players are capable of great offensive seasons at the keystone, that wasn’t nearly as much the case early in the 2010s. Few players at the position in the decade combined elite level production and longevity. Let’s take a look back at the best of the best.

Honorable Mentions

DJ LeMahieu | CHC 2011, COL 2012-18, NYY 2019

Ever since he made his big league debut, there’s been no denying LeMahieu’s ability to hit for a high batting average. The longtime Colorado Rockie, who’s a three-time Gold Glover, hit .280 or better six times in the 2010s, including in 2016 when he led MLB with a .348 mark. His .302 average for the decade is second among those who played at least 400 games at the keystone and his on-base percentage is fifth.

Aside from his 26 homers with the Yankees in 2019, LaMahieu never hit more than 15 home runs in a season, and he didn’t make for his limited power with great speed. LeMahieu swiped 23 bags in 2015 but surpassed 15 steals only one other time.

Howie Kendrick | LAA 2010-14, LAD 2015-16, PHI 2017, WSH 2017-19

In his 14th major league season, Kendrick captured his first World Series ring in 2019 following a resurgent campaign in which the 35-year-old hit .344 with 17 homers and 62 RBI in 370 plate appearances (his most since 2016). From 2010-14, Kendrick averaged a respectable 70 runs, 11 home runs, 67 RBI and 12 stolen bases per season while hitting .288/.332/.420. His numbers and playing time dropped off significantly in the years that followed prior to last season, though.

Chase Utley | PHI 2010-15, LAD 2015-18

Utley’s best production came in the first decade of the century, when he led at second basemen in WAR by a wide margin, was named to four All-Star teams, won four Silver Sluggers, and finished top 15 in MVP voting five years in a row. The longtime Philly did have a bit left in the tank in the 2010s, though, hitting double digit homers in six of the first seven years of the decade while swiping 10+ bases four times and being named an All-Star two more times. He experienced significant offensive decline in his final years in the majors and never had an elite year in the decade, but his WAR value was eighth in the 2010s among players with at least 400 games at the keystone.

Dee Gordon | LAD 2011-14, MIA 2015-17, SEA 2018-19

Gordon’s 330 stolen bases in the 2010s are the most of any player in baseball. He led the league in steals three times in the decade, including in 2015, when he hit .333 with 58 stolen bases and became the first player since Jackie Robinson to lead the NL in both batting average and steals. In April 2016, just months after signing a five-year contract extension with the Marlins, Gordon was suspended 80 games by Major League Baseball for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He led the league with 60 steals while hitting .308 in 2017, but his production has dropped off significantly in the last two seasons.

Top 10

10. Brandon Phillips | CIN 2010-16, ATL 2017, LAA 2017, BOS 2018

Phillips had some strong years early in the decade hitting alongside Joey Votto in the middle of the Reds lineup. The three-time All-Star hit exactly 18 home runs each season from 2010-13, swiping double-digit bases in three of those four years while slashing .279/.329/.428. Phillips continued solid play for the next three seasons despite a power drop. His overall numbers don’t measure up to the best, but Phillips was a solid option at the position for most of the decade.

9. Jason Kipnis | CLE 2011-19

Kipnis has never been a star, but he’s found ways to contribute in nearly every one of his major league seasons since his debut in 2011. The longtime Cleveland Indian, now with the Cubs organization, stole 15 or more bases in each of his first five full seasons in the big leagues, topping 30 steals in 2012 and 2013. 

Kipnis also hit double digit homers in six seasons in the 2010s. His best season came in 2016, when the left-handed hitter swatted a career-high 23 home runs and tallied 91 runs, 82 RBI, and 15 steals with a .275 average. A two-time All-Star, Kipnis was often underrated as a power/speed threat, but his average fluctuated a good bit and aside from the power, his skills have been much diminished in recent years.

8. Neil Walker | PIT 2010-15, NYM 2016-17, MIL 2017, NYY 2018, MIA 2019

A 2014 Silver Slugger award winner, Walker posted double digit home runs totals in every season from 2010-18, twice eclipsing the 20-homer mark. His 149 long balls in the decade are fourth among players who handled second for at least 400 games. He never reached double-digit steals, had an average for the decade below most of the other top contenders, and hasn’t played 120 or more games in a season since 2015, though.

7. Daniel Murphy | NYM 2011-15, WSH 2016-18, CHC 2018, COL 2019

Few second basemen had as high of a peak in the decade as Daniel Murphy. Following a handful of high average, lower power seasons with solid steals totals, Murphy found another level at age 31 in 2016, hitting .347/.390/.595 with 25 homers, 104 RBI, and a league-leading 47 doubles in his first season with the Nationals. Murphy followed that season up with a 23-homer, 93 RBI, 43 double campaign while batting .322/.384/.543 in 2017.

Injuries have limited Murphy the last two seasons, and he hasn’t fared well at the plate when he has been healthy. At the top of his game, there were few second basemen who could match Murphy’s production. There just weren’t enough of those elite seasons, and the other seasons, while typically solid, were not truly great.

6. Dustin Pedroia | BOS 2010-19

If not for injuries, Pedroia almost certainly would have challenged others for the top spot. A three-time Gold Glove award winner in the decade, Pedroia has appeared in just nine MLB games since the end of the 2017 season due to complications with his surgically-repaired left knee. 

From 2011-16, Pedroia hit .298/.364/.434 while averaging 13 home runs, 83 runs, 68 RBI and 13 stolen bases per season — in three of those years he swiped 17+ bags. Had he been able to keep up relatively similar production for the last few seasons, his counting stats for the decade would have compared much more favorably with the top contenders. His WAR value among players with at least 400 games at second in the decade is fifth despite all the missed time.

5. Brian Dozier | MIN 2012-18, LAD 2018, WSH 2019

Dozier’s 42 home runs in 2016 were the most by a second baseman in the decade — and the highest total since 1987. Despite not making his big league debut until 2012, Dozier finished the decade second among second basemen in home runs and tallied six seasons with 20+ long balls. The longtime Twin is tied for second in walks among second basemen in the decade, and in addition to great power, he also brought a good deal of speed to the table. He swiped double-digit bases in six straight seasons from 2013-18 and ranks fifth among second basemen in steals in the 2010s.

One thing Dozier never really did was hit for a high average. His mark for the decade of .245 is the lowest among all players listed in this story and his 969 strikeouts in the 2010s trails only Starlin Castro. And while he still hit 20 homers in each of the last two seasons, it came with .215 and .238 batting averages, respectively, and a combined 15 steals.

4. Ben Zobrist | TB 2010-14, OAK 2015, KC 2015, CHC 2016-19

Known for his versatility, Zobrist has played 200+ games at four different positions in his career, but he’s lined up at the keystone more than anywhere else. Zobrist’s peak in the decade came in 2011 and 2012 when he hit 20 homers, posted an average around .270 and stole between roughly 15-20 bases in both seasons.

While he never again reached the 20-home mark, Zobrist put up a good number of quality seasons in the years that followed. Overall, Zobrist hit 10+ home runs in eight seasons in the decade and played in 100+ games nine times. Despite significant decline in the last few years of the 2010s, Zobrist was a contributor in multiple ways for most of the 2010s, and though he was never really considered amongst the elite options at second base, his WAR value of 36.7 trails only the three players coming up among players at the position.

3. Ian Kinsler | TEX 2010-13, DET 2014-17, LAA 2018. BOS 2018, SD 2019

A true five-category contributor in his best years, Kinsler ranks third in at-bats, first in runs, fourth in hits, third in home runs, third in RBI and third in stolen bases among second basemen in the decade. In 2011, Kinsler tallied 32 homers, 34 doubles, 121 runs, 77 RBI and 30 steals while slashing .255/.355/.477. It was the second 30-30 season and third 20-20 season of his career. Over the next six seasons, from 2012-17, Kinsler averaged roughly 100 runs, 20 homers, 75 RBI, and 15 steals per season while hitting .272. Kinsler also won two Gold Gloves in the decade and was named to an All-Star team three times.

As for the knocks against Kinsler, he trailed off at the end of the decade prior to his retirement, hitting just .234/.302/.391 from 2017-19 while experiencing dips in power and speed. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage for the decade are all significantly lower than the final two players we’ll discuss. But his major counting stats of homers, runs, RBIs and steals certainly measure up against the very best, and he showed both durability and elite performance in the 2010s.

2. José Altuve | HOU 2011-19

Finally we arrive at the two names that probably come to mind first when considering the top second basemen of the last several years: Altuve and Robinson Cano. Both have been truly elite hitters and the consensus best player at their position for multiple years in the decade. Both have cases that can be made against them claiming the top spot as well, making this an extremely difficult call.

In the decade, Altuve led the American League in hits four times, in steals twice and in batting average three times. He was named to the All-Star team five seasons in a row from 2014-18 while finishing top 15 in MVP voting each year, including in 2017 when he won the award. One skill Altuve has brought to the table from the beginning of his major league career in 2011 is his ability to hit for a high average. Altuve has hit .290 or better in seven seasons and his .315 mark for the decade is easily the best among second basemen. He’s also played in 120+ games every season since his second year in the majors.

Altuve has also consistently been amongst the steals leaders in the AL for most of the 2010s, swiping 30+ bags in six different seasons. He’s second behind Dee Gordon in steals at the position over the last 10 years. The lifelong Houston Astro has also hit for increased power in recent seasons, swatting 24 homers in both 2016 and 2017 and a career-best 31 in 2019. And it shouldn’t go without mentioning that Altuve holds the record for postseason homers among second basemen with 13.

So what are the knocks against Altuve? There aren’t a ton, but we’ll start with the fact that he didn’t make his big-league debut until 2011 and didn’t play a full season until 2012. And while he’s been a consistent base-stealing threat for most all of the decade, Altuve was only a plus power option at the position for the latter half of the 2010s. From 2012-15, Altuve averaged just nine home runs per year. And there will surely be some who believe the Astros’ sign stealing scandal should have negative consequences on Altuve’s value, as well.

The biggest reason Altuve isn’t at No. 1, though, isn’t his flaws, but the strengths of the final player on this list.

1. Robinson Cano | NYY 2010-13, SEA 2014-18, NYM 2019

We’ll jump right in here: Cano leads all second basemen in hits, doubles, home runs and RBI in the 2010s. Unlike Altuve, who was just 20 years old and playing in A-ball when the decade began, Cano was already in the midst of his peak in 2010. In a four-season stretch from 2010-13, the longtime New York Yankee hit .312/.373/.533 while averaging 194 hits, 44 doubles, 29 homers, 98 runs, and 107 RBI per year. While his first two years with Seattle in 2014 and 2015 were a bit of a disappointment (14 and 21 homers), Cano smacked a career-high 39 long balls in 2016 with 103 RBI and hit 23 again in 2017 at age 34.

Cano was also incredibly durable for most of the decade. He appeared in 150+ games for eight straight years to begin the decade, and registered roughly 180 or more hits each season from 2010-16. In fact, Cano’s 1,695 hits in the decade are the most of any major leaguer and 100 more than the second place player, Miguel Cabrera.

The knocks against Cano’s case are few, but one could be considered very significant. He never was known for his speed, swiping double digit bases just once, but that’s not a major concern. His 80-game suspension in 2018 for violating MLB’s joint drug agreement certainly could be, though. Cano tested positive for furosemide, a diuretic which, as an MLB.com report described at the time, “is often used to help mask banned substances in urine tests.” It’s not easy to determine how much Cano should be dinged for that offense, and his Hall of Fame case will surely be debated for years to come.

Weighing the weaknesses of Cano’s and Altuve’s candidacies was certainly a challenge. But what became clear in consideration of the pair is that, suspension aside, Cano seemed to me to be a somewhat easy choice. The question then becomes which weighs more heavily, the measurable advantages Cano had over Altuve in the decade, or the damages that suspension does to his candidacy. 

Let’s consider some more of the measurable advantages Cano has over Altuve:

  • Cano’s WAR (wins above replacement) value for the decade of 52.6 is third among all MLB players, easily first at second base, and nearly 16 points higher than Altuve at 36.7.
  • In terms of WAR, Cano has six of the top eight individual seasons of the pair, including the top two years.
  • Cano was simply more valuable in his weaker years than Altuve. Excluding each player’s worst year in WAR, Cano averaged 3.2 WAR in his worst three seasons while Altuve averaged 1.03. Cano’s steady 25ish homers, 90-100 RBI, 80-90 runs, .300 profile was simply much more valuable than Altuve’s years of elite speed and batting average but poorer run producing abilities.
  • Both were strong defenders, but Cano — with two Gold Gloves — gets the edge in that department. 
  • Altuve’s lead over Cano in average and on-base percentage are pretty marginal, while Cano’s lead in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage are much more significant.

In the end, these factors and others seem to me to outweigh the damage of Cano testing positive for a banned substance which itself does not enhance performance on its own. At seven years younger, I think Altuve is more likely to make the Hall of Fame one day. But while reasonable people will disagree, I’ll give the nod to Cano as the second baseman of the 2010s.

Catch up on 110 Sports’ entire series looking back at the best MLB players at each position of the last decade here.

Photos by hj_west / Flickr (Cano), Mike LaChance / Flickr (Kinsler) and Roy Luck / Flickr (Altuve)

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