As a man whose baseball consciousness began in the late 1990s, I have a significantly different perspective on Cal Ripken than most people I talk to. The Ripken that I know is the guy who hit .273 with 17 homers and an OPS below league average from 1996-2001. The Ripken that people talk about is the one who hit .276 with 22 homers and an OPS above league average from 1982-1995. Ok, so maybe Ripken’s prime is overrated. Let’s forget that for a moment, because Cal’s impact on the field is an argument for another day. What I want to talk about now is his supposed impact off the field.
He is often credited with changing the structure of the game. Supporters claim that he served as a role model for the next generation of offensive-minded middle infielders, transforming the position into a possible source of firepower. Hitters like Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jeff Kent grew up supposedly idolizing and emulating Cal. Well, it’s true that there are more offensive shortstops and second basemen now than there were before, but how true is it?
I looked at the number of middle infielders with an OPS above the league average (and enough ABs to qualify) per season, and found the results to be heavily concentrated by era. As you might expect, the top 8 seasons are all since 1998. Surprisingly, though, the next 5 seasons are all from before 1920. So, perhaps it is not as new as we thought to have a productive hitter play up the gut. But even if it’s not new, it became extremely uncommon during the middle of the century. Of the top half of MLB seasons in this stat, only one occurred from the end of World War II to Cal Ripken’s debut in 1981.
Prior to the war, stars like Ray Chapman, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Charlie Gehringer, or Luke Appling all graced both the keystone and the leaderboards. That’s understandable. Likewise, there are current sluggers turning double plays. The season with the most offensive middle infielders was 2007, featuring an astonishing 30 guys like Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzski, Dan Uggla or Chase Utley. Maybe Cal Ripken did have an influence, because it is really odd that those 36 years from 1945-1981 were so light on good hitting shortstops and second basemen.
Something changed, that’s for sure. However, I don’t think it could have been Cal that caused the change. The reason: the transformation started soon after he debuted, before his impact could really have come to fruition. One of the top seasons is 1986, where Cal is joined on the list by the likes of Lou Whitiker, Steve Sax, Frank White and Alan Trammel. Other 80s stars include Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and Barry Larkin. It would be impossible for Ripken to have influenced them, and that crew really led the change. I don’t think anyone can know for sure, but I believe that the return of the offensive middle infielder coincided with Cal Ripken’s career, instead of being caused by it.