BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI
For the Sun-Times
Fans across generations knew Ernie Banks as Mr. Cub, celebrated for his cheerful optimism as much as for his by-the-numbers performance.
The Cubs will honor Banks, who died Jan. 23, in an Opening Night ceremony Sunday at Wrigley Field. Older fans no doubt will recall Banks’ slogans in WGN-TV’s annual ‘‘A Look at the Cubs’’ specials — ‘‘The Cubs will be heavenly in ’67-ly!” — and his stint as sportscaster on the Channel 9 news. It was a treat when Banks could intone, ‘‘Then in the ninth inning, I batted,’’ before showing a home-run replay.
Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1977, and the numbers don’t argue, especially for his shortstop years (1953-61). By traditional numbers, Banks hit .274 with 512 homers and 1,636 RBI. From 1953 to 1961, the Triple Crown numbers were .290, 298, 858. From 1962 to 1971, mainly as a first baseman, the numbers were more modest at .258, 214, 778.
By advanced metrics, most of Banks’ value came in his shortstop years. Through 1961, Banks had a .905 OPS and a 138 OPS-plus, meaning he produced at 138 percent of the average hitter of his time. From 1962 on, he had a .755 OPS and a 106 OPS-plus.
Banks also contributed more on defense at short — before knee troubles took away his range. Through 1961, he contributed 12.3 defensive wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com. For the rest of his career, he was at minus-7.3.
To translate the full package into wins above replacement, his career rWAR of 67.5 can be broken down into 54.8 in his shortstop years and 12.7 thereafter.
It’s the shortstop years that make Banks an all-time great. Banks’ early WAR includes 54.3 for his first eight full seasons, starting in 1954. What if we isolate his shortstop years and compare them to those of other Hall of Famers for their best eight consecutive seasons at short?
Far and away the runaway leader for career WAR among shortstops is Honus Wagner at 131.0. His best eight seasons in a row, starting with the 1902 Pirates, totaled 72.2. Alex Rodriguez, playing short for the Mariners and Rangers, compiled a 64.1 WAR from 1996 to 2003. Orioles great Cal Ripken was at 56.7 for an eight-year stretch starting in 1984, and the Pirates’ Arky Vaughn was at 55.7 for an eight-year span starting in 1933.
And that’s it. Banks’ 54.3 outranks any other stretch of eight consecutive seasons by the remaining shortstops in baseball history. The next-best stretches by Hall of Famers are by Lou Boudreau (50.8), Robin Yount (47.0) and Luke Appling (46.4). Ozzie Smith’s best eight-year stretch was 45.9, Pee Wee Reese’s was 43.7 and Barry Larkin’s was 41.8. Among those not yet in the Hall, Derek Jeter maxed out at 41.6 and Alan Trammell at 46.5.
For an eight-year peak, Banks was worth 3.5 wins more than Boudreau, 7.3 more than Yount and 12.7 more than Jeter. Banks had tremendous career value, but it’s his peak value in his shortstop years that makes him special.