The best second bananas of all time

Who is baseball’s answer to Scottie Pippen?  Baseball has an answer to Michael Jordan (he did flail around in AA for a while with the White Sox), but who in baseball deserves the Pippen-esque title King of the Second Bananas?  Technically, Pippen wasn’t always a second banana with the Bulls.  While Michael Jordan was away actually playing baseball, Pippen was thrust in the role of the leading man with the Bulls.  Still, he always seemed to be in the role of the really good player who had to play next to an amazing player.  He was Robin.  He was Commander Riker (nerd pride!)  He was always the bridesmaid, but never the bride.  After all, Pippen played with Dennis Rodman too.
So, who in baseball best fits the Pippen mold?  I went looking for him and found some interesting things along the way.  First things first.  I took the Lahman database, and calculated seasonal and career OPS for all players listed.  Next, I found all of the gentlemen who led their respective teams in OPS in each year, provided that he logged 250 AB with his team.  I only considered those who played from 1901 onward. 
Mel Ott and Barry Bonds* jointly hold the record for the most times leading a team in OPS (17 each), although Ott did it in 17 of his 18 seasons, while Bonds needed 21 seasons.  Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb (16 each), and Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, and Stan Musial (15 each) were the most Jordan-esque players in history, at least as far as dominating a team over a period of time.  Shoeless Joe Jackson* deserves some mention here as well.  During his entire run of playing full time (1911-1920), he led his team in OPS every year.  I wonder what happened to that guy…
So who was the guy who never led his team in OPS, but had the highest career OPS.  Oops, that distinction technically belongs to Ryan Braun.  Braun debuted last year, and had a 1.008 OPS (so that’s his career OPS), but was outdone by Prince Fielder on his team.  Josh Hamilton (same basic idea) is third on the list.  So, let’s at least require five qualifying seasons (250+ AB) to be considered for the King of the Second Bananas.  It looks as though the King is Mickey Cochrane.  Cochrane is a Hall of Fame catcher who was twice MVP and had a career OPS of .897.  But Cochrane had the misfortune of playing in Philadelphia with Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx (plus one year where he finished behind Ty Cobb!  In Philadelphia.  Seriously.)  Cochrane was then traded to Detroit where he played second fiddle to Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer.  Second banana among the second bananas goes to Yankees outfielder in the 1930’s George Selkirk.  Selkirk played at the tail end of Lou Gehrig’s career, then at the beginning of Joe DiMaggio’s, and despite his .883 career OPS, he never led the Yankees in OPS in a given year.  Another victim of DiMaggio’s dominance was Tommy Henrich, who never bested the Yankee Clipper, but still posted a .873 mark over his years in the big leagues.  Rounding out the top five, a few modern names: Jeff Kent and Jorge Posada.  Surprisingly, neither has ever led his team in OPS.
But let’s ease off on the requirements for a moment.  Pippen, as I mentioned, was the man on a few Bulls teams when Michael Jordan went into retirement every now and then.  So, let’s say that the player couldn’t have led his team in OPS in more than 20% of the seasons that he played.  Now, who’s left?  Again, filtering out the recent rookies, the new King of the Second Bananas is Hall of Famer Bill Terry.  Terry played his entire career with the New York Giants in the 20’s and 30’s and had a total OPS of .899, but only led the team in OPS once in the 10 years in which he qualified, and finished consistently behind Mel Ott.  Mickey Cochrane comes in second, followed by Jackie Robinson (the leader 2 times in 10 years, .883 career OPS), Selkirk, and Scott Rolen (only led 1 of 10 teams, career .882 OPS).  A few other names of note in the next few positions on the list: Riggs Stephenson, Ellis Burks, Henrich, Jim Bottomley, and Rusty Greer.
Oddly enough, there’s a healthy mix of players from different eras in the lists.  It’s tempting to think that with free agency, the Selkirk or Terry pattern of being tied to one team that just happens to have a superstar on it might not happen as often.  However, Kent, Posada, Burks, and Greer all played in the free agent era.  They just always seemed to land in places where they were good but not the best.

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2 Responses to The best second bananas of all time

  1. DanC says:

    You know who really played Second Fiddle to MJ, don’t you? Be a homer and just say it…Price, Ehlo (for 3), Hot Rod, Nance, Daugherty. Top 5 right there.

  2. Steven says:

    Great article. Perhaps take a look at Jim Edmonds for modern day baseball-Scottie Pippen. Edmonds was traded to St. Louis where he was second-bananas to Mark McGwire (though he quickly faded away due to injury), but there was Pujols to quickly step in and play lead role for the Cardinals. Even now he’s putting up a decent season in Chicago after a slow and late start, but obviously has the likes of Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, and Soto (Fukudome sucks) to compete with. He might not fit the mold all that well since there’s almost always been other very good players on his teams. He had Rolen, JD Drew, Renteria, Tatis, Larry Walker and all the Cubs I mentioned that had occasional good season(s) to possibly trump him from being “2nd best” on his respective team. Eitherway, when healthy he’s been pretty good every year typically with a great player ahead of him to steal his national attention (Pujols).

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