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Is this the best Giants infield ever?

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It's already a lot closer than you might think.

"Hunter, does it ever annoy you how good these kids are?"
"Hunter, does it ever annoy you how good these kids are?"
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Folks around the blogosphere are wondering if this is the best infield in Giants history. They haven't been saying it exactly; there have been qualifiers, like "on pace" or "San Francisco-era" or "by certain measures." Nobody's publicly waving their pants around their head just yet, demanding all the haters and losers stand up and be counted for daring to doubt Joey Baseball and the Duffman. Well, someone's probably doing that, but they're too drunk to publish. But even if we're not at that stage yet, it's clear that this infield has a serious chance to be historically good.

How good is historically good? Let's hop into the way-back machine and find out. This isn't a completely scientific study, just an estimate; here are some ground rules.

  • Only going as far back as 1920, because the hell I'm trusting the numbers on a bunch of dudes called "Dutch" and "Chief" swinging at a rock wrapped in masking tape.

  • Using Fangraphs WAR, because Grant uses BB-Ref and we're all about diversity here.

  • We're considering 5-man starting infields, which is to say, the guy who started the most at each of the infield positions. This skewed results a little when it came to players who spent some, but not all, of their time at a given position, and racked up part of their value elsewhere. I've corrected where it seems appropriate, but this is an estimate of quality.

  • I'm skipping some years. During the 1920s (spoiler alert!), the Giants had a bunch of roughly similar starting infields putting up roughly similar combined fWAR. We don't need to count them all.

With our disclaimers out of the way, let's count down the Giants' top 10 infields.

★★★

Honorable Mention: 2002
Catcher First Base Second Base Third Base Shortstop Total
Benito Santiago: 2.2 J.T. Snow: -1.1 Jeff Kent: 6.7 David Bell: 3.1 Rich Aurilia: 2.3 13.2

This is included because it was the best combined infield fWAR of the Peak Bonds era. Sabermetrics hates your happy memories of JT Snow, and wants you to suffer.

#10. 1962
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base
Shortstop
Total
Tom Haller: 3.7 
Orlando Cepeda: 3.3
Chuck Hiller: 1.5
Jim Davenport: 4.2
Jose Pagan: 2.2
14.9

The Three-Feet-Higher team was an absolute powerhouse, but their middle infield was swinging pool noodles. This was a time when "hitting the baseball" was not a job requirement for second basemen or shortstops, and Hiller and Pagan still managed to be near the bottom end for starters. But they weren't total embarrassments; Hiller could get on base and Pagan could pick it, and that was good enough for a team with eight guys with double-digit homers. Good enough to break Charlie Brown's heart.

#9. 2012
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Buster Posey: 7.7  
Brandon Belt: 1.7 Marco Scutaro: 1.9 Pablo Sandoval: 2.9 Brandon Crawford: 2.0 15.9

Exercising editorial fiat to give Scutaro the nod over Ryan Theriot, because when you think 2012, you think Scutaro. Really, it surprised me that this one wasn't higher. When you consider how bad Hunter Pence was that year, and that Melky Cabrera was tragically eaten by a SyFy Original Movie in August, this team had no business winning a World Series.

#8. 1938
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Harry Danning: 2.6 Johnny McCarthy: 0.9 Alex Kampouris: 1.0 Mel Ott: 8.7 Dick Bartell: 3.9 17.2

Mel Ott was actually a bit of a proto-Zobrist, bouncing between right field and third base from 1935-44. This was the only year in which he spent a majority of his time at 3rd, and an infield that was hot garbage for most of the decade was suddenly one of the better ones in franchise history. Between this team & the last one, it's clear that a single MVP candidate in the infield can paper over most anything short of a LeMaster.

#7. 1947
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Walker Cooper: 5.1 Johnny Mize: 6.8 Bill Rigney: 2.4 Jack Lohrke: 0.6 Buddy Kerr: 2.4 17.3

Walker Cooper has one of the great all-time baseball names, a name that indicates that instead of hitting the DL when hurt, he just gets a bourbon IV between innings and toughs it out. What caused a man as tough as Walker Cooper to quit baseball? Wikipedia says:

He then returned to St. Louis to spend his last two seasons as a Cardinal, ending his career in October 1957. After his daughter, Sara (Miss Missouri 1957), married Cardinals second baseman Don Blasingame, he noted, "It's time to quit when you've got a daughter old enough to marry a teammate."

Yeah, that was probably a good call. This is one of the more common sorts of Good Infield the Giants have had - solid to excellent at four positions, brought down by a single black hole.

#6. 1989
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Terry Kennedy: 1.7 Will Clark: 8.1 Robby Thompson: 5.4 Matt Williams: 2.3 Jose Uribe: 0.1 17.6

Speaking of "single black hole," sabermetrics are even crueler to our memories of Jose Uribe than they are to JT Snow. Ouch, man. Matt Williams gets the nod because he'd taken the 3B job from Ernest "Ernie" Riles by the end of the season. Lest you wonder what might have been if the Giants had started Williams at SS and Riles at 3B in the World Series, well, that's what they did with the help of the DH. Didn't work.

Special note: Chris Speier played for the 1989 team! Chris Speier is the most valuable shortstop in San Francisco history, and he appears on none of these lists, because he played in the 1970s and the Giants were the '70s carpeting of baseball.

#5. 1966
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Tom Haller: 3.4 Willie McCovey: 5.9 Tito Fuentes: 1.1 Jim Ray Hart: 6.1 Jim Davenport: 1.2 17.7

This was the best infield Willie Mays ever played with, and the Giants sacrificed a Hall of Famer to do it. The infamous Cepeda-Sadecki trade, which allowed McCovey to settle into his natural position of first base without confusion, led to terror, different confusion, a salted wasteland in left field, and the Dodgers winning the pennant. The karmic implications should be obvious. Pretty nice infield that year, though.

#4. 1993
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Kirt Manwaring: 3.2 Will Clark: 1.9 Robby Thompson: 6.1 Matt Williams: 5.9 Royce Clayton: 2.2 19.3

This was, and remains, the best infield in San Francisco Giants history. Also, I don't want to talk about 1993. I especially don't want to talk about Will Clark and 1993.

Kirt Manwaring was pretty cool, though. I wouldn't trade our current MVP and Galactic Overlord for anything, but there's something charming about your standard-issue defensive-specialist catcher. The platonic baseball team has Kirt Manwaring or his local equivalent, hitting 8th, bashing the odd surprise dinger, and framing the heck out of some pitches.

#3. 1924
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Frank Snyder: 2.3 George Kelly: 5 Frankie Frisch: 7.5 Heinie Groh: 3.4 Travis Jackson: 4.0 22.2

This year is roughly representative of the Giants' overall 1920s infield, a collection of slap-hitting criminals with diphtheria and hip flasks (otherwise known as "baseball players.") You can take 1921, with Hall of Famer Dave Bancroft at short, or 1928, with the delightfully named Shanty Hogan catching, but they're all about within 1 total fWAR of one another, and they were all composed of five guys who, to the best of our ability to tell, were good to great baseball players.

A sidebar on researching 1920s baseball: the weird part isn't the old-timey names. The weird part is the totally normal names. Frankie Frisch, Heinie Groh, and Shanty Hogan? Sure, 1920s baseball players. Travis Jackson? That guy was just drafted out of Bellarmine Prep in June. He loves Drake and he's actually pretty funny on Twitter for an 18-year-old.

#2. 1927
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
A Nuclear Disaster: -0.2 Bill Terry: 5.4 Rogers Hornsby: 10.4 Freddie Lindstrom: 3.1 Travis Jackson: 5.1 23.9

This could have been the top of the mountain. Rogers Hornsby, possibly the greatest second baseman of all time, coming in as a rental in his prime. Bill Terry hitting 20 home runs, which made him some kind of escaped circus strongman. Time-travelling wunderkind Travis Jackson confusing pitchers by playing bizarre and objectionable music on his "eye-phone." But this super-infield still needed a catcher.

I had to make another exception here to adequately capture this mess. Five men - Jack Cummings, Al DeVormer, Mickey O'Neil, Jim Hamby, and Zack Taylor - played catcher for the New York Giants. All of them except Cummings were terrible; the playing time leader was Taylor, with 283 PAs. The Giants finished third in the National League, and it was all the fault of these five men. They were transported to Australia.

#1. 1951
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Wes Westrum: 4.1 Monte Irvin: 6.4 Eddie Stanky: 5.0 Bobby Thomson: 5.1 Alvin Dark: 5.2 25.8

There was some more finagling here. Hank Thompson and his 0.9 fWAR actually started 71 games at 3rd to Thomson's 69. If you'd prefer to use 1950, where Thompson was fantastic, Stanky was MVP-level, and the infield combined for 24.2 fWAR, be my guest. But I like using 1951 because, well, 1951. Nobody was absolutely mindblowing, everyone was great. One guy started 69 games, another one was named Stanky. They had a pitching staff anchored by two really good starters, a rookie center fielder who went on to have an okay career, and they won the pennant (won the pennant, won the pennant).

Good job, 1951 infield. You were the greatest in franchise history, and for that, you were rewarded.

★★★

So where are the 2015 Giants at this moment? Well...

Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base Shortstop
Total
Buster Posey: 4.7 Brandon Belt: 2.8 Joe Panik: 3.9 Matt Duffy: 3.2 Brandon Crawford: 3.4 18.0

...they're already the second-best infield in San Francisco Giants history. Fifth in live-ball history, or 11th if you count all the clone '20s infields I omitted, with 58 games left to play. ZiPS projects this squad to finish the season at 24.2 combined fWAR, which would leave them tied for second all-time, and best in SF history by a comfortable margin. And those projections are fairly bearish on Panik & Duffy, what with their history of hitting for zero power whatsoever.

It's certainly possible that fatigue will catch up to those two, who have never played a full major-league season before. Crawford might wear himself out in the fall as he normally does; Belt might enter an extended cold streak and lose playing time to *rolls on Random Waiver Acquisition Chart* Ike Davis. But the likelihood is high that we are currently watching the best starting infield the San Francisco Giants have ever had. And with a little luck and a classic MVPosey season, they could contend with the polio-ridden miscreants of New York legend.

(Unless Joe Panik is broken. He's probably broken. Second base is cursed, but that's another article.)