Bill Riggins was a fixture at shortstop for seven years with the Detroit Stars.
In a recent post, I examined Detroit Stars’ outfielders “Turkey” Stearnes and Pete Hill and compared them to the Tigers top center fielders throughout history. I also discussed some of the challenges in evaluating Negro League players. In this post, I will look at the Detroit shortstops
Before it was announced that Negro leagues would be recognized as major leagues and before Negro League data was so conveniently available at Seamheads.com, I listed the top ten shortstops in Detroit Tigers history. The only Stars shortstop with enough playing to consider for the all Detroit top ten list is Bill “Mule” Riggins.
There is some confusion about Riggins’ real name. It appears that he was named Arvell at birth, but it’s often spelled Orville (Agatetype.typepad.com). During his playing career, he went by the name Bill or “Mule”. Before his playing career, he worked in the coal mines of Southern Illinois. Mule was a heavy drinker, but it didn’t seem to affect his playing skills as his resume is fairly impressive.
Riggins was regarded as an excellent fielder and baserunner who Bill James ranked as the fifth best shortstop in Negro League history (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract). The switch hitting shortstop played with the Stars from 1920-1926 batting .286 with a 102 OPS+ in 538 games.
In 1926, Riggins batted .300, finished second in the league in stolen bases (25) and fifth in runs scored (80). He also finished second in steals in 1925 with 26. In both cases, the league leader was Cool Papa Bell, the fastest runner in Negro League history.
One of the big questions in ranking Riggins is just how good was his defense. This same questions looms for all Negro League as well as white players who played prior to the availability of play-by play data. According the Defensive Regression Analysis from Michael Humphreys (Wizardry), Riggins saved 34 runs with his glove in seven seasons. That number can be found at Baseball-reference.com as RField. It says that Riggins saved five runs per season or about nine runs over an equivalent 154 game season.
Combining Mule’s defense with his offense would yield 14 WAR (about 25 WAR with 154-game seasons). Unlike 1930s Detroit Tiger shortstop Billy Rogell, who is shown to be a strong defender by multiple measures, we have only a single defensive metric for Riggins. Thus, we have less confidence in his evaluation.
As for the all-time rankings, Alan Trammell is the top Detroit shortstop by a wide margin followed by Dead-Ball era shortstop Donie Bush. The next tier includes Riggins, Billy Rogell, Carlos Guillen and Harvey Kuenn. Riggins and Rogell are the better fielders while Guillen and Kuenn are the better hitters.
Riggins could be ranked as high as number three at the position, but there is not enough information for me to feel comfortable placing him that high. I am ranking him fifth behind known defensive whiz Rogell and Guillen the best offensive player of this group.
The rest of the list is shown below.
1. Alan Trammell (1977-1996 70.7 WAR 63.0 OWAR 110 OPS+)
I posted to this blog regularly for about 10 year and during that time I often discussed Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame credentials. So, it is good to be able to refer to him as “Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell”. Arguments which say that player X is in the Hall of Fame and player Y is better than player X are flawed because there is a chance that player Y is only better than one guy who doesn’t really belong. In Trammell’s case, my argument was always that he was better than half the shortstops in the Hall of Fame. He is 8th among 21 inducted shortstops in WAR, 9th in Wins Above Average (preferred by some for Hall of Fame discussions because it puts more weight on excellence and a little less on longevity than WAR), 9th in OWAR and 11th in OPS+. So, now he’s in and he’s the only Tigers shortstop so honored.
2. Donie Bush (1908-1921 38.5 WAR 43.1 OWAR 92 OPS+)
According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, Bush spent 65 years in organized ball as a player, manager, scout and owner. That’s a lot of baseball – from the first decade of the American League’s existence to the early 1970’s or from Ty Cobb to Marvin Lane. This ranking is strictly based on his time as a player with the Tigers though. He played more games at shortstop (1,867) than any Tiger other than Trammell and had some excellent individual seasons exceeding 5+ WAR five times. His best year was his 2009 rookie campaign when he had 6.5 WAR, an OPS+ of 115 and a league leading 88 walks (one of five times he led the league in walks).
3. Billy Rogell (1930-1939 24.9 WAR 19.4 OWAR 89 OPS+)
Bill Rogell was one of the top defensive shortstops in the league in a Tigers career which spanned the the 1930s. A long-time Detroit City Council member after his playing days, Billy Rogell teamed with Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer as the keystone combo of the 1934-35 pennant winning teams. He could hit pretty well for a middle infielder too averaging 5.1 WAR and a 101 OPS+ from 1933-1935.
4. Carlos Guillen (2004-2011 18.6 WAR 22.9 OWAR 121 OPS+)
Carlos Guillen was acquired from the Mariners before the 2004 season in what turned out to be one of the team’s best trades ever. He was an integral member of a team that became a perennial contender after two decades of futility. Guillen was neither durable nor a plus defender, but nobody questioned his offense. His combined good on-base skills and solid middle infield power produced an OPS+ of 100 or more six times. His 136 OPS+ and 6.0 WAR in 2006 made him probably the best player on a team that made the playoffs for the first time since the 1980’s.
5. Bill Riggins (2020-2026 14.4 WAR 11.1 OWAR 102 OPS+)
See above for profile
6. Harvey Kuenn (1952-1959 21.0 WAR 25.6 OWAR 112 OPS+)
Kuenn’s reputation and numbers as a defensive shortstop were very poor which is why he became an outfielder at age 27. That hurts his his ranking at a position where defense is crucial. He could hit though. His best season was 1959 when he hit .353 to win the American League batting title. Interestingly, he was traded to the Indians after the season for outfielder Rocky Colavito who led the league in home runs in 1959. This trade also turned out great for the Tigers.
7. Topper Rigney (1922-1925 10.9 WAR 13.0 OWAR 105 OPS+
Topper Rigney played only three full seasons, but was one of the Tigers best offensive shortstops. He posted an OPS+ of 108 from 1922-1924.
8. Jhonny Peralta (2010-2013 9.1 WAR 9.2 OWAR 106 OPS+)
Peralta always looked awkward and out of place at shortstop, but he consistently posted average numbers on defensive metrics and continued to do so when he joined the Cardinals in the National League. He was certainly a solid hitter for a shortstop two times posting an OPS+ above 120. He and Rigney are interchangeable on this list. I chose Topper because I liked his name, but the odd spelling of Jhonny’s first name made this a a tough choice.
9. Kid Elberfeld (1901-1903 8.1 WAR 8.0 OWAR 109 OPS+)
The 5′-7″ 158 pound Elberfield was the the epitome of grit. According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, The Tobasco Kid was spiked often and when cut he would go back to the bench, cauterize his wound with whiskey and then continue playing. He only played two full seasons for the Tigers, but was fourth among Tigers shortstops in OPS+.
10. Jose Iglesias (2013-2018 7.1 WAR 6.5 OWAR 83 OPS+)
Iglesias makes this list because we have run out of guys that could hit and he was a highlight reel at shortstop during his Tigers career. Including good field no hit Eddie Brinkman of the 1970s Tigers would have allowed me to talk about another great Tigers trade, but his numbers didn’t match up.