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We are the 86%: Where does Barry Larkin rank among HOF SS?

Barrington Cincinnatus Larkin (mostly not his real full name) is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, set to be cast in bronze and officially inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 22, 2012. Among his earliest remarks on the Hall of Fame conference call shortly after the announcement was a thank you:

"I'd like to just thank all the Baseball Writers who definitely voted for me and I'd like to thank all the guys that went out there and they campaigned for me and gave me so much support."

Besides the inadvertently comical phrasing (does Larkin want to be sure you definitely voted for him before he thanks you?), this reads as classic Barry. And trust us, because we know Larkin: we interviewed him this one time last year. But thanking his supporters doesn't come off perfunctory the way it might in many celebrity acceptance speeches. He's a sympathetic and affable guy - or is very good at faking it. It's evident in his on air mein; his banter with Brandon Phillips during the Gold Glove awards presentation was a prime example. It's a quality that likely played a role in the hyper-extroverted Phillips citing Larkin as his idol.

If you add character/nice-guy-tude/smiling to Dusty Baker's assertion that Barry was "a six-tool player because of his intelligence," then we're looking at a designation for Barry well beyond "tool shed." Machine tool plant?

What was Barry Larkin's career, beyond one traced by a well-rounded player and general nice guy? He's the 25th short stop to be enshrined in Cooperstown (depending on how you qualify a "career at short stop") - the latest in a lineage that reaches back to Honus Wagner. Unlike Robin Yount, who played just 54% of his games at SS, Larkin played all but 18 innings of his career at the position. With the positional adjustments in a statistic like WAR, we can give credit Larkin for talent scarcity at his position.

We can also conveniently ignore Yount, since he built nearly half of his value playing in the offense-rich pastures of the outfield. Besides the argument over relative wear and tear between the positions, there has to be a cut-off somewhere. This article is about Hall of Fame career short stops after all. Yount gets position-adjusted for playing in the outfield in his WAR total, but the value of sustained, Hall of Fame-level performance at one of the hardest positions to replace All Star-level talent has a distinct value to a team.

By Baseball Reference's formulation of WAR, Larkin ranks fifth among Hall of Fame short stops who played at least 75% of their career at the position in career WAR:

Player Career WAR
Honus Wagner 1897-1917 134.5
Cal Ripken 1981-2001 89.9
Arky Vaughan 1932-48 75.6
Luke Appling 1930-50 69.3
Barry Larkin 1986-2004 68.9

Using Baseball Projection's historical WAR gives very similar results. Larkin is also fifth, in a nearly dead heat with Appling:

Player Career WAR
Honus Wagner 1897-1917 134.7
Cal Ripken 1981-2001 89.8
Arky Vaughan 1932-48 75.6
Luke Appling 1930-50 68.9
Barry Larkin 1986-2004 68.8

On Bill James' win shares metric, Larkin also ranks fifth among Hall of Famers, though he'd be sixth if Bill Dahlen had been admitted:

Player Career WS
Honus Wagner 1897-1917 655
Cal Ripken 1981-2001 427
Bill Dahlen 1891-1911 394
Luke Appling 1930-50 378
Arky Vaughan 1932-48 356
Barry Larkin 1986-2004 346

Historical value stats aren't anything close to gospel, but I'd say there's a virtual statistical consensus that Larkin is in the upper quartile among Hall of Fame short stops. And probably the upper quintile if you want to get more strict about playing time, as I have. Derek Jeter's inevitable election (just go ahead and get it out of the way before the season starts) will likely put Larkin down a peg - although you can still make a very compelling argument that Barry is just as good or slightly better than Jeter based on defense and era. It's just that no one will listen.

But what about criticisms that Barry wasn't "the best in class" and didn't have a Hall of Fame worthy peak, partially due to injury? Aside from being especially arbitrary standards, those arguments - if you accept them as crucial to Hall worthiness - have a little bite. Larkin's 1996 season, arguably his best, registers only 43rd in Baseball Reference WAR on the list of seasons by players who played at least 75% of a season at SS. He fares a little better if you consider him as a predecessor to the Alex Rodriguez-led era of shortstop offense: 35th best. Still, not elite.

The more important point seems to be that Larkin logged 7 seasons above 5.0 WAR, as many as Cal Ripken - and averaged 5.1 WAR from 1988 to 1999. What Larkin lacked in touching Honus Wagner heights at his peak, he made up for in sustained All Star-level play. Any criticisms of Larkin's Hall worthiness seem to come from a lofty standard that he didn't have a dominating prime. But Larkin still fares well in peak-weighted WAR: 9th among Hall eligible short stops.

Defending Larkin's record is no longer necessary. He's in. In fact, he became a relatively mainstream candidate in short order, taking 86.4% of the vote for election in his third year of eligibility. It remains impressive to think that the Cincinnati native put together one of the greatest careers ever played at one of the sport's hardest positions to play. A sport whose major league professional history spans over 130 years.