EVERYTHING OLD is new again, especially in baseball. Whether it's offensive output, pitcher usage, on-field strategies or business practices, if you liked the way something used to be, just hang on for a decade or two—it'll come back. This year the In Thing is second basemen who can rake, a crop that includes MVP candidates Ian Kinsler ( Rangers) and Chase Utley ( Phillies), compact power hitter Dan Uggla ( Marlins) and line-drive machines Howie Kendrick ( Angels) and Dustin Pedroia ( Red Sox).
These hard-hitting second sackers recall the Dead Ball era before 1911, during which the prevalence of bunting made third base, rather than second, a defense-first position. As baseball historian Bill James has written, third basemen—who are now almost invariably power hitters—had to be nimble, with strong arms and good hands, because bunting for hits, sacrifice bunts and squeeze plays of all kinds were the tactics of choice. Second basemen, such as Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins, routinely outhit third basemen throughout the early years of the century and had more power than their hot-corner counterparts.
But the game changed—slowly after the introduction of a cork-centered baseball in 1911, then rapidly as the emergence of a new hitting style popularized by Babe Ruth (flappers dig the long ball) took over. Bunting lost its luster. Fewer sacrifices reduced the defensive burden on third basemen, while better and bigger gloves made turning double plays easier. And with fewer runners being sacrificed to second, the twin killing became a bigger part of a defense's arsenal. Over time teams learned to put lumbering power hitters at third base and nimble, slap-hitting glove men at second, the latter being the prototype at the position for more than half a century.
Whether the trend began with Joe Morgan and his back-to-back MVPs in the mid-1970s, or Ryne Sandberg and his power-heavy game, second base came to be seen in the 1980s as a place where a big-time bat was a huge edge. In the '90s higher run environments prompted teams to look for offense at every position, and a crop of sweet-swinging second basemen, led by Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar, and later Jeff Kent, redefined the position as an offensive one. Now, as the image of the small, speedy second baseman fades away, it's been replaced with the fireplug arms of Uggla, the short, quick stroke of Utley, the mighty hack of Pedroia and the complete offensive game of Kinsler.