By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 85: Barry Larkin

Excuse me for a personal aside: When I was 27 years old, I was hired to become sports columnist for The Cincinnati Post, a now defunct afternoon paper. The Post had this storied history, all these great people, it was a magical place. I’m actually in Cincinnati right now working on a story (and I just had some Skyline Chili) so, yes, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic.

In any case, I was utterly unprepared for the job. I had been columnist at The Augusta Chronicle for three years, and that was a great job too but completely different. Everything was golf, colleges and local. I would go to Atlanta now and again for MLB and NFL, but nobody knew me there and nobody in Atlanta read or cared what I wrote and it was just different. Now I was in a city with Major League Baseball. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to do and, at the same time, no idea what I was supposed to do.

Mercifully, I worked with some good people — Jeff Horrigan was the excellent Reds beat writer then, Mark Tomasik an amazing sports editor, Todd Jones and Bill Koch and others were always on the lookout for me — and they guided me through, sometimes by just pulling me through.

And, just as much, that Cincinnati Reds team just was an amazing collection of people. I know people say that about teams all the time, but it really was true about the 1994, 1995, 1996 Reds. Every guy in there, it seemed, was fantastic to deal with. They taught me a little bit about what Major League Baseball was all about. Hal Morris … Reggie Sanders … Bret Boone … Jose Rijo … Kevin Mitchell … David Wells … Ray Knight … Davey Johnson … they all went way out of their way to answer my silly and pointless questions and steer me away from my poorer instincts. Actually, looking back, you know who was absolutely great to me? Deion Sanders. Baseball Deion worked hard and stayed out of people’s way and would help me out all the time. But, really, they all were great. Sure, it helped that the team was winning, but there was something special about that clubhouse. It was a great place to grow up.

All the while, I have to say, Barry Larkin was kind of a mystery to me.

Oh, I liked Larkin. You couldn’t help but like the guy — you still can’t. He was (as he is) smart and thoughtful and interesting. But there was always something just a little bit distant about him. This wasn’t just true for sportswriters. Teammates felt it too. Barry Larkin always seemed to be a little bit more serious than the others, as if he was walking around with a little bit more responsibility on his shoulders, a little bit more pressure weighing him down.

I think it was, at least in part, because he grew up in Cincinnati. It’s a different thing being the star player in your hometown … especially a hometown like Cincinnati which has such a storied baseball history. And Barry Larkin wasn’t just from Cincinnati, he was like Cincinnati royalty. He had played at Moeller High School, one of the city’s centerpiece schools. His brother Byron was a superstar basketball player at hometown Xavier. Barry grew up with the Big Red Machine — he was 11 when they won in 1975; Larkin was infused with their story — and then the Reds took him with the fourth overall pick ten years later (two spots ahead of Barry Bonds) to help bring back those days. You got the sense he took that all to heart.

This is not to say Larkin was sullen or withdrawn … it wasn’t that at all. I feel like I’m not describing it well. He was just … purposeful. Resolute. Always looking forward. Baseball was his job, and he was the ultimate professional. If you wanted to get a funny quote, you went to Rijo or Wells. If you wanted to gauge the team’s mood, you went to Morris or Sanders. If you wanted to go offbeat, you went to Boone or Mitchell (or any of about 10 different players).

And you went to Larkin when you wanted the official word. He would listen to your question, determine if it was in his best interest to answer, then carefully give an answer that sent out the precise message he wanted sent out. Usually that message was nothing at all. Sometimes, though, he wanted it known that everybody needed to pick up their intensity. Sometimes he wanted it known that there was too much negativity from outsiders. Sometimes he wanted it known that the media was getting everything wrong. Sometimes he just wanted everybody just needed to chill.

He was apart. Every now and again, he might be in a joking mood. Every now and again, he might be in a leave-me-alone mood. Mostly, though, he was just a step away, carrying the burden, being serious about things so others did not have to be.

Larkin was such a marvelous player. You already know how he used all five tools — he hit for average (a .295 lifetime average which was .300 until his last four injury-plagued season), he hit for power (he hit 33 homers one year), he could really run (he stole 379 bases and was caught just 77 times), he could throw and play spectacular defense (three Gold Gloves).

And beyond that he was such an astute player. Like Jeter. Like Pujols. His brain was in motion all the time.

In 1995, his MVP year, I probably watched him play 70 or 80 games live. And after a while, I started to notice (probably Jeff Horrigan pointed it out) that he seemed to have a good at-bat every single time there was an important situation. He didn’t always get hits, but he always had a good at-bat. I realize that’s kind of a silly and unreal thing to say, not unlike saying that Joe DiMaggio never threw to the wrong base. Even deities make mistakes. But I started to keep track. I probably have those notes in a box somewhere. Whenever there was a moment — close score, men on base, team needing a spark — I would pay special attention and write it down. And it seemed like I NEVER wrote down, “Larkin: One pitch grounder to short” or “Larkin, overswing, pop-up to shallow outfield.”

No, the notebook filled up with stuff like this:

Larkin: Six pitch-at bat, ended with opposite field single to score two runs.

Larkin: Eight pitch at-bat, line drive right at the shortstop, hit the ball hard.

Larkin: Eleven pitch at-bat, worked a walk to load the bases.

Larkin: Five-pitch at-bat, slapped grounder through hole between short and third to score a run.

These days, you can easily look up how Larkin did in big moments. In 1995, Larkin hit .348 in high-leverage situations, he slugged .653 with runners in scoring position and two outs, he hit .397 in late-and-close situations. But those are small sample sizes and we’re getting into that murky clutch hitting category. What I remember was not the numbers or the results but how determined and tenacious he was in those situations. I would watch him and think of a classic story about Jackie Robinson from Roger Kahn’s “The Boy’s of Summer.”

A few innings later, as (Sal) Maglie continued to overwhelm the Brooklyn hitters, Pee Wee Reese said, “Jack, you got to do something here.”

“Yeah,” Robinson said.

The bat boy overheard the whispered conversation, and just before Jack stepped in to hit, he said in a voice of anxiety, “Don’t you do it. Let one of the others do it. You do enough.”

Robinson took his stance, bat high. He felt a certain relief. Let somebody else do it, for a change.

“Come on Jack,” Reese’s voice carried from the dugout. “We’re counting on you.”

Robinson took a deep breath. Somebody else? What somebody else? Hodges? Snider? Damn, there wasn’t anybody else.

I think that was the same sense of responsibility Larkin felt.

He did have trouble staying healthy, which often prevented him from putting up the sort of numbers that make jaws drop. Only four times in his career did he play 150 games in a season. In 1991, he might have been the best player in the league (.302/.378/.506, 20 homers, 24 steals, outstanding defense) but he only played 123 games. In 1995, his MVP season, he was just as good but only played 131 games (some games were taken away by the strike). In 1993, he hit .315 with a .394 on-base percentage, stole 14 of 15 bases, played his usual great defense, but only played 100 games. The career did have some of that in it.

But, when he was right, he did everything. And he did it with a sense of purpose that I still think about. Greatness comes in different shades and sizes, of course. With Larkin, it was weighty and important. You hear about players being naturals. Larkin had great talent, but he was no natural. He became one of the best shortstops of all time because he refused to be anything else.

40 Responses to No. 85: Barry Larkin

  1. Michael says:

    Welcome back to the Queen City, Joe. So happy to see Larkin on your list (and ahead of Miggy, at that). Barry WAS Reds baseball for 15 years. I always got the impression he was underrated: defensively coming on the heels of Ozzie, offensively being overshadowed by the up and ARod.

    And Baseball Deion in Cincinnati was something else. Great memories. Thanks!

  2. Alan Spatrick says:

    These player profiles are so good that I feel like I should be paying you for them, especially Nolan Ryan. I look forward to players 84 and down.

  3. Paul White says:

    So we’ve seen Lou Whitaker and Barry Larkin at this point…..if Alan Trammell doesn’t pop up soon, Joe has some ‘splainin to do.

  4. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say how much I love players with clutchiness.

  5. buddaley says:

    Unless we do an exhaustive study, any claims regarding Larkin-or anyone-in clutch situations is cherry picking. But I will do it anyway. Using BB Ref, Larkin’s career OPS is .815. Obviously using that number is a gross shorthand, but as a starting point it is good enough.

    For his career, his high leverage OPS is .806, medium leverage is .825 and low leverage is .810.

    In 1996, when his OPS was .977, his high leverage was .890, medium was .940 and low was 1.036. In 1995, his OPS was .886 while in high leverage it was .890, medium .869 and low .902.

    I don’t see evidence from that about any particular clutchiness.

    • Are you saying clutchiness is a myth? Hmmmmm, I’m trying to think where else I may have heard that.

    • Kermit says:

      I’d be interested to see the results of a study of high leverage situations.

      Strictly using BA,OPS or even WPA doesn’t feel right because there’s no way to tell if or how a hitter changes their approach during the pressure moments.

      Maybe pitch count or batted ball data would be more illuminating.

      If Pedro Martinez says Derek Jeter is the guy he would least want to face with the game on the line I have to believe there’s something there. Something that necessarily doesn’t show up on his Baseball Reference career splits page.

      • Cuban X Senators says:

        There are two stories of watching players take BP that John Miller talks about (& he does not link these to clutchiness or anything beyond thoughtfulness) that make me want to know of other like practices.

        One is Eddie Murray, who, Miller says, practiced hitting flairs the other way for occasions when he wanted a single (not that he could order one up, but that he would give up some power for some placement, akin to choking up).

        The other is Roberto Alomar, who, Miller says, practiced bunting foul with the idea that sometimes he wanted to give up a strike to attempt to relocate infielders.

  6. Mark Daniel says:

    Who cares if the clutchiness you observed in 1995 was cherry-picking or small sample size noise? You observed something, and it was backed up by the evidence on record. Whether it was luck or not that was behind it doesn’t matter. He performed exactly as you thought he did. Give the guy credit for performing in big situations if that is what he actually did.

    • Ummmm… Because the stats DO NOT backup any claims of clutchiness for Larkin, as usual when these type of clutchiness claims are made.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that Larkin did well in 1995, per Joe’s post above. Also, he did really well in the postseason in 1995, according to B-R. But Joe had to hedge his statement and say “it’s small sample size” and so forth, and then in the comments a couple people pointed out the mistake Joe made in referring to Larkin as clutchy. I agree, Larkin is not clutch. Nobody is. But clearly Larkin was very good in 1995. Maybe it was luck, but who cares? He was good at clutch type things in 1995. I don’t see why all sorts of caveats have to be addressed before you can give a guy credit for something he actually did.

    • buddaley says:

      Although I linked data from Larkin’s career, I think I was actually responding to the story about Jackie Robinson. I love those kinds of stories-both Joe’s and the one he cites from Kahn-while remaining skeptical about people’s memories.

      Consider Robinson’s stats. For his career, he batted .311 with an OPS of .883.

      In situations of 2 outs with runners in scoring position, he hit .288 with an OPS of .859
      Late and close: .341, .990
      Tie game: .306, .877
      1 run game: .308, .883
      High Leverage: .309, .891
      Medium Leverage: .308, .869
      Low Leverage: .316, .895

      I suppose if we focus on late and close, he raised his game when the chips were down. The team depended on him, and the Reese quotation may really have happened, no matter how melodramatic and artificial it sounds. But overall, the numbers suggest simply that Robinson was a terrific hitter and his excellence existed whether the situation was clutch or not.

      As a fan, I relish memories of big moments and of my favorite players coming through. It elevates them in my eyes, and I love to celebrate those moments in stories I tell, even in exaggerations for effect.

      As a Rays fan, I love the game 162 story and the Great Pumpkin and Longoria’s home runs; I love David Price in relief vs. Boston in game 7 in 2008; I love a game I saw in which Shields loaded the bases on dinky hits and poor infield play only to strike out Mauer and get Morneau to hit into a DP, and side by side with my rational mind, I retain the notion that Shields could raise his game in the big moment.

      But I won’t ignore my rational side entirely. And I won’t argue or even state that he can unless I see evidence of it, some trace of it, in the data.

      • Interested Observer says:

        Perhaps “clutchiness” is maintaining one’s expected level of performance in high leverage situations. And “chokiness” is a decrease in the standard level of performance. Whether it’s shooting free throws, putting or hitting a baseball, is the performance consistent with the overall, proven capabilities of that athlete?

  7. Alejandro Calderón says:

    Gracias Joe por esta serie, es fantástica porque cuenta historias, no historia. Llevo años de seguir tus artículos desde Guatemala y eres un excelente cuenta historias. / Thank you Joe for this series, it is fantastic because it tells stories, not history. I´ve been following your articles for years from Guatemala and you are an awesome storyteller.

  8. Chad Meisgeier says:

    No. 85 – John Clarkson.

  9. jroth95 says:

    Your description of Larkin’s bearing reminds me of how people describe Clemente’s.

  10. tombando says:

    Barry Larkin? Mr Petrocelli wants to say hi.

  11. Dave Heller says:

    Agree or disagree with the Larkin-related stuff, one thing Joe nailed is that the Cincinnati Post was a great place with a tremendously gifted and helpful staff. I was only a part-timer there and I still look back at my days there as a great learning experience and a hell of a lot of fun. Heck, I even got to sit next to Poz and talk to him once or twice. 🙂

  12. Will3pin says:

    Looking at the first 16 names on this list, it seems the majority of players are from the most recent era (last 3 decades). I’m anticipating a surge of old-timers in the next 15. (licking chops)

  13. With 16 down in 9 days, Joe is averaging 1.77 Top 100 posts per day. Presuming the pace doesn’t slow during the holidays, which it very well may, this projects out to 56 days to complete. Since he started on Dec 3, the expected completion date is now January 28. With the holidays, we will probably slide into an early February completion, right after the Super Bowl. No need to thank me.

  14. largebill says:


    How long are you in town? It’d be cool to have group of your local commenters meet up & buy you a cold beverage for the entertainment you provide (ie: Curiously long posts about baseball).
    Travel safe,

  15. Rick R says:

    In 1995, Barry Larkin was not even in the top 10 in OPS, yet his MVP was applauded by baseball experts as a tribute to his all around game, and the role he played in helping the Reds win their division (whereas the NL’s leader in OPS, Barry Bonds, played for a last place team, and so finished 12th in the MVP voting). This seemed to be the quintessential vote for the Most VALUABLE Player (in ways that Joe so eloquently describes) over the Best Player (probably Barry Bonds, at least according to the hitting stats). And yet, I know that Joe hates the idea of voting for the ephemeral concept of general value rather than the statistical metric of individual achievement. Perhaps, in following this one player for one season so closely, he might have some second thoughts.

    • I believe the general consensus on the 1995 NL MVP is that Maddux was robbed.Bonds was probably the best position player but Maddux had a phenomenal year – 9.6 WAR in only 28 starts (Bonds was at 7.5). Maddux also played on the World Series-winning Braves, which usually matters to the voters but probably not to Joe (or me).

      • Rick R says:

        Except that Maddux was a pitcher and there are many people (myself included) who feel the award should always go to a position player.

        • SBMcManus says:

          This isn’t really a good rationale – while the position player “rule” may be a good rule of thumb, this exact situation is where it can be shown to break down. The idea is usually that it’s very difficult for a starter to influence a team’s win-loss record to the extent that a position player can, given that they only play in every 4th or 5th game. I would argue that in 1995 Maddux showed us exactly how good you have to be as a starter to outperform an everyday player.

          • Mac says:

            I hate that argument. The pitcher plays once every 5 days, but is also the key defensive player and has a primary role in about 15 to 27 of the outs and will have 20 to 30-ish matchup with hitters. A batter playing 5 days will have about 3-4 plate appearences for a total of 15 to 20 match ups against pitchers over that same span.

            Baseball is quite gloriously balanced.

          • Ian R. says:

            Or, to look at it from a macro perspective, Larkin (the actual MVP) had 567 plate appearances in 1995. Maddux faced 785 batters – more than 200 more plate appearances.

            Of course, Larkin as a shortstop had almost 400 more chances in the field than Maddux did as a pitcher (544 to 71), which offsets the discrepancy in PA. Still, it’s fair to say they had a comparable quantity of impact on games.

          • Ian R. says:

            Whoops. That should read ‘almost 500 more chances.’

          • Rick R says:

            My feeling is that a pitcher can influence the outcome of only 35 games or so, while a position player can influence up to 162. If Maddux goes 35-0 with a 0.00 ERA, there’s still 127 games that he has no impact on. A position player can help his team win at the plate, in the field and on the bases every single game.

            The point here, however, is not to rehash the old “should a pitcher win the MVP award?” argument, as to note that there is never a season in which a pitcher is seen as a consensus choice for MVP. There will always be a legion of naysayers who do not believe a pitcher should receive consideration over a regular player—especially when the Cy Young Award exists to recognize pitching excellence. So as good as Greg Maddux was, I don’t believe it is accurate to say that everybody thought he was robbed of the MVP in 1995, and I don’t particularly hear a lot of discussion about it today (the way people still argue that Ted Williams was robbed of the MVP in 1947, the year he won the Triple Crown).

      • Ian R. says:

        Voting for the MVP takes place before the postseason, so the fact that the Braves won the World Series is irrelevant. Both Cincinnati and Atlanta were playoff teams, and that’s all that mattered.

      • Ian R. says:

        The thing I find hilarious about the 1995 NL MVP is that Dante Bichette – Dante Bichette – finished second. Yeah, he led the league in home runs, but by WAR he wasn’t even an average player. That’s just how ridiculous Coors Field was in the mid-90s.

        Larkin at least had a legitimately excellent season.

        • SBMcManus says:

          Bichette’s home/away splits for 1995 are just awesome too.

          .377/.397/.755, 31 HRs
          .300/.329/.473, 9 HRs

          You just KNOW that someone that year was saying “He’s not just a product of Coors Field, you know – he’s also a .300 hitter on the road!”

          • Ian R. says:

            They wouldn’t have even been completely wrong – Bichette legitimately had a good offensive year. His OPS+, which takes the Coors Field Effect into account, was 130.

            The problem is defense. He was so awful in the field that most of his offensive value was erased.

  16. mrgjg says:

    The way you described Larkin in your intro, you could have been referring to Derek Jeter.

  17. A Barry Larkin story:

    My brother-in-law used to take a week’s vacation in March and take his son, my nephew, to Florida, where they would travel around the state and go to exhibition games. In 1986 or 87, I forget which, they were standing above the Cincinnati dugout just before a game when a coach looked over, spotted my nephew, then 12 or 13 years old, and said “hey, kid, how’d you like to be batboy today?” I think we all know how he answered.

    Pete Rose gave him an autograph and the other Reds were very nice to him but the one he never forgot was Barry Larkin, who at the time was fighting for the SS job with Kurt Stillwell. Larkin sat next to him while the Reds were in the field and talked baseball with him as if they were both kids enjoying the game. My nephew wore number 11 on his high school and college teams (he was good at both) every year thereafter. He never made the majors as a player but he’s got a high-level front office job today.

    BTW, while I have no doubt that Joe’s description of Larkin’s aloofness or weight-of-responsibility or whatever you want to call it is accurate, it is also probably the reason for Larkin’s finest moment ever on a baseball field, which was on April 1, 1996. Umpire John McSherry dropped dead on the field in the first inning and the question became what would happen now. Reds owner Marge Schott wanted the game to continue — there was an Opening Day crowd at stake. Barry Larkin was having none of it. He walked over to the other team’s dugout and the next thing you knew the game was called. The right decision, and aloof or whatever, Barry Larkin had the presence and authority to make it stick.

  18. Squawks McGrew says:

    A story I often tell about Larkin’s acumen: Regular season. Larkin’s at short with runners at first and second. Don’t recall the outs. Ball hit to right. Throw comes home late. Catcher sees the trailing runner heading for third but his throw sails down the left field line. Larkin catches the overthrow and guns down the surprised runner at home. Rather than hovering around second to keep the batter/runner at first, Larkin diagnosed two throws ahead where he would be most needed. He correctly deduced the slow runner at first would be late heading to third. As an old shortstop, I love that kind of thinking.

  19. John Witter says:

    I never saw him throw to the wrong base as the cut off man. He always lined up the OFers perfectly -they rarely had to think. If a player made a mistake he would immediately go to Larkin to ask what to do (i’m thinking in particular of Curtis Goodwin who was a young African Amercian player -Larkin was the manager on the field and off: Ray Knight handled the media and his own ego). Larkin could hit the ball to the right side on will- he cut the bag perfectly when running from 2nd to home -no wasted motion -the OFer would have ball in hand and appear to have a shot and Larkin would beat the throw by 3 steps without sliding -I rarely saw him slide into home. I saw him play probably 300 games- he just had no wasted motion -he would glide to things. I don’t know if he would want to be a manager, but he’s smart enough. Davey Johnson was smart enough to let him run what he needed to run –McKeon was the same -when Knight managed the club -Larkin’s burden became bigger and most players would have resented it– I know one year he gave up his captain’s number -I can’t remember the details, but even from a distance you knew he was in the right. My favorite Red of all-time and my favorite player of all time. Complete joy to watch him play.

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