Baseball fans, we’ve never had it so good.
Focus on performance-enhancing drugs and the rising revenue chasm between clubs if you like, but you may miss the wonderful era of shortstops we are experiencing.
Whether your frame of reference for baseball begins in the 1980s or 1990s or even after the start of the 21st century, you’ve been blessed to watch some of the best shortstops of all time, and more are on the way.
Five of the top 15 prospects in the game are shortstops. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen five shortstops among the top 15 of our Top 100 Prospects list since we began the Top 100 in 1990.
Those five will soon join what is already a pretty impressive big league shortstop class that includes Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Jean Segura, Ian Desmond and Andrelton Simmons.
It’s a continuation of what has been a 30-year trend. We’re in the age of the shortstop.
Look at pitchers, and the greats of the past match up quite well with the greats of the present. Cy Young vs. Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson vs. Walter Johnson.
The same is true among center fielders (Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle match anyone from the past 30 years), left fielders (Ted Williams and Stan Musial), right fielders (Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson) and catchers (Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella).
The best third basemen of all time are still arguably products of the 1970s (Mike Schmidt and George Brett). As good as the recent crop of first basemen were, they will have a hard time topping Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.
Second base saw Joe Morgan’s career stretch into the 1980s, but his best work came in the 1960s and 1970s. As good as Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent were, Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins are their equals or better.
But when you look to shortstop, it’s clear that the position has changed. It can be argued that most of the top 10 shortstops of all time have played the position in the past 30 years.
Sure Honus Wagner’s amazing career still nearly defies explanation. But Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter, Robin Yount and Barry Larkin compare favorably with anyone else in baseball history. Nomar Garciaparra’s briefer career doesn’t compare to that of Jeter or Rodriguez, but compare him to the shortstop greats of the past and his career looks very impressive.
For the first 100 or so years of the game, shortstop was a position where you put your best glove and hoped he’d occasionally contribute a hit or two. Field your position, bat in the bottom of the lineup and try to contribute offensively whenever you can.
In 1976, all shortstops in the major leagues combined to hit 89 home runs. Only Dave Concepcion slugged better than .400. At the time, a slugging shortstop was viewed almost skeptically, especially if he didn’t fit the short, fast and rangy stereotype.
“Rico Petrocelli, he had offensive capability. He was moved to third. They looked for more defense at shortstop,” said a longtime National League scout. “Ernie Banks moved off shortstop early in his career.”
At age 27, Petrocelli hit 29 home runs as the Red Sox’s shortstop in 1970. He had hit 129 home runs in his six seasons as the club’s shortstop. That offseason he moved to third base so the team could play 37-year-old Luis Aparicio at shortstop. The Red Sox didn’t get double-digit home runs from its regular shortstop again until John Valentin hit 11 home runs in 1993. The glove was all that mattered.
What scouts and teams were looking for then was very different from what is expected now. Range and speed are nice, but only if it comes with acceptable slugging and on-base percentages.
“That’s changed. It used to be defense up the middle. Now it’s offense,” another longtime National League scout said.
Once Ripken showed that a shortstop could hit in the middle of the lineup and field the position, other teams started looking for their own versions of Ripken. Not many came close to discovering a player similar to one of the greatest shortstops of all time, but it did start the process of rewriting the book on what was expected out of a shortstop.
“When I first started, it was almost a written rule that if the shortstop wasn’t an above-average runner he wouldn’t stay at short. We’ve seen that get blown away. Now that the shortstop has become such a good offensive player, that went away first . . . Ripken and Jeter and those guys paved the way for these guys,” said another longtime American League scout. “Guys have broken the mold now.”
Of the five shortstops among the top 15 prospects in the game now, four are known more for their offense than defense. Only Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor is considered stronger in the field than at the plate.
That’s not all that surprising. What’s expected from a shortstop has changed over the years, which has coincided in a change in the demands of the position.
Whether teams realized it or not, their search for increased offense from shortstops has come during a time when the number of plays a shortstop makes has steadily declined.
Over the past 55 years, the number of strikeouts in the game has risen dramatically. In 1959, pitchers struck out roughly five batters per nine innings. With some peaks and valleys, that strikeout rate remained about the same through the next two decades. But since 1981, the strikeout rate has risen dramatically, up to 7.6 strikeouts per nine in each of the past two seasons.
With roughly 2.5 outs being taken away from balls in play in an average game, understandably, shortstops and other positions have seen their total chances drop. But that drop has not been spread evenly around the field.
Outfielders haven’t been affected at all. Using Fangraphs fielding statistics and looking at five-year trends to look at a large sample, center fielders and left fielders have seen their total chances per nine innings remain the same in the past five years as it was in 1959-1963. Right fielders have actually seen their total chances per nine go up from 2.0 chances to averaging 2.1 over the past five years.
But shortstops are now making 88 percent of the plays they made in the 1959-1963 timeframe, as 5.1 total chances per nine innings has dropped to 4.5. The numbers are similar for second basemen (89 percent) and third basemen (87 percent).
In 2013, the numbers were even more stark. Shortstops had 4.37 total chances per nine innings, the fewest in the 58 years for which the data is available. The average shortstop had a hand in just over five plays in 1959. Last year, only two shortstops, Andrelton Simmons and Pedro Florimon, topped five chances per game.
With fewer plays being made in the infield, understandably there is a little less emphasis on infielders’ defensive aptitude. Players who would have been moved to another position get a chance to prove they can stick at shortstop nowadays.
Multiple scouts cited Jhonny Peralta as an example of a shortstop who has benefitted from the revised profile for the position. If Peralta had played in the 1960s or 1970s, he would have almost assuredly have been moved to second or third base early in his big league career. Nowadays, he’s played shortstop for the vast majority of his 11-year career, and is expected to be the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop this year as a 32-year-old.
“When you hit the ball over the fence, the range can be 30,” an American League scout said. “If he doesn’t hit the ball over the fence, then you say ‘well our shortstop doesn’t have any range.’ ”
The Tigers took that approach to the extreme early last year until Peralta’s performance-enhancing drug suspension forced a move. With below average defenders at third base (Miguel Cabrera), shortstop (Peralta) and first base (Prince Fielder) but also a pitching staff that struck out a league-leading 8.8 batters per nine innings, the club figured that the offensive benefit would outweigh any defensive issues. The Tigers finished with the fourth worst batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in baseball, but thanks to the pitching staff, they still flourished.
“In terms of offense vs. defense, we think it’s still always about maximizing value,” said an American League pro scouting official. “The value proposition certainly changes depending on how many opportunities each position is afforded, but regardless of what’s happening league-wide, it’s still a team-specific question. As the Tigers showed last year, if you have a dominant, power staff, infield defense is far less important.”
Each team has to make their own decisions on how much defense to trade off for increased offense, which are affected by the makeup of the pitching staff or the ballpark. But in making those decisions, it’s becoming easier and easier to emphasize what a shortstop can do at the plate.