I handed in my final paper for this semester on Friday night — a riveting detail of Sino-Saudi economic integration — and now that I have a little more time on my hands, I thought I’d tackle a question I’ve been chewing on for a couple of years: why are shortstops the way that they are?
The late ‘90s and early 2000s were defined, at shortstop, by three young and dynamic talents in Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. Jeter is one of the best pure hitters of all time, A-Rod had everything Jeter did, plus a little more ego, little more fragility, and superior power and defense. Nomar was almost always perceived as the junior partner in this trio, but I think underrated — in an era where either Alex or Derek didn’t exist, he’d be considered one of the three or so best players in the game.
After those three, though, I find it hard to think of another shortstop quite like them in that time. Barry Larkin was still kicking around, and Omar Vizquel was in year 18 of a 47-season career. The position saw a really sharp drop-off in production after the Big Three:
These are all the qualified shortstops for the years 1999-2000. If you drop the PA requirement to 700 across two seasons, which basically includes only starters and almost-starters, the numbers only get worse — Alex Gonzalez cost the poor Marlins almost two wins in less than a thousand PAs.
It feels like shortstop is a lot deeper now than ever before. Indeed, the average of the position is gradually improving all the time:
We have a really narrow band of shortstop offense, then a steady incline over the past five years. This fits with what my memory is saying — the position was primarily one where you didn’t worry about the bat, as long as the glove played, and now that’s changing. Aside from the occasional Cal Ripken Jr.-esque uber-talent, that was the expected standard of shortstops until Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar came along. In the decade after that trio’s stardom, shortstops are expected to be offensive threats more and more often. Think of guys like Gleyber Torres, Bo Bichette, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story; the list goes on and on. Shortstops are just better hitters than ever before.
There are a couple of ways to raise average — adding a bunch of values above initial mean will pull you up to a new mean, but raising the floor of your values will also push your average up. If all of the 70 wRC+ shortstops in baseball turn into 75 or 80 wRC+ shortstops, that raises the average of the position as well.
In fact, we’ve seen both happen:
You just don’t have that major drop-off at the top of the position group that you had 20 years ago. These are the best shortstops by wRC+ over the past two seasons, and even if you remove Alex Bregman (who played a fair amount of shortstop in 2019 and none in 2020), you still have more good-to-great shortstops than you had in 2000. The floor of the position has also been raised:
This shows us the first quartile of shortstop offense — the bottom of the ladder. We see the exact same trend as the position overall: stagnant for 15 years, then suddenly a perennial rise in production. Shortstops are better, not just at the high end of the position, but with a higher floor of expected production as well. The 70 wRC+, good glove player isn’t starting, and increasingly finds it hard to even be a serviceable bench piece.
Part of this is just natural development. The average baseball player at any position is a better athlete than they were 15-20 years ago, so it’s reasonable to conclude they’d hit better. But the rise of analytics has also, I think, changed the way teams look at shortstops.
As we’ve gotten better at being able to quantify defense, a player at any given position can compensate for a lack of range by being more strategically positioned. For example, we can look at Gleyber Torres — who is by no means a defensive whiz — and see how the Yankees mitigate his defensive shortcomings:
Torres plays relatively close to second base when he’s on the left side of the infield, and often swings around the horn to the right side, leaving Gio Urshela as the only man on the left side. This kind of positioning means that even though Torres is technically a shortstop, he’s not always playing at the conventional shortstop position, usually having a shorter throw to first base. He’s not very quick and his hands aren’t great, so you give him a shorter throw and try to hedge against his lack of defensive ability.
The same plan is used for Tim Anderson. He’s not a great defender, especially in that big blue square, which is basically the textbook shortstop positioning. The White Sox hedge against that by shifting him into places where he’s less likely to hurt them. In effect, neither Torres nor Anderson are good defenders at short, so their teams make sure they’re not really always defending “shortstop.”
Of course there are still excellent defensive shortstops in the game, like Colorado’s Trevor Story:
Here we see the other side of the coin: Story is a good defender, and thus his positioning is in a narrower band. The Rockies don’t have to try and hedge his shortcomings the same way the Yankees or White Sox do.
That’s not to say the hedging is a bad thing; in fact, it usually means you can keep your good-hitting shortstop at the position. Torres, for example, was widely considered to be a prospect who would be moved off of short by the time he reached the majors. Bo Bichette was similarly painted in Toronto. Moving them off shortstop means you clog up a spot on the infield, and in the Yankees’ case, moving Torres to third means you’re not getting the most out of Gio Urshela, one of the team’s three most valuable players over the past two seasons.
Shortstops are better than ever before, not just because ballplayers in general are better than ever, but because teams have a better idea of where to place them. Imagine how Jeter’s defensive reputation would be different if the 2000 Yankees could have moved him around the infield the way the Yankees do with Torres, or the White Sox do with Anderson. The new shortstop isn’t always playing where we think shortstops should play, but that means they’re allowed to stay at the key position on the infield.