The Golden Age of Shortstop

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 03: Shortstop Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians throws out Edwin Encarnacion #10 of the Seattle Mariners at first during the sixth inning at Progressive Field on May 03, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Baseball fans remember the golden age of shortstop. Everyone knew it was the best shortstop group in history. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Nomar Garciaparra, and Omar Vizquel all playing at the same time. No one would ever be able to equal that group. Except it is 2019, and shortstop is entering a new golden age.

The Golden Age of Shortstop

From 1990 until 2000, all of Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Omar Vizquel played the position. For a brief time in 1996, all seven were active major league shortstops. Smith and Trammell retired after that season, Ripken moved to third base, Larkin got hurt and never came close to a second 30/30 season. But that group produced six Hall of Fame players and changed the face of the position forever.

The Numbers Then

Even with that historic boom of talent, shortstop was still the weakest position on the field. It should come as no surprise that the seven teams with the highest fWAR totals for the decade all happened to feature one of the above players. The lone exception is Vizquel’s tenure with the Indians.

However, despite the impressive numbers put up by Hall of Fame talents, the position lagged behind the rest of the league. For those eleven years, only four teams produced a wRC+ of 100 or better at the position. Second base produced only three teams, but catcher (7), first base (27), third base (12), left field (20), centerfield (13), and right field (24) all outstripped the position offensively.

Baseball expanded in the nineties. Four new teams joined the fray. Perhaps that thinned the talent, perhaps not, but no position suffered as badly as shortstop. Ten different teams failed to reach 10 fWAR for those eleven seasons. Seven of those ten were not expansion clubs. Four teams finished that stretch with negative fWAR at the position, three of which (Phillies, Astros, Padres) had been around awhile.

For comparison’s sake, no team finished with negative fWAR at any other position, even with expansion. Second base finished a distant second with six teams below 10 fWAR, but three of those were expansion clubs. For all the glory of the position, it was a top-heavy position.

The Numbers Now

The shortstop class of the present has the potential to make the golden era of the nineties an afterthought. It’s not an 11-year span, just this season, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Eleven different teams have a team wRC+ over 100 at the position this year. That is more than catcher (8), second base (10), and tied with center field. First base still leads the way offensively with 21 above average teams, followed by right field (20), third base (16), and left field (15). In the nineties, the gap between even centerfield offensive production and shortstop was huge. Now shortstop is the offensive equal of centerfield and gaining on the rest of the outfield.

The gains don’t stop there. Typically speaking, if a player produces an fWAR of 2.0 or better, he can be considered at least a low-end starter. As the season is just over halfway finished, that number was lowered to 1.0 fWAR for this year. Out of every position, shortstop has been the most stable with 24 teams already gaining at least 1.0 fWAR from the position. Third base and right field (23) are right behind, distantly followed by centerfield and second base (18), left field and catcher (17), and first base (16).

Only three teams have received negative fWAR at shortstop, and one of those three is the Nationals. With Trea Turner healthy, that number should quickly drop to two. Third base also only has two teams in the negative. Catcher and right field (4), first base and left field (5), and centerfield (6), are all ahead of second base (7). While second base struggled alongside shortstop in the nineties, shortstop is currently leaving it’s double-play partner behind.

The New Golden Age of Shortstop

Carlos Correa got hurt, and Alex Bregman slid over keeping the Astros at the top of the heap at the position. Manny Machado did the same thing when Fernando Tatis Jr. got hurt. Francisco Lindor is good enough to have the Indians solidly in the black despite missing all of April. Javier Baez is incredible. Dansby Swanson is hitting up to his prospect billing. The Dodgers have former ROY Corey Seager there. The A’s are getting great production on both sides of the ball from Marcus SemienXander Bogaerts, Jorge Polanco, and Trevor Story were deserving All-Stars. Paul DeJong, Adalberto Mondesi, Tim Anderson, J.P. Crawford, Kevin Newman, and even veterans like Elvis Andrus are producing. Gleyber Torres deserves mention here too.

Shortstop is as young and as strong as at any point in history. Cal Ripken (and maybe Alex Rodriguez) hit 345 home runs as a shortstop. One of these guys could eclipse that. Lindor is already well over 100 at the young age of 25. The sky is the limit for this class. 1996? Forget about it. It’s 2019, and shortstop is the best it has ever been. The Golden Era of shortstop is now.

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