Derek Jeter can still make fantastic plays just out of sheer determination. (Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE)

Where Did All the Shortstops Go?

Watch this tribute, then come back.  Don’t worry, I’ll still be here. Ok, now that the goosebumps are starting to

He may be long retired now, but it looks like Cal Ripken Jr can still fire it over to first if he needed to. (Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE)

dissipate and the memories of Cal Ripken Jr.’s greatness come flooding back, I’ll ask you; What happened to shortstops in Major League Baseball?  Once the most graceful, beautiful, and sought-after position in the game, filled with players who performed at such an incredibly high-caliber they looked like Gods among mortals, shortstop has become a position filled with mediocrity across baseball.  Or is that just perception?

When I think back to playing baseball with my friends, on the rare occasions when I would go man the strip of infield dirt just to the left of second base, I would emulate players like Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Omar Visquel, and even a young Derek Jeter.  Me and my friends would purposefully hit shots deep into the 5.5 hole and see who could track them down, make an acrobatic throw to first base, and at least get the ball on target.

These players we dreamed of one day being were bigger than life, but they’ve been supplanted by power and bulk.  The game thrives off home runs.  Kids love them, adults love them, players love them.  A prospect coming up through the minor leagues is often ranked higher than others based solely on his power potential.  The emphasis on great defense in the middle infield – specifically at shortstop – has seemed to go by the wayside.  But is that really true?

As I considered this last night, I tried to objectively rate the current crop of shortstops in the league.  Are they worse, or have advanced metrics, the new stats, given us too much to think about?  Things like UZR, DRS, dWAR, and others have broken the game down to a place where fans can’t simply trust their eyes.  This is not to say these stats are bad, they’re just not quite developed enough to make judgments about players.  Defensive stats are still evolving, getting better.  But as they stand now, could they be the reason it seems there are no truly great shortstops anymore?

Here’s a list of starting shortstops for each team in the league.  I know it’s long, but bear with me.

J.J. Hardy (Baltimore)
Mike Aviles (Boston)
Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)
Elliot Johnson (Tampa)
Yunel Escobar (Toronto)
Alexei Ramirez (Chicago White Sox)
Asdrubal Cabrera (Cleveland)
Jhonny Peralta ( Detroit)
Alcides Escobar (Kansas City)
Brian Dozier (Minnesota)
Erick Aybar (Los Angeles Angels)
Cliff Pennington (Oakland)
Brendan Ryan (Seattle)
Elvis Andrus (Texas)
Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta)
Jose Reyes (Miami)
Omar Quintanilla (New York Mets)
Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia)
Ian Desmond (Washington)
Starlin Castro (Chicago Cubs)
Zack Cozart (Cincinnati)
Jed Lowrie (Houston)
Cody Ransom (Milwaukee)
Clint Barmes (Pittsburgh)
Rafael Furcal (St. Louis)
Willie Bloomquist (Arizona)*
Marco Scutaro (Colorado)*
Dee Gordon (Los Angeles)
Everth Cabrera (San Diego)
Brandon Crawford (San Francisco)

*Troy Tulowitzki and Stephen Drew are obviously missing from this list, but even with there addition it doesn’t change the point of the article. 

Some of these players are starting due to injury, but this encompasses the meat and potatoes of the current crop of Major League shortstops.  What names stand out?

Derek Jeter obviously, but he is nearing the end of his career and is not the same player he once was.  Elvis Andrus, maybe?  Dee Gordon if he can figure out how to hit?  Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins have made names for themselves.  Starlin Castro is on his way to being a star.

Yet, when I look over this list, I don’t immediately conjure up images of spectacular plays at short.*  Instead, I struggle to put a face with a name.  In fact, for many of these teams, I had to look up their depth chart to see who was starting at shortstop for them.

*When I think of Derek Jeter, I actually do immediately conjure up great memories.  Whether it be his flip to home to get Jason Giambi, his dive into the stands, or his fantastic range as a young shortstop in the league, Jeter has provided us with great memories and may be the last of the great shortstops.  

Now, let’s go back 15 years and take a look at some of the names we’ll find at short.  I won’t do an all-encompassing list because you have already had to scroll too much on this article.  Keep in mind, Call Ripken Jr. had been moved to third base by 1998.

Nomar Garciaparra (Boston)
Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)
Barry Larkin (Cincinnati)
Omar Visquel (Cleveland)
Miguel Tejada (Oakland)
Alex Rodriguez (Seattle)

It’s not a long list, but compare it to the current make up of shortstops in the entire league.  In 1998, there were four future Hall of Famers (assuming Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Omar Visquel all get in.  Barry Larkin is already in).  How many future Hall of Famers are there in the current crop without counting Derek Jeter again?  Some are so early in their career, it’s impossible to know for sure where they’ll end up, but my guess is none of the current shortstops will even come close to the Hall of Fame.

There could be many reasons why there’s been  drop-off in talented shortstops coming into the league.  The above players – the shortstops from 1998 – came up through the farm systems in a different time, a different era almost.  Sure, steroids were all over the place in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but some of these guys came up in early 80’s.  The emphasis on home runs was not nearly as large as it has become today.

Miguel Tejada and Alex Rodriguez were the two power-hitting shortstops on the above list, and both were linked to steroids.  They could play the field still though.  Now, the game is becoming less athletic at certain positions.  First base, third base, and even shortstop are positions now occupied by bigger, bulkier players.  Rather than quickness and agility, infielders are becoming larger and focusing on power.

Teams are less inclined to worry about their middle infield too.  They will go out and spend hundreds of millions on pitchers and first basemen, but it seems second base and shortstop are the last two positions on a general manager’s mind.  Young players know that when they are dreaming of being drafted.  Why wait for the 10th round when you can be drafted in the first or second round just by changing positions, or playing multiple positions?

The fact is, baseball is a cyclical game.  Great shortstops will once again grace the infields of ballparks across the league.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that will happen anytime soon though.

Tags: Alex Rodriguez Barry Larkin Cal Ripken Jr. Derek Jeter Jimmy Rollins Jose Reyes MLB Nomar Garciaparra Shortstop Stephen Drew Troy Tulowitzki

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