Not all that long ago during baseball’s massive offensive boom, the shortstop position seemed largely revitalized. No longer did we look at shortstops solely as defensive wizards whose main job was solely to hold things down afield while not being too embarrassing at the plate; instead, we expected our shortstops to start mashing the ball with some authority. Cal Ripken set the precedent as a large, power-hitting shortstop with a whole other aspect to his game and the ’90s ushered in stars like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra who set out to do the same. Years later, the game is changing once again.
Baseball has such a storied and lengthy history that things are bound to be a bit cyclical. In 2012, we seldom see shortstops making appearances on home run leader boards, and the statistically-minded fan has begun to pay far more attention to defense than ever before in the past. As players and style of play change, we find ourselves once again in an era where we simply aren’t likely to see a shortstop post a 1.000 OPS or club 40 homers. With the exception of Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki (whose overall game makes him the best player at the position when not on the disabled list), the best shortstops in the game now are back to placing an emphasis on defensive prowess and, to a certain degree, getting the little things right.
Sorting through the top performing 2012 shortstops per FanGraphs WAR, it’s telling to look at some of the numbers. The top power hitter at the position this season has been Washington’s Ian Desmond, who has clubbed 21 homers and slugged .510 in spite of a rather large home park. His .362 wOBA and 128 wRC+ stand as the highest marks at the position, but they’re not the kind of numbers that will make him one of the best overall hitters in the game. Still, the nearly 27-year-old Desmond is a nice player to have. Aside from providing some pop, Desmond has refined his defensive work and FanGraphs has him as a plus baserunner for every season in his young career. Desmond doesn’t get on base much and is a flawed player, but in today’s climate he’s starting to establish himself as one of the better options at one of the very hardest positions on the diamond.
Another one of the most intriguing and excellent shortstops circa our present time is Texas Rangers starter Elvis Andrus, a player whose skill set may even be less evident to the general public. Andrus has little but gap power in the way of baseball crushing (.388 SLG, 28 2B, 6 3B in 2012), but he’s consistently rated as one of the best fielders at the position, steals plenty of bases, and makes few mistakes when he reaches. Andrus, aside from doing the little things so well, has also developed into a legitimately nice leadoff hitter. With a walk rate that has ranged between 8.1% and 9.5% the last few seasons and a high contact rate, Andrus gets on base enough to be a workable catalyst for a powerful Ranger lineup. He owns a .360 OBP this season, and that number could go up over time as the 24-year-old continues to learn and grow.
Jose Reyes is one of the highest-profile shortstops still in the game; he signed a big contract to join the Marlins this past off-season, he’s flashy, and he has blinding speed. Reyes doesn’t have the obviously star power some of his predecessors did, but that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old from putting up some pretty impressive seasons. Despite battling injuries off and on throughout his career, Reyes has posted at least 5.8 WAR in four different seasons so far per FanGraphs. In a down year that has many wondering about his contract, the shortstop has still been good for a solid .341 wOBA and has stolen 35 bases. Reyes’ blend of speed (which along with a strong arm drastically improves his defense), moderate power, and an above-average eye make him one of the best players at his position for the foreseeable future and capable of playing up to that salary for a while.
Another interesting case is Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, who recently signed an extension to stay in Chicago for a while. The deal looks pretty good for Theo Epstein’s Cubs, as Castro is just now in his age-22 season and figures to have plenty of room to reach his ceiling. Castro needs to have a more discerning eye (5.1% career walk rate so far), but he’s already made ground on improving defensively and on the base paths. Even with his low walk rate, Castro has already shown double-digit home run power (though he’s never going to hit 30 or anything), and his mixture of speed and line drive capability figure to keep his BABIP and batting average nice and fat. Not yet one of the truly best at his position, Castro could become a very well-rounded example of what today’s shortstop strives for before too long.
Maybe it’ll be a while before we see another wave of over-sized, homer-smacking shortstops again, but that’s okay. Like baseball fans have done for generations upon generations, we simply have to look at what’s out there and appreciate the players who have been able to distinguish themselves against the rest of the field. There are still plenty of names to watch as we move forward in another unique but familiar decade.