From 1978-1996, Ozzie Smith was the class of the shortstop position in baseball. The ‘Wizard of Oz’ eclipsed stardom with dazzling defensive play and a trademark backflip, as pictured in this piece’s featured image.
Smith appeared at a whopping 15 all-star games in his 19 year career. He received MVP runner-up honors in 1987, where he slashed .303/.392/.383 with zero home runs and just 75 RBI. Smith was a career .262 hitter who averaged not even two homers a year, but he went down as a Cardinal legend and first ballot Hall of Famer.
The contrast between shortstops of the past and present is overwhelming. For the first 100 years of baseball, shortstops were fielders first, any hitting ability came as a plus. The likes of Brendan Ryan and Pete Kozma would have blended in well with early to mid-20th century baseball.
The offensive surge began with Cal Ripken Jr., a 6-4, 225 lb power bat who could also field his position, hit for average, and eventually play more consecutive games than anybody else. Ripken passed the torch to Alex Rodriguez in the 2001 all-star game, who was joined by Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra as offensive stars from the shortstop position.
Come 2014, the position had run relatively dry again. Johnny Peralta and Erick Aybar led shortstops in WAR. A-Rod had moved to third base, Jeter was slumping in his final season, and Nomar Garciaparra was long removed from his playing days.
Alas, 2015 comes around and a new, young crop of shortstops enter the league. Carlos Correa’s call-up to the Astros excited baseball fans across the country. Other future stars like Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager saw big league action last year as well.
And now, we stand in the midst of the 2016 season, a breakout one for shortstops. Let’s look at 2016’s qualified shortstops as of July 24th in comparison with past seasons.
2013: SS with 15+ HR: 5 – SS with positive WAR: 16
2014: SS with 15+ HR: 4 – SS with positive WAR: 19
2015: SS with 15+ HR: 7 – SS with positive WAR: 19
2016: SS with 15+ HR: 9 – SS with positive WAR: 23
With just north of 60 games remaining on each team’s schedule, seven more shortstops are on pace to reach the 15 home run plateau. The total projected number (16) would equal the amount of 15+ homer seasons combined from 2013-2015.
Where to start among individuals? Well, let’s kick it off with shortstop WAR leader Manny Machado (.314 AVG, 20 HR, 55 RBI, 4.5 WAR), who shifted over to the middle infield from third. In his division, we also see Xander Bogaerts (.329 AVG, 11 HR, 61 RBI, 3.7 WAR) and Didi Gregorius (.297 AVG, 11 HR, 41 RBI, 1.9 WAR).
Among rookies, Francisco Lindor (.304 AVG, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 4.4 WAR), Corey Seager (.305 AVG, 17 HR, 45 RBI, 4.4 WAR), Aledmys Diaz (.318 AVG, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 2.8 WAR) and Trevor Story (.272 AVG, 26 HR, 67 RBI, 2.5 WAR) have burst onto the baseball scene.
Who did I leave out? Well, Brandon Crawford, Carlos Correa, Zach Cozart, Danny Espinosa, Addison Russell, and Marcus Semien all own WAR’s of 2.0 or higher. And below them are the likes of Troy Tulowitzki (16 HR, 47 RBI, 1.8 WAR), Jonathan Villar (34 steals), and Eduardo Nunez (24 steals), who are batting .295 and .302 respectively.
The value at short goes on and on. We’re seeing a resurgence of offensive production take over a position once known solely for defensive ability. The scary thing? We’re just scratching the surface. Highly touted shortstop prospect Tim Anderson was called up earlier in the season for the White Sox. In 36 games (as of July 24th), he’s batted .274 with five homers and 22 RBI.
Among those on the brink of entering the big leagues is Alex Bregman, a former LSU product and current Astros minor league star. The youngster is tearing up Triple-A pitching (18 games, .333 AVG, 6 HR, 15 RBI) and came just a home run shy of the cycle in the 2016 Futures Game.
The sole hope for the Atlanta Braves future is shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, 2015’s number one overall draft pick. The 22-year-old righty tore up Single-A and is currently adjusting to Double-A pitching en route to the MLB.
Whether you look at the numbers or do the eye test, it has become evident that the shortstop position is quickly inching its way to the best in baseball. No position has a brighter future than shortstop. Let’s enjoy these talented phenoms up the middle now and for years to come.