A Golden Age of Shortstops?

You probably are already aware last season was a good one for shortstops but here are a few refreshers …

Not bad …

That’s a shortstop?

Now you’re just showing off …

It was a good year for shortstops. Actually, it was a great year. In fact, according to FanGraphs WAR leaderboards, it was the best year ever for major-league shortstops. Shortstops combined for 81.7 WAR, the first time the group has crossed the 80-win threshold.

Nor is it a group that’s superior to its predecessors merely because of expanded schedules or an expanded league. Shortstops in 2016 produced the second-most wins per 150 games since integration.

A Golden Era for Shortstops?
Rank Season G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR WAR150
1 1964 4398 15923 .253 .317 .360 90 -171.4 220.1 58.0 2.0
2 2016 6303 22977 .262 .319 .407 92 -187.0 228.5 81.7 1.9
3 1947 3114 11588 .260 .338 .358 90 -145.9 157.5 40.0 1.9
4 1949 3076 11839 .260 .343 .363 89 -171.1 164.2 38.6 1.9
5 1952 3269 11685 .254 .332 .344 88 -167.5 176.1 40.8 1.9
6 2007 6467 23852 .273 .329 .402 90 -253.1 224.6 75.7 1.8
7 2005 6515 24458 .269 .323 .394 88 -283.4 216.9 74.5 1.7
8 1948 3409 12514 .264 .339 .358 88 -190.4 159.8 38.6 1.7
9 2002 6347 23032 .264 .321 .394 88 -298.0 235.2 70.3 1.7
10 2011 6739 24629 .258 .314 .370 88 -299.7 213.2 73.2 1.6
11 1960 3436 11390 .252 .319 .365 86 -183.8 189.9 36.9 1.6
12 2012 6429 23548 .256 .310 .375 86 -348.9 252.4 69.0 1.6
13 2014 6410 22740 .251 .306 .363 87 -269.5 192.5 68.7 1.6
14 2004 6180 22892 .268 .321 .403 86 -331.9 233.5 66.0 1.6
15 1966 4527 16281 .250 .304 .345 83 -302.6 254.6 48.3 1.6
16 1950 2912 11192 .263 .339 .373 84 -224.9 159.8 30.7 1.6
17 1988 5529 18892 .250 .308 .347 85 -299.7 234.3 57.3 1.6
18 1951 2989 11041 .256 .331 .349 84 -223.3 166.9 30.9 1.6
19 1957 3814 13030 .258 .319 .368 86 -205.7 190.2 39.2 1.5
20 1955 3276 11239 .258 .323 .359 83 -224.6 201.6 33.5 1.5
League shorstops since integration (1947).
WAR150 denotes WAR per 150 games played.

The leaderboards do not perfectly capture performance by position, as they include total performance from all players who have played at least 25% of their games at a position. (For example, even though Manny Machado spent most of 2016 at third base his total production counted toward the shortstop leaderboard.)

But 2016 was the second-best, post-integration year on record for the position in terms of total WAR, the best hitting year for the group since 1917, and the best season overall of the last 50 years. I think reasonable people can agree it was a great year for the position.

And while the Alex RodriguezDerek JeterNomar Garciaparra troika was often credited with leading a Golden Era of shortstops late in the last century, this new group of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Manny Machado (when he’s not playing third base), Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell and Xander Bogaerts (and there’s more yet!) has already set a new standard and could set a multi-year, generational standard.

The group is young and incredibly talented and productive.

The average age of the top-15 WAR producers among shortstops last season was 23.8. 23.8! And it should only become infused with more youth and talent in the next handful of seasons: nine shortstops ranked in the top 20, 12 in the top 34, and 16 of the top 56 of Baseball America’s midseason top-100 prospects last summer.

FanGraphs’ own Corrine Landrey wrote about the unique slugging capability of the 2016 class of shortstops.

The 2016 class of shortstops produced a record slugging percentage (.407) and home runs (565) for the position. The second-, third-, fifth-, and sixth-best home-run total from shortstops occurred between 2000 and 2003, before PED testing was implemented. And the 2016 shortstops slugged 81 more home runs than the next closest group.

Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote in the midst of last season that perhaps we are entering a new golden era for shortstop play.

Perhaps it’s official.

What’s interesting to me is this question: was 2016 a historical outlier? Is this group an outlier? The kind of collection of talent that comes around once a century? Or is there something else going on that suggests we’re going to more often see elite shortstop production? Will sports specialization combined with technology and training advances create – particularly at a premium position like shortstop, which generally attracts the sport’s best athletes – more advanced players? The type of athletes that can become more productive earlier in major-league careers? Athletes who more often reach elite skill levels?

Consider this passage from a Tom Verducci profile on then phenom outfielder Jason Heyward written in 2010:

Heyward is what Joe DiMaggio would be if Joltin’ Joe grew up playing nothing but baseball, as many as 200 games a year all over the country from the time he was eight, on exquisitely groomed fields, with a private hitting coach, a fitness trainer and a father dedicated to ferrying him around greater Atlanta, which has become one of the world’s greatest amateur baseball hotbeds. Heyward’s story is increasingly how 21st-century stars are made: bigger, faster, stronger, specialized and, having played so much baseball growing up, far ahead of what used to be the sport’s long learning curve.

This is a generation of player – particularly the elite amateur player – raised in the year-round training and competition, playing in hundreds of games per year. This is a generation with access to private instruction, and better technology and tools to help in developing anything from swing tracking to strength training. This is a generation that is not learning the game in sandlots, but through thousands upon thousands of reps. This is 10,000-hour rule generation.

Of the seven U.S.-raised shortstops to rank in the top 10 of shortstops by WAR last season, six were first-round picks selected in 2010 or later. The other, Crawford, was a fourth rounder from a high-profile Division I program at UCLA.

Earlier this month I wrote about Jose Bautista and defying aging curves. As Pirates athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk told me, we simply don’t know much about the 21st century athlete. Perhaps we should toss out the age curves: not just the decline phase, but the development arc.

But in speaking with several major-league evaluators and player-development officials, they cautioned against the idea that sports specialization is creating better, more precocious MLB players.

Said one AL scout: “I can’t say specialization is helping us at all. Football and basketball are grabbing the elite athletes. Playing [virtually] year round may be giving us more skill [hitting] or velocity but it’s robbing us through injuries and overall athleticism….The young [shortstop] class is outstanding but look around the diamond: slower, thicker, more limited players.”

I spoke with Cleveland Indians assistant general manager Carter Hawkins, who was involved in player development as Lindor accelerated through the system and immediately became a star at the major-league level.

Hawkins described Lindor’s development as “a perfect storm,” a combination of rare “maturity” and athletic talent but also the “purpose” in which Lindor applied those gifts.

Hawkins said today’s young major-league players have benefited from increased resources devoted to player development at the professional level. Hawkins said it’s difficult to know if today’s amateur athlete was receiving more reps than previous generations. Prior to reaching a college program, Hawkins said, athletes benefit from playing multiple sports at the young level. He cited benefits related to agility and athletic movement, learning to deal with failure, and working within a team.

So perhaps it’s unclear what benefits youth sports specialization is providing major-league teams, whether in regard to a specific position or the player pool in total.

And, of course, all the amateur-level practice time, travel and equipment is expensive and can be exclusive and is playing a role in reducing the overall amateur playing population. But maybe the top 1% of the amateur playing population is much more advanced than we realized.

Maybe 2016 class of shortstops – maybe this group – is a historical outlier, a once-in-a-100-year flood of talent, or maybe it is a hint of the beginning of a new age of athlete.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Monsignor Martinez
5 years ago

Pretty amazing considering that 12-13 years, we had great hitting shortstops like A-Rod Rollins, Garciaparra, Tejada, Renteria, Jeter, Young, Reyes, Furcal…