The Shortstop Profile and Power Spike

I can confirm I have brought at least three new readers to FanGraphs: my mom, my dad and my neighborhood crossing guard, Damon.

I live seven miles south of downtown Pittsburgh in the suburb of Mt. Lebanon, which counts Mark Cuban (let’s get him an MLB team) as one of its more successful high-school graduates. For western Pennsylvania, it’s a dense community, 33,000 living in six square miles. The suburb grew along a trolley line that took commuters into the city. It’s a walking community. You can travel by foot to coffee shops, the post office, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and every school in the district. There are no school buses, but there are crossing guards.

For nearly the last two years, since my routine began of taking – or rather, pushing – my two-year-old on a daily stroll to our Main St., I have spoken nearly daily with Damon, a retired gentleman who is perhaps the top crossing guard on the planet. He has been kind to my two-year-old, and he is also an enthusiastic baseball fan. When I was covering the Pirates, we spoke often of the team. He’s has been kind enough to follow me on my new adventure here, and our baseball discussions have broadened beyond the local Pittsburgh club. Damon cordially disagreed with my my post Monday asserting this is the Golden Age of shortstops.

Damon saw Clemente throw. He attended games at Forbes Field. He knew a local scout who signed Ken Griffey, who saw Josh Gibson hit. His father took him via train to see the Yankees play in Cleveland. He saw shortstops contending with a Forbes Field infield that was much poorer than the Augusta National-like playing surfaces today’s players enjoy. Damon has watched much more baseball than I have, and he believes previous generations produced superior defensive players.

There is no argument I have to refute those observations. We can only imagine how efficient Dick Groat would have been on a modern playing surface. Our defensive metrics today are imperfect. It’s difficult to compare different generations of players. And using WAR to compare is also imperfect as it’s comparing contemporaries against contemporaries. While it seems like there is rare amount of talent congregated at shortstop in today’s game, that does not necessarily tell us how Francisco Lindor compares to Honus Wagner. How do you compare past generations that did not have the benefit of modern strength training and conditioning practices?

But I think what is true is that the type of athlete playing the position is changing.

I wrote a little bit about the unusual power of the 2016 group in the piece on Monday, and Matt Eddy wrote an excellent piece at Baseball America earlier this month that looked at a larger sample of power trends — specifically, the home run — position by position, and shortstop position really jumps out.

All positions have enjoyed some power growth over the last 40 years as strength and conditioning has improved and as ballparks have been built with tightener dimensions. But shortstop stands out for its consistent power growth, as Eddy found:

• Shortstops today hit 225 percent more home runs per season than they did in the 1970s—and 18 percent more than they did 20 years ago.

• Second basemen today hit 133 percent more home runs per season than they did in the 1970s—and 40 percent more than they did 20 years ago.

No other position has enjoyed triple-digit power growth.

What’s interesting to me is that, before the power surge that began at the end of the 2015 season, I heard many within and around the game – from executives to managers to players to media – talk about how the game was getting back to a truer, traditional style of play. There was less power in general, defense and athleticism were being valued more and more. There was so much written and said about the depressed run-scoring environment. While defense is undoubtedly better understood and valued, there continues be a great premium placed on power.

From the Baseball America piece:

Power is such an important component of today’s game that a scout recently told Baseball America that he hesitates to recommend any player for whom he cannot project at least fringe-average power. That’s a 45 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and it translates to roughly 10 to 12 home runs per season.

Power, it seems, is becoming more and more a prerequisite for all positions, even as we think of this era as dominated less by the homer than the the so-called PED era.

And power should perhaps become even more important if the strike zone is indeed shrinking, if pitchers are going to be forced to throw more often in the zone and more often elevated in the zone, if improved HR/FB rates are not an outlier. Power allows for maximum damage to be applied to mistake pitches. Moreover, if the average batted-ball distance gains are sustained or grow, then it’s probably players at middle-infield positions who will benefit the most, as warning-track power becomes over-the-wall power.

Perhaps advances in strength training and nutrition, along with sports specialization, are creating a different type of shortstop, and today’s group is not just a cyclical outlier. This is the new normal. Perhaps the best athletes today, who are bigger and stronger than past generations, are doing a better job of not sliding down the defensive spectrum.

And perhaps there is less competition to move off more demanding defensive positions. I’ve often heard scouts bemoan the lack of athletes playing baseball today. As impressive as this shortstop class is, it’s also perhaps benefiting from weaker groups of players at first base and the corner-outfield positions.

For instance, just by using raw WAR totals, 2016 was also the best year on record for second baseman and third baseman in history, as was noted by an astute reader in Monday’s comments. But 2016 was only the 46th-ranked season for first baseman, 56th-ranked season produced by left fielders and 49th-ranked season for right fielders.

Power, and overall value – particularly considering the youth of many of the stars at these positions – is really concentrated at second, short and third. And nowhere has there been a more dramatic and extended paradigm shift in profile than at shortstop. Twenty years from now, 40 years from now, what will average production at the position look like?

So, again, it’s tough to compare eras, though Statcast – and perhaps more advanced successors – will give us a much better idea. It’s tough to say for certain whether the 2016 class is better than the 1964 class of shortstop or the 1904 group. But there is a significant shift in the type of player and skills stationed at shortstop.





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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YKnotDisco
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YKnotDisco

Are you referring to Albatross Contract comment from Monday?

scotman144
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Member
scotman144

I think it was this comment by “bananas” : (copypasta):

2016’s positions ranked by WAR/150 since 1946 (71 seasons)

1B: 66th
2B: 1st
3B: 6th
SS: 2nd
C: 45th
LF: 71st
RF: 64th
CF: 41st
All OF: 71st

Talent has definitely shifted to the infield.

emh1969
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emh1969

“Bananas” was responding to “Albatross Contract”. AC was the one who pointed out that total WAR for 2nd and 3rd in 2016 was the highest ever.

YKnotDisco
Member
YKnotDisco

scotman144:

I originally thought it was bananas comment as well. Then I saw that his comment is not the raw WAR total (the one mentioned by Travis in the article) but WAR/150. See how on bananas list it reads 3B as ranking 6th and not 1st? Some other differences from this list compared to what was mentioned in the article as well. (46th 1B- 56th LF- 49th RF)