From slappies to sluggers
Ripken was 'tipping point' in evolution of shortstops
Posted: Friday July 27, 2007 1:59PM; Updated: Friday July 27, 2007 3:06PM
The abundance of good-hitting shortstops is one of the most compelling storylines in baseball, but it's not exactly new.
The trend began in earnest a decade ago with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Edgar Renteria. Now, the 4Rs of National League East alone -- Renteria, Reyes, Ramirez and Rollins make for a dazzling collection. Add Carlos Guillen, Derek Jeter, Orlando Cabrera, Rafael Furcal, Michael Young and J.J. Hardy and the question must be asked: Is this the best crop of hitting shortstops in history?
According to a study done earlier this spring by Patrick Sullivan of The Baseball Analysts, the answer is yes. Naturally, with 30 teams, there are more shortstops to choose from than there was 50 years ago. But it's not just that.
"As strikeout rates have increased, the value of a great fielding shortstop has diminished," points out Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts. "As runs scored have gone up, it has become more important to get offense out of all positions, including shortstop. Add in the fact that athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever and it makes sense that the position would morph over time."
"Teams won't tolerate offensive zeroes in the lineup the way they did in past eras," adds Steve Treder from The Hardball Times. From the '50s through the '70s, banjo-hitting, slick-fielding specialists such as Chico Carrasquel, Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith were the norm; Ernie Banks was the exception.
Prior to and during the Deadball Era, shortstops were some of the most productive hitters in the game, including Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of all time. Later still, in the 1930s and '40s, shortstops such as Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Vern Stephens and Lou Boudreau were all outstanding hitters. Basically, you find good-hitting shortstops during offensive eras.
"The difference today," says historian Glenn Stout, "is that bigger, more offensively talented shortstops aren't being shifted to other positions. I suspect most were like Mickey Mantle and were moved to the outfield. As much as we hear about Mantle's scattershot arm, they gave up on him as an infielder by age 20. He never got to work through a 56-error season like Jeter did [in 1993 as minor leaguer]. Also, shortstop was considered the baseball equivalent of quarterback. Very few African-Americans were allowed to play the position and were moved elsewhere."
Consider the star players who were one-time shortstops, albeit mostly in the minors: Rogers Hornsby, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Brooks Robinson, George Brett, Bobby Grich, Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus. If A-Rod had played in the '60s or '70s, he would have been a third basemen; Jeter would have been a center fielder.
"The best players have almost always been shortstops," Lederer continues, "especially at the lower levels -- Little League, high school, college, and the minors. These guys were the best athletes on the team. They played shortstop because they were faster, more graceful and had better arms than everybody else on their club. But as they moved up the pyramid, the competition became stiffer and there were now other more specialized players who could field and throw even better. Ergo, the guys who could hit were moved off the position in favor of those who could field slightly better because teams didn't want to sacrifice defense back then."