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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
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Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr.'s stunning combination of power and fielding prowess made him the prototype for the modern-day shortstop.
Peter Aiken/WireImage.com
Hall of Fame 2007
VERDUCCI: Q&A session with Ripken, Gwynn
VERDUCCI: Ripken, Gwynn share passion for game
BELTH: Ripken and the evolution of shortstops
RETROSPECTIVES: Tony Gwynn | Cal Ripken Jr.
EXCERPT: Ripken's close calls during The Streak
GALLERY: Gwynn, Ripken and the 3,000-hit club
Gwynn ready to take place among all-time greats
Ripken remembered for more than just The Streak
Long And Short Of It
Most HRs by shortstops 6-feet and above in a single season
Player (Ht.) HR Year
1. Alex Rodriguez (6-3) 57 2002
2. Rodriguez 52 2001
T3. Rodriguez 47 2003
T3. Ernie Banks (6-1) 47 1958
5. Banks 45 1959
6. Banks 44 1955
7. Banks 43 1957
T8. Rodriguez 42 1999
T8. Rodriguez 42 1998
T10. Rodriguez 41 2000
T10. Banks 41 1960
12. Rico Petrocelli (6-0) 40 1969
13. Rich Aurilia (6-0) 37 2001
14. Rodriguez 36 1996
T15. Bill Hall (6-0) 35 2006
T15. Nomar Garciaparra (6-0) 35 1998
17. Cal Ripken Jr. (6-4) 34 1991
18. Barry Larkin (6-0) 33 1996
19. Tony Batista (6-0) 31 1999
20. Garciaparra 30 1997
Source: Baseball-Reference.com. Click here for an expanded list.

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."

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