|The Evolution of the Shortstop Position|
Written by Mike Chiari (Contact & Archive) on January 09, 2008
No position has undergone a more dramatic change over the course of baseball history than that of the shortstop. It’s an odd position really, one that seems misplaced amongst the symmetry of a baseball diamond. Oddities aside it’s no less important than any other position. In fact it’s considered by many within the game of baseball to be one of the most integral positions. Traditionally you’ll find defensive stalwarts in between second and third base, but as times change so does the way the game is played.
Just take a look at the 23 shortstops who have achieved baseball immortality through their elections to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Take a closer look and you’ll find that they can be broken up into three basic categories: defensive shortstops (Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith), shortstops who hit for average (Luke Appling and Joe Cronin), and those special shortstops who can do both at a high level (Honus Wagner and Robin Yount). There’s also a sub-category that contains the rarest of talents at the shortstop position; the ones who hit for power (Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr.).
Aside from the anomalies that are Banks and Ripken power has been noticeably absent from the shortstop position throughout history. Over the last 20 years, however, there has been a power surge at the position. Even with this relatively new infusion of power hitting talent, there are still plenty of shortstops who are carrying on the tradition of their positional forefathers. Let’s take a look at some of the modern day shortstops and where they fall within the discussion.
Omar Vizquel (SF) - Omar Vizquel is a defensive wizard out of the mold of Luis Aparicio or Ozzie Smith. Like those two greats before him, his glove, and that alone, may one day land him in Cooperstown. He’s an 11 time Gold Glover and is without a doubt one of the best to field his position ever. He isn’t simply one dimensional, however. He’s hit at a respectable .274 clip over his career and has also averaged a solid 15 steals per season. His career on base percentage of .340 has been good enough to allow him to score over 1300 runs over his 18 year career. It’s a modern baseball world, and Omar Vizquel’s just living in it.
Edgar Renteria (DET) - Although Renteria’s numbers have been fairly inconsistent year to year throughout his career, there are a few things you can count on. He’s accumulated a career average of .291, but he’s also hit over .330 twice. Over the last 5 seasons he’s averaged close to 100 runs per season. He also averages around 20 steals per season, although that number has decreased as he’s gotten older. Perhaps the best part of his game is his defense. He’s a two time Gold Glove Award winner and with exception of a disastrous season with Boston in 2005, he’s played Gold Glove caliber defense his entire career. Renteria is a true throwback.
Derek Jeter (NYY) - The quintessential traditionalist shortstop is Derek Jeter, captain of the hallowed New York Yankees. He has all the tools that a successful shortstop has had over the course of baseball history. His career .317 batting average and .388 on base percentage has made him indispensable to the Yankees organization for over a decade. He’s gotten over 200 hits in a season 6 times and has scored over 100 runs in every full season that he’s played in the majors. If that weren’t enough he’s averaged over 20 steals per season and has become a reliable source of driving in runs while averaging around 90 RBI per season.
Aside from all his accolades at the plate, he’s also won 3 Gold Glove Awards and has been considered to be a top defensive shortstop throughout his career. When it’s all said and done Derek Jeter will have his 3,000 hits, his multiple World Series Rings, and a spot in Cooperstown.
Other Notable Traditionalists - David Eckstein (TOR), Orlando Cabrera (CWS), Jack Wilson (PIT), Rafael Furcal (LAD), Julio Lugo (BOS)
Your modernists are the shortstops who do everything that they don’t traditionally do. They hit homeruns, they drive in runners, they slug at a high percentage, and they basically do anything that’s normally been reserved for other positions throughout history. Here are some shortstops that have managed to break the mold…
Miguel Tejada (BAL) - Tejada, along with Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez helped to usher in the golden age of power hitting shortstops in the early 2000’s. He hasn’t stopped hitting them out of the park since. Throughout Tejada’s career of 9 full seasons, he’s reached feats at the plate that few ever have at his position. He’s averaged over 28 homeruns per season as well as over 114 runs batted in. These are impressive numbers for any position, let alone shortstop. He also holds a career .287 batting average along with an unheard of .477 slugging percentage at the shortstop position. The impressive accomplishments don’t end there as he’s also scored over 100 runs in a season 4 times. Not to mention Tejada’s American League MVP Award in 2002 as an Athletic and his Home Run Derby Championship as an Oriole in 2004. He’s also won 2 Silver Sluggers, an All-Star Game MVP in 2005 and was baseball’s active iron man, playing in all 162 games in 6 straight seasons, until injury struck in the 2007 season. These are accolades that few shortstops have reached in MLB history, making Tejada a real trendsetter for many of today’s shortstops.
Troy Tulowitzki (COL) - Although Tulo’s career is just one full season old, it’s already obvious that he’s a different breed of shortstop. His line of .291-24-99 is incredibly rare for a rookie shortstop, or a shortstop of any experience really. He also slugged a terrific .479 and was able to reach base enough to score an impressive 104 runs. Tulowitzki is even a terrific fielder, recording only 11 errors, and getting nipped by Jimmy Rollins for the Gold Glove Award. He also has a hose for an arm that is much more often seen on a third baseman rather than a shortstop. If not for a Herculean from Ryan Braun, Tulowitzki would have been the clear choice for National League Rookie of the Year. One thing’s for certain, if Tulowitzki is already this good, he’ll get his share of awards in the future.
Jimmy Rollins (PHI) - Jimmy Rollins is a rare case of a shortstop who has evolved over the course of his career. For the first five years of his career he could be considered a traditionalist as he got on base, stole bases, scored runs, and played good defense. Over the last two seasons, however, Rollins has found a power stroke that lands him in the modernist category. He’s become a complete shortstop, culminating in a National League MVP Award in 2007. Over the last two seasons he’s hit 25 and 30 homeruns and driven in 83 and 94 runs respectively. He’s also slugged .478 and an incredible .531. Even with this recent power surge, he’s continued to put up impressive stolen base totals and has scored at least 115 runs in each of the last 4 seasons. After his improbable 2007 season, Rollins is now the poster boy for the modern shortstop.
Other Notable Modernists: Carlos Guillen (DET), J.J. Hardy (MIL), Khalil Greene (SD), Jhonny Peralta (CLE), Bobby Crosby (OAK)
While there are some shortstops who can’t be categorized (Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes) most fit firmly into one of these groups. While no one group is necessarily more valuable than the other, there has been a notable shift towards the modernist shortstop. Even though this is true, it’s terrific that there are and always will be plenty of shortstops to carry on the position’s glorious tradition. The shortstop position is more diverse today than it ever has been, and it’s done nothing but good things for baseball.