September 12, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
The Year of Everything But the Shortstop
We know that positional strength comes and goes in cycles, like most other things in life. The early and mid-90s were great for first basemen and elite starting pitchers, the late 90s and early aughts for shortstops. The time since then has mostly been dominated by Albert Pujols, but it’s been pretty excellent for outfielders and second basemen, too. We can debate those classifications, I suppose, but you get the idea.
Over the last few years, though, I’d argue that the fates have shaken things out more or less evenly. In 2010, the MLB top 20 position players by WARP included at least one of every position but catcher (Joe Mauer came in at 22); in 2011, the top 12 had one at every position. The top 20 for 2012 includes 11 outfielders, three third basemen, three catchers, two second basemen, and, shockingly, just one first baseman. I’m pretty sure that each of the last three seasons has been branded the Year of the Pitcher at one point or another, but I’m not sure that’s totally justified, either; there are great pitchers, of course, but not so many or so dominant that they seem to dominate the sport.
So in a way, the era we’re currently entering seems to be becoming an era of positional parity, one in which everyone can share...except the shortstops.
The following table shows the average WARP for the top 10 MLB shortstops in every individual season for the past 10 years:
The asterisk is there because I added 13 percent to the 2012 number, to reflect the approximate percentage of the season remaining to be played. So, yes, that’s the projected average for the ten best shortstops in the league this season. Derek Jeter currently leads all shortstops with 3.0 WAR, which projects to a full-season 3.4; that adjusted figure would come in ninth in 2003, eighth in 2005, and 11th in 2009. It’s at least two full wins lower than the leader in every other year in that span, and less than half of most of them. The ninth and 10th guys in 2012, Jimmy Rollins and Erick Aybar, are at 1.9 WARP, projecting to about 2.1; that figure would fall in the 15-to-19 range in any year between 2003 and 2009.
So however you look at it, shortstop is on a downward trend, and is way, way down in 2012. Jeter’s understandably declining, Hanley Ramirez is primarily a third baseman (though he’d have no impact on this year’s list, thanks to an abysmal -16.6 FRAA). Other guys who have been less noticeable mainstays in the top 10, like Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal, may be on their way out too.
There are a lot on their way up too, of course. Starlin Castro is the no. 2 shortstop in 2012, and he’s 22. It feels like Elvis Andrus (no. 3) has been around for ages, but he just turned 24 last month. He might soon be pushed out the Rangers’ door by Jurickson Profar, who’ll turn 20 just before next Spring Training. Manny Machado (who’s been a third baseman in the majors so far, but might move back down the road) turned 20 a couple months ago. Troy Tulowitzki has missed almost 100 games this season, and should be back next season at just 28. A lot of other guys who should be in the primes of their careers—Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, J.J. Hardy—have had down years. Next season, or certainly by 2014 or 2015, there’s a very good chance that shortstop will be one of the deepest and best positions in baseball.
For now, though, the shortstop situation is bad. Really, really bad. The 2012 season, it may be said, has been a party to which everyone but shortstops has been invited. Well, everyone but shortstops and the Astros.