July 10, 2009
Feeling Short at Short?
A few weeks ago we looked at how strong the first-base position was in 2009. There were so many first basemen performing at a high level that it caused Ryan Howard's production to drop down to right at the average despite his performing about like you would expect him to in a normal season for him. Shortstop wishes it had problems like that, which is why we will take a look at the weakest position on the diamond today. Things are so bad at the shortstop position right now that catcher has a higher average EqA, even if it's just by a few points.
Just as a refresher, a .260 EqA is league-average for all hitters, while .230 is replacement-level performance. While first base was all the way up at .293 a few weeks back (and now sits at .292), shortstop is on the other end of the spectrum at .252, so shortstops are below the MLB average as a collective cadre. You know things are bad when Willie Bloomquist isn't part of the problem, but is instead seen as an above-average solution.
How did things get this bad at short? It's nothing new, to be honest. Even when Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Miguel Tejada were supposedly changing the landscape of the game and bringing a new kind of player to shortstop, the position as a whole was either the worst or close to it amongst all the others offensively. If you look at 1999, the top five Equivalent Averages at the position were those of Jeter (.333), Nomar (.328), Rodriguez (.298), Omar Vizquel (.289), and then Mark Grudzielanek (.280). Things quickly went downhill from there, with league-average hitters and those well below that dominating the rest of the list. It was like that for the years that flank 1999 as well, with four or five hitters performing very well, and the rest dragging the overall positional average down.
Fast forward to 2009, and it's happening again. There are 16 shortstops above the average EqA at the position out of the 28 that have 200 plate appearances on the season, but just a handful of those have truly noteworthy performances. The rest have ugly lines that look good because of what their peers have done; they are not aesthetically pleasing in the least. Whereas at first base I noted that someone like Kendry Morales, who had hit .269/.321/.506 to that point, was 20 points below the average EqA at that stacked position, over at short you've got guys like Alex Cora hitting .251/.343/.314 and finding themselves above-average. Cora has a few steals (7-for-9 on the season), and that is enough to help bump him up. Bloomquist, as mentioned, is above-average with a .260 EqA, thanks to a line of .285/.335/.393 with 16 steals in 18 attempts. Even with an understanding of how replacement level and positional adjustments work, finding out that these lines are acceptable because they come from shortstops hurts my brain a little.
If you told me you knew who the five most productive shortstop via EqA would be at the midway point this year, you're either lying or a Terminator sent from the future to wage war on Las Vegas. Sure, you could have easily picked one (Hanley Ramirez) and maybe you're a fan of Derek Jeter or Miguel Tejada and would have mentioned them as well. Chances are good that you didn't think Jason Bartlett would lead all shortstops in EqA, though (while also hitting .354/.400/.553 with 18 steals), or that Marco Scutaro-who I drafted for defensive purposes in a league that counts defense-would hit .283/.382/.413 with a .287 EqA, besting more highly-regarded shortstops like Alexei Ramirez and Stephen Drew, among others. Yunel Escobar (.295/.355/.435), Asdrubal Cabrera (.298/.355/.409), and Troy Tulowitzki (.253/.338/.476) round out the players above the .270 EqA mark, and it all goes downhill from there fast.
There are six shortstops hovering either below or a little above the replacement-level EqA mark, and that's helping to nullify all of the positive contributions from the top of the list. Edgar Renteria has fallen off the cliff (again), faster than even his biggest critics thought he would; he's at .266/.321/.335, producing a .239 EqA; unlike Cora, Renteria isn't grabbing those stolen bases that fantasy owners crave. J.J. Hardy hasn't found his power stroke and also can't get his on-base percentage over .300, Orlando Cabrera hasn't taken a liking to Oakland's expansive home park and has a .224 EqA to show for it, and Jimmy Rollins has struggled all year to maintain any kind of consistent production. What's wrong with Yuniesky Betancourt and Nick Punto? They are Yuniesky Betancourt and Nick Punto, for starters. Things are so awful at the bottom of this list that Adam Everett, a career .247/.300/.355 hitter and the very definition of a replacement-level hitter at the position, is outhitting eight shortstops among those with 200 plate appearances.
The middle of the list is what matters the most though, as most leagues can avoid the worst players, and anyone with one of the top five or six doesn't care how bad shortstop is because they're set there. You have to train yourself to realize that Alexei Ramirez has been disappointing, but he's also one of the top ten shortstops in the league this year. Sure Ryan Theriot isn't the best option in the abstract, and if you have him he might be the worst hitter on your team; he's still an above-average shortstop that will swipe a few bags for you, and that matters. As long as Cristian Guzman hits .300, he has value at short, and he's done that for three years running now. You can ignore these guys basically anywhere else on the diamond except for catcher, but at short they make good options.
I've thought about what to do when you miss out on one of the top shortstops in your draft, or if you pick one of the big guys and he does down with an injury. Last year I tried a little experiment in one league where I drafted a shortstop very late-I'm talking among my last five or six rounds of a 23-player draft-and then used that as a position where I rotated out shortstops who were hitting well. That's how I ended up playing guys like Jerry Hairston Jr. when they were around and hitting well, but it's also how I decided to see how my team performed without a shortstop at all. My team was loaded with enough hitting that I could pull this off from a counting stats perspective, and dropping a poor-hitting shortstop also boosted the rate stat we use. I was kind of in a perfect-storm scenario as far as my fantasy lineup goes though, so I'm not suggesting everyone stop using shortstops, but it was an idea I toyed around with.
The point is that the position is so bad that I have not just considered ignoring it until the last possible second and then abandoning it altogether, I have already done those things. Things would be even worse in an NL- or AL-only league, as you would have even fewer options to choose from. So the next time you think that your shortstop is dragging your team down, just remember that unless you have one of the few guys at the top, things probably aren't as bad as you think-and also that they probably won't get any better.