Thirteen shortstops currently rank among the top 100 players overall per Sportsline’s standard rankings, including 10 among the top 50 overall, and those numbers mark a significant leap forward in status for six-spotter fantasy performance. Just eight earned top-100 status per our valuations last year, with only Xander Bogaerts cracking the top 50. The position’s renaissance has been driven by some who were expected to usher in a new age of relevance for the position, to be sure; Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and pleasant surprise of re-eligibility Manny Machado all pepper the ranks of double-digit overall value. But there has been an interesting second wave of guys who were decidedly not expected to provide that kind of value, who have stepped up and taken their games to new levels this year. A full six of those 13 shortstops—yes, almost half—have produced top-100 value by outperforming their average draft positions by at least 200 spots. That’s league-winning surplus value, right there. So let’s take a look at that crew and see if we can’t figure out whether their meteoric respective rises represent new normals, or whether managers who’ve reaped their rewards this year will be best off selling high before keeper deadlines this winter.
Jonathan Villar, Milwaukee Bewers (ADP: 317, Current Rank: 16)
On its surface there isn’t a ton that makes sense about Villar’s season, insofar as he doesn’t hit a ton of line drives, his exit velocities are good but not elite, and his borderline-top-ten infield fly ball rate combines with those two things to run smack into the face of his leads-the-majors BABIP of .407. He’s also struck out in over a quarter of his plate appearances, which doesn’t particularly jive with hitting .300 in the majors, BABIP fortune or no. So what gives? Well, he’s managed to offset some of his poor fly ball contact with top-shelf bunt and infield hit numbers, which is good, and the latter number in particular is a perfectly sustainable by-product of his combination of speed and the fourth-highest groundball rate in baseball. But much more importantly, he’s turned himself into one of the tougher hitters in baseball to defend: out of 156 qualified hitters, he has the 13th-lowest pull percentage. The all-fields approach, the speed, and the ability to consistently put the ball on the ground gives his offensive skillset a legitimate Dee Gordon flavor. Is he likely to sustain a Ted Williamsian BABIP again next year? Probably not, but his skill set is absolutely conducive to elite batted ball performance, and at 25 he’s already demonstrated enough pop to pair with his aforementioned speed to produce high fantasy value at the shortstop position even if he hits .260. I’d anticipate there’ll be plenty of people pointing at the outsized BABIP and whiff numbers to justify expectations of regression heading into next season, but I wouldn’t be so quick to join their ranks.
Story’s discounted ADP was due as much to uncertainty about his playing time as it was uncertainty about how he’d produce, but his extreme swing-and-miss served to check his prospect status throughout his rise to the majors. That swing-and-miss persisted, but when he did make contact in Colorado he hit the ball hard, posting an average exit velocity in the top 20 percent. His batted ball distribution suggests that he should have been at least somewhat vulnerable to shifting, but that wasn’t the case, as he posted a .327 mark in the 14 percent of his plate appearances that faced the shift. The hard contact and Denver homeland make him a likely candidate to continue producing lofty power numbers for the position, but a whiff rate north of 30 percent and some likely chilling of his batted ball results suggests this year’s .272 average may be among the better-case scenarios. He’s likely to retain plenty of value, in other words, just not top-40 overall value.
After homering 18 times in over 400 big-league games prior to 2016, Nunez has deposited 13 and counting over a wall in this, his age-29 season. He’s swinging slightly more often than he has in the past, and he’s hitting flyballs a lot more often than he has in the past. And a significant chunk of those additional swings have come on balls up in the zone, which corresponds well with his newfound loft. These are the kinds of patterns that big-league pitchers tend to adjust to relatively quickly, and he’s stuck in San Francisco—one of the worst home fields in baseball for over-the-fence power—at least through next year. It’s certainly possible that his adjusted approach carries over enough that he holds on to regular playing time next year, but betting on a 29-year-old career utility guy in a terrible park to repeat a top-50 season just isn’t smart money.
The source of Ramirez’s success this year is pretty easy to spot in his batted-ball profile: a year after posting a well below-average line drive rate, popping up a lot, and pulling the ball in predictable patterns en route to a dismal .232 BABIP, Ramirez has hit a whole bunch more line drives, popped up slightly less-often, and spread his batted balls around more effectively, all of which has resulted in more than a hundred extra points of BABIP love. The 23-year-old has always been an excellent contact hitter with a sound approach, and with his speed and some marginal pop there’s plenty of value in the skill set. Unfortunately, it’s a much less enticing profile at third base, and unless Francisco Lindor gets trapped under something in the clubhouse in the next couple weeks, that’s the position to which he’ll likely be limited heading into next year. That forces a tough keeper decision, particularly for managers in shallower formats. I like the profile in a utility role, but if he doesn’t have utility value…well, he’s a guy I’d begrudgingly shop in leagues 14-and-under leagues, as the eligibility uncertainties make him a tougher guy to plan around in formats where he’s not MI-eligible.
Diaz was outrighted off St. Louis’ 40-man roster last summer, and outside of a small-sample run at Triple-A last August didn’t really do much of anything to put himself on anyone’s radar outside of being in the organization after Jhonny Peralta got hurt. He certainly seized his opportunity once it came, however, at least until injury shelved him at the end of last month. There’s an awful lot to like in the game Diaz showed before hitting the shelf, highlighted by excellent contact skills and an intriguing burst of pull-side pop. He commanded the zone well, made ample solid contact—particularly on balls in the zone—and generally didn’t produce numbers that cried out in any major way for likely regression. It makes for an interesting scenario in St. Louis, assuming everyone comes back reasonably healthy, anyway: both Diaz and Peralta will enter their walk years, with the latter scheduled to earn four times as much as the former. In NL-only and deeper mixed formats it’s probably worth the gamble to hang on to his bat despite the uncertainty, though similar to Ramirez I might just kick his name onto the block for a crack at some other options.
I won’t go so far as to say I made Miller’s breakout this year happen, but I didn’t not make it happen, either. Miller has pretty much continued a linear growth in the areas I highlighted in that pre-season piece, cutting further his weak infield contact rate, continuing to post high-end exit velocities for the position (only J.J. Hardy has averaged a higher velocity off the bat among shortstops this year), and even getting slightly more aggressive in-zone. The big difference-maker for him this year has been his inner-third coverage, and in particular his ability to drop the head on balls down in the zone and drive those pitches. After slugging .617 against pitches in the lower-third for his career, he’s boosted that number to .826 this year, with 15 of his 25 home runs coming on low balls in the zone. The extreme pull-side tendencies and above-average whiff rate likely keep a cap on his batting average potential, and the Rays’ aren’t likely to up and build a top-tier lineup context for him overnight, either. But the baseline power production has come on the back of consistent progress, and at least for the one more year of shortstop eligibility he’ll have, he should make for a starting-caliber shortstop in medium-depth leagues.
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