All of the up-the-middle positions require some sort of tradeoff--for example, catchers almost by definition will not have speed, and some offensive production may be sacrificed in exchange for defense or pitch-framing skills. Center fielders, unless they're Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., or Mike Trout, might likewise sacrifice power in favor of covering more ground, especially in the parks with more spacious outfields like Colorado or Kansas City.
Shortstop is probably the trickiest position to fill, since there are so many requirements--good fielding, decent range, ability to turn the double play, and that's just on the defensive side. On offense, speed is almost a requirement, given that it's the rare shortstop with power--there are only two players who were primarily shortstops with over 300 career home runs, and only nine with over 200. The ideal shortstop fields the position well and gets on base, maybe adding a bit of punch in the 10-15 home run range.
For those who have been reading this series, this Tableau data visualization should be familiar by now--it plots a player's 2015 FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V) on the horizontal axis and his pro-rated 2015 salary on the vertical. The FG$V is basically a straight-line function of a player's fWAR, with this year's value around $8 million per win, so the horizontal axis also reflects relative fWAR ranks as well. The data is updated daily to show how a player's production changes over time.
This data viz has been viewed over 6,000 times, and I keep tinkering with it and adding things. This shows what is seen by hovering over the data points:
The first two lines are basic information, along with a simple Runs Created formula that recognizes that the runs a player scores are as important as his RBIs. The slash line also shows his Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), a Tom Tango creation that gives greater depth to a player's offensive production, and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a normalizing stat that shows how much better or worse a player was than the league--in Brandon Crawford's case, he's 37 percent better than the league, and second-best among shortstops.
The next lines show his fWAR as well as the components that make it up to show if a player's primary contributions are on offense, defense, or (hopefully) both, followed by his FG$V and 2015 pro-rated salary. I added the last three lines in the past week to show the player's 2015 salary and how long he's still under team control and under what terms. In addition, for players who have long-term contracts, the amount they're owed from 2016 on is shown as well.
There are two shorstops who are leading the pack by a healthy margin, the aforementioned Brandon Crawford of the Giants and Jhonny Peralta of the Cardinals. Being a midwest guy, I don't really see much of Brandon Crawford, but I certainly received an eyeful during last year's postseason, especially when he hit over .300 in the World Series. He's been the Giants' regular shortstop since 2012 with solid production, but he's really breaking through this year, almost equaling his career fWAR high in just over a third of a season. He's batting for average like he hasn't before, is about to equal his career high in home runs and playing very solid defense, which has always been the case.
Despite winning three World Series in the past five years, the Giants were a big question mark to many people (like me), unsure how they would fill the void left at third by Pablo Sandoval, if Joe Panik would progress (he has), and how Hunter Pence would return from injury (still unknown). Crawford has given them a steady up-the-middle presence that made it easier to address those other issues.
The only real question regarding Jhonny Peralta was how long he'd be able to maintain his performance. The Cardinals are certainly hoping through 2017 since they still owe him over $22 million through then, and at 33, it's natural to begin to expect some decline. So far, he's fought off that decline (snarky comments welcomed and encouraged!) and augmenting good defense with offensive output he hasn't produced in years. He's on pace to match seasons like 2008 or 2011 and has put up numbers to date that exceed what most projections stated he would in the entire year.
This is what makes the Cardinals such an interesting team to watch from a front office perspective--they rarely sign big free agents but are not afraid to sign second-tier ones and get maximum production out of them, like Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Peralta, and let them leave when their time is up. Successful drafting keeps them stocked with players that let them lose Albert Pujols without missing a beat, which is how a team can go without a pitcher like Adam Wainwright and still have the best record in baseball by a mile. I am not a Cardinals fan, but I am a fan of how their front office operates.
For some reason as I was laying this post out in my mind, I was under the impression there weren't many good young shortstops. I'm wrong, of course, as the grouping of players near Adeiny Hechavarria and Andrelton Simmons shows. They're surrounded by Zack Cozart, who's out for the year with an injury that I really don't need to see on TV again, Jose Iglesias, Xander Bogaerts, Brad Miller and Jung-ho Kang, who's there despite having around 60 percent of the plate appearances as the rest.
There are clumps in this group--Hechavarria, Miller and Simmons don't bring much offense, the Pirates are still trying to figure out where to play Kang full-time (Josh Harrison's performance going forward will be a prime determinant), and Bogaerts and Iglesias appear to be a good mix of offense and defense. Depending on the measures used, Simmons' defense ranges from really good to otherworldly, and he provides one of the few examples of modern successful shortstops with a defense-first skill set. How long the Braves can afford that lack of offense is an important question.
It's June, so it's about time for Troy Tulowitzki to be injured. He's having a decent year, and the reason he's where he is on the chart is his $20 million salary. At this time last year, he was on track to be the NL MVP until not one, but two DL stints effectively ended his season. The Rockies, as usual, are going nowhere fast, and it will be interesting to see if there's a market for a 30-year-old injury-prone shortstop who's having a decent offensive year but not a good defensive one and is owed almost $100 million.
Jose Reyes has to be the oldest 32-year-old in baseball today. Granted, he made his big league debut in 2003 at 20, but he's spent the equivalent of around a year on the disabled list. His power peaked in 2006, and his defense is moving from average (at best) to free fall. The Blue Jays' high hopes for this season haven't been helped by him having an off campaign, and he's theirs for at least the next couple of years.
Looking at the Blue Jays from top to bottom, they're a team built to win this year, since they're among the oldest in baseball for position players (their pitchers, even with R.A. Dickey, are in the middle of the pack). At least they can decide which way to go, with only around $40 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2016 and 2017 (mostly to Reyes and Russell Martin), and fairly friendly team options for Jose Bautista (sure), Edwin Encarnacion (why not) and Dickey (uh...). Josh Donaldson will also reach his first year of arbitration eligibility.
There's a triad of bad featuring J.J. Hardy, Jimmy Rollins and Ian Desmond. The Dodgers trade for Jimmy Rollins made zero sense to me at the time, but he's a free agent after this year, so who cares? Last year, J.J. Hardy was the subject of a piece by the Wall Street Journal's Michael Salfino describing the dubious list of players with the fewest home runs after a 25-home run season, and his power hasn't shown any return this year. Unlike Rollins, he's owed over $26 million through 2017 with a vesting option in 2018 that doesn't have a prayer of being exercised if his performance continues in this vein.
Ian Desmond chose the wrong year to have an off year as he reaches free agency after this season. His errors are nothing new, but he's on a pace to set a new career high, which is downright alarming considering his previous high was 34 in 2010. Unfortunately, his dependable offense has fled him, and even though the Nationals have enough firepower to score despite this, it's not the performance that gets someone a long-term, big money contract, especially when they have Wilmer Difo waiting in the wings.
Chicago suffered having the two worst-fielding shortstops in baseball in 2013 when Starlin Castro and Alexei Ramirez tied for the lead in shortstop errors with 22. They bounced back nicely in 2014 on both sides of the ball, but left those gains behind as both are below replacement level this year. In the Cubs case, they have options, lots and lots of options; the White Sox, not so many. They have Tim Anderson in the minors, but he's still young (21). He's performing well at Double-A Birmingham, and the Sox have a team option in 2016 for Ramirez--$10 million with a $1 million buyout. The Tim Anderson era might get an earlier start than initially thought.
There appear to be around 8-10 teams that are set for the foreseeable future at short, another 8-10 looking for something better or waiting out contracts, and the rest in limbo--just like every other position. In terms of fielding percentage, the position has never been fielded better, and if offense is down from years past, bangers like Hanley Ramirez and J.J. Hardy (once) were more the exception than the rule.
2015 seems to be a time of transition, as some of those former offensive guys get older and are replaced by more defensive-minded players. As runs scored continue to be down over years past, preventing runs is taking on almost as much importance as scoring them, and how teams choose their shortstops is beginning to reflect this.
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Scott Lindholm is an editor and featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor to BP Wrigleyville. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.