It is no secret that offense has been down across all of Major League Baseball—especially for the last couple of years. For MLB Shortstops, however, this has become a very prominent problem. While it isn’t uncommon to think of shortstops as defensive wizards and not heavy hitters—I’m looking at you, Ozzie Smith—most are still able to hit at or just below league average year to year. Most teams are willing to make that tradeoff at such an important defensive position.
Around the middle of last month, Beyond the Box Score’s Scott Lindholm covered Shortstops amidst his recurring ‘Baseball’s best’ segment for each position. In his article, Scott described how various up-the-middle positions make necessary tradeoffs:
"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."
As you might assume, offense isn’t the biggest skill a team looks for when choosing their shortstop. That is mainly because of the vast defensive requirements a SS has, and how big of a role they play in a team's overall defense. Of course, a team wouldn’t choose shortstop A who bats below league average but has solid UZR and DRS totals over shortstop B who bats closer to league average with defensive issues. Although that scenario might sound far-fetched at first, it might be the only two choices MLB teams are getting with today’s shortstop.
This season, according to Tom Tango’s Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), overall offensive production from the shortstop position is at its lowest level since 1989—when George H.W. Bush became president and the aforementioned "Wizard of Oz" had his career-best defensive year. Using wOBA is great because it does one of the best jobs of describing how a hitter should be valued by his offensive output alone and is a main component in calculating the offensive portion of a players’ fWAR. FanGraphs describes the definition if you want more information.
In addition to wOBA, I also used FanGraphs' Offensive (Off) statistic. Off is just as—if not more—telling than wOBA. Created by FanGraphs, Off factors in something wOBA and wRC+, another offensive summary statistic, do not—base running. This gives us a better overall picture of how a player has contributed offensively overall to his team. Off is essentially overall offensive runs above or below average, so zero is the average.
Using these stats, it is clear that offense is going throw a bit of a rough patch for shortstops this year. In fact, when I did my yearly baseball fan duty of voting for the All-Star teams, I was a bit downtrodden when I had to compare their offensive stats. It was pretty clear that San Francisco Giant Brandon Crawford deserved to be there, but after that there wasn’t really a shortstop that stuck out offensively as being noticeably better than league average. That isn’t to say that offense is the only thing that determines a shortstop's All-Star candidacy for me, but I’d be a liar to say that I don’t put more weight into whether or not a player is an above average hitter as opposed to an above average fielder. That is simply because position players get more chances to affect the game offensively than they do defensively.
How bad has it gotten for shortstops? Well, take a look for yourself (note the y-axis range on the wOBA graph):
As you can see, not only are shortstops producing some of the lowest offensive levels since the end of the Cold War era, they also are challenging catchers—a position with a much greater defensive requirement—for the lowest percentage of players above league average offensively. Also notice that shortstop wOBA and league average wOBA trend closely for most of the time period. However, while league average wOBA has increased in 2015, shortstop wOBA has plummeted this year. So why might this be, and what does it mean for teams and shortstops, alike?
The cause of the offensive decline is likely more obvious than you might think. Simply put, we are beginning to see the next new batch of Major League shortstops cycle into the game—and with that comes the offensive adjustments needed to stay at the MLB level. When you think about how many shortstops there are in the game of baseball today that have played fewer than three years in the Majors, it can only mean a bright future is ahead.
There are 29 shortstops that are age 26 or younger that have had at least 50 plate appearances this season—with that list being highlighted by Xander Bogaerts, Adeiny Hechavarria, Carlos Correa, Jose Iglesias, Andrelton Simmons, Brad Miller, and Nick Ahmed. Combine that with the fact that more established players like Alexei Ramirez, Starlin Castro, Jimmy Rollins, Ian Desmond, J.J Hardy, and Elvis Andrus are all having abnormally poor offensive seasons. If established players like those were to put together a couple seasons in a row with the offensive output they are now, one can only assume that they won’t be sticking around for long. Of course, the more a veteran struggles the greater the likelihood that they open the gate for top SS prospects like Corey Seager, Javier Baez, J.P. Crawford, Nick Gordon, Trea Turner, or Franklin Barreto.
For a team, this downturn of offensive output might affect baseball in two ways. For starters, if a team is out of contention and they happen to have a skilled offensive shortstop, now might be the time you would want to sell and get the most in return for him. So for a team like, say, the Colorado Rockies with a good offensive threat at shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki, you might get the highest return in a trade with the plethora of teams who could play a decent defensive shortstop and post above average numbers offensively. That is not to say that you wouldn’t normally get a good return for Tulo, it just means that now you might get the best if you were to trade with a team like the New York Mets, for example.
Secondly, how great does the St. Louis Cardinals signing of Jhonny Peralta for 4 years/$53 mil look right now? Or how about the rival-Pittsburgh Pirates 4 year/$11 mil signing of Jung-Ho Kang (although he has more innings at 3B than SS)? An argument could even be had that, with a 1.0 fWAR in 74 plate appearances this season, Houston Astros SS Jed Lowrie has hit his weight in money (he is getting paid $8 mil in 2015, it has been argued that 1 Win Above Replacement is worth around $6 to $7.5 mil).
Most of those players did not get paid to be excellent defenders—although Peralta is a better one than he leads on. Teams realized that they could sacrifice a little defense or speed for an above average hitter, and they paid below market value for it. In the future, this might be something that changes as teams starved for offense look to find value in a hitting shortstop rather than a defensive one. Surely teams would rather want a shortstop they could plug into the middle of their lineup and not in the bottom third—although, this season, over 47 percent of the time a shortstop hits 7, 8, or 9.
Although shortstops seem to lack the offense present at other positions now, it surely won’t continue to be like this. Each position—and baseball, in general—cycles through young and veteran players every so often. It is this cycle that we are seeing with MLB shortstops right now. That is why we should not be too worried about whether this is going to be a more permanent thing. Shortstop has the lowest average age of any position player baseball right now, which is why the future of the position only looks like it will improve from here.
--A minimum of 50 Plate Appearances was used for all of the graphs
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.