Year of the Shortstop?
Last Thursday David Pinto posted a note on his Baseball Musings site about the quality of offensive output coming from shortstops in the National League East. He concluded the post with this question referring to Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez:
So is this the Nomar/Jeter/A-Rod trio of this generation?
They may be, but the truth is that the extraordinary production from shortstops extends well beyond the National League East in 2007. Thanks to the getting-ridiculously-more-awesome-by-the-day Baseball Reference and its fantastic new Play Index tool (subscribe if you have not yet), I was able to put into historical context just how fantastic this year's crop of shortstops have been.
Thanks to the Play Index, I was able to look back over time at those seasons that stood out in terms of quality shortstop offensive play. I looked for seasons in which multiple shortstops posted an OPS+ of 120 or better. For historical analyses of this sort, OPS+ does the trick because it adjusts for both ballpark and competitive environment. I chose "120" because it seems like a nice, round number and 20% above league average for a shortstop is one heck of a good season.
A shortstop with at least 502 plate appearences has posted an OPS+ of 120 or better only 147 times since 1901. There have only been six seasons in which four shortstops posted an OPS+ of 120 or better, and only one of those came before 1998. Never have five shortstops accomplished the feat.
Player OPS+ Robin Yount 151 Cal Ripken 144 Alan Trammell 138 Dickie Thon 126
Player OPS+ Nomar Garciaparra 142 Alex Rodriguez 135 Barry Larkin 134 Derek Jeter 126
Player OPS+ Alex Rodriguez 152 Nomar Garciaparra 132 Miguel Tejada 122 Jose Hernandez 121
Player OPS+ Alex Rodriguez 148 Edgar Renteria 131 Derek Jeter 127 Nomar Garciaparra 121
Player OPS+ Jhonny Peralta 139 Michael Young 133 Miguel Tejada 133 Derek Jeter 121
Player OPS+ Derek Jeter 138 Carlos Guillen 137 Miguel Tejada 126 Bill Hall 126
So there you have it, every season in which four shortstops have notched an OPS+ of 120 or better in the history of baseball. But given expansion, are these even the most impressive seasons for shortstops? In 1983, there were 26 available Major League starting shortsop jobs and from 1998 on, there were 30. How about in the pre-expansion years? Were there ever three shortstops in a 16-team league that pulled it off, because that would be a greater percentage than four out of 26 or 30?
The answer is yes. Buoyed by some of the greatest shortstops in the game's history, there are three distinct eras where we see three shortstops getting to 120 or better on multiple occasions. We will group them into the Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughn and Lou Boudreau eras while also showing the two outlier seasons in which it took place.
1901: 3 (Bobby Wallace- 136, George Davis- 130, Kid Elberfield- 124) 1903: 3 (Wagner- 161, Freddy Parent- 124, Elberfield- 121) 1906: 3 (Wagner- 168, Terry Turner- 123, George Davis- 120)
Note: Wagner played a lot of outfield and third base in 1901 but did manage a 160 OPS+. From 1899 to 1912, 134 was Wagner's lowest OPS+ season.
The Vaughn Era
1933: 3 (Arky Vaughn- 146, Joe Cronin- 124, Luke Appling- 121) 1940: 3 (Vaughn- 134, Cronin- 123, Appling- 123)
Note: Save 1939 when Vaughn put up a 119 OPS+, Vaughn bested the 130 mark in each year from 1933 to 1940.
The Boudreau Era
1943: 3 (Vern Stephens- 142, Appling- 142, Lou Boudreau- 133) 1947: 3 (Boudreau- 128, Appling- 125, Pee Wee Reese- 120) 1949: 3 (Stephens- 138, Eddie Joost- 137, Appling- 124)
Note: In fairness to Luke Appling, the eras are broken out as they are as much because they fit neatly with respect to chronology as they are because of the respective greatness of Wagner, Vaughn and Boudreau. As you can see, Appling's career spanned both Vaughn's and Boudreau's, he was a consistently excellent performer and a most deserving Hall of Famer.
1956: 3 (Ernie Banks- 137, Gil McDougald- 127, Harvey Kuenn- 126) 1964 (20 teams): 3 (Jim Fregosi- 141, Denis Menke- 136, Eddie Bressoud- 125)
Lest you start to believe that 120 OPS+ seasons are run of the mill for shortstops, consider that from 1970 to 1981, there were three total years in which shortstops reached that mark. And all of this brings us to 2007. I am mindful of all of the necessary caveats. We're barely a month in and I am just about positive that the OPS+ leaderboard for shortstops will look a lot different at the end of the season than it does now. Still, we may be in for a season of historic shortstop productivity in 2007. Check out your current list of shortstops with an OPS+ of 120 or better:
Player OPS+ Jose Reyes 169 Hanley Ramirez 165 Jimmy Rollins 157 J.J. Hardy 143 Edgar Renteria 142 Derek Jeter 140 Carlos Guillen 138 Jhonny Peralta 138 Miguel Tejada 133 Alex Gonzalez 127
Now, Alex Gonzalez will not end the year on this list, and it is likely that a few others drop out as well but it looks to me like we may be in for something special in 2007.
Athletes are bigger, stonger and faster than they have ever been. Seven footers can make three point shots and take defenders off the dribble in basketball and 275-pound linebackers can move laterally quickly enough to flag down even the speediest running backs. So why shouldn't a shortstop be able to hit in this day and age?
Cal Ripken was the first of the bigger-stronger-faster types and when Nomar, A-Rod and Jeter emerged more or less simultaneously, it was believed that the revolution was upon us. Maybe it was, but it is being taken to a whole new level in 2007.