Shortstops Still Standing Out
There is a shortstop playing for one of the Florida teams this season batting .336/.391/.541, heating up at the right time and overall posting one of the better offensive years by a player at his position in recent memory. Yes, Hanley Ramirez (.351/.413/.556) is having another banner year but the first sentence here applies to Tampa Bay Rays shortstop, Jason Bartlett.
The players manning Tampa Bay's middle infield represent two of this year's biggest surprises in Bartlett and Ben Zobrist. Coming into this season, Bartlett was a career .276/.337/.362 hitter more renowned for his clubhouse presence (2008 team MVP!!) and glove than for his contributions with the bat. Now he's OPS'ing over .900. And really, how much playing time would Zobrist even have seen if Akinori Iwamura did not go down?
But I want to focus on shortstops for the purposes of this article. I wrote at the beginning of the 2007 season how 2006 was just the sixth ever season in which four or more shortstops eclipsed the 120 OPS+ mark. For all of the talk of how A-Rod, Nomar, Jeter and Tejada represented the peak for shortstop productivity by posting banner season after banner season around the turn of the century, that era seems never to have gone away.
Since 1985, there have been 103 seasons of 110 OPS+ batting by MLB shortstops playing at least 90 games (a convenient cutoff given Bartlett's DL stint this year). 42 of those seasons occurred between 1985 and 1998, the first 14 of the 25 years I analyzed. From 1999 through 2009, in those eleven years there have been 61 shortstops eclipse the 110 OPS+ mark in a given season.
While their simultaneous emergence captivated baseball fans everywhere, Alex Rodriguez would eventually move to third base, Nomar Garciaparra would fall off badly and Derek Jeter began producing unspectacular but steady seasons. When Miguel Tejada regressed significantly in 2007 after three great seasons in Baltimore, it seemed the age of the high-producing offensive shortstop may have come to a close.
But now there is a new crop of shortstops, young and old, toiling in smaller markets and to much less fanfare than did Nomar and Jeter and A-Rod during their shortstop heyday. In fact, 2009 may well be the best season in baseball history for shortstop productivity. Sticking with the metric mentioned earlier, players posting 110 OPS+ and higher, only 2002 matches this season in terms of the amount of players besting the mark. In both years, seven shortstops accomplished the feat.
AVG OBP SLG OPS+
A-Rod .308 .392 .623 158
Tejada .308 .354 .508 128
Nomar .310 .352 .528 127
Hernandez .288 .356 .478 120
Cora .291 .371 .434 119
Renteria .305 .364 .439 113
Jeter .297 .373 .421 111
AVG OBP SLG OPS+
HanRam .351 .413 .556 154
Bartlett .336 .391 .541 139
Tulo .275 .360 .535 126
Jeter .318 .387 .452 121
Escobar .307 .374 .464 120
Scutaro .295 .386 .441 118
Tejada .323 .350 .463 115
A quick glance at both lists makes it pretty easy to explain why the 2009 group gets so much less publicity. The first group was still considered part of a revolutionary time in baseball, and it didn't hurt that they were largely either in huge baseball markets or playing for the best teams in the game. A-Rod, Nomar and Jeter were referred to as the Holy Trinity, Tejada came on later but grabbed headlines for the great Oakland A's teams of the turn of the century. Edgar Renteria played for St. Louis at the time, a great market with a large and attentive fanbase.
This season's group is a different story. Ramirez and Bartlett's teams have combined to draw less than the Yankees this year. Speaking of the Yankees, it seems like for once Jeter might be overlooked! Newcomers Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are grabbing headlines as the Yankees cruise to their best season in a few years. Troy Tulowitzki is in Denver, Yunel Escobar in Atlanta, Miggy is now in Houston and the excitement directed towards Marco Scutaro at the beginning of the season seems to have faded with the hopes of the Blue Jays.
We are still in the middle of a golden era of shortstop productivity, perhaps even at the peak of it. If the Marlins and Rays make a big push and qualify for the post-season, it will have to be thanks in large part to their respective shortstops. If that happens, then maybe this crop of slugging glove-men will get their due.