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The Golden Age of Shortstops Has Only Just Begun

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order. The shape of each entry will vary from week to week, but there will always be nine. Like last week, our big bat is up second.

1. The Rangers might have just run away with the AL West.

The Texas Rangers are up 9.5 games in the AL West.

Wait, what? When did that happen? Weren’t they just … what?

Seriously, just three weeks ago, Texas was in a virtual stalemate with Seattle. From opening day through June 3, the Rangers led the division or trailed the division leader by no more than 2.5 games. And in the past three weeks, the Rangers have put more than nine games of daylight between themselves and second-place Seattle.

Texas is 15–4 in June, during which time it’s torn through division opponents like a superheated metal sphere placed on a brick of artificial cheese product. The Rangers took 11 of their 15 wins this month off other AL West teams, increasing their overall division record to 26–13.

What’s more, this all happened while a lot of things have gone wrong. Prince Fielder is still sitting on a 54 OPS+. Yu Darvish is back on the DL. Reliever Shawn Tolleson hasbeen unplayable. But they’ve also had quite a bit of good fortune, thanks to the explosion of 21-year-old Nomar Mazara, the emergence of Matt Bush in the bullpen, Ian Desmond’s easy transition to center field, and whatever Colby Lewis is doing. Lewis, who was a mid-rotation innings eater at his peak, has a 2.81 ERA in 93 innings and almost threw a perfect game last week.

The Rangers are turning into one of those teams that just feels fun. Like last year’s Blue Jays, anything seems possible with these guys. They’ll be appointment viewing from now until October.

2. The Golden Age of Shortstops is getting even more golden.

It was only three seasons ago that the Cardinals went to the World Series with Pete Kozma at shortstop. Today, if a presidential candidate promised “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and a quality shortstop in every big league lineup,” that last plank in the platform would have the best chance of coming true.

Beyond last year’s absurd rookie class of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts is in the middle of an MVP-quality season. Manny Machado has moved back over to short after four years at third base. Brandon Crawford went from being just a glove and a haircut to a 20–home run masher. And in any other year, Addison Russell, a three-win player as a rookie, who’s younger than Lindor and only a few months older than Seager and Correa, would be getting the breathless praise reserved for that sainted troika. Instead, he’s an afterthought.

You can probably go 12 to 15 deep right now naming MLB shortstops who can hold down the position defensively and deliver above-average offensive output. Not only could you cast Lindor, Correa, and Seager as a latter-day Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra, today’s crop can match the turn-of-the-century shortstop class for depth.

And it’s only going to get deeper.

From 2010 to 2012, teams spent eight top-20 picks on shortstops, and an astonishingly high number have panned out astonishingly quickly. The Orioles took Machado third overall in 2010. With the next pick, the Royals took Christian Colon, who — no matter what else he does in his career — got the World Series–winning hit last year. In 2011, Lindor and hard-swinging Cubs utilityman Javier Báez went eighth and ninth overall. And in 2012, the first four shortstops off the board were Correa (first), Russell (11th), Gavin Cecchini (12th, to the Mets), and Seager (18th). And it’s not like Cecchini’s a total bust; while I’d bet against him sticking at shortstop in the long run, he has a slash line of .323/.394/.453 at triple-A and ought to turn into a decent utility infielder somewhere.

Those three years saw a preposterous success rate, and now the top shortstops from the next three draft classes are starting to bear fruit, too.

Two weeks ago, Tim Anderson of the White Sox became the first to arrive. The 17th pick in the 2013 draft out of a Mississippi junior college, Anderson is a multisport athlete who figured out how to play baseball in a big hurry at the college level. He lacks the power and patience to have superstar-level upside, but he can stick at short, steal bases, and hit for a high average. Forced into action because he’s better than a 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins, Anderson has yet to walk or homer so far in his 10-game big career, but he’s hit .273 with four doubles, a triple, and a stolen base. That doesn’t make him the next A-Rod, but it might make him the next Mark Grudzielanek, which is still pretty good.

One pick before Chicago selected Anderson, Philadelphia took high school shortstop J.P. Crawford, who’s now a top-five prospect in all of baseball and the rock upon which the next good Phillies team will be built. Crawford is a no-doubt-about-it shortstop who can do a little bit of everything, and he has the potential to become a superstar. A month into his triple-A experience, Crawford can’t be too far from a call up to the Phillies, who could certainly use the help.

So could the Milwaukee Brewers, who will probably bring up Orlando Arcia from triple-A whenever Jonathan Villar either cools off or gets traded. Unlike his older brother Oswaldo — who was recently DFA’d by the Twins — the younger Arcia is a plus defender at short who ought to fall somewhere between Anderson and Crawford offensively.

And it keeps going. The Astros took Alex Bregman second overall out of LSU just last year, and Bregman — who is a small man constructed in a lab to destroy baseballs — has a slash line of .304/.412/.571 in double-A. He’s already sparking conversations on whether it might be a good idea to move Correa to third, and he could see time with the Astros before year’s end. Meanwhile, Bregman’s former SEC rival Dansby Swanson — who was drafted out of Vanderbilt by the Diamondbacks, then traded to the Braves — isn’t too far behind developmentally, and by virtue of his better physical tools, he has even more upside.

This would be a golden age for shortstops even if Seager or Anderson were the end of the line, but this ride’s going to keep going a little longer.

3. It’s time to bathe in Red Sox trade rumors.

One of my favorite parts of every summer is when the Boston trade rumors start heating up, because they generate amazing, almost Dadaist takes.

The Red Sox have limitless financial resources and more promising young position players than they can use at one time, yet always seem to be at least one good starting pitcher short of contention. Last year, that led to gems like “a Cole Hamels–for–Blake Swihart trade would have been awful for the Red Sox.” (The Rangers went out and got Hamels and made the playoffs, while the Sox held on to Swihart, who’s not only been hurt most of the year, but is now a left fielder, not a catcher.)

This year, the Red Sox are apparently asking around on José Fernandez and Gerrit Cole, which is cool — you never know until you ask.

But there’s something about the Red Sox that makes every trade deadline turn into this:

It’s worth noting the Red Sox are under new management this year — president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and GM Mike Hazen replaced outgoing GM Ben Cherington — and Dombrowski and Hazen have already made one big prospects-for-pitching deal, acquiring Craig Kimbrel over the winter. Maybe they’ll be a little looser with their young talent than Cherington was, rather than sitting tight and assuming every Portland Sea Dog will turn into the baseball equivalent of Natalie Portman.

4. Someone needs to make a movie about Hugh Daily.

Last week, I wrote about the leaguewide strikeout epidemic and came across a fascinating piece of history. The average K/9 rate across the majors is currently 8.1, and the first pitcher ever to surpass that in a single season was right-hander Hugh Daily, who struck out 483 batters in 500 2/3 innings in 1884. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) compiles online biographies of baseball players, and Daily’s bio, written by Frank Vaccaro, is something else.

Daily, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. as a child, is listed on Baseball Reference as having the nickname “One Arm,” apparently because he had his left hand shot off as a teenager while playing with a loaded musket in a Union armory during the Civil War. Daily went on to play baseball using a pad on his left arm, against which he’d trap the ball with his right hand since he couldn’t use a glove. For that reason, Daily didn’t make his big league debut until age 34, and when he did, he lived a life that made Old Hoss Radbourn look like a choirboy.

Daily frequently fought opponents and teammates alike and was notorious for his bad language. At one point, his teammates submitted a petition to ownership demanding Daily’s removal from the team. Vaccaro summed it up well: “Daily’s horrific, cuss-laden in-game outbursts towards the opposition, umpires, fans, and teammates reduced what should have been a superstar major league career to six short years of bitter memories, embarrassments, and burned bridges. No team ever re-signed him for a second season.” Daily’s fate after baseball is unknown — the last anyone heard of him he was working as a night watchman in Baltimore in 1922.

The point here is we need more novels, plays, TV shows, and movies about old-timey ballplayers. Is there anyone out there who wouldn’t go see a heist movie set at the turn of the century in which the inside man is a foul-mouthed, one-armed former pro baseball player with outrageous sideburns? Bourgeois America just made a cultural phenomenon out of a rap musical about a former treasury secretary whose defining characteristic is that he can’t stop telling everyone how great he is. Imagine what we could do with a subject like Mike Donlin, the hard-drinking, womanizing superstar center fielder for the early 1900s Giants who once left baseball for a year to become a stage actor.

5. The WPA Graph of the Week goes to the Nationals and Cubs.

This one reminds me of a line from Apollo 13: “That’s three hours of boredom followed by seven seconds of sheer terror.”

Thanks to some outstanding pitching by Jason Hammel and Stephen Strasburg, this game was tight all the way. Before the bottom of the eighth, the wildest swing in win probability happened during the second at-bat of the game, when Jason Heyward followed Ben Zobrist’s leadoff homer with a double to bring Chicago’s number to 65.6 percent.

But late in the game, it got really wild. The Nats went up 2–1 in the bottom of the eighth, then the Cubs scored two in the top of the ninth before allowing the Nationals to tie it again. Then, the Cubs scored in the top of the 12th and looked to have it locked up — a peak win probability of 89.4 percent — before the Nationals came back and Jayson Werth eventually walked it off.

6. The Angels farm system might be even worse than we thought.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sent minor league third baseman Kyle Kubitza to Texas for cash considerations. That’s a nothing deal: roster filler for cash; it happens every week and nobody bats an eye. But Kubitza, a third baseman with a .714 OPS in triple-A who turns 26 next month, was the Angels’ fifth-best prospect before the season started, according to Baseball Prospectus. In a good system like Houston’s, that’s Kyle Tucker, who’s a year removed from being a top-five pick. In the Angels’ system, that’s just a guy.

We just all sort of assume without looking that every team’s got future big leaguers on the farm, but what happens if you just don’t? Not only does that mean there’s no short-term help on the way for the Angels, it’s a severe handicap for improving your team via trade. Rectifying that situation is of paramount importance for the Angels going forward, and I do not envy first-year GM Billy Eppler, who has to figure out how.

7. We’re gonna have to start taking the Marlins seriously pretty soon.

Speaking of teams that very suddenly and quietly moved into playoff position, the Marlins are a game back of the Mets for the second wild card in the NL. That’s despite top free-agent signing Wei-Yin Chen posting a 5.22 ERA and despite the Mighty Giancarlo Stanton flirting with the Mendoza Line all year.

The Marlins have capitalized on a great performance from their bullpen, a return to form for José Fernandez — who’s somehow striking out 37.5 percent of opponents — and a solid up-and-down lineup in which only Adeiny Hechavarria has not posted a league-average OPS. Oh, and the Marlins are only 1–6 against the Braves, which is incredible — I’d bet the University of Miami could take one of seven from this Braves team.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a weird season so far. But even though it’s still too early to nail Miami on as a playoff contender, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start preparing for that possibility.

8. Some teams are bucking the strikeout trend, for better or worse.

Six of the 16 lowest strikeout rates among qualified MLB starters belong to Rangers and Blue Jays pitchers. Some of those names are unsurprising — such as Lewis and J.A. Happ, who have never been big strikeout guys — while others are more concerning. For instance, it certainly wasn’t the plan for Marcus Stroman, whose 5.23 ERA and 16.3 percent strikeout rate look even worse once converted to metric, and Derek Holland, who was never Randy Johnson to begin with, is down to a 13.7 percent strikeout rate. But since both teams are full of above-average defenders, the lack of strikeouts hasn’t inflicted too much harm.

9. Clayton Kershaw is on pace to annihilate the single-season K/BB record.

Not that anyone is particularly surprised by this, but Clayton Kershaw’s striking out 20.14 batters for every walk. The current record is 11.63, set by Phil Hughes in 2014 — which probably makes you feel like this record doesn’t actually mean much. The only other pitchers to top 10 are Bret Saberhagen in 1994 and Cliff Lee in 2010.

Now for some math: If you want to increase a fraction, it’s easier to reduce the denominator, rather than increase the numerator. They were all low-walk guys, so it isn’t incredibly surprising that none of those pitchers led the league in strikeouts.

Well, Kershaw is doing that now. In fact, he needs only two strikeouts to match Saberhagen’s entire 1994 total, only 44 to match Lee’s, and 45 to match Hughes’s. Kershaw is already one of only three pitchers to lead the league in strikeouts while posting a K/BB ratio of 7.00 or better. (The others are Pedro Martínez, who did it twice, and David Price). Assuming he makes 33 starts, Kershaw is on pace for 310 strikeouts and only 15 walks, which would be only the fourth season in major league history in which a pitcher struck out 300 batters with a K/BB of even 6.00 or higher (the third was Kershaw last year) and the first in which a pitcher struck out both 10 batters per nine innings and 10 batters per walk.

It’s time to start rationing our adjectives when it comes to Kershaw, because at this rate, we’re going to run out by season’s end.