Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week, The Ringer is exploring why Cleveland matters.
Americans are obsessed with size. Maybe other cultures are, too, but Americans definitely love big things: the Big Mac, the Big Apple, the Washington Monument, The Rock. Even in baseball, where the long history and relatively slow pace of play often lead its disciples to consider themselves more cerebral or evolved than other sports fans, we’re obsessed with size.
We love big fastballs and long home runs. We sit enraptured by Noah Syndergaard and build idols for The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton. Even our shortstops are big: The current golden age of shortstops is heralded by two enormous man-children who stand 6-foot-4 and weigh 215 pounds: Houston’s 21-year-old Carlos Correa and the Dodgers’ 22-year-old Corey Seager.
Seager and Correa are not only themselves big, but so are their numbers: a career 128 OPS+ for Correa, 146 for Seager. They play in big markets for teams with big aspirations and have already become big stars.
We might value size, but size is not value. And no disrespect to either Seager or Correa, but the best young shortstop in baseball right now isn’t as big a name, or nearly as big a person.
Correa and Seager look like the shortstop on your Little League team, where the best player plays shortstop if he’s right-handed and can run even a little. Sometimes they look weird in the field, and sometimes — with Correa in particular — a lack of traditional range or agility is made up for by just throwing their way out of trouble.
Francisco Lindor, all of 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, looks like what you’d traditionally see in the big leagues. In the field, he looks like an artist.
Watching the 22-year-old Lindor play defense, you become aware of the difference between adequate and exceptional. It’s the difference between chucking a wadded-up sheet of paper at a wastebasket and building a world-record paper airplane.
Lindor passes more than just the eye test, though. In careers of almost exactly equal length, Fielding Runs Above Average rates Lindor as being 28.7 runs better than Correa with the glove, while FRAA gives Lindor a 16.4-run edge over Seager — though Seager’s played 72 fewer games. (FRAA also rates Lindor as by far the best defensive shortstop in baseball this year.) Using the rate of about 10 runs per win, that’s pretty similar to the advantage Lindor has in Baseball-Reference’s defensive WAR: 2.7 wins over Correa, 2.9 over Seager. Advanced defensive metrics can be finicky in small samples, but these are like-for-like comparisons over the equivalent of a full season, and the results are not only similar but definitive: Lindor’s a better defender, and it’s not close.
Of course, Rey Ordóñez was a better defender than Alex Rodriguez. Being a better defender doesn’t make Lindor a better player overall — except he’s also an impact offensive player.
In his career, Lindor is 25-for-31 in stolen base attempts, which is a very good ratio for a medium-volume base stealer. At 24-for-31, Correa is right there with Lindor on the base paths, and while Seager, at 3-for-6, isn’t much of a runner at all, that’s not a huge advantage on the whole — maybe a couple of runs. The bat is the big offensive differentiator.
Even with all the Year of the Rookie talk from last season, I’m still not sure we appreciate how special these three shortstops are. Limiting the sample to players age 22 and younger, Seager is the best hitter (by OPS+) at the position over the first two seasons of his career during the expansion era. Correa is second, Lindor is third, and 2005–06 Hanley Ramirez, who went on to be a three-time All-Star on the strength of his bat alone, is fourth. Since 1961, only three other shortstops 22 and younger have posted even a league-average OPS+ over their first two seasons.
When Lindor came out of high school, the fear was that he wouldn’t have playable game power, that not only would he fail to grow into the kind of 30-homer guy Seager and Correa look like, but that he’d get the bat knocked out of his hands, struggling to drive the ball to the gaps and square up hard fastballs. Lindor turned out to be stronger than that, strong enough to become an impact hitter — not just for a 22-year-old, not just for a shortstop, but for anyone. The offensive gap from Correa to Lindor isn’t enough to make up for a two-win difference in the field. The offensive gap from Seager to Lindor is big enough that one more leap from Seager could make the difference, but even so, Lindor’s defensive advantage is even bigger.
And if Lindor’s the best shortstop now, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he stays there, since Seager and Correa will both almost certainly have to move to third base. It’s an underrated disadvantage of being big — almost every big shortstop eventually moves to a corner, where he’s less valuable. As men mature into their mid-20s, they get bigger and stronger, but also less agile and quick. That matters little for Lindor, who has agility and flexibility to spare, but for the bigger, slower Seager and Correa, that maturation will ultimately push them off shortstop entirely. With Alex Bregman looking like the next big thing, and totally capable of holding down shortstop, that moment might come for Correa as soon as next season. Lindor is the only one of the three who projects to stay at short for his whole career.
So if Lindor is the best player, why isn’t he the biggest star?
It’s about perception. Correa and Seager play in bigger markets, and both have already been tested under the lights of the postseason. Correa is also preposterously charismatic, which makes him easier to market. Cleveland is a tough place to become a star, particularly for a baseball player.
Beyond that, it’s about what we can see. Home runs are big, so we value them more than singles. You can’t perceive range factor or a heady turn on a double play the way you can a home run. And even though Lindor has his share of defensive highlights, so do Correa and Seager, because big dives and close plays at first aren’t necessarily the result of great defense — they’re the result of a player reaching the edge of his capability. Correa and Seager dive for balls that Lindor can reach standing up, and what looks like a tough play for a lesser defender looks easy for Lindor, and therefore doesn’t make SportsCenter.
You have to look past the superficial stats to see that Lindor is not only among a special class of shortstops, but that he’s the best of the bunch. For that reason, his star might never be as big as Correa’s or Seager’s, even if he maxes out his potential and turns into Derek Jeter with better defense.
And that’s fine, because we know that big is about getting attention, but good is about getting shit done.