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The Days of the Weak-Hitting Shortstop Are Dead

Players at the position used to be defensive specialists and offensive liabilities. Now they’re poised to have another record year at the plate.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Shortstops in 2019 are better hitters than they’ve ever been before. If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because the same was true in 2018 before that, and 2016 and 2017 before that. In March, I explored reasons for this sudden and seemingly sustained phenomenon, and surmised that it might continue in the 2019 season. But even the most optimistic projection wouldn’t have predicted what players at the position have accomplished in the first half.

Throughout MLB history, shortstops have generally hit about 10 percent worse than the league average. Sometimes that number’s been better—shortstops were slightly above average in 1947, the only time that had ever happened before last year—and sometimes it’s been worse—it was something like 25 percent below average for much of the 1970s—but it’s typically hovered around that line. It makes sense: Shortstops have been selected primarily for their defensive skills, so they could lag on offense while still providing value for their teams. “It was ‘Make sure you make all the plays, and whatever you hit is icing on the cake,’” Larry Bowa, one of those feeble-batted ’70s shortstops, told me.

But that dynamic has tilted in recent seasons, and 2019 is the latest and most extreme manifestation yet of shortstops’ newfound offensive prowess. It’s not just A-Rod and Jeter and Nomar; practically all shortstops now can handle a bat and bludgeon a meatball over the fence.

Before 2016, the league’s shortstops had never combined to hit more than 423 home runs in a season. That total has climbed ever since: 493 in 2016, 534 in 2017, 571 in 2018. This year, shortstops should hit well over 600 combined dingers: Their current pace puts them at 663, but home run totals tend to rise in the summer months, so that incredible pace might even be underselling their projection.

That means that 2019’s teams should receive at least an average of 22 homers from the shortstop position. Just four years ago, in 2015, only two teams total received 22 homers from their shortstops. In many years in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, not a single team did.

And although that change is in some part attributable to the changed ball, thanks to which hordes of home run records seem poised to fall this season, shortstops have improved a disordinate amount compared to the rest of the league. In other words: The whole league is now hitting better, but shortstops are hitting especially better and with more power.

Relative to the league’s overall offensive environment, this year’s shortstops have the most hits they’ve ever had. They have the most doubles, the third-most triples, and the second-most homers, with 9.9 percent of the league’s total. (Last year, they reached a record 10.2 percent; before 2016, they’d never been above 8.4.) They have the highest batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS relative to the league environment, too, as well as the most strikeouts, the most runs, and the second-most RBI.

For all intents and purposes now, shortstops are power hitters, the same as everyone from every other position. Their combined OPS+ is 105, meaning they’ve hit 5 percent better than league average, which would be shortstops’ best-ever mark. They’ve almost always brought up the rear in terms of positional performance at the plate, but they’re in the middle of the 2019 pack. Their yearly performance is highlighted in black on this chart, while every other position is in muted gray.

In the first half of the 2019 season, the top shortstops were a healthy mix of established stars—Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Francisco Lindor—and more surprising up-and-comers. It’s the latter group that elevates the position as a whole, particularly given that a number of the former—Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager—have missed extended time due to injury. Less heralded players like Jorge Polanco, Tim Anderson, and Marcus Semien have broken out, and relatively untested major leaguers like Kevin Newman and J.P. Crawford have excelled in their most extended exposure to the sport’s highest level.

Fernando Tatís Jr. epitomizes the trend: He’s already one of the best shortstops in the league, as a 20-year-old rookie who’s never played a game in Triple-A. If he had enough at-bats to qualify for the offensive leaderboards (he missed 34 games with a strained hamstring), he’d lead all shortstops with a 166 OPS+; heck, he’d be tied for fourth among all players at any position, behind only Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Christian Yelich and even with fellow rookie Pete Alonso. Tatís is an advanced hitter, solid defender, and delightfully manic baserunner, and like Lindor, Báez, and others, he should be a star shortstop for years to come.

The shortstop youth movement is real, and not just with Tatís. Of the top 10 shortstops in fWAR in the first half, Semien was the oldest at just 28 years; of the top 34 shortstops—every one with at least 0.3 WAR this season—not one is older than 30.

Weighted by production (so higher-value players count for more than lower-WAR peers), the average shortstop age has fallen from 28-29 years old at the start of this decade to 25-26 years old now. The position hasn’t been this young since World War II.

That decline in years makes sense as it comes amid a broader trend toward younger stars in the sport, but again, a general league-wide development affects shortstop especially. In 2019, shortstop is the youngest position on the diamond by nearly a full year.

Just given the current class of shortstops’ ages, then, we’d expect continued excellence at the plate for a while. The strategic trends that undergird the position’s offensive boom should only compound this reality.

Shifting and other advanced defensive tactics allow lesser defenders to stick at shortstop or even move there in the professional ranks, thereby allowing players with a more offensive profile to play the traditionally defensive position. The Cardinals’ Paul DeJong, for instance, never played shortstop in college but has started 86 of St. Louis’s 88 games there this year; he’s hit well and played remarkably clean defense, and is on pace for a 5-WAR season.

Teams also now try to wring every possible ounce of offense out of their lineups, so they’re comfortable slotting players who might fit best at second or third base into the shortstop hole. Shortstop-capable defenders with All-Star-caliber bats are so abundant that some teams even have too many to play there at once, which would seem a foreign assessment about any non-Jeter-A-Rod team before now. But when Tatís, Correa, and Didi Gregorius have missed time with injuries, the Padres, Astros, and Yankees have substituted Manny Machado, Alex Bregman, and Gleyber Torres, respectively, at shortstop to add extra offensive oomph at the position.

The elevated offense matters for team-building purposes, and for player evaluation, and for just plain value. Players who have spent at least a quarter of their games at short have combined for 58 WAR already, by FanGraphs’ tally, putting them on pace for about 105 over the full season. That total represents an extraordinary leap; last year, when they collected 90.4 wins, was the first time shortstops broke 90; 2016 (80.7) was the first time they even reached 80.

Some of the position’s superlative 2019 results likely stem from luck, as shortstops have a .315 batting average on balls in play that’s eight points higher than they’ve ever managed before, or unsustainable hot streaks. It’s improbable that every breakout hitter this year will maintain that new level of production going forward, either in the second half of this season or in 2020 and beyond.

But the group is so young and talented, with more young and talented players on the way—three of the top four prospects in baseball are now shortstops, per FanGraphs: the Rays’ Wander Franco (no. 1), the Twins’ Royce Lewis (no. 2), and the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette (no. 4)—that we might expect shortstops as a whole to continue to hit better than ever before, year after year. The position was once home to defensive specialists and maybe, once every decade, an outstanding hitter or two. Now every team seems to have a slugger who can also handle the position’s defensive demands. Shortstops and long balls pair nicely after all.