Ask 100 old-timey baseball people what the most important position on the field is, and 99 of them will say “catcher.” Ask them what the second-most important position is, and 99 of them will say “shortstop.” Don’t worry about the one. That’s just Carl. Nobody likes Carl.
It’s a baseball truism, though, that if the catcher is the field general of his team, the shortstop is the lieutenant general of the infield. A team that finds a good shortstop, much less a franchise-defining shortstop, has an instant advantage that most teams don’t.
These are the teams that have been good at finding shortstops for the last 20 years. And, because it’s not that interesting to point out that Derek Jeter was excellent for nearly that entire time, we will also look at the teams that haven’t been good at finding shortstops. At least two of them have been comically bad.
I used Baseball-Reference to search for shortstops from the last 20 years, and I used their quick-’n’-dirty guide on what WAR totals usually mean, which is this:
2+ wins above replacement is roughly what to expect from a starter
5+ WAR for an All-Star
8+ WAR for an MVP
Note that I’m rounding up — a 1.5-WAR player counts as a starting-caliber shortstop — because decimal points in WAR are kind of silly.
To the shortstops!
The consistent teams you expected
The Yankees have enjoyed, at a minimum, starting-caliber seasons from their shortstop in 17 of the past 20 seasons. This is not a surprise. Derek Jeter had 15 of those seasons, And Didi Gregorius had two. There have not been a lot of seasons in which the Yankees have wondered what they were going to do about their shortstop.
The three seasons that missed, though, were 2011, 2013, and 2014. You can give them a pass for the first one, considering that Jeter hit .297/.355/.388, which was better than the average shortstop, even if his defense dragged him down. There are no such disclaimers for ‘13 and ‘14, though. Those were rough, rough seasons.
The other teams with MVP-caliber seasons were the Rangers and Mariners, who combined for five of them. All five were from Alex Rodriguez, who helped both teams inflate their numbers over the last two decades.
He was so, so amazing. If you know him only from centaur jokes and general weirdness, please reevaluate. He was Mike Trout before there was Mike Trout.
The consistent teams you might not have expected
If you’re looking for the teams that can match the Yankees in terms of sheer quantity of starting-caliber shortstops, there’s one in each league, and neither one was obvious before I ran the search.
The Braves have also enjoyed 17 seasons of starting-level shortstoppery over the last two decades, but they didn’t have the same one-superstar hegemony of the Yankees. They enjoyed a sampler platter, with fine seasons from Rafael Furcal, Walt Weiss, Yunel Escobar, Edgar Renteria, and Jeff Blauser. They also got two stellar defensive seasons from one or both Alex Gonzalezes, though those are extremely dWAR-heavy, if you’re inclined to dismiss those numbers.
The Braves also got four seasons from Andrelton Simmons, which gives them a common link to the other surprisingly consistent team, the Angels. Perhaps this isn’t a shock to Angels fans, who could appreciate the finer nuances of Erick Aybar’s career, but I wasn’t aware that he was solid for eight consecutive seasons for them before yielding the position to Simmons.
Related: David Eckstein was hit by more pitches (76) from 2001 through 2004 as the non-Eckstein shortstops were in the remaining 13 qualifying seasons (61). He was so, so amazing. If you know him only from gritty jokes and general obnoxiousness, please reevaluate. He was the Mike Trout of annoying.
The slightly boring teams
The Cubs and Diamondbacks each had a worthy starter at short in roughly half of their previous 20 seasons. Fair enough. But neither of them stumbled into even one All-Star-caliber season, according to WAR.
Addison Russell came closest for the Cubs, with a defense-heavy 4.3 WAR last year, but the rest of the list is more amusing than amazing. Starlin Castro gave them four solid years, but before that was Ryan Theriot for two, a fluky .274 season from Neifi Perez, two from the OK-est shortstop from the last two decades, Ricky Gutierrez, and one from Jose Hernandez, a dinger-and-whiff oddball who was just a little ahead of his time.
The Diamondbacks’ list of 10 is Stephen Drew-centric, as you would expect, with five starting-level seasons scattered between 2006 and 2011. The other shortstops on the list included Jay Bell (sure), Alex Cintron (oh, right!), and two of the more recent entries, Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed.
I just listed a bunch of names, and none of them really excited you.
It’s not like I was lying with the header of this section. You knew what you were getting into.
The Minnesota Twins have enjoyed some All-Star seasons from their shortstops. Two of them since 1997, in fact. Christian Guzman’s memorable Season of Infinite Triples made the list, as did a season from the perennially underrated Jason Bartlett.
The problem, though, is that the Twins haven’t had nearly enough of them — just six starting-caliber seasons in the last 20 years. Three of them came from Bartlett, one from Guzman, one from Pat Meares, and one from Pedro Florimon. That last one came in 2013, and it’s the only example from the last decade.
Since Bartlett’s 2007 season, the Twins have had 13 different seasons from players who spent more than 75 percent of their time at short. They’ve combined for two-and-a-half wins in those 10 seasons, with almost half of that total coming from Jorge Polanco this season. Sheesh.
This is all compounded by the fact that the Twins traded Johan Santana, one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time, for Carlos Gomez, who was then flipped for J.J. Hardy, who could have solved this problem for most of the last decade. Except he was flipped for Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey after a season. They played the worst game of One Red Paperclip I’ve ever seen.
But they weren’t the Padres.
That the Padres are on this list isn’t a surprise. They haven’t been known as a shortstop factory over the years, and they’ve struggled mightily in recent seasons. But their commitment to the art of avoiding starting-caliber shortstops is admirable. If you want to provide your own drum roll, here are the best shortstop seasons for the Padres in the last 20 years:
- Khalil Greene (3.5 WAR, 2007)
- Khalil Greene (3.2, 2004)
- Everth Cabrera (2.8, 2013)
- Khalil Greene (2.6, 2006)
- Everth Cabrera (1.8, 2012)
- Chris Gomez (1.7, 1998)
- Everth Cabrera (1.4, 2009)
- Miguel Tejada (1.2, 2010)
- Ramon Vazquez (1.2, 2003)
- Damian Jackson (1.2, 1999)
The Padres’ shortstop solutions: Khalil Greene and Everth Cabrera in the boom years, and you don’t want to know in the lean years.
You might be tempted to call this the Curse of Ozzie Smith, and that’s okay. Run with that temptation. But don’t forget that Roberto Alomar probably could have handled shortstop for a couple decades, too. That’s also valid.
For me, though, I’m going to look at this as the Curse of Matt Bush because it’s a little more recent. The Padres could have selected any amateur player in the country, and they passed over Justin Verlander to select Bush, who only found success after traveling to Hell and back to reemerge as a reliever. But if you want to say true to the theme of the post, the Padres also passed on one of the consensus top talents, Stephen Drew, because of money and borasophobia. It’s not like they missed out on a Hall of Famer, but note that the Diamondbacks squeaked into the boring category. The Padres would kill for the boring category.
Erick Aybar was lauded earlier in this article for being consistent. He is currently the Padres’ starting shortstop. You can guess what happened.
The Yankees have been the best at finding shortstops, but you expected that. The Padres were not, and you probably expected that, too, if unaware of the scale. In between were 28 different teams, and you can find their attempts below. Thanks for shortstopping with me!