A New Golden Age of Shortstops
Now, even the most casual baseball fan has heard of Derek Jeter and I’m willing to bet that most fans born before the year 2000 have heard of Nomar Garciaparra. However, unless you’re a pretty close follower of the game or the Cleveland Indians specifically, you might not have heard of Francisco Lindor.
As you can see by the tweet, Mr. Lindor put up numbers in his rookie season which rival those of Jeter and Garciaparra.
So, which one of those statlines belongs to Lindor, you ask?
You might be surprised to learn that the answer is A (B is Nomar in ’97, C is Jeter in ’96). Lindor finished 2015 (his age 21 season, mind you) with a batting average just a point lower than rookie Jeter’s and an OPS+ a point lower than rookie Nomar’s. We’re talking about two of the best offensive shortstops of the ’90’s and ’00’s here, so it’s safe to say that Lindor is in good company.
If you were born sometime in the ’80’s or before, you might remember that there was another good shortstop who burst onto the scene in 1996 along with Jeter – a 20-year-old playing for the Mariners by the name of Alex Rodriguez. His offensive numbers in 1996 were even better than those of Jeter and Nomar in their rookie years, posting a triple-slash line of .358/.414/.631 and an OPS+ of 161 (it should be noted that Rodriguez’s official rookie season was 1995, but he didn’t even eclipse 150 PA, so 1996 was his first full season).
If you followed baseball at all this season, you also might remember that there were two very young shortstops who had similar impacts to Lindor in 2105, and their names are Xander Bogaerts (Boston) and Carlos Correa (Houston). Once again, the offensive production of these young men was impressive enough that, if I had put either of them in the tweet mentioned earlier, you’d have a hard time picking who was who.
In his first season playing exclusively SS (he split time between SS and 3B in 2014), Bogaerts finished with a line of .320/.355/.421 and an OPS+ of 108, impressive for someone with only 7 home runs. Correa, who (like Lindor) was called up mid-season to aid the Astros’ playoff chances, posted a .278/.345/.512 line and an OPS+ of 132.
Now, before we go any further, I want to dissuade readers from making the inference that this article is meant to compare the three recent youngsters with three past greats (A-Rod is still active, yes, but his peak is behind him). Instead, I mean to emphasize the similarity between the trios – three great young shortstops who made their initial impact on the MLB landscape at roughly the same time.
In comparing these young players from a value standpoint, rWAR ranked the players like this:
Now, if you looked at things like home run, RBI, and runs scored totals it might seem that Rodriguez, Garciaparra and Jeter were all actually better than the trio of men from 2015. However, when comparing players from different time periods, it’s important to consider the state of the game in those times. In the mid/late ’90’s, offense was on its way to reaching an all-time high.
Nowadays, offensive production is down as pitchers are evolving to be better than steroids are (hopefully) less of an impact on today’s game than they were back then. This is why statistics like WAR, OPS+ (which we’ve already looked at) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) are useful, because they compare the player to league average (or replacement level, in WAR’s case) and adjust for other things such as ballpark factors. In the years we’ve looked at, A-Rod, Nomar, and Jeter posted wRC+ of 159, 122 and 106 respectively. Now, while the group of Bogaerts, Correa and Lindot had much lower wRC totals, their wRC+ were right on track at 109, 133, and 128 respectively. This shows that while the raw statistics may not live up to those of the players past, the young shortstops of 2015 were just as valuable to their teams and just as dangerous to their opponents.
To understand just how good all six of these players’ offensive seasons were, I used Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tool to search for a certain set of criteria that all of these hitters matched and see how many other players in history also satisfied this set of criteria. The results I got were pretty impressive.
First I narrowed the pool of players down, selecting single seasons from 1901 to 2015, players younger than 23 between their 1st & 3rd season who played at least 50% of games at SS and had at least 400 PA. Then I set the statistical criteria to match what Rodriguez, Garciaparra, Jeter, Lindor, Correa and Bogaerts all did: OPS+ >=100, OBP >=.340, 2B >=20, SB >=10, SO <.8/GP. Here are the results:
As you can see, these players are in quite good company with Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Arky Vaughan and Joe Tinker. Among the ranks we also see owners of fine careers like Hanley Ramirez, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Grich.
However, this doesn’t mean I’m projecting Bogaerts, Correa and Lindor to end up with long and successful careers like these men – we do see a couple of names on there who never amounted to much or are currently playing at far lower levels – but it’s a good sign, and it speaks volumes to exactly how good these three young men were in 2015.
Expecting them to maintain such a high level of performance going forward isn’t too lofty, but your expectations for these guys moving forward shouldn’t be for them to have Rodriguez- or Jeter-esque careers. However, I think it’s fair to say that the American League has a lot of exciting years of shortstop play to look forward to from these three.