Sport Shortstop evolution continues to raise ceiling

06:55  20 may  2017
06:55  20 may  2017 Source:   Larry Brown Sports

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All things considered, there has been no position that has undergone a more profound identity overhaul than shortstop over the past quarter-century. Formerly resigned as a "glove first, run second, hit if possible" slot, the keystone is now home to greatest variety of athletes the game has ever seen. Shortstop is the equivalent of what the dual-threat quarterback or do-it-all, Russell Westbrook/prime Derrick Rose point guard represents in today’s NBA.

While this transformation has been under way for some time, it is prepared to take full launch with the greatest generation of players the position has ever known, reshaping what an athlete in the sport looks like.

Look at any game on the given daily slate for Major League Baseball, and you are more likely than not to be drawn to how mesmerizing the shortstop play is. Choose a game and there is likely a tall, athletic frame more akin to running off screens or catching passes than fielding grounders and slicing hits into the gap.

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In the mid-'90s, when Jeter, Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Edgar Renteria were breaking into the game, it was thought that an exception was at hand and there was no way these oversized, six-foot, three-inch figures could hold up to the demands of the position. It was a smaller, faster man’s position, where the fleet of foot and quick of hand played. Offense was nice to have, but defense was not only the primary responsibility — it was sought out at the expense of offense.

Fast-forward to 2017, an era we could call "ARJR" (After Ripken-Jeter-Rodriguez), where 23 of the 30 opening day shortstops were 6-feet or taller. Of those 23, eight checked in at 6’2” or taller. The "shortest" were a handful who checked in at 5’10”. While it has been widely acknowledged that athletes are getting bigger, stronger and faster in football and basketball, baseball has not been exempt from this occurrence either, and shortstop has been the biggest beneficiary of this physical expansion in the game.

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“I love the fact that the game has evolved like that,” Ripken said to Baseball Prospectus. “I love the fact that we have bigger, athletic guys who can play the middle of your defense and take away hits and be consistent defensively as well as offensively.”

Years down the road, when this era of the game is looked back upon, it could stand as the greatest and most wide-spanning time of talent at the position in the game’s history. Ranging from the traditional-style contributors that harken back to Smith and Vizquel to the type of genre-bending talents that Ripken, Rodriguez and later Troy Tulowitzki popularized, possessing a top-tier talent at the keystone is more essential in today’s game than at any time before it.

If Chipper Jones, a prep shortstop whom the Braves drafted at the position and brought up through the minors there as well, would have been born into this generation, he would have likely not moved to the hot corner as soon as he did. His career would’ve likely mirrored the start that Corey Seager’s has: a top-notch bat who has the athleticism and length to play the position as well. The stigma of height equaling corner infield is a thing of the past. Today’s top athletes and overall players are more likely than not keeping their natural infield posts.

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Athleticism plays, regardless of the contest, so it is no wonder there are so many of these talents driving the direction of the game today. It should come as no coincidence that both Seager and Carlos Correa have made such immediate impacts on the game, as the two have mirrored each other’s march from top prospect to franchise cornerstone, all before either blew out the candles on their 23rd birthdays. Both hover around 6’4" and could easily be a pair of evolutionary Ripkens who stick it out for the long haul at a position that has seen few pedigrees like theirs fit so naturally.

Correa took home AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 at age 20, while driving home the finishing touches on the Houston Astros' rebuilding efforts. He now sits at the core of the game’s top team thus far on the summer and looks to be better than ever.

Meanwhile, Seager has seamlessly taken over as the heart of the everyday attack in LaLa Land, taking home last year’s NL Rookie of the Year while finishing in the top three in MVP honors as well. He has hit .306 over his first 220+ MLB games and looks the part of the best shortstop in a league where there is more competition than ever to hold that mantle.

There's still a place for a player who fits the more traditional mold at the position, of course. At 5’11", Francisco Lindor has been the driving force in the Cleveland Indians’ rise to the top of the American League. Perhaps the finest overall player at the position, the switch-hitting 23-year-old has contributed 13 wins above replacement in roughly two full seasons in the Majors.

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In many ways, Lindor is showing signs of being this generation’s Jeter. He is that player who has the personality and overall impact that creates the intangible things that carry a team. So perhaps it is no wonder he has been so naturally able not only establish himself, but also carry a team along with him.

The diversity at the position is truly staggering. There are amazing defenders such as Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford who fit the more traditional role of the position — despite both checking in at 6’2”. They have accounted for a total of 37.1 WAR over the last five years with their gloves alone.

There are even more potent bats at the position, as it continues to yield more offensive potency than ever before. Take Boston's Xander Bogaerts, who has taken home the past two Silver Slugger awards in the AL and leads all players at the position in hits.

A year ago, Mariners shortstop Jean Segura led the Majors in hits with 203. Meanwhile, 11 shortstops hit 20 or more home runs last year, led by Oakland’s Marcus Semien, who connected for 27. This breakout better than doubled the previous single-season high for 20-homer hitters at the position over the past 10 years.

There are even great talents who are native to the position yet making their bones elsewhere due to having another talented teammate at the position. Alex Bregman rose through the Astros’ system at shortstop but slid over to third base so he could play next to Correa. Likewise, in Chicago, Javy Baez has been shifted across to second base due to the presence of Addison Russell, giving the Cubs one of the most talented young middle infields the game.

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And consider this: The best of them all could have been Manny Machado, who made the shift to the hot corner early in his career so he could make a quicker ascent to the Majors.

These names are only the very tip of the iceberg, as there is a new wave of top talents who are already digging their cleats into making names for themselves at the spot as well. Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson, Aledmys Diaz, Orlando Arcia and Trevor Story are making waves, while Gleyber Torres, Ahmed Rosario and J.P. Crawford are knocking on the door from the top ranks of the minors as well.

The efforts of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Kris Bryant — all of whom already have collected MVP honors — will likely paint the picture of what baseball will be over the next decade. However, years later when the era is discussed at length by those who examine today's players, a few jaws may drop at the volume of potentially legendary play at the keystone. Seager, Correa and Bogaerts continue to redefine what the mold of the position looks like, and Lindor, Turner, Crawford, Simmons and company continue to reaffirm its longstanding values.

In the meantime, have fun with those All-Star ballots when the shortstop spot pops up for the next, oh, decade or so. It will be a hard decision to make, but at least it should be hard — if not impossible — to get wrong, one way or another.

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