The Tampa Bay Rays are renowned for both their continued ability to make chicken salad out of replacement-level refuse and their uncommon flexibility, playing multiple players at multiple positions in search of a tiny edge. The Rays current roster features seven players who with big league innings at shortstop under their belt.

When the Rays took the field against the Toronto Blue Jays today, they did so with Ben Zobrist as their starting shortstop, the first action of any kind Zobrist has seen at the position since 2009. A savvy move by the Rays, keeping Zobrist’s valuable bat in the lineup when they have a fly ball pitcher on the hill.

The Rays are an extreme case but it is important to remember: nearly all big leaguers were shortstops at one point. In Little League, in Pony League, high school, college whatever. The vast majority played short and pitched and hit .800 for the majority of their baseballing lives.

John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Oakland A’s Drum Beat blog had a great little story earlier this week, describing Oakland’s big offseason addition Yoenis Cespedes taking some reps at shortstop during early BP.

Cespedes positioned himself back near the grass, fielded grounders and made quick flip throws to first. They were thrown with seemingly little effort and arrived like Dave Winfield line drives.
Cespedes is back in the lineup as the DH.

Manager Bob Melvin said it’s safer to keep Cespedes out of the outfield to protect his tender wrists.

But nothing seemed wrong with Cespedes’ wrists when he took grounders at short, one time making an impressive backhanded throw from near second base.

Cespedes later told writers that he, shockingly, played shortstop from ages 10-16 in Cuba. Because of course he did. They all did!

It is testament to the demanding nature of the shortstop position that so many top athletes are moved away from it, unable to meet the gruelling defensive requirements. The current offensive standard for shortstops is set pretty low. The league average line for shortstops is a whopping .255/.309/.372, or an 85 wRC+. This allows people like Macier Izturis to continue drawing a pay cheque with his negative UZR and batting line nearly identical to that average mark.

There is a reason players like Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar are so highly rated: if you can stick at short and hit even a little, you are a rare bird indeed. Brendan Ryan cannot hit at all (his .204/.298/.299 is one for the ages) but his superlative defense keeps him employed. He is not alone. The Orioles prize the defense of J.J. Hardy so highly they are keeping his .284 wOBA in the lineup and moving young Machado to third base (for now.)

The A’s obviously won’t move their $36 million dollar man to actually play short during the games but, considering the collective line of their shortstops is somehow .187/.258/.296, perhaps they shouldn’t rule it out completely. The Rays and their shortstops, the motivation behind this post in the first place, own a 20 wRC+ over the last month. 20. TWENTY.

Find me a shortstop who can hit and I’ll show you a rich, rich man. Troy Tulowitzki is an icon for a reason (in my mind.) It is simply a very difficult job to do and the majority of teams in the big leagues seem content on punting any offense from the position. Which team will go the other way and give up on fielding premium defenders at short, instead looking to bludgeon opponents with sluggers around the diamond? The Yankees don’t have the worst track record doing just that, now do they?

Comments (10)

  1. But Derek Jeter’s a gold glover!

    Wait until Victor Martinez comes back for the Tigers, and they announce he’ll play 3B and move Miggy to SS.

    Kidding aside, the Tigers seem to want to go in that direction, giving Delmon Young regular PT (even if he sucks, it’s his bat that’s the calling card), and when they moved Cabrera to 3B to start the year.

    Could be a direction for a rich team to really pursue… Strikeout or fly ball pitchers, sluggers at different positions, defensive replacements off the bench if needed but not played regularly.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Short is a TOUGH position. Used to play some in high school, but my body type was more suited for 1B.

    –Oshawa Ollie

  3. I’ll always remember watching a WBC game where the Japanese LF made a great sliding catch and in one fluid motion popped to his feet, turned and gunned the ball back to the infield. His everyday position in Japan? 1B

  4. Reminds of a chapter in ‘Fever Pitch’ (excellent soccer book, not crappy baseball movie) that goes through the numbers of exactly how mind-bendingly awesome of a player you have to be before you can SUCK LIKE A WHIRLWIND at a major league level. The fact they’re all shortstops is a symptom of that.

    So (because I feel like writing an essay), if we use David Cooper as our symbol of an archetypal ‘not very good’ major league player:

    There are 750 players on the major league rosters (25 man).
    There are 11.5 million baseball players of all ages in the USA alone. Perhaps double that worldwide?

    Therefore a generous estimate is that for every 15,333 player who pick up a bat, David Cooper will have been better than all of them. A fairer global number might be nearer 30,000. And not just a bit better. He will have been incredibly, mind-blowingly better than nearly all of them. He will have been the best player his high school ever saw, by a huge margin.

    In fact, Cooper went to a good baseball school, that’s had at least 8 players drafted (thanks Baseball Reference), in the perhaps one of if not the best places in the world to grow up if you want to get drafted (California), but Cooper was much better than any of those earlier high school stars had been. Probably outstandingly better. Only one other person made it from his school to the MLB – and played in a total of 6 games.

    In fact there’s evidence of how good he was: http://www.lodinews.com/sports/article_ff187a90-42a8-11e1-b3d0-0019bb2963f4.html?mode=image&photo=1

    Then, he went to college, posting .359/.449/.682 with 19 home runs and 55 RBIs in his junior year, got drafted high (one behind Brett Lawrie) and stormed through the minor leagues, breaking records and winning titles.

    In other words, the guy has never known anything but success at everything he’s done in baseball. By any normal criteria, he is more than a phenomenon. David Cooper is, as far as people like me are concerned, as close to the perfect baseball machine as I am every likely to encounter.

    But David Cooper is not very good. David Cooper’s career was being written off by most even before he got to the major league level, and he’s done nothing much to alter anybody’s opionion of him since he arrived.

    Why? He’s ‘weak’ defensively (by which we mean he’s incredibly strong and talented defensively, but not quite as good as about 500 other people in the known universe), and doesn’t hit with enough power to be a first baseman (by which we mean he hits with a huge and astonishing amount of power, but not as much as the 30-40 other people in the entire universe who also are not great defenively, and who are therefore competing for first base/DH jobs).

    All of which qualifies me, an out-of-condition, fat, middle-aged ass sitting at home, to say:

    a) Cooper, you suck.
    b) What moron ever drafted that piece of useless shit.

    Life it not fair.

  5. This is why my kid takes hundreds of ground balls at short even though he plays 3B & LF on his team.

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