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?