Just about every pro ballplayer can claim to have played shortstop at one point or another. Growing up, an alarming percentage of your favorite ballplayers split time between shortstop and pitcher. Everybody is a shortstop because it is the most difficult position on the diamond, the one demanding the most athleticism and baseball instincts and so on and so forth.
As players ascend the baseball ladder, to high school, college and beyond, the pool of viable shortstops winnows down. Too big, too slow, insufficient footwork, whatever the reason, those who can’t hack it at short are moved to other spots on the diamond – center field or third base and then down the line from there.
Because the barrier for entry at the shortstop position is so high, the position is increasingly difficult to fill. The defensive demands are so high that many poor hitters can remain as big league prospects thanks to their glove alone.
The scarcity of good shortstops is reflected in the recent top prospect lists, namely those put out by Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com. Though they differ in order, both groups of evaluators agree on one thing: a good shortstop is a valuable commodity indeed.
BP published their list yesterday and the top ten features no fewer than five shortstops. In fact, according to Jason Parks and his team, five of the top seven prospects in baseball right how play the shortstop position (10 of their 101 top prospects are currently shortstops.)
Over at MLB.com’s Pipeline, their top ten includes four of the same shortstop names — Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, Javier Baez (Cubs), Carlos Correa (Astros), and Francisco Lindor (Cleveland). Baseball Prospectus ranks A’s prospect Addison Russell as their number seven prospect overall, while MLB.com has him 12th.
The order of the names doesn’t really matter, what matters is how we perceive this middle-of-the-diamond talent glut. Is it a reflection of the current state of the baseball industry, where viable shortstops are prized above all else? It is a chance collection of talent, the result of a greater trend towards keeping top athletes at the infield pivot?
Or it perhaps a fetishization of tools and the act of scouting itself, a tacit acknowledgement of the evaluator’s baseball acumen and scouting know-how – knowledge the average fan (and reader of said lists) cannot gain by “scouting to the stat line.”
If we believe this is another golden age of shortstops, this is great news for the game of baseball. The average shortstop in baseball hit .254/.308/.367 last year, which is terrible! An influx of new talent is long overdue. If the industry shifts to reflect the shortstop shortage and begins treating real shortstops with the reverence currently reserved for starting pitchers, perhaps more and more kids will do what they must to stay at the position long term.
The preponderance of shortstops at the top of these lists doesn’t suggest this is already under way. Among the shortstops listed above, how many have superstar potential compared to those who might occupy an Orlando Cabrera-esque existence of competence? Xander Bogaerts sure seems to fit the superstar bill, let’s wait and see on the rest of this cohort. There is a ton of value in an average shortstop, a fact we cannot ignore.
Or, it could just be the last thing. Like any cloistered community, it sure feels like scouts and scouting acolytes are enamored with their lexicon and role as gatekeepers to the game. Maybe they earned that right, maybe they treat it like the carrot on the end of a stick, a necessary tool to drive readership and keep the scouting brand strong.
There is no debate that a good shortstop is one of the most valuable pieces a team can have in its war chest. Once the crucial shortstop position is spoken for, management can focus on the easier tasks of filling out the rest of the diamond. Just ask the Rockies front office – after you get a top-flight SS, the rest is just gravy.
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