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The All-Time MLB Team, Shortstop: nominations open

A balance between defense and offense takes the stage

Baseball Player Honus Wagner

Outside of catcher, shortstop is generally regarded as being the most difficult defensive spot on the diamond. It requires a variety of different skills in order for a fielder to be effective: quick reactions; good range; a strong and accurate arm; nimble footwork when turning a double-play. It’s a rare combination, but when the come together in one player, it’s a joy to watch them. Witness the web gems we’ve appreciated from Nick Ahmed over the past few seasons: he frequently makes the difficult plays look easy, and converts a few changes that would seem impossible.

The importance of defense means that shortstops tend to be allowed to hit less than any other position, again bar catchers. Over the past decade, shortstops in the majors have posted an OPS of .717. That’s sixteen points more than catchers, but six below the next lowest position, second base. However, last season, they actually hit better (.736) than both 2B (.731) and CF (.721). The National League West were largely responsible, with the top three teams at the position, courtesy of Fernando Tatis Jr, Brandon Crawford and Corey Seager. We’ll see whether that trend continues, but in general, it has been a position where defense has been a significant factor.

You can see that in the chart below, which lists the top 10 shortstops by bWAR. No need to worry about active players here: the highest-ranked to play in 2021 is all the way down at #47, Andrelton Simmons. What stands out here is you won’t see quite the same gaudy offensive numbers as at first. Indeed, no Major League shortstop has reached even a .900 career OPS in 2,500 PA - though there is one other who did... Nomar Garciaparra leads the way at .882, with a pair of active SS in Seager and Trevor Story (coughCOORScough) in second and third. Here’s the full list by bWAR, rather than just the top ten. As ever, their names go to the Baseball Reference page.

Best SS ever

Honus Wagner 130.8 151 1897 1917 11756 1739 3420 101 1732 963 735 .328 .391 .467 .858
Cal Ripken Jr. 95.9 112 1981 2001 12883 1647 3184 431 1695 1129 1305 .276 .340 .447 .788
George Davis 84.9 121 1890 1909 10186 1545 2665 73 1440 874 613 .295 .362 .405 .767
Arky Vaughan 78.0 136 1932 1948 7723 1173 2103 96 926 937 276 .318 .406 .454 .859
Luke Appling 77.6 113 1930 1950 10254 1319 2749 45 1116 1302 528 .310 .399 .398 .798
Robin Yount 77.3 115 1974 1993 12249 1632 3142 251 1406 966 1350 .285 .342 .430 .772
Ozzie Smith 76.9 87 1978 1996 10778 1257 2460 28 793 1072 589 .262 .338 .328 .666
Bill Dahlen 75.2 110 1891 1911 10429 1590 2461 84 1234 1064 759 .272 .358 .382 .740
Derek Jeter 71.3 115 1995 2014 12602 1923 3465 260 1311 1082 1840 .310 .377 .440 .817
Alan Trammell 70.7 110 1977 1996 9376 1231 2365 185 1003 850 874 .285 .352 .415 .767

Probably nothing illustrates this better than #7, Ozzie Smith, who manages to crack the top ten overall list, despite an OPS+ of just 87. To put that into D-back terms: Alex Cintron had an 85 OPS+. It’s perhaps interesting to break the list down into offensive and defensive WAR (2000+ PA for each). By oWAR, Honus Wagner remains at the top, but Derek Jeter shoots up into second place and Robin Yount also moves up. You have to delve down to nineteenth place to find Smith, even though he had more than 10,000 PA. Sort by dWAR? Smith is #1; he and Ripken are the only one to appear both in the defensive top 10 and the overall top 10. Jeter? Dead last defensively, at -9.4. “Pasta-diving Jeter” wasn’t just a meme.

Above, I alluded to one SS with a .900 OPS in over 2,500 PA? That is Hall of Famer Willie Wells. the greatest shortstop in Negro League history. The all time leader in position player WAR there with 51.1, he is also 2nd in games and PA. He played until he was 43, full time through age 41. But his career wasn’t just quantity and longevity. An all around threat, he had an incredible peak, hitting for average and power, stealing bases and was considered the best defensive shortstop of his generation. From 1926-1930, he averaged 10.4 WAR per/650 PA and 195 OPS+ on a .374/.454/.665 triple slash. He also averaged 39 HR and 179 RBI and 31 SB per 162 games. For his entire career he clocked in with a .331 BA, .946 OPS and 153 OPS+.

From his Hall of Fame bio page:

During his 20-plus year career on the diamond, Wells was the definition of a five-tool player. He could hit for average and power, run and was a tremendous defensive shortstop with a wonderfully accurate arm. Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer called him “the kind of player you always wanted on your team, he played the way all great players play – with everything he had.”

As usual, we need to narrow the candidates down to five or thereabouts, for the final poll. This will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!