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
|Cal Ripken Jr.||95.9||112||1981||2001||12883||1647||3184||431||1695||1129||1305||.276||.340||.447||.788|
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!