AL shortstops stack up among best position groups of all time

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Saturday, May 19, 2018

This has been on my mind as well:

Joe Sheehan later added that he assumed Didi Gregorius will get voted in as the starter. I don't necessarily agree with that; Yankees fans actually don't have a recent history of "stuffing" the ballot box, certainly not with the zealousness of, say, Royals fans. Of course, until Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez emerged last year, it's not like they had many All-Star-worthy players in recent seasons. Even then, Salvador Perez, not Sanchez, was voted in as the starting catcher for the American League in 2017.

Anyway, the point: There are five really good shortstops in the AL -- well, six if you count Xander Bogaerts, who would be up there except he missed some time with injury -- and they're not all going to make the All-Star team, especially given that roster sizes were cut back last season from 34 to 32 players (not including all the replacements who eventually make it).

Back in 2002, the heyday of the Alex Rodriguez-Derek Jeter-Nomar Garciaparra era, the AL did squeeze five shortstops on the roster, with A-Rod starting and Jeter, Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Omar Vizquel all making it as reserves. That was accomplished by not selecting a backup second baseman, however, and there were only 10 pitchers on the staff; that was the game that infamously ended in a 7-7 tie. Current rules require a backup second baseman and 12 pitchers.

Aside from the All-Star dilemma, what I'm really curious about: Has any position in one league ever been so loaded? I know it's early in the season and numbers will change, but as of Thursday morning, look where the AL shortstops ranked in WAR among all major league position players:

2. Francisco Lindor, 3.0

5. Andrelton Simmons, 2.3

10. Manny Machado, 2.1

20. Carlos Correa, 2.0

33. Didi Gregorius, 1.4


4. Lindor, 2.8

6. Machado, 2.3

8. Simmons, 2.3

16. Correa, 1.7

21. Gregorius, 1.6

Gregorius has slipped after a recent slump, but he was among the league leaders into early May. None of these guys is a big surprise, although Simmons has raised his offensive game to a new level, hitting .342/.408/.493. In this era of strikeouts, Simmons is a refreshing throwback: Through 41 games, he has just nine strikeouts. That's a weekend for Joey Gallo.

But Simmons was extremely valuable last season as well, ranking sixth in B-R WAR at 7.1 and 18th in FanGraphs at 5.1. (That big difference in value stems mostly from how his defense was evaluated.) Correa and Lindor both were top-20 players last season, and Machado has been there in the past as a third baseman. Gregorius hit 25 home runs last season and has tapped into even more power early on this year by chasing fewer pitches (he's already nearly matched his walk total from 2017).

Back to 2002. How good were those five All-Star shortstops? Pretty good:

Baseball-Reference WAR

2. Alex Rodriguez, 8.8

8. Nomar Garciaparra, 6.8

19. Miguel Tejada, 5.6

61. Derek Jeter, 3.7

84. Omar Vizquel, 3.0

(Not making the All-Star team was Angels shortstop David Eckstein, who ranked 23rd with 5.3 WAR.)

FanGraphs WAR

2. Rodriguez, 10.0

22. Jeter, 5.2

35. Garciaparra, 4.8

43. Tejada, 4.5

44. Eckstein, 4.5

70. Vizquel, 3.3

Good, but not what we're seeing this year. Actually, the best year for the A-Rod/Jeter/Nomar trio was 1998, when they ranked first, third and ninth in Baseball-Reference WAR. After them, however, you drop to Vizquel at 67th and Gary DiSarcina and Mike Bordick at 70th and 71st.

The best season for the group in that era could have been 1999, as Jeter and Vizquel had their best years at the plate. Jeter ranked first in B-R WAR, Garciaparra 10th and Vizquel 16th, and all three ranked in the top 15 in FanGraphs WAR. A-Rod, while he hit 42 home runs, played just 129 games and came in 40th and 39th in the rankings, just ahead of Bordick.

Let's look at this from another direction. Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, I searched each position by league to see how many players at that position reached 4.5 WAR in a given season (must have played at least 50 percent of games at that position). Across both leagues, only one position gives us seven players with 4.5 or more WAR: second base in the 2014 American League. Here's how that group ranked among all position players:

10. Robinson Cano, 6.4

12. Jose Altuve, 6.1

15. Ian Kinsler, 5.8

22. Howie Kendrick, 5.4

29. Brian Dozier, 5.2

32. Ben Zobrist, 5.0

37. Dustin Pedroia, 4.7

Certainly impressive, although only one top-10 player in Cano. Six positions give us six qualifiers under this method (ranked in order of WAR for that season):

2002 AL first base:Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, John Olerud, Mike Sweeney, Carlos Delgado, Rafael Palmeiro

1971 AL third base:Graig Nettles, Sal Bando, Brooks Robinson, Bill Melton, Rico Petrocelli, Paul Schaal

1999 AL center field:Brady Anderson, Kenny Lofton, Bernie Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., Chris Singleton, Carlos Beltran

1970 NL center field:Tommie Agee, Bobby Tolan, Willie Mays, Cito Gaston, Jim Wynn, Willie Davis

1998 NL right field:Vladimir Guerrero, Brian Jordan, Sammy Sosa, Bobby Abreu, Larry Walker, Derek Bell

2001 NL right field:Sosa, Walker, Shawn Green, J.D. Drew, Abreu, Guerrero

That AL third-base group was pretty impressive, with Nettles ranking second overall in WAR, Bando ninth, Robinson 11th and Melton 15th. Melton is the obscure name there, but he led the AL in home runs that year. You might remember Sosa winning the NL MVP in 1998, but his 6.5 WAR was tied for 14th. Guerrero came in sixth (7.4), Jordan 11th (7.0), Abreu 17th (6.4), Walker 29th (5.7) and Bell 36th (5.4).

The 2001 group, with four of the same names, might have been even more impressive:

2. Sosa, 10.3

7. Walker, 7.8

11. Green, 7.0

26. Drew, 5.5

33. Abreu 5.2

36. Guerrero, 4.9

(And over in the AL, Ichiro Suzuki was the MVP.)

Of course, these lists skew toward the past couple of decades, when we've had more teams. An impressive position from deeper in the past was 1964 NL third base. In a 10-team league, five players reached our 4.5 cutoff:

2. Ron Santo, 8.9

3. Dick Allen, 8.8

15. Ken Boyer, 6.1

24. Jim Ray Hart, 5.3

31. Eddie Mathews, 4.6

You have two Hall of Famers in Santo and Mathews, a guy in Allen who many believe should be in the Hall of Fame, plus Boyer, who won the NL MVP Award that year and has pretty strong Hall of Fame credentials as well, with more than 60 career WAR. Hart hit 31 home runs as a rookie (Allen was a rookie as well) and was a very good player for five seasons.

If we consider the pre-expansion era, when there were just 16 teams in the majors, we can sort of consider that as one "league." First base was loaded in the 1930s. In 1934, you get this group, and since it was the 1930s let's include the crazy batting numbers:

1. Lou Gehrig, 10.4 (.363/.465/.706, 49 HR, 166 RBI)

2. Jimmie Foxx, 9.0 (.334/.449/.653, 44 HR, 130 RBI)

7. Ripper Collins, 6.3 (.333/.393/.615, 35 HR, 128 RBI)

8. Hank Greenberg, 6.2 (.339/.404/.600, 26 HR, 139 RBI)

9. Bill Terry, 5.8 (.354/.414/.463, 8 HR, 83 RBI)

11. Hal Trosky, 5.5 (.330/.388/.598, 35 HR, 142 RBI)

My favorite all-time great position, however, has to be center field in the 1950s. In 1956, the top three players in the majors all were center fielders: Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie Mays. Richie Ashburn, a fourth Hall of Famer, ranked 15th. Larry Doby, a fifth Hall of Famer, ranked 19th. And Jimmy Piersall had a great season that year for the Red Sox, ranking 22nd.

Five Hall of Famers at one position, out of 16 teams, all more or less at their peak. The current crop of American League shortstops is amazing -- maybe someday they'll even write a song about them.