Sports

From Boudreau and Rizzuto to Lindor and Seager: A History of 'Peak Shortstop' in Baseball

There have been exceptional shortstop moments before, like the American League of the late 1940s, when shortstops like Lou Boudreau and Vern Stephens muscled up and outhit their peers at other positions.
April 3, 2017, 3:22pm
State Archives of Florida

Editor's note: Major League Baseball enters the 2017 season loaded with talent at the shortstop position like it has never seen before—not even in the early and mid-1990s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra arrived. This week, VICE Sports previewed the upcoming season by examining the shortstop position, how it has evolved over the past 100 years, and where things stand right now.

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With the once-in-a-lifetime reign of Derek Jeter having come to a close, the New York Yankees seemed due for a dry spell at shortstop. It wasn't just the team's still-underdeveloped farm system feeding this belief. Jeter had been one of the generational talents at the position in 1990s, along with Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra—a Holy Trinity that was widely considered to be peak shortstop.

But a funny thing has happened on the way down from those Jeterian heights. When Yankees starter Didi Gregorius got injured before the start this season, New York had a wealth of alternatives to consider rather than a dearth. They ultimately settled on utilityman Ronald Torreyes, but they could have accelerated the timetable of top prospect Gleyber Torres, or tried a more run-of-the-mill possibility named Tyler Wade, late of Double-A Trenton, to say nothing of other eventual candidates further down in the system, such as speedster Jorge Mateo.

More surprising than the depth of young shortstop talent in New York is how common this scenario is around the league. In 2016, a dozen shortstops 25 years or younger played at least half the season in the major leagues, many of them offensively robust two-way players. The list is like a recitation of present and future All-Star teams: Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Jonathan Villar, Trea Turner, Marcus Semien, and Almedys Diaz were among their number, as were Tim Anderson, Trevor Story, and Jorge Polanco. By the end of the season they were joined by two heralded prospects, Orlando Arcia (Milwaukee Brewers) and Dansby Swanson (Atlanta Braves). Peak shortstop is now.

Read More: How Corey Seager Became One Of Baseball's Best-Hitting Shortstops

Due to the physical requirements of the position, we haven't often seen shortstops who can hit like Lou Gehrig or Frank Thomas, let alone a whole group of them maturing at once. Among the Holy Trinity, only A-Rod could go toe-to-toe with the big-time sluggers, and even today shortstops as a whole don't hit anywhere near as well as first basemen or left fielders, though with the current group that may change.

While the improved size, coordination, and training of modern players has allowed baseball minds to be more open about who can play short, for a good chunk of major league history, the shortstop was cast from a specific preconceived mold. He was a diminutive player, maybe 5-foot-10 tops, who by virtue of his lack of stature didn't hit much but could pick 'em on the infield. George Kissell, who coached and scouted for the St. Louis Cardinals for 69 years, summed up the prejudice: "You don't see too many big-legged second basemen or big-legged shortstops. Why? Any scout could tell you. Range! The ones with range have tiny little legs."

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That model lasted a long time and died hard, but there were also exceptional moments like the American League of the late 1940s, when shortstops like Lou Boudreau and Vern Stephens muscled up and outhit a particularly weak, ephemeral crop of first basemen.

That early shortstop peak actually began in 1941, just before World War II. For the first time in league history, the shortstop class was above average on offense that year, with a combination of potent vets and promising kids racking up hits. The junior circuit had three established shortstops who were among the best hitters ever at their position to that point: Joe Cronin, the player-manager of the Boston Red Sox; Luke Appling, of the White Sox; and Cecil Travis, of the Washington Senators.

The 1937 AL All-Star team: Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Courtesy Library of Congress Harris & Ewing collection

It would be the 34-year-old Cronin's last season at shortstop; by that point, a case of the defensive yips was forcing him to go down to one knee to field routine grounders. Cronin began his career with the Pirates briefly and then the Senators, whose home-run-impossible park kept him to double-figure triples every year. When he was traded to the Red Sox after the 1934 season, those long fly balls to the gaps started to turn into home runs, and he wound up being a .301/.390/.468 career hitter. Appling, also 34, was in the process of hitting over .300 for the ninth straight season. Famous for his bat control, he was a career .310/.399/.398 hitter with great patience. His best season had come in 1936 when he hit .388, winning the AL batting title and driving in 128 runs despite hitting only six home runs. Travis was only 27 but had already been in in the majors for nine years. That year, he hit .359/.410/.520.

Four young shortstops were also coming into their own. Lou Boudreau was 23 years old in 1941, and in his second season as a regular for the Cleveland Indians. Despite arthritic ankles that made him, in the words of sportswriter Stanley Frank, "easily the slowest ballplayer since Ernie Lombardi was thrown out at first base trying to stretch a double into a single," Boudreau was somehow a terrific fielder. He could also hit, averaging .295/.380/.415 for his career. Phil Rizzuto was a rookie for the Yankees that year; he hit .307/.343/.398 and was an acrobat on defense. ("If I were a retired gentleman," Yankees manager Casey Stengel said later, "I would follow the Yankees around just to see Rizzuto work those miracles each day.")

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Boudreau and Rizzuto were joined by two more rookies the following season, just as the war effort was starting to subtract ballplayers from the majors: Vern "Junior" Stephens of the St. Louis Browns and Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox. Stephens wasn't the quintessentially agile shortstop but, anticipating Cal Ripken, compensated with a terrific arm. He also anticipated Ripken as a hitter, with unusual power for the position. In Pesky's first three campaigns, which spanned six years due to the war, he hit .330/.390/.411 with more than 200 hits each season.

The Second World War disrupted the nascent shortstop insurgency—Boudreau and Stephens were 4-F and stateside for the duration, compiling their statistics against teenagers, old men, and guys with one arm—but this generation finally peaked after it was over. In 1948, Boudreau had what is still one of the best performances ever by a shortstop, hitting .353/.453/.534 and also managing his team to the championship. Stephens, who had been traded to the Red Sox by the bankrupt Browns after the 1947 season (leading Joe DiMaggio to complain that Boston had gotten the Browns' best player, and forcing American League president Will Harridge to defend the Browns' right to exist, saying they "still have a roster of 40 players filed with us") hit .290 with 39 home runs and 159 RBI in 1949. In 1950, the 5'6" Rizzuto borrowed big first baseman Johnny Mize's heavy bat and a good deal of luck and hit .324. He also won the AL MVP.

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Even the veterans got one last go: after playing Appling at third base for a couple of seasons, the White Sox moved him back to shortstop in 1949, at the age of 42. He hit .301 with 121 walks, contributing to the AL shortstops' momentary overthrow of the established order: from 1946 through 1949, the American League average OPS was .713. The shortstops checked in at .734.

A statue of Ernie Banks outside Wrigley Stadium. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

After 1950, peak shortstop briefly moved over to the National League, where above-average offensive shortstops like Alvin Dark and Pee Wee Reese were astronomically augmented by Ernie Banks, who started popping 40 home runs a year for the Cubs in 1955. Other NL standouts during this period included the Braves' Johnny Logan, with above-average power for a shortstop of the day; the Pirates' Dick Groat, who won the 1960 MVP on his league-leading .325 batting average; and, very briefly, the Cardinals' Solly Hemus, who averaged .276/.392/.421 from 1951 to 1956, averaging about 80 walks a year.

Shortstops made a brief AL revival in 1964, when Jim Fregosi, Eddie Bressoud, Ron Hansen, Dick McAuliffe, and Zoilo Versalles had big years. Yes, you haven't heard of those guys except perhaps for Versalles, whose 1965 MVP made him to baseball awards what Crash is to the Oscars, but these things happen in ten-team leagues; as with Banks in the NL, it doesn't take much to tilt the balance of power.

Things reached a nadir in 1973. That year, the Giants' Chris Speier led all shortstops with 11 home runs; Luis Aparacio of the Red Sox, in the final season of his Hall of Fame career, led the group in batting average at .271—he hit no home runs, so he slugged .309. The Tigers' Ed Brinkman, who made the All-Star team for the American League, hit .237/.284/.324 that year. It was a good season by his standards. Throw in good-field no-hit stalwarts of the period like Mark Belanager and Larry Bowa, and it was as if Boudreau and Stephens had played in vain.

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It was Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver's decision to move the strapping 6'4" Cal Ripken Jr. from third base to shortstop in July 1982 that changed the perception of the position—a legendary tipping point in the game. Ripken, though, was only the best among an incredible generation of shortstops. Robin Yount's MVP season that year (.331/.379/.578, double figures in every category) remains one of the best seasons a shortstop has ever had. Alan Trammell's 1987 season (.343/.402/.551) is almost of that quality. Ozzie Smith set the defensive standard at the position and worked himself into being a valuable offensive player as well. In 1986, Barry Larkin, who excelled in virtually every offense department, joined them in the majors.

The Dominican Republic started having the outsized impact on the major leagues it retains to this day, and some of the earliest contributors were shortstops. Two standouts were the bat-wrapping Julio Franco, never much of a fielder but a consistent .300 hitter with speed for the first decade of his career, and Tony Fernandez, who was known for his easy looping throws to first base. He was maddeningly inconsistent on offense but hit .310 or better in four different seasons.

Together, these players represented every type of hitter, as shortstops began to diverge from the singles-and-stolen-bases model of prior years. While players of that archetype are still around in the majors, increasingly they have to be in the top tier of all-time gloves at the position, like Andrelton Simmons of the Angels. The giants who used to populate the fringes are growing in number and will soon constitute a majority. For a few decades, Ripken was the only 6'4" shortstop in major league history. Now Correa and Seager have joined him, and from Jeter to Troy Tulowitzki, the list of 6'3" shortstops is swollen with recent players.

The Holy Trinity is already a distant memory, and those who talk about that trio as the epitome of shortstop date themselves as surely as those who reminisce about Ripken and Trammell or, for that matter, their grandpas who waxed on about the good old days of the Scooter and Pee Wee. They won't be wrong, though. It is only in retrospect that their peak shortstop proved not to be the peak. Whether today's group is the next step forward remains to be seen, but it seems likely. We've lost the Holy Trinity but gained all the Apostles and then some. In this case, quantity is quality. The floor of our expectations is rising, and shortstop will never be the same.

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