[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 will preview the upcoming season by examining the shortstop position, how it has evolved over the past 100 years, and where things stand right now.]
On February 24, 1997, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated published a cover story for the magazine titled "Long on Shortstops". Running under a soft-toned, low-perspective photo of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez—both young, handsome, and impossibly great—were 2,700 words of exultation. "Not since 1941," Verducci wrote, "have so many young shortstops arrived with this much potential." Verducci wasn't just talking about Jeter and Rodriguez, both of whom had yet to turn 23. Edgar Renteria was already in the bigs for the Florida Marlins, and lesser lights Alex Gonzalez and Rey Ordonez were on the rise in Toronto and New York as well.
Verducci was focused on the offensive evolution of the position. For decades, shortstop had been a light-hit, good-field position: think Phil Rizzuto or Pee Wee Reese, names that don't bring to mind towering home runs and multiple league batting titles. And yet that's what the class of the '90s brought to the table: More power, by far, than the game had ever seen from the position, and charisma to spare. Nearly a quarter-century later, that legacy lives on in a new class of brilliant young shortstops, some of whom grew up with a Jeter poster on their wall.
But this generation is also armed with a host of new weapons. Baseball has always been a game of inches. Now, with a dozen cameras in every ballpark, it's often a game of centimeters, too. The old standbys—arm strength, first step, and a relentless focus on fundamentals—still matter in the field, and still drive the scouting conversation more than anything else. But, armed with better positioning data than ever before, these kids have taken the otherworldly athleticism that's defined the position for a generation, wedded it to the data they've been given, and are poised to possibly become the best group of shortstops in baseball history.
"If I had to break it down into categories," says Gary Jones, "I would break it down into these three: footwork, mechanics, and angles. Those are the things that set up the routine play." Jones knows a little bit about infield defense. In 2017, he's entering his 36th professional season, and his fourth as the Chicago Cubs' third base and infield coach. He spends much of his time these days on the Mesa, Arizona backfields, coaching a couple of kids you may have heard of—Javy Baez and Addison Russell—on the finer points of their positions. To hear him tell it, the task hasn't changed much lately.
"It all starts with the routine play," Jones says. "I always tell kids—if you don't make the routine play, you won't be on the field to make the plays that end up on ESPN. I know over the last 6-8 years, analytics have become a big part of the game, and positioning even more so. But I still believe that because these guys are still basically working the middle of the field, one way or another, they're still in a position where they mostly have to use their fundamentals and athleticism."
In other words, having a better sense of where the ball might be hit—which is, after all, what the new data tells players—won't help you much if you can't catch it when you get there. And so the qualities scouts and farm directors looked for in amateur shortstops at showcases and tournaments across the country three decades ago are still generally the things they look for today. First among those is athleticism. The shortstop, now as in 1997, is still usually the best athlete on the field.
"You've got a lot of different elements to the position, but they're the same ones that have existed forever," says Giants GM Bobby Evans. "You're always looking at a kid's range to their left, their range to their right, their ability to handle a popup over their head, and their arm strength—not only to make the double play, but also to make the throw on the ball deep in the hole to their right." Today's shortstops are practicing some different angles than they used to, but the old skills serve them just as well as they did a generation ago.
The Cubs' Baez and Russell, either of whom might have been the best shortstop in the game a half-century ago, have those skills in spades. So does the Houston Astros' Carlos Correa, even after a down year. Cleveland's Francisco Lindor. The Washington Nationals' Trea Turner. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Corey Seager, who nearly won the MVP last year as a rookie, and was recently ranked as the most valuable trade target in the game by Sports Illustrated. The San Fransisco Giants' homegrown Brandon Crawford. Andrelton Simmons in Anaheim. Alemdys Diaz in St. Louis. Xander Bogaerts in Boston. The shortstop cup runneth over.
And these kids have an army of data in hand to help them along. Essentially, you're arming the best defensive players on the field with information to make them even better. As of July of last year, defensive shifts—as tracked by Baseball lnfo Solutions, and reported by FiveThirtyEight—had increased by a whopping 1,233 percent since 2011, from about once every two games to nearly six times every contest.
Even baseball's most luddite franchises are getting behind the concept. And why wouldn't they? At its heart, the logic behind the shift, as old as Ted Williams, remains simple and far from revolutionary: If the batter's trying to hit it where they ain't, find out where that is and be there instead. It's just the execution has improved somewhat.
"I mean, shifts have grown in terms of quantity," Evans says, "but they're not a new concept. We're just getting better at using them." That improvement took a few years to trickle through the game, as teams adjusted to new data and worked out how best to use it. These days, almost every team has a process for employing the shift their way. Before every series, someone—for the Cubs, it's Jones and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy, though the role varies between clubs, as does the focus given to it—sits down and looks at the spray data for the opposing teams' hitters, provided in large by the host of cameras and sensors now installed in every big-league ballpark. They then come up with a positioning plan for each player: straight up, pull, or heavy pull. Pitchers can also have an input on how much a team shifts.
And with that, the story is usually over, and the fielders have their marching orders. In the end, though, it's the fielders' athleticism and instincts that makes good on the promise of the new data. Positioning is not quite as simple as looking up a location on a spreadsheet and pointing off into the vague distance—though to be fair, few think it is. The count, the base-out situation, and game's score all interact in a thousand little ways that together determine where the best place to play a ball might be at any given point. It's an art, more than a science, and the numbers are only a starting point.
In fact, the new defensive data's biggest impact might be in the degree to which it has allowed teams to better mix and match their players across the infield, rather than its effect on any single player's or positions' spot on the field at any given time. Baseball's still a team sport, after all, and knowing a little something more about how the opposition's balls in play might line up might drive particularly saber-savvy teams with personnel flexibility—think the Astros, with Correa and Alex Bregman (who primarily played shortstop in the minors) on the left side, or the Cubs with Russell and Baez (who is a natural shortstop)—to deploy their players in unconventional arrangements. It might also be driving teams to acquire players who can facilitate just such flexibility. Right now there are so many good shortstops that there isn't room for all of them to play the position.
Previous generations of ballclubs, for example, probably wouldn't have kept a man as big as the 6-foot-4 Correa at short for very long. But Bregman's athleticism and range at third base allows the Puerto Rican the flexibility to shade a little closer to second than most shortstops would, and still cost his team little in the bargain. The Astros don't have to worry about whether or not they're losing hits, anyway. They can take one look at the numbers and know for sure that they aren't. And previous teams might not have made quite as effective use of a player as the Cubs are making of Baez, and his teammate Ben Zobrist.
The players have noticed. "There's so many numbers out there nowadays," says the Dodgers' Seager, "that you don't have to cover the entire left side of the field now. You look up the numbers, you cover five feet each way, and that's pretty much all they ask out of you. It's definitely helpful, it's definitely changing the way they play. It's been nice." Data lowers uncertainty, and allows teams to concede areas of the field in the knowledge that they'll only lose a small percentage of the time.
One last thing: the rise of this data has also driven a quiet change in the way a tight-knit cadre of big-league coaches go about their business. "I think that major-league and minor-league coaches alike have adjusted to the information," Evans says. "I think that to some extent it may affect who gets assigned to work with infielders. If you have somebody that's anti-metrics and analytics, you might get somebody else to handle your infield shifts. I think most coaches nowadays realize that the analytics is valuable information, and to stay up with the times they need to be open to it."
That's part of a broader shift in the industry towards finding instructors who can serve not only as teachers—as they have for generations—but also as translators of sorts, responsible for facilitating the transfer of knowledge from the analysts in the front office to the players on the field (who are, after all, generally hired more for athletic than analytic ability—and quite correctly so).
Shifting, then, is something—but not everything—in today's shortstop game. The fundamentals of defense haven't changed much, even as the tools used to support them have improved. And today's shortstops are still making their name more with their bats than with their gloves; as Jeff Sullivan pointed out recently, shortstops as a class just had their best offensive season ever. But the fact is that this group is making headlines with their gloves as well (particularly Simmons, Crawford, Lindor, and Baez), and as a cohort they have a chance to go down with the class of the '90s as the best ever.
The comparison truly isn't crazy. "To be honest, I don't think there's a difference [between that group and this one]," says Jones, who's been around long enough to remember it first hand. "I mean, [today's shortstops] are all great athletes, they're all students of the game, and they all have great work habits. The only difference right now is that those guys—Jeter, A-Rod—did it for a long period of time. These guys are still working to prove they can do that." Watch closely. The 2017 season about to begin is another chance for one of the best groups of shortstops ever to prove they belong. It'll be special.
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