A Problem at Short

Back a few days ago I did a post on my choice for the top 10 Center Fielders ever. In a comment about it, Bill Miller jokingly asked if shortstop was next. Frankly, I wasn’t planning on doing another one of those top ten lists, but the question of shortstop got me to thinking about the position. In doing so, I noticed an interesting problem in making a decision like who are the top 10 shortstops.

A lot of players, a lot of truly great players, have been known to change position during their career. Stan Musial rotated between left field and first base for a time. Of course Babe Ruth went from pitching to right field (and a number of games in left field too). And Willie Stargell is listed at the Hall of Fame site under left fielders, but played a significant number of games at first, the position where he won his MVP. Dave Winfield floated between left field and right field.  But shortstop seems to have an inordinate number of really good players who shifted away from the position and spent truly significant time in another position. I’m not talking about guys like Pee Wee Reese or Cal Ripken or Arky Vaughan who moved from short to third at the end of their career because they no longer had the range to play short. I’m also not refering to players such as Honus Wagner who came up in 1897 and didn’t move to short until 1901. He stayed there (with the exception of a handful of games) for the rest of his career. I mean here guys that came up as shortstops and had to move away from the position at mid-career. There are several of them. Three are, by most estimates, men who would make a top 10 list.

Ernie Banks got to the Major Leagues in 1953 and played shortstop through 1961. There were a handful of games at third and in the outfield, but Banks was the Cubs’ everyday shortstop for nine years, winning dual MVPs. Then he developed leg problems and moved to first base. He spent 1962 through 1969 (eight years) as the normal first baseman, then played two final years as a backup player, also making all his games in the field at first. After 1961 he played not one game at shortstop. He ended up playing 1125 games at short and 1259 games at first (and about 100 at third or in the outfield).

Robin Yount was in the Major Leagues as a shortstop for Milwaukee at age 18. He won an MVP at short, playing there 11 years from 1974 through 1984. Then he hurt his arm and shifted to the outfield. He spent some time as a designated hitter and a left fielder, but by 1987 had settled in as the Brewers’ everyday center fielder, a position he held through his retirement in 1993, a total of seven years. Again there are a  handful of  games at first and  DH, but Yount spends the last half of his career as an outfielder, where he wins another MVP award. For his career he ends up with 1479 games at short (none after 1984) and 1218 games in the outfield (most in center).

Alex Rodriguez joined the Mariners in 1994, becoming the primary shortstop in 1996. Through 2003 (10 years) and a change of team he had four games as a DH, 1267 at short, a batting title, and RBI title, three home run titles, and an MVP. Then came the move to New York, which already had a shortstop. Since 2004, Rodriguez has played 1269 games at third base, five at short, and 36 as the DH (through the end of the 2010 season). Unless something happens to Derek Jeter, Rodriguez will, by the end of 2011, have spent more time at third than at short.

It should be obvious what problem is raised. These three guys are truly fine players, two Hall of Famers and a potential, and all are recognized as shortstops. Two of them are going to end up playing more than half their games at another position and the third is close. It brings up the obvious question: how much should these guys be rated as a shortstop?  Are they to be recognized as greater players than shortstops? Should we view them as multi-poitional players?  At this point I’m not sure of the answer, but at some point I’ll figure it out for my purposes. Then I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.

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2 Responses to “A Problem at Short”

  1. Joe Magennis Says:

    The guys you mentioned carry big enough sticks that when circumstances or skills dictate, they get moved to less demanding positions and keep their bats in the lineup.

    For purely selfish reasons, I think it would be unique and interesting to see the
    Top 10 guys with the defensive skills to play shortstop no matter how poorly they perform at the plate. You would include Ozzie of course, but might bring in players like Luis Aparicio or Mark Belanger.

    Good stuff!

  2. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    A few years back, while I was playing around with my own statistical analysis, I was bothered by this same question. I finally came up with the number 60, as in 60% of games played at one positions to qualify for that position (acutually 58.3, but I rounded up).

    Not saying my number is best, but there’s not much more you can do then pick a number (percentage, games, plate appearance, etc) and go with it.

    No matter how it pans out, I’ll bet the shortstop list causes the death of more electrons than the centerfield list.

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