The Unreliability of Shortstops

I miss the good old days. Our grandpas had walked 20 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways when they were young. Kids still read books and played outside, instead of playing video games. And fantasy managers could rely on the Three R’s at Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Jimmy Rollins. There was something comforting about knowing you always had a few good options at shortstop, even if you missed out on the first guy off the board. But in the last few years, those three have all experienced bad years, whether due to injury or (in the case of Rollins) general decline due to age. Troy Tulowitzki is another example of a shortstop who can give you top production, IF he’s healthy.

I wondered whether it was my imagination, or whether shortstop was truly becoming the worst position in terms of top talent as well as reliability. In the early 2000s it seemed that the title went to second base, and even third base saw a few lean years. However, now shortstop takes the title, undisputed. Let’s look at the data. Here’s a simple start for how shallow the position is. I pulled my rankings from CBS for a standard 5×5 league. Players with multiple eligibility will be included in every position for which they qualify. Although you may think that could inflate the numbers for other positions, if anything it helps shortstop look better — consider that in recent years Zobrist, Prado, and Scutaro played other positions more often, but nearly no player who spent the majority of his time at SS played elsewhere, at least in the top-100 players.

Number of top-100 players, by infield position (not excluding multiple eligibility)

Year 1B 2B 3B SS
2013 11 8 10 7
2012 18 10 10 10
2011 18 10 7 11
2010 19 7 11 6
2009 28 13 14 9
2008 25 9 14 8

Obviously 2B is thin as well, but SS is worse. There is one year where SS matches the number of top-100 2B; in every other year there are fewer SS than 2B. The only year SS beats any other position is in 2011, where 3B suffered a rash of injuries (A-Rod, Zimmerman, and Wright had under 400 AB) and 2B had only one fewer than SS. Still, one could argue that SS keeps pace with 2B nearly every year except one, 2009. Let’s look at just the top-50 now.

Number of top-50 players, by infield position (not excluding multiple eligibility)

Year 1B 2B 3B SS
2013 10 5 6 3
2012 6 3 8 6
2011 9 6 4 6
2010 10 4 8 2
2009 11 8 9 5
2008 11 9 7 3

It’s more clear that SS struggles from year to year. The highest number of top-50 hitters that SS has in one year is 6 players. But 2B and 3B have a max of 9. For 1B the max is 11 — and the lowest is 6, the highest number for SS. What’s more, SS has 3 or 2 for three of the last six years; 2B is the only other position to have 3, but that’s just one time. When you take the average of the six years, the number of top-50 hitters at SS is just above 4, at 2B it’s just below 6, and at 3B it’s 7. What’s particularly impressive is that in 2008, all 9 of the 2B who qualified for top-100 were also top-50 players. At SS more than half of its top-100 players were in the bottom half.

“Okay,” you say, “but there’s still some top talent at SS every year. Surely you can grab one of those top guys and be safe at the position. Right?”

That’s not what I found. Shortstops have the fewest top hitters of any infield position, but to make matters worse, they are not a reliable group when it comes to repeating a top performance from year to year. Sure, part of that is injury, but that applies to every position, and yet shortstop draws the short stick again.

Top-75 players who repeated the next year, by position (not excluding multiple eligibility)

Years 1B 2B 3B SS
2012-2013 6 of 12 5 of 6 6 of 8 2 of 6
2011-2012 4 of 13 4 of 8 3 of 6 3 of 7
2010-2011 8 of 13 3 of 7 4 of 11 2 of 5
2009-2010 8 of 20 3 of 10 7 of 13 3 of 6
2008-2009 13 of 20 6 of 8 8 of 12 2 of 4
2007-2008 13 of 17 6 of 9 7 of 11 3 of 5

Examples of how to read the table: In 2007 there were 5 SS who qualified as a top-75 player, and in 2008 3 of them repeated a top-75 finish. In 2012 there were 8 3B who qualified as a top-75 player. In 2013 6 of those 8 3B repeated a top-75 value.

Every year, 2 or 3 SS repeat — and that’s it. At 2B there are only two years where there the repeat number is as low as 3 players, and 3B has just one year. Not only are there fewer top-75 hitters at SS, but from year to year there is a smaller chance that a SS who did well the year before will perform at the same level when you draft him the next season. And in case anyone thinks 2B is still in contention with SS for the shallowest and least reliable position, let’s look at top-100 players.

Top-100 players who repeated the next year, by position (not excluding multiple eligibility)

Years 1B 2B 3B SS
2012-2013 8 of 18 6 of 10 6 of 10 2 of 10
2011-2012 8 of 18 5 of 10 3 of 7 4 of 11
2010-2011 13 of 19 4 of 7 4 of 11 2 of 6
2009-2010 14 of 28 3 of 13 7 of 15 3 of 9
2008-2009 19 of 25 7 of 9 10 of 15 3 of 8
2007-2008 16 of 20 7 of 14 8 of 14 6 of 9

Aside from 2007-2008, SS doesn’t gain any worthy increase when we expand the pool of players. The average number of repeaters per season at SS is 3.3, whereas at 2B it’s 5.3 and at 3B it’s 6.3. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the number of SS repeaters in the last four years goes up a grand total of one when increasing from top-75 to top-100.

Conclusion

Getting a top fantasy shortstop is difficult. There are fewer elite SS than any other infield position, and even if you take a top SS from the year before, the chances are higher that you won’t get that value back. No player (and no position) can avoid injuries forever, but there are also a lot of SS that strike gold one year and never come close to repeating that value, even when you look at the top-100 players. Add to that the fact that the strong core that lasted for several years is becoming less reliable. Rollins is old and has been hurt. Reyes has battled leg injuries and has aged, so 40+ SB are out of the question. Hanley is sometimes back to his old self minus the SB, but he’s also often injured. Tulo has been hurt in a few recent seasons. Jeter is old now — really old. Starlin had two good years before falling apart. Jason Bartlett was a one-season wonder in 2009. Scutaro, Prado, and Hanley didn’t retain SS eligibility every year, and Prado and Scutaro aren’t even that great very often.

There are a lot of SS that flirt with barely making the top-100 only to miss the next year and be ranked, say, #130. If you’re looking for a serviceable shortstop who’s not special but will get you near league-average production, I’m sure you can find someone. And maybe that’s actually the safer bet for redraft leagues — targeting mid-range SS — because you have a shorter distance to fall if something goes wrong. Besides, you may hit on one of those career-year surges from a regular Joe. Alexei Ramirez has broken the top-100 three times in his six years, and in those other years he ranked from 113 to 142. He’s a good example of taking a player who can give you league-average production, with the chance for a little more upside than you paid for. Of course, in 2013 he was top-100 but completely altered his average stats, with shrinking power and an absurd SB spike that isn’t repeatable. And he’s getting old, too. Maybe you should look for someone else in 2014.

Who are my potential value targets? I like Starlin Castro to bounce back; hopefully the front office (and new manager) lets him go back to his old ways, when he was a free swinger but did well making contact outside of the zone. Not many people believe in Jed Lowrie, and I don’t trust a full BA repeat in 2014, but his development has been hidden by part-time roles and injuries in the years before 2013. Fantasy managers wouldn’t know it from his MLB totals, but Zack Cozart has speed that he didn’t get to display thanks to Dusty’s lack of SB green light (67 team SB in 2013, and 13 were Billy Hamilton), so he’s got a chance to put up a 15/15 season with a new manager. These three players will likely cost you far less than guys like Reyes and Rollins, and though their upside isn’t elite, they have a better chance at outperforming their draft cost.

Some people are thrill seekers and love the gamble of high-risk, high-reward picks. That’s up to each manager to decide. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about shortstops being unreliable.

Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.

4 thoughts on “The Unreliability of Shortstops”

  1. I will admit it. I have always been a sucker for “elite” SS options.

    In all my years playing fantasy baseball, I can only recall one time where I used a high pick on an SS and it worked out. That was Hanley in 2009. On most occasions, the picks were epic busts.

    Maybe someday I will learn.

    1. After years of playing keeper leagues this was my first year in a while in a redraft league. I drafted Hanely second, guess how that turned out…

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