It’s rare when I draw inspiration from watching South Park, but I found the show’s most recent episode, “You’re Getting Old,” to be pretty thought provoking. The episode centers mostly around the idea of getting older and becoming more cynical. During one scene, Stan Marsh’s mother Sharon takes Stan’s “Tween Wave” CD away from him, proclaiming the music to be “crap.” Stan’s father, Randy, defends Stan’s music choice by asking Sharon, “Don’t you remember being younger and having our parents say the music we liked sounded like crap?”
I think this is something we can all relate to. My parents can’t stand my recent techno addiction. Before that they hated all of my Eminem and 50 Cent CDs. It took me awhile to appreciate my dad’s Bruce Springsteen collection and my mom’s Rolling Stones obsession.
Just as my parents are having difficulty accepting the Deadmau5, Bassnectar and Glitch Mob songs that they hear coming out of my computer, I’m having that same type of hesitance towards the current group of MLB shortstops. Going through the MLB All-Star ballot the other day, I kept asking myself, “Who are these guys?” Reid Brignac? Paul Jalish? Alexi Casilla? For me, wading through the list of eligible shortstops was like going to a party and only knowing a few people there.
I wouldn’t go as far as Sharon Marsh and declare that today’s crop of shortstops are “crap.” Asdrubal Cabrera (.301, 12 HR, 43 RBI) and Jose Reyes have put up offensive numbers (NL-leading .343 AVG) that would be impressive any year. There just aren’t a lot of familiar faces.
Flashback to 2002: that season seven shortstops made the AL and NL All-Star teams. Five of the seven came out of the AL. Four out of those five: Alex Rodriguez (at that time a member of the Texas Rangers), Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada, were perennial MVP candidates. The other was Omar Vizquel, a fielding wiz and certainly a candidate for the Hall of Fame whenever he decides to end his illustrious MLB career (Vizquel, who plays for the White Sox now, is in his 23rd year in the majors). Cal Ripken, the greatest shortstop of his generation, went out in style in the previous year’s All-Star Game: he smacked a home run off of Chan Ho Park to earn his second All-Star Game MVP Award.
It was the Golden Age of shortstops. These guys were absolute superstars. Nomar was a six-time All-Star and a two-time AL batting champ. Only Ichiro has equaled Garciaparra’s amazing 2000 season when he and Todd Helton tied for the major league lead with matching .372 averages (Ichiro hit .372 in ’04). Tejada was just as dominant in 2002 when he captured the American League MVP, pummeling AL pitching for 34 homers and 131 runs batted in (he also hit .308). A-Rod is a three-time MVP award winner and Jeter, an 11-time All-Star, is closing in on the prestigious 3000-hit plateau.
This year’s assortment of shortstops isn’t nearly as impressive. Cabrera and Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta (.305) are the only qualifying American League shortstops hitting above .300 at this point in the year.
The NL has three players hitting over the .300 mark in New York’s Jose Reyes, Chicago’s Starlin Castro and L.A.’s Jamey Carroll. But none of them have the home run power that Tejada, A-Rod and Garciaparra used to display. Right now Reyes, Castro and Carroll have only four home runs between them (three for Reyes, one for Castro and none for Carroll). Toronto’s Jose Bautista hit more than that in a three-game trip to Minnesota back in mid-May (five homers in three games).
All of the remnants of the Golden Age seem to have disappeared. Now Garciaparra is in the broadcast booth with ESPN, his career derailed by injuries. Tejada and Rodriguez’s legacies have been altered forever by their use of performance enhancing drugs. Jeter, hitting at just .260 this year, is a shell of his former self.
Michael Young, who was in his prime near the end of Garciaparra and Tejada’s reign of dominance, still hits for average but not for power and he hasn’t played shortstop since 2008. Edgar Renteria, a five-time NL All-Star at shortstop during the late 90s and early 2000s, has bounced around more than a beach ball at a Nickelback concert in recent years. His offensive production has dwindled too: he’s homerless in 109 at bats this season for Cincinnati, his fifth team in seven years.
The next generation of shortstops has shown moments of brilliance but has lacked the consistency and star power that Jeter, A-Rod, Tejada and Nomar brought to the table at the start of the 2000s. Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes, Rafael Furcal and Angel Berroa were the consensus picks to lead the new class of All-Star shortstops. Only Reyes has lived up to the hype.
Rollins killed it in 2007 when he launched 30 homers and swiped 41 bases for the NL East Champion Phillies. Since being named the NL MVP that season, Rollins has never come close to his 2007 stats. He’s hit just .257 over the last four seasons with 46 homers.
Rafael Furcal and Angel Berroa both began their careers by winning Rookie of the Year awards. Neither player is still making an impact in the big leagues. Furcal has been on the field for just 300 of the Dodgers’ 558 games over the past four seasons. Berroa hasn’t made an appearance with a major league club since 2009.
Perhaps, like with catchers, it’s time to become resigned to the fact that shortstop is a physically demanding defensive position. Shortstops are supposed to anchor the infield defense just like catchers are supposed to manage pitchers from behind the plate. Injuries are common at both positions and neither position lends itself to much offensive production.
And maybe the emphasis shouldn’t be on hitting. For years it seems like major league teams have seemed willing to concede the shortstop spot in the order, assuming the corner infielders and outfielders would pick up the slack offensively. When so few teams have shortstops that are productive hitters, it’s not really a disadvantage not to have one: most teams are in the same boat.
Or maybe we’re trending back to the ‘80s and ‘90s when little guys like Ozzie Smith we’re the standard at shortstop. Smith, who was only 5’11 and 150 pounds during his playing days with the Padres and Cardinals, was a top-notch fielder and an excellent base-runner. He was only a .262 hitter with 28 career homers, but he was still considered valuable to his team because of the other facets of his game. Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro and Jason Bartlett each fit this mold. Neither is particularly large or powerful but all three have plus speed and good enough glove work.
Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Florida’s Hanley Ramirez have emerged as the two dominant shortstops of our current era. Tulo is 6’3 and 215 pounds while Ramirez (also 6’3) weighs in at a solid 230. Like A-Rod and Ripken before them, they’re bigger and stronger than nearly everyone else at the position. That’s why Tulowitzki has 72 homers over the last three seasons and Ramirez has 49.
Both guys can hit for average as well. Tulowitzki finished 2010 with a .315 average. Though a season-long slump has Ramirez hitting at just .204 this season, he’s a .306 lifetime hitter and in 2009 his .342 average won him the NL batting title with ease. Ramirez has another wrinkle to his game that Tulo’s still working to develop: he’s always been a threat to steal (Ramirez has stolen 50 bases in a season twice in his career).
Ramirez won’t be 28 until December and Tulowitzki is 26, so both should have long careers ahead of them. Still, given the history of the position, will either have the longevity and staying power that stars like Ripken and Ozzie Smith had? Or will they fizzle out like Rollins and Berroa? It’s impossible to predict. The fact that both players’ stats have declined this season isn’t a good sign. Tulowitzki’s hitting 43 points below his 2010 average while Ramirez’s decline has been even steeper: he’s hitting 96 points lower than he did last year (.300 to .204).
Even if Tulowitzki, Ramirez, Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera and others pan out, will things ever be the way they were when the AL had its four-headed monster at shortstop? A-Rod vs. Garciaparra vs. Jeter vs. Tejada was a rivalry. Maybe the individual players didn’t feel like it was, but for the fans, having potentially the four best players in baseball, playing in the same league at the same position, it was truly something special. You could make a case for each player being better than the other. Maybe the issue is that Tulowitzki and Ramirez don’t play on teams that compete year-in and year-out for a title like Garciaparra did with the Red Sox, Tejada did with the Athletics and Jeter and Rodriguez still do with the Yankees. It’s tough to put a finger on it but it feels different. Either that, or I’m just getting old.
Photo of Sharon and Randy Marsh taken from http://bit.ly/kYxQ4p. Photo of Deadmau5 taken from http://bit.ly/mrF42r. Photo of Garciaparra, Rodriguez and Jeter taken from http://bit.ly/mv7yuE. Photo of Angel Berroa taken from http://bit.ly/koezaO. All other photos were taken from ESPN.com.