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MLB shortstop tiers: Exciting, young talent abounds

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Position-by-position tiers: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF

For shortstops, the 2010s have been the decade of the very good, but not the very great. The next decade might be a different story altogether.

Some of this is a matter of timing. The great shortstops of the 2000s, like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, had moved to other positions or retired by the middle of the current decade. Meanwhile, the great young crop of shortstops we have in the game right now, such as Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, didn't arrive until after that. So when you look at the overall leaderboard of top 2010s shortstops, it's underwhelming, historically speaking.

The WAR leaderboards of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs tell somewhat different stories because of their differing methods for measuring defense. We'll go with Fangraphs for this section. Here are the top five shortstops of the decade by fWAR:

BEST SHORTSTOPS OF 2010s
1. Troy Tulowitzki, 27.8
2. Elvis Andrus, 23.7
3. Andrelton Simmons, 23.4
4. Francisco Lindor, 22.8
5. Jose Reyes, 21.8

With one year to go in the decade, the career trajectories of those on the list suggest that it's likely that Simmons or Lindor will end up on top. Tulo could change that with a healthy season, but he has totaled just 4.1 WAR over the past two seasons. Lindor's 2019 Steamer projection (6.5 fWAR) is tops for the position. He had 7.6 last season and is certainly capable of doing as well or better this time around. Still, it seems likely that the decade leader will wind up with no more than 30 fWAR. Here's how that compares with the leaders of other decades:

SS fWAR LEADERS BY DECADE
2000s: Alex Rodriguez, 75.4
1990s: Barry Larkin, 50.4
1980s: Robin Yount, 50.0
1970s: Bert Campaneris, 30.4
1960s: Jim Fregosi, 34.8
1950s: Ernie Banks, 39.7
1940s: Lou Boudreau, 61.1
1930s: Arky Vaughan, 52.9
1920s: Joe Sewell, 39.9
1910s: Art Fletcher, 40.8
1900s: Honus Wagner, 90.4

Yeah, 30 fWAR is a pretty low total for a decade leader. Through last season, the top 10 shortstops of the decade have averaged 3.01 fWAR per 600 plate appearances. The only decade with a leaner leaderboard was the 1970s, when too many managers selected glorified designated fielders for the position. In a way, that's kind of what has happened in the 2010s. While there have been some tremendous offensive shortstop seasons in the decade, overall the position has been heavily tilted toward defense.

To illustrate this, we'll once again turn to Fangraphs. Let's look at the contributions of each decade's top 10 shortstops in terms of offensive runs and defensive runs above average per 600 plate appearances:

Decade: Off., Def.
2010s: 2.28, 7.13
2000s: 11.90, 4.69
1990s: 8.86, 10.11
1980s: 5.16, 10.34
1970s: -7.59, 13.86
1960s: 1.09, 10.72
1950s: 4.22, 9.27
1940s: 5.15, 14.56
1930s: 5.35, 12.18
1920s: -2.79, 14.38
1910s: 2.65, 13.05

Here you can see how heavily teams focused on shortstop defense in the 1960s and, especially, in the 1970s. And you can see how far the pendulum swung the other way in the 2000s. This decade, however, has seen something of a return to the old ways. There have been exceptions. Tulowitzki has been a very balanced player, just as Lindor is now. Reyes' value, when he was producing it, was driven mostly by offense. Same deal with Asdrubal Cabrera. By and large, though, defense-first players such as Simmons, Andrus, Brandon Crawford and Jhonny Peralta have better typified the position in the 2010s.

But if you focus on the past couple of years, it sure looks like we're entering a new golden age for shortstops. According to Baseball-Reference.com, there have been 19 seasons since 1901 that have featured at least four shortstops with at least 5 bWAR. That list includes each of the past two seasons, though the list for each campaign is composed of different names. And all of those 5-win shortstops have been young: Lindor (twice), Simmons (twice), Manny Machado, Correa, Seager and Trevor Story.

Not only are those players on the right side of 30, but they all are average or better with both the glove and the bat. That includes Simmons, whose career OPS+ was 86 during his first five seasons but has been at 105 over the past two campaigns. That's pretty good for a player who statistically has been the top overall defender of the decade.

If we did indeed pass through a bit of depression in terms of elite shortstops this decade, it looks like we've now moved beyond it. If you want to see some of the best young stars of today's game, look no further than the 6-hole.