There’s a changing of the offensive guard in Major League Baseball, and the White Sox’ Tim Anderson and the Cubs’ Javy Baez are part of it.
It’s the rise of the shortstops, and we’re in a time when it takes more than defense to hold the position.
Through Sunday, the average OPS in the majors was .759. For shortstops, it was .773.
If that holds up, it will be only the second time in the expansion era (since 1961) that shortstops will out-OPS the majors as a whole. The first time was last season, when the .733 OPS for shortstops topped the majors’ .728 overall.
Anderson leads the American League with a .334 batting average, and his 16 home runs and 30 doubles help boost his OPS to .869.
Baez, who is out with a fractured thumb, has been a major part of the Cubs’ offense with 29 homers and an .848 OPS.
The Chicago stars have been among the top-hitting shortstops, but they’re not alone. Thirteen shortstop regulars top .800 in OPS, with the Astros’ Alex Bregman (.995), the Red Sox’ Xander Bogaerts (.948) and the Rockies’ Trevor Story (.904) over .900.
That’s a big departure from what we’ve seen over the decades. OPSes by shortstops not only trailed major-league averages, but they were barely in the same ballpark.
From 1961 to 1970, the first decade of the expansion era, shortstop OPSes averaged 42 points lower than those for all players. Shortstop OPSes were a whopping 79 points below average from 1971 to 1980, 58 points below average from 1981 to 1990, 48 points below average from 1991 to 2000 and 31 points below average from 2001 to 2010.
Shortstops were 25 points below the major-league average in OPS from 2011 to 2017, including 14 points below in 2016 and 15 points below in 2017 before surging past average last season.
Some of the long-term offensive deficit at shortstop is normal. Fewer players can handle the defensive demands at shortstop than at other positions. That limits the pool of available players and puts downward pressure on the offensive requirements to hold a job.
The tendency to regard shortstop as a defensive position peaked in the 1970s, with the 79-point OPS deficit at the position. In 1973, shortstops’ .593 OPS was 111 points below the major-league average. The deficit topped 100 again in 1977 (.730-.629).
The top OPS among shortstop qualifiers in 1973 was Toby Harrah’s .693, 11 points below the major-league average. In 1977, two qualifiers — Garry Templeton at .786 and Bob Bailor at .738 — topped the major-league average of .730.
It was a time when defensive ace Mark Belanger could hold a job for 18 seasons, including eight with at least 500 plate appearances, despite a .580 career OPS. Craig Reynolds got 4,863 plate appearances with a .636 OPS, and Roger Metzger came to the plate 4,675 times with a .584 OPS.
Times have changed, and the difference between shortstop and average OPS has decreased in every decade since the 1970s.
Shortstops topping the major-league average in OPS might be a blip, but the longer-term narrowing of the gap is a sign of a changing game.