- Shortstop used to be all about defense, but the bats have caught up to the gloves at the infield's most important position.
Like its counterpart in the middle infield, shortstop has gotten deeper in fantasy baseball in recent years, as the players with the athleticism to handle baseball’s most demanding position have gotten bigger. Ten years ago, someone Carlos Correa’s or Corey Seager’s size would immediately move to third base. Now, they’re holding down the most important spot on the infield, and doing so with offensive numbers typically associated with a corner infielder.
They, of course, are not alone. In the last three years, we have also seen Francisco Lindor and Trea Turner break into the league as immediate stars. Xander Bogaerts is still just 25 years old. Didi Gregorius has taken off in his two years as the starter in the Bronx, while Jean Segura has rediscovered his rookie-year trajectory in the same timeframe.
All of that has helped create one of the deepest shortstop pools in years. In addition to those seven players, there’s good reason to buy into Elvis Andrus, Javier Baez and Marwin Gonzalez as fantasy starters. Youngsters like Orlando Arcia and Tim Anderson enter this season with plenty of upside, and there’s another wave behind them, headlined by Gleyber Torres, Willy Adames, J.P. Crawford and Amed Rosario. The focus is on the multiple MVP candidates at the top of the position, but there is plenty to like at shortstop.
Five Big Questions
1. What does a full season of Trea Turner look like?
Chances are strong that it looks really good. Alas, we haven’t seen it just yet. Turner spent the first two months of the 2016 season in the minors, and then lost two months in 2017 because of a broken wrist. Turner is widely considered one of the league’s most prominent budding stars, and he should be, but he still hasn’t been on the field for a full 162-game season. No matter how good he has been or how strong his pedigree, there’s always an element of the unknown surrounding something we haven’t seen.
Helpfully, Turner’s 2016 and 2017 add up to about full season. He played in 171 games across those two seasons, amassing 771 plate appearances. That’s about 150 more plate appearances than we’d expect for a No. 2 hitter over a full season, but it’s certainly close enough for the sake of comparison. Turner slashed .309/.351/.501 with 24 homers, 79 steals, 128 runs and 85 RBI the last two years. If we average it to 162 games, the counting stats come out to 23 homers, 75 steals, 122 runs and 81 RBI. Turner has earned every bit of his first-round ADP.
Now, a 23-homer, 75-steal, 122-run, 81-RBI season would be an incredible feat. You don’t need me to tell you that. But past isn’t always prologue, and no one should be locking in those numbers as floors for Turner. Let’s bring them all down a bit, and make them a little easier to achieve. It seems fair to project Turner for 20 homers, 60 steals, 100 runs and 70 RBI in a full 162-game season. Steamer has him at 17, 50, 96 and 66, but also has him playing just 139 games. If it gave him 162, or even 152, he’d likely hit all those thresholds in one of the most sophisticated projection systems.
So, how many times has a 20-homer, 60-steal, 100-run, 70-RBI season happened in MLB history? Four. Who owns those seasons? Joe Morgan and Rickey Henderson. Morgan did it in 1973 and 1976, while Henderson did it in 1985 and 1986. What does a full season of Turner look like? If he continues the trajectory he set for himself the last two seasons, it looks like Joe Morgan in his prime. That’s pretty good.
2. Does Corey Seager have another gear?
Let’s first make one thing clear. Seager doesn’t need another gear to be a top-flight fantasy player. In just more than 1,400 plate appearances, he has a .305/.374/.502 slash line, with 162-game averages of 26 homers, 40 doubles and 82 RBI. He has a Rookie of the Year and two Silver Sluggers on his mantel, and a top-three MVP finish. Seager could be this same guy for the rest of his career and end up in Cooperstown.
And yet, it feels like he’s falling behind the players among whom he was once considered peers. Carlos Correa is a bona fide first-round fantasy pick. Francisco Lindor experienced a power breakout last year, belting 33 homers. Seager is a great athlete, but he has stolen just nine bases in his career. The chances of him increasing his fantasy value with his legs appear slim. If Seager is going to get back in the Correa-Lindor crowd, he’ll have to do so with his power.
Seager’s hard-hit and fly-ball rates jumped last season to 44% and 33.1%, respectively. Those were both increases of about four percentage points from the previous season, which is significant. The hard-hit rate bodes well for his power, but the fly-ball rate remains far too low if he’s going to hit 30 home runs. Lindor’s fly-ball rate last season was 42.4%. Seager had a higher HR/FB ratio (16.2% to 14%) and longer average fly-ball distance (329 feet to 314 feet) than Lindor, but the Indians shortstop hit 100 more fly balls than he did. That’s where the difference between the two lies.
Seager is entering his age-24 season, a time when he can still grow into more natural power. He also has examples all around the league of infielders who have fundamentally changed their game for the better by purposely getting more lift on their balls in play, from Lindor to Daniel Murphy to Justin Turner. If he, too, can make that change, he can be one of the 15 or 20 best hitters in the fantasy game.
3. Can Javier Baez be an everyday fantasy player?
The Cubs have one of the most flexible rosters in the league, with the only guaranteed everyday players being Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras, as far as a catcher can realistically play every day. Baez is right behind that group. Between second base and shortstop, and possibly the occasional start at third, Baez should get 500 plate appearances this season. That, however, has as much to do with his seemingly magical glove as it does his bat. Is this the year Baez puts it together enough at the plate to be a reliable fantasy player?
Baez had the best offensive season of his career last year, hitting .273/.317/.480 with 23 homers, 75 runs, 75 RBI and 10 steals. He still struck out far too often, whiffing in 28.3% of his plate appearances, while he remained nearly allergic to walks, earning a free pass 5.9% of the time. The counting stats, however, were strong, and play in the middle infield, even with the ugly OBP. Baez hit .273 with a .314 OBP in 450 plate appearances in 2016. That’s enough reason to believe that the rate stats of the last two years are who he is.
Baez was even better in the second half last season than he was in the first, slashing .291/.340/.511 with 13 of his 23 homers despite 15 fewer plate appearances. On the down side, he struck out even more after the All-Star break, with his strikeout rate reaching 30.9%. Baez is still young—this will be his age-25 season—but he has nearly 1,300 plate appearances. This is almost certainly who he is, fully formed.
Is that really that bad a thing, though? Again, playing nearly every day in this Cubs lineup should lift Baez to 70-run and 70-RBI floors. He’s a good bet to hit 20 to 25 homers, and his prodigious power gives him a ceiling for 30. He’s aggressive on the bases, and has 22 steals over the last two years. It would be a surprise to see him fall short of double-digits this season. He’s a bit of a risk in OBP leagues, but he’s coming off the board at an ADP of 113.71. At that point, you’ll know if you can afford his bad rates. In short, Baez is fairly priced thanks to his status as a legitimate, surprisingly safe, four-category contributor. He’s unlikely to break through to another level, but his asking price doesn’t force him to do so to turn a profit. That he’s eligible at shortstop and second base gives you the same roster flexibility he brings to the Cubs.
4. What's the Story?
Story provided one of the best tales of the 2016 season. It seemed that not a day went by in April without him belting some ridiculous-looking homer and launching 1,000 puns. His season was cut short by injury, but he hit .272/.341/.567 with 27 homers in 97 games, putting him on pace for a 45-homer campaign. It looked possible he would be the position’s next great power hitter.
If 2016 was the best of times for Story, 2017 was the worst of times. He came crashing back to earth, slashing .239/.308/.457 with 24 homers across a full season. The tendencies pitchers started to exploit after getting a bit of a look at him in 2016 were fully exposed last year. He had a 34.4% strikeout rate, third highest in the majors behind Chris Davis and Joey Gallo. He struggled mightily without the platoon advantage, hitting .216/.281/.386 against righties. He was terrible against offspeed stuff, hitting .194 with a .257 slugging percentage against curveballs, sliders and changeups. It was an ugly year.
So, which Story is the real one? Unfortunately, it’s likely the 2017 version. Those holes in his game existed in 2016, evidenced most clearly by his 31.3% strikeout rate that year. It just took pitchers some time to find them. Once they did, the attacked them without hesitation or quarter. Unless we see some evidence that he has closed those holes, he’s the same flawed hitter he was last year. The power still makes him a potential backend starter, but he’s not someone you should be targeting aggressively this season.
5. Who’s the top endgame target at the position?
I’ve been a Ketel Marte fan for a while, now. I wrote this about him before the 2016 season:
Marte’s low draft stock is one of the harder things to figure out this spring. All he has done since becoming a professional is hit and steal bases. He batted .304 with 16 steals in A-ball in 2013 at 19 years old. He hit .302 with 23 steals at the Double-A level the next year. Marte split 2015 between Triple-A and the majors. He hit .314 with a .359 OBP and 20 steals before getting his promotion, then slashed .283/.351/.402 with eight steals in 247 plate appearances with the Mariners. Marte’s major league track record may not be deep, but it would be silly to expect him to stop hitting and swiping bags this year.
What happened? He stopped hitting and swiping bags that year, slashing .259/.287/.323 with 11 steals in 466 plate appearances. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire last year, either, hitting .260/.345/.395 with five homers and three steals in 255 plate appearances. Still, I’m back on Marte’s bandwagon. Jump on, there’s plenty of room. I’m not sure that will be the case by time the summer rolls around, though.
Marte spent about half of last season at Triple-A Reno. Now, at the same time, the Diamondbacks were busy putting together a huge first half, propelling themselves to their first playoff berth since 2011, so not too many people paid close attention to what their fringy middle infielder was doing in the minors. We’ll forgive you if you were one of those people. The Diamondbacks front office paid attention, though, and brought him back to the majors after he hit .338/.391/.514 with six homers, 23 doubles, seven triples and seven steals in 338 plate appearances.
You might be thinking to yourself that Marte is a Quadruple-A player, and I admit that possibility exists. Still, we’re talking about a 24-year-old who has done nothing but rake at the highest level of the minors. There’s also some proof that Marte turned himself into a different hitter during his time at Reno last year.
Marte’s average launch angle in 2015 was 4.9 degrees. The next year, it was 5.1 degrees. Last season, it was 7.2 degrees. That, you might point out, includes pop-ups. Maybe Marte was propped up by pop-ups. Okay, we can isolate for that. The average exit velocity of home runs over the last three seasons was 103.2 mph, with a low of 88.6 mph (hat tip to Ruben Tejada). Let’s apply that to Marte.
Marte’s average launch angle on all balls he hit with an exit velocity of at least 88 mph was 2.5 degrees in 2015. In 2016, it was 3.9 degrees. Last year, it was 8.7 degrees. Marte is going for lift, just like Francisco Lindor and Daniel Murphy before him. He may not have the power of those guys, but he has always made a lot of contact, been willing to take his walks, and featured plenty of speed. Those traits, combined with a concerted effort to hit the ball in the air more,a and his youth, make Marte a shortstop worth targeting in the endgame stages of your draft or auction.