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MLB's one big thing: Why center fielders are the new shortstops

Back when I was growing up as an eager young Kansas City Royals fan, shortstops couldn't hit a lick. Royals shortstops certainly couldn't, not even during the franchise's heyday from 1976 to 1985. We loved our shortstops, from Freddie Patek to U.L. Washington to Buddy Biancalana. They were regulars on some of the greatest teams in franchise history. But, collectively, they couldn't hit their way out of a paper bag.

That wasn't too unusual for the era. Generally speaking, shortstops couldn't hit in the 1970s. Here are the wRC+ figures by decade for shortstops, with 100 denoting a league-average hitter:

SHORTSTOP OFFENSE (wRC+ by decade)
1900s: 94
1910s: 87
1920s: 81
1930s: 85
1940s: 85
1950s: 83
1960s: 81
1970s: 73
1980s: 80
1990s: 83
2000s: 87
2010s: 88
Source: Fangraphs.com

Shortstops of all eras have tended to come in well under league average offensively as a group. The reason is obvious: Shortstop has always been the most important defensive position on the field. It's hard to find players who are good hitters and can hold down that spot, and when forced to choose between the bat and the glove, when it comes to shortstops, leather has always been more valuable than wood.

That was never more true than in the 1970s, when managers neglected shortstop offense to a stunning degree. According to baseball-reference.com's split finder, there were 96 shortstops that decade with at least 300 plate appearances at the position. Only two had an OPS of .800 or better (Denis Menke and Rico Petrocelli) and just five others cleared .700. Forty-nine of them -- more than half -- were under .600. Mario Mendoza -- of Mendoza Line fame -- was given 819 plate appearances that decade despite an OPS of .472.

The calculus has changed. In fact, as Ben Clemens of Fangraphs wrote, shortstops have never hit better. Through Wednesday, the 104 wRC+ that shortstops have compiled in 2019 is at an all-time high.