CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) As an All-Star shortstop in the 1970s and `80s, Larry Bowa recalls having a clear job description:
”Catch the balls and make all the plays.”
Bowa typified the traditional sandpaper shortstop, grinding out a long career on fast feet, relentless effort and the expectation that power should come from the corner spots.
But more than 30 years after his retirement, Bowa’s breed is nearing extinction in the major leagues. Carlos Correa, Addison Russell and a bumper crop of sluggers at short hit more homers than ever in 2016. The kids are bringing unprecedented pop to the middle infield, and modern metrics are hastening the surge.
”If sabermetrics were in play when I played,” Bowa said, ”I would have never put on a big league uniform.”
Today’s shortstops are being asked to play a different game. They totaled 493 home runs last season, easily surpassing the next highest mark of 423 from 2002 – right in the heart of the Steroid Era.
It’s not a top-heavy group. Fifteen shortstops hit at least 15 homers last year, more than doubling the previous high of seven in 2002. Eleven of those players are 27 or younger, led by Colorado’s Trevor Story (24) and Oakland’s Marcus Semien (26) with 27 homers each. The pack behind them included rookies Corey Seager (22) of the Dodgers and Aledmys Diaz (26) of the Cardinals. Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) didn’t turn 24 until October. Russell (Cubs) and Francisco Lindor (Indians) turned 23 in the offseason. Correa (Astros) is only 22.
Point is, the power is on at the 6-spot, and there’s juice enough to keep it running for years.
It’s not that the position has always lacked muscle. Boston’s Vern Stephens and Rico Petrocelli hit their share of big flies over the Green Monster in the 1940s, `50s and `60s, and Ernie Banks smacked many of his 512 career homers while playing shortstop for the Cubs in the `50s and `60s. But those players were exceptions. For everyone else, the expectations were simple – catch the ball, throw the ball and don’t embarrass yourself at the plate.
Cal Ripken Jr. changed that in the 1980s. Standing 6-foot-4 but with a point guard’s agility, Ripken infused uncommon might at the position and began to redefine the role of the middle infielder.
In the 1990s and 2000s, stars like Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada took the baton from Ripken, and Troy Tulowitzki followed soon after. But even at the peak of the Steroid Era, power at short was a luxury, not a necessity – in the early 2000s, All-Stars like Omar Vizquel, Rafael Furcal, David Eckstein and Jack Wilson rarely if ever reached double-digit homers in a season.
Now, homer-happy kids like Story, Seager and Correa are driving the glove-first, slap-hitting shortstop out of the game. There aren’t many established, everyday shortstops left that haven’t topped 15 homers at least once. Alcides Escobar, Elvis Andrus, Adeiny Hechavarria, Erick Aybar and Jose Iglesias have built careers on sharp defense and low strikeout rates. Jordy Mercer and Matt Duffy are a bit stronger, each topping out at 12 home runs in a season. And that’s it. Even slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons has a 17-homer season on his resume.
Providing that power can mean sacrificing defensive range, but sabermetrics are encouraging the shift. Scouting reports have become so advanced, teams can predict with greater certainty where opponents will hit the ball. Sure hands and a strong arm are still crucial, but a slow first step isn’t the deal breaker it used to be.
”We didn’t have all that stuff,” Bowa said. ”We just went on range and your pitcher’s ability to put the ball where the catcher’s glove was. That part of it’s changed.
”When I played, I wish I had spray charts like that, where a guy pulls, if he hits 75 ground balls, 70 of them are dead pull between third and short,” Bowa added. ”That’d be great.”
Data isn’t changing the position by itself, though. These players are built differently. Ripken’s rare physique made him a generational talent, but now the majors are stocked with big-framed shortstops. Seager and Correa stand 6-foot-4, and Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius (Yankees) are 6-3. Russell is only 6-foot but has superhero-sized shoulders. Lindor isn’t so large at 5-foot-11, but he still generates enough bat speed to threaten the outfield fences.
”They have that combination of speed, power, range, arm, that no matter what the sabermetrics say, your eyesight tells you what they have,” Bowa said. ”And they’re special. You build teams around guys like that.”
They’re gifted, but they’ve also tailored their bodies specifically for the position. Bogaerts and Russell, for instance, made baseball a full-time endeavor at 15 or 16 years old, abandoning other sports to refine swings and improve footwork.
Though strength has never been more important, staying lithe is a priority for these broad-shouldered shortstops. Russell even took it upon himself to lose 20 pounds as a high school senior when scouts questioned whether he could stick up the middle.
”For me, it’s kind of an even balance,” Russell said. ”It seems like my frame kind of does all the talking there. Work really hard in the gym. Work really hard on agility, quickness and fast-twitch moving, so all those things, we’re just getting better at right now.”
Shortstops of all body types are trying to toe that fine line.
”Last year, I tried to stay lean,” said 5-foot-10 Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis, who swatted 20 homers last season. ”I tried to stay healthy and tried to lift more, but at the same time, I know I can’t go away from the quickness and stuff, the agility stuff, so I try to balance everything. Maybe two or three weeks I go with the heavy lifting, and then I go with the agility stuff again.”
The surge might not be done yet, either. Galvis and Danny Espinosa in Washington both eclipsed 20 homers while playing excellent defense last season and still lack job security in 2017. Galvis is being pushed by top prospect J.P Crawford, while Espinosa was already traded to the Angels to clear space for youngster Trea Turner, who hit 13 homers in 73 games last season.
At a time when even that kind of resume can’t guarantee work, where does that leave players like Bowa, who are short on muscle but big on heart and hustle?
”Things go around in circles. Maybe it’ll come back,” Bowa said. ”Maybe it won’t.”
AP Sports Writer Jay Cohen contributed to this story from Mesa, Arizona, and stringer Ken Powtak contributed from Fort Myers.