On February 27, 1997, the cover of the then-newly released March issue of Sports Illustrated featured two baby-faced baseball players — with the headline "Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez head up the finest group of shortstops since World War II." The next season, Nomar Garciaparra had his breakout, and he joined the two in what was an embarrassment of riches at the position. Three years later, the trio was elected to the 2000 All-Star Game — a recognition of what was one of the finest multi-year periods by a group of three shortstops in the history of the game.
A historical convergence of that type of talent happens rarely in baseball, and it happens far more rarely at one position — and in just one league. During any particular season, there are usually only a certain number of players that are above a particular production level. Take, for example, the number of players that produced at least 6.0 Wins Above Replacement in 2015. We’ll focus on 6.0 WAR because above that level we consider production to be in the realm of a possible "MVP" performance.
In 2015, there were only 10 players in all of baseball who had greater than 6.0 WAR. In 2014, there were only nine, and in 2013 there were also 10. Some years have more players and some years have fewer, but the point is that there are usually few players who are in this upper echelon of production. It’s also important to understand that shortstop is usually a less talented position than others on the field: the skill set to be successful both offensively and defensively at shortstop simply narrows the range of potential players down. Case in point: there hasn’t been a full-time shortstop with at least 6.0 WAR since Hanley Ramirez and Derek Jeter both topped that mark in 2009.
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In 1998, Jeter, A-Rod, and Garciaparra all had over 6.0 WAR. They were all shortstops. They were all in the American League. The confluence of circumstances that came together for that to happen should be celebrated by its own holiday. In fairness, 1998 was a ridiculous year for great position players — there were 24 players with at least 6.0 WAR — the result of both great timing and, well, probably steroids. Still, there has rarely been a time when talent among American League shortstops — and shortstops in general — was more top-heavy than in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
That might be about to change, however. Last season, among one of the best rookie classes of all time, we saw the debuts of the future of the shortstop position in the American League. Though Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor played only 99 games each, they joined Xander Bogaerts in becoming only the second trio of shortstops to each post at least 3.0 WAR in the same season and league at 23 years of age or younger. The other trio? Nomar, A-Rod, and Jeter in 1997.
As it turns out, even having two shortstops in the same league who are this young and provide this level of value is extremely rare in baseball history. Take a look at the seasons since the dead ball era ended when at least two shortstops 23 years old or younger produced at least 3.0 WAR during the same season in the same league:
Shortstops With 3.0+ WAR in Same Season/League (Age 23 or Under), 1920-2015
Seasons with multiple young shortstops in the same league who are this much better than their peers have only happened seven times since 1920. If we combine the leagues to look at all of baseball, the number of seasons rises to 13, still quite a remarkably small number. And, finally, if we dare envision what a full season out of Lindor and Correa would have looked like in 2015, we could reasonably have expected them to exceed the combined WAR posted by Nomar, A-Rod, and Jeter during that incredible 1997.
Looking ahead, only one of our three young shortstops from 2015 will turn 24 this coming season, and it will come at the extreme end of the regular season (Bogaerts, October 1) — meaning these three have another shot at beating the 1997 mark. If we really want to start dreaming, Corey Seager (about to enter his age-22 season) is seemingly in line to get full-time duties at shortstop for the Dodgers during 2016: considering his 1.5 WAR in just 27 games last September, we might expect him to surpass 3.0 WAR next season.
Addison Russell is also only 21, should get full playing time for the Cubs, and has a very high ceiling; finally, we haven’t even mentioned Trea Turner, the super prospect for the Nationals who could be ready to step into full-time work during 2016. If any four of he, Russell, Seager, Lindor, Bogaerts, and/or Correa were able to produce at least 3.0 WAR, it would mark the first time in baseball history since 1920 (and possibly longer) that four such young shortstops were that valuable during the same season.
That’s a big if, of course. Players get injured and miss time; young players especially struggle when the league adjusts to them. For what it’s worth, the projection system Steamer currently expects three out of the six players just mentioned to post at least 3.0 WAR, with Seager and Russell just missing out:
2016 Projections for Select Age-23 & Under Shortstops
2016 Projected WAR (Steamer)
By no means are any of these projections a sure bet, but they do speak to the opportunity that so many teams are giving to their wunderkinds. Baseball has changed, and the way that prospects are handled is remarkably different from the way they were even a couple decades ago. Teams are leaning more toward on-the-job training, promoting young players before they might be fully ready. Sometimes they are ready, however. Sometimes they look like they’ve always belonged. And, every once in a very rare while, they quietly do something that only Nomar, A-Rod, and Jeter had ever done before. The kids are back playing shortstop. And they’ve arrived all at once.