Power is surg­ing at short­stop

For many teams, po­si­tion be­comes a source of homers.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Jake Seiner

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 homers over the Green Mon­ster in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and Ernie Banks hit 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 glove­first, 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. 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 bigframed 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 hit 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. pet­ing for ros­ter spots, are in San An­to­nio.

“I’d like to see more of the main guys, for sure, but it’s spring, it’s base­ball,” said Rangers fan Alec McGuire of San Mar­cos. “This gets you warmed up for the real thing.”

Napoli, who re­joined the Rangers on a one-year con­tract after a highly suc­cess­ful year in Cleve­land, said the lack of fa­mil­iar faces doesn’t mean Big League Week­end won’t be in­ter­est­ing.

“We’ll try to put on a good show,” he said. “Th­ese games here can be pretty en­ter­tain­ing with the di­men­sions and all the fans who show up. They’re not like nor­mal spring train­ing games.”

The Rangers made sure to in­clude a Round Rock Ex­press feel for Austin-area fans with cen­ter fielder Jared Hoy­ing, short­stop Doug Bernier and sev­eral re­liev­ers.

Cleve­land, the de­fend­ing Amer­i­can League cham­pion, had an even tougher time bring­ing a com­pet­i­tive ros­ter. The In­di­ans have 13 play­ers in the WBC. Their big names at the Alam­od­ome are All-Star pitcher Danny Salazar, who started Fri­day night; breakout third base­man Jose Ramirez; and the right-field pla­toon of Lon­nie Chisen­hall and Bran­don Guyer.

“You want to give th­ese fans some play­ers they know, but it wasn’t easy with all that’s go­ing on,” In­di­ans man­ager Terry Fran­cona said. “We brought along sev­eral prospects,” in­clud­ing speedy out­fielder Greg Allen and short­stop Yu-Cheng Chang.

Sec­ond base­man Josh Mor­gan, Texas’ No. 6 prospect, is the only top-10 farm­hand the Rangers sent.

Big League Week­end has av­er­aged roughly 60,000 fans for the two games com­bined through its first four years.

Ro­ta­tion woes: Rangers start­ing pitch­ing, al­ready stretched thin by in­juries to An­drew Cash­ner and Tyson Ross, suf­fered an­other blow. Chi Chi Gon­za­lez was di­ag­nosed with a par­tial tear of the UCL in his right el­bow. He will not throw for six weeks and then will be re-eval­u­ated.

MIKE STONE / AP

Car­los Cor­rea of the Astros is among 15 short­stops who hit at least 15 home runs last sea­son. Saber­met­rics have helped fuel the em­pha­sis on power.

GETTY IMAGES

Mike Napoli of the Rangers says a short­age of fa­mil­iar faces at Big League Week­end doesn’t mean the games against the In­di­ans won’t be in­ter­est­ing.

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