Historically, those who have played shortstop have tended to be slick fielders and speedy runners without much capacity to hit. However, over time, we have seen an increase in the ability of MLB clubs to fill the position with a talented and often powerful hitter who can also field well. Just as the quality of starting pitchers has increased over time, we have seen more all-around emerge over the years.
There’s been an ongoing debate involving the New York Yankees and whether or not they’ll sign a star SS long term (e.g. Carlos Correa or Trevor Story) or sign/trade for a defensive specialist (e.g. Paul DeJong or Andrelton Simmons). If the Yanks pursue the latter approach, the idea is that this player will fill the position for a limited time until one of the team’s outstanding prospects (most likely Anthony Volpe, who can hit and field) is ready to take over.
There are obvious benefits and risks associated with following both approaches. On the one hand, signing a stellar free-agent shortstop will be very expensive and will probably limit the team’s ability to pursue other high-quality players to fill different positions of need (in addition to getting Aaron Judge a contract extension). Yet, signing an elite free agent should provide the Yanks a considerable lift offensively and defensively for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, signing or trading for a slick-fielding middle infielder will make it much easier and less costly for the Yanks to replace the player later with one of the club’s promising young prospects (a plan that will be affordable for quite some time). But the Yankees can’t afford to import another offensive liability.
This is not the first time the Yanks have faced this conundrum at shortstop. To speculate which of the two competing approaches the team might pursue, we can see which strategy was adopted in the past and whether it benefited or hurt the team. This will allow us to tell whether the Boys in Pinstripes will be more likely to acquire a less expensive, short-term defensive wiz, or a pricey, long-term star-free agent who can do it all.
Which approach have the Yankees followed in the past, and did it help or hurt them?
After examining the kinds of players the Bombers have employed at shortstop since Norman “Kid” Elberfeld beginning in 1903, it’s clear they have had very few legitimate stars at the position. Most Yankee shortstops have played for only a short period and were average performers at best.
Over the past 119 years, the team has had 36 players covering this position. Yet, only three individuals have played shortstop for 11 years or more (Frankie Crosetti and Phil Rizzuto for 11 years each and Derek Jeter for 18 years). On average, a Yankee has played shortstop for 3.31 years. If one excludes Crosetti, Rizzuto, and Jeter from the analysis, a Yankee has played shortstop for an average of 2.39 years.
This is surprising given the role’s importance in baseball, the fact that the Yanks have won 27 World Series, and the club’s penchant for reaching the playoffs. Apparently, New York has achieved great success with mostly ordinary players in this role.
The development of the three best Yankee shortstops of all time
The prototypical shortstop all MLB clubs desire would be Derek Jeter. Although UZR and DRS statistics portray someone who was not an extraordinary fielder, Jeter did win five gold gloves. Most consider him to have been a solid if not a spectacular defender.
The Yankees’ captain is by far the team’s all-time leader in fWAR (73.1) at the shortstop position. Jeter appeared in 14 All-Star games, won five Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, a Roberto Clemente Award, and was a five-time World Series champion. He had a career .309 postseason batting average and a .321 batting average in the World Series. He was a World Series MVP, too.
Jeter was not only the best shortstop the Yanks ever had, but was also the preeminent player at his position in the history of MLB. As Yankee fans know, he was a near (because of one vindictive baseball writer) unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame.
Jeter came up through the Yankees minor league system and replaced a revolving door of previous shortstops. Upon his promotion to the big leagues, he took over for veteran Tony Fernandez, a good fielder but light hitter, at short.
Rizzuto was the second-best all-around shortstop to play for the Yanks. He finished his career with a 41.3 fWAR. Compared to Jeter, Scooter was considered a light-hitter who ended his playing days with a .273/.351/.355 slash line and a 96 wRC+. He lost three years of play during his prime when he was on active duty in the Navy between 1943 and 1945.
Scooter played an instrumental role on a Yankees team that won 10 pennants and seven World Series. He was the AL MVP in 1950 and played in five All-Star games. While he was a better fielder than Jeter, he undoubtedly was not the hitter Jeter was. The Yanks retired Rizzuto’s number 10, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA.
Rizzuto inherited the starting shortstop role from Crosetti in 1941, the third-best Yankee player at the position. Crosetti finished his career with a 27.7 fWAR. He was an excellent defensive shortstop but a light hitter (with a .245/341/.354 slash line and a 88 wRC+).
“Crow” played in two All-Star games and six World Series with the Boys in Pinstripes. He took over shortstop from Lyn Lary, a mediocre shortstop who only occupied the position for two years (1930 and 1931) for the Yanks. Like Jeter, Rizzuto and Crosetti spent time in the minors honing their talents before assuming their respective shortstop roles for the Bombers.
So, what will the Yankees do now?
Since 1903, the Yankees primarily employed fill-in shortstops over the years, and they were still able to win numerous pennants and an impressive number of World Series. At the same time, the Yanks were able to develop Jeter, Rizzuto, and Crosetti in the minor leagues, and they became the three best shortstops in team history.
These successful approaches to covering the shortstop position suggest that the Yanks will acquire a one or two-year defensive replacement and wait until Volpe is ready to play big-league baseball. Just improving the defense alone at shortstop by replacing error-prone Gleyber Torres will help the team win more games. At the same time, passing on the pricey Correa or Story will allow the team to allocate money to fill other essential roles with quality players and sign Judge to a multi-year contract extension.
Of course, this assumes that Volpe will indeed be able to play at the major league level within the next year or two. Admittedly, Jeter is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and no matter how good Volpe is, he’s unlikely to equal (or come close to) Jeter’s body of work. But Volpe might contribute the same way both the Scooter and Crow did, thereby helping to propel the franchise in a way most others cannot.