In the 24th edition of Sports Illustrated. In February 1997, the cover featured the smiling young faces of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, and it said the two men led the best group of shortstop since World War II. The article highlighted a promising young class with Jeter, Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Edgar Renteria. Miguel Tejada is also on the rise this season. Outside of the young stars, Barry Larkin is still there and Omar Vizquel is in his prime.
Jeter and Larkin are Hall of Famers, Rodriguez had a Hall of Fame career, Vizquel can do it, Tejada won MVP honors, Garciaparra won two baseball titles and Renteria was a five-time All-Star. There is no doubt that it was a great time for the short stop. But this is not the best band we’ve ever seen.
No, we are in the golden age of the shortstop.
One way to evaluate this is to compare offensive production at all levels to major league averages. BaseballReference.com allows us to look at a statistic called tOPS+, which compares the OPS of each position to the overall OPS of the league. The best value for shortstop in 2019 is 103, meaning shortstop is hitting 3% better than the league average, an impressive value considering shortstop is also a top defensive position. The second highest figure is 2020.
With that as a starting point, I thought it would be fun to evaluate the strength of each position for the 2021 season, and then see how each position was ranked in the past, including the golden age of the lineup at each position. We give the tOPS+ for 2019 and 2020 for each position and give its ranking among 101 seasons going back to 1920, so a 50th place or higher would mean the position is average. Obviously, tOPS + is an offensive statistic. Therefore, selecting the best season for each position also takes into account factors such as defense, single-season and career WAR, Hall of Famers and overall depth.
Two clues: Overall, the distribution of the offensive across positions has become increasingly concentrated in recent decades. In the ’60s and ’70s, for example, infielders were notoriously weak at the plate. The lowest point for shortstop since 1920 was in 1973 with a tOPS+ of 69 – they hit for an average of .237/.291/.301 versus an MLB average of .257/.325/.379. Even though tOPS+ takes into account all the ground turns at the position, if I’m talking about a left fielder for example, a player must have played at least 50% of his games at that position this season.
Very well, get to the point!
2019: 103 tOPS+ (1st since 1920).
2020 : 102 (2)
In a way, Cal Ripken paved the way for Jeter and Rodriguez, who then paved the way for Fernando Tatis Jr, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and other great shortstops holding the position today. At 6-foot-11, Ripken is the longest shortstop in Major League history and proves that a big man can play this position, thanks in part to his strong arm that allows him to play deeper than other shortstops. Give Earl Weaver credit for Ripken’s defensive abilities. Ripken played mostly third base as a junior and started his first season at that position in 1982, but when the Orioles’ other shortstops struggled, Ripken took over at first base. July and he started every Orioles game as a shortstop until the 15th. July 1996.
Rodriguez grew up with a Ripken poster in his room and brought another level of athletic ability and strength to the position. Consider that in 1984, Ripken, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell alone hit over nine home runs as shortstops. In 2019, 27 shortstops hit at least 10 home runs – and six hit at least 30. Yes, performance is paramount in 2021, but I don’t think teams sacrifice anything on defense at that position. For some reason, teams in the 1970s and 1980s fell for this confident but light shortstop, partly thinking that a longer shortstop couldn’t handle the game on AstroTurf.
Ripken really helped erase that trend, and – believe me – Larry Bowa couldn’t make all the matches we see from Francisco Lindor or Javier Baez or Story. For most of baseball’s history, center fielders were the best all-around players in the game. Now it’s a short stop.
Golden Era: Right now.
The best thing about this era of short buds is that they are still in the prime of their lives. Of the top 10 shortstops in 2020 according to WAR, Tim Anderson and Tria Turner are the oldest, both just 27 years old. Then comes another wave that also looks like excellent two-way players – Beau Bichette is there, followed by Vander Franco, Marco Luciano and Bobby Witt Jr. Shortstop should remain the best position in the game for the foreseeable future.
2. Third base
2019: 110 tOPS+ (12th since 1920).
2020 : 104 (54)
The third baseman had one of his best seasons in 2019. Alex Bregman (9.1), Matt Chapman (8.3), Nolan Arenado (6.7), Anthony Rendon (6.4) and Josh Donaldson (6.0) ranked 13th among position players with a WAR, while Bregman (2), Rendon (3), Chapman (6) and Arenado (6) led the MVP voters. Eugenio Suarez hit 49 home runs. Rafael Devers hit 90 extra-hits. Others like Ioan Moncada, Justin Turner, Kris Bryant and Gio Urschela had productive seasons. Third base was right at shortstop.
This group suffered a collective defeat in 2020. Chapman, Arenado and Donaldson have been dealing with injuries. Bregman and Devers struggled in comparison to their 2019 numbers. Moncada said he never felt good after being diagnosed with COVID. Bryant was hitting .206 and Suarez was hitting .202. Jose Ramirez and Manny Machado, who were actually a bit weaker in 2019, had excellent seasons and finished second and third in MVP votes, but among the 2019 stars, only Rendon repeated his top 10 MVP (and he was 10th). The collective tOPS+ of 104 was the lowest at third base since 2014.
Expect much better performance in 2021. Bregman, Devers, Ramirez, Machado, Rendon and Moncada are still in their prime, while Arenado and Chapman appear healthy. Alec Bohm is the leader of the new generation, and if his defense is shaky, he can hit. Cavan Biggio should be an upgrade at third base for the Blue Jays compared to the production they have there in 2020. Maybe the Rays will call up Franco and play him at third.
Golden Era: 1966 (113 tOPS+)
Third base is as good as ever, even if it is a little soft at the bottom. The best tOPS+ seasons are 1953 (115) and 1970 (114). Al Rosen (10.1 WAR) and Eddie Mathews (8.1 WAR) had huge seasons in ’53, and two players in a league of 16 teams can have a huge impact on results, while 1970 was a lucky season. The top four third basemen in terms of WAR are Tommy Harper (his career year as a third baseman), Tony Perez (the best season of his career, but he quickly moved to first base), Billy Grabarkiewicz (the only good season of his career) and Aurelio Rodriguez (good glove).
I say 1966. In a league of 20 teams, you had three Hall of Famers at their peak, Ron Santo, Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson, plus a fourth Hall of Famer, Eddie Matthews (even though he was near the end). Dick Allen could become a fifth Hall of Famer, and Jim Ray Hart (6.6 WAR) had a brief spike in his performance. They had other good players like Don Buford and the Boyer brothers, Ken and Clete. Add to that the fact that 1964 (when Robinson and Ken Boyer were named MVP), 1965 and 1967 were all top 10 seasons, so 1964-1967 was a true golden age.
3. Right field
2019: 111 tOPS+ (82nd since 1920).
2020 : 106 (99-й)
Historically, in 2020, 106 tOPS + (better than the 105 of 1983) seems pretty miserable. Ten years ago, in 2010, that number was 115, which was in the mid-range of 101 seasons. As mentioned earlier, corner outfield positions were once much more dominant compared to their counterparts. The historical average tOPS+ for the right field is 116.1 and for the left field is 115.7. The last right field was in 2011 and the last left field was in 2004.
I see major improvements in 2021. For starters, Juan Soto moves to right field. If you add a potentially better hitter to the game, the tOPS+ number will increase. In addition, five teams had right fielders hitting .200 in 2020 (Pirates, Marlins, Mariners, Rangers, and Rangers) and two other teams (Indians and Cardinals) barely got above .200. There is no way that a group of teams can be this bad again.
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Subjectively, the top of the list is strong in the right field. Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Soto join Tatis Jr. and Freddie Freeman as favorites for the National League MVP award. You follow that trio with Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, the underrated Mike Yastrzemski (.297/.400/.568 last year), Michael Conforto, Alex Verdugo (though he may be playing more in the middle this year), Jason Heyward, Teoscar Hernandez, Joey Gallo, Will Myers, and Max Kepler, and you have a dozen great players.
Golden Era: 1977 (121 tOPS+)
Other seasons featured higher tOPS+, with 1932 (Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Paul Vaner) and 1937 (Ott, Gene Moore, Wally Moses, Vaner) leading the way with 128. Certainly 1961 (127) deserves serious consideration: Hank Aaron, Al Kalin, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente are four players from 18 teams in the Hall of Fame. Roger Maris also hit 61 home runs.
In terms of overall depth, though, I’m going for 1977 (121) and 1978 isn’t far behind (119). Look at the careers of some of the right fielders from those seasons: Reggie Jackson (74.0), Dwight Evans (67.1), Reggie Smith (64.6), Dave Winfield (64.2), Bobby Bonds (57.9), Jose Cruz (54.4), Jack Clark (53.1), Ken Singleton (41.8), Dave Parker (40.1) and Ken Griffey Sr. Ben Oglivi, Sixto Lezcano, Bake McBride and Richie Zisk all had 20 career appearances. Al Cowans and Ellis Valentine were short-lived shining stars. Parker won the MVP in 1978 and finished third in 1977. Smith completed his fourth year. Cowens finished second in 1977 and Singleton third.
Granted, it’s hard to top the Aaron/Calina/Robinson/Clement years, and only Jackson and Winfield are Hall of Famers, but with a nod to my youth, I’ll go with 1977.
4. Centre field
2019: 97 tOPS+ (100th since 1920).
2020 : 99 (97.)
The genesis of this article actually started with a discussion about midfielders. My editor Dan Mullen and I were talking about all the great interior defenders in today’s game: Kevin Kiermaier, Louis Robert, Byron Buxton, Jackie Bradley Jr, Cody Bellinger, Trent Grisham, Ramon Lorano, Lorenzo Cain, Victor Robles, George Springer. That’s an impressive list. The best band? I thought back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when Ken Griffey Jr, Jim Edmonds, Andrew Jones, Carlos Beltran, Steve Finley, Mike Cameron, Kenny Lofton, Bernie Williams, and Darin Erstad, among others, patrolled center field – and those guys could hit a little, too.
Which brings us to the big question: What was the best common generation of the Central Poles? I thought it could be the team of the late 90s. We’ll talk about that in a minute. It wasn’t until I did more research that I realized that the attacking level of the midfield – despite the amazing Mike Trout – has hit a new low over the past two seasons. Relative to the league as a whole, the 2019 numbers (.250/.319/.428) are on par with 1995 and the lowest ever. It wasn’t much better in 2020 (.243/.322/.412), and 2018 is also near the bottom, so it’s a multi-year trend of hot offensives from midfield. Remember, there will be no pitchers in 2020, which will affect the 2020 rankings at all positions.
Part of the argument here is that in most eras, or even in many teams today, Betts and Acuna would be midfielders rather than rightfielders. Springer has also spent a lot of time in right field in recent seasons. But if you include the defense, the midfield doesn’t look that bad. The seasons with the most midfielders with at least two wins above average are 1992, 1999 and 2014 with 12 each (so I wasn’t necessarily wrong with my instincts about midfielders in the late 90s). We had nine of those midfielders in 2019, so historically I rate the current group of midfielders more in the middle of the pack, with just more value on defense than offense.
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There is hope that things will move forward. Robert has already won his first Gold Glove and has a potential of 35 home runs. Buxton is an elite threat in terms of strength and defense if he can stay healthy, but, like Robert, his poor ground discipline ultimately limits his value. But once you get past Trout, Bellinger and Springer, the number of proven players drops to zero. To be fair, shortstops have surpassed midfielders as the best athletes in the game.
Golden Era: 1954 (121)
As much as I appreciate these mid-terms from the 1990s, we are – unsurprisingly – going back to the 1950s. The best of this generation is 1954, tied with 1920 and 1940 with 121 tOPS+. The five chambers of the Holodomor are at their peak: Willie Mays (10.5 WAR), Duke Snyder (8.1), Richie Ashburn (7.1), Mickey Mantle (6.9) and Larry Doby (5.7). In fact, Mantle’s best is still ahead of him. Still, nearly a third of the league’s midfield gets into the Hall of Fame.
There is also some depth of quality here: Jackie Jensen (future MVP, brought in 117 runs), Gus Bell (.299, 101 RBI), Wally Moon (.304, 106), original Frank Thomas (.298, 23 home runs), Jim Busby (elite defender, hit .298), and Bill Bruton (89 runs, led the NL in steals). That’s 11 good midfielders out of 16 teams.
5. Second base
2019: 95 tOPS+ (48th).
2020 : 88 (89-я)
The second baseman had the worst offensive season in the league since he had a tOPS+ of 88 in 1996. After hitting .256/.320/.417 in 2019, they dropped to .246/.312/.380 in 2020. Jose Altuve was the first to go down, dropping from a .903 OPS to .629. Keston Huera played half a season as a rookie in 2019, but struggled in 2020. Ketel Marte finished fourth in MVP voting in 2019 and played about half of its games in Division II, but also struggled in 2020.
Still, the drop in offense is a bit surprising considering 2016 was second with 108 tOPS+, just behind 1924 (109), and 2017 was fourth with 102. When shuffling came into vogue, it was thought that second base would evolve into an even more offensive position – that behind shuffling was a worse defender, perhaps a player who would otherwise play third base. Daniel Murphy was the poster boy for this theory after hitting .347/.390/.595 in 2016 and finished second in the Nationals’ MVP voting.
But while the 2016-17 group has gotten older, the next wave hasn’t brought the same attack to the box score. However, we could see growth in 2021, assuming Altuve and Marte have better seasons and Gavin Lux possibly reveals himself. Still, the fundamentals of the position remain weak, and we haven’t seen the movement of former third basemen to the position as expected (with the exception of Mike Moustakas in Cincinnati).
Golden Era: 2016 (108 tOPS+)
It’s hard to top 2016 with seven players who had more than 5 WAR – Altuve, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and DJ LeMayeur. Murphy was only eighth at that position despite being MVP with 4.5 WAR. They also had depth with quality players like Jason Kipnis, Ben Zobrist and Neil Walker.
There is no certainty in this group of Hall of Famers (Cano was on the right track until he was suspended for doping), but Cano, Kinsler, and Pedroia all exceeded 50 career WAR, Altuve was expected to get them, and Zobrist finished with 44. If you like Hall of Famers, Rogers Hornsby (12.2 WAR), Frankie Frisch (7.4) and Eddie Collins (5.2) are among the top three players at the position in the 1924 group.
6. Left field
2019: 108 tOPS+ (88th since 1920).
2020 : 104 (97-я)
Left field has been under pressure in recent seasons – and it will get worse in 2021 when Soto moves to right field. The second-best left fielder in 2020 in terms of WAR was Kyle Tucker – and he’s also moving to right field. The third best was Jeff McNeil – and he’s back on the field. The fourth best was Eloy Jimenez, who has a more old-fashioned approach to left field: Great shot, defense be damned. Greg Luzinski 2021. The only seasons rated lower than 2020 on our offensive scale are 2015, 2011, 2017, and 2016, so this is a long-term trend.
What happened? Part of the reason for this is a general reduction in offensive production at all levels. Teams are certainly less willing to erect a statue in left field than they used to be. But even hitters like Kyle Schwarber or Jimenez are not on the level of former first left fielders like Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle or Luzinski.
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For 2021, we need to find a reason to be optimistic. Christian Yelich is now a full-time left fielder after playing right field in 2019 and splitting time at all three outfield positions during his MVP season in 2018. All he has to do is bounce off the plate. Marcell Ozuna returns to left field after spending most of 2020 at RT. Randy Arozarena could prove to be a real find, and Dominic Smith will play a lot in left field for the Mets and provide needed numbers. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had a great 2020. Maybe the Hotshot Mariners Yarred Kelenic Avenue in left as a left fielder. However, all of these players have defensive issues or have yet to prove themselves over the course of the season, and even Jelić had a terrible 2020.
Golden Era: 1957 (129 tOPS+)
The style of baseball in the 1950s was not much different than it is today: A lot of baseball results in three actual outcomes (but with fewer strikeouts, more walks, and more sacrifice bunts). There was little movement on the bases and teams relied on home runs for offense. And left field – not first base or first right – was the ultimate power position. From 1947 to 1958, left field was the top hitter in the majors every season except 1950 (when it was tied for first base) and 1955.
It peaked in 1957 and 1958 with an identical tOPS+ of 129. In ’57, Ted Williams hit .388/.526/.731 and Frank Robinson hit .322/.376/.529, giving us two Hall of Famers in the circle. Minnie Minoso was the third best left fielder, and he should be in the Hall of Fame. Roy Sievers led the AL in home runs and RBI, and you have a bunch of other good players like Charlie Maxwell, Gene Woodling, Wally Moon and Bob Skinner.
Honorable mention: 2002 (116). There is a bit of cheating going on, as Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols have played in left field this season. They also have the pick of Barry Bonds, and Manny Ramirez, Jacques Jones, Brian Giles and Garrett Anderson also had 5 WAR seasons.
Honorable Mention No. 2 : 1993 (113). Bonds won the MVP award (9.9 WAR) and Greg Vaughn, Ron Gant, Juan Gonzalez, Luis Gonzalez and Ricky Henderson had 5 WAR seasons, not to mention having depth with players like Belle, Tim Raines, Mike Greenwell, Bernard Gilkey, Brady Anderson, Moises Alou and Kevin Mitchell.
7. First base
2019: 111 tOPS+ (95th since 1920).
2020 : 111 (95-й)
Anyone who plays fantasy baseball is all too aware of the lack of top-level first basemen, which seems a bit odd after Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu received MVP honors – the first time two first basemen won in the same year since Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau in 2006. But once you get past Freeman, Abreu, Paul Goldschmidt and a few others, the list quickly dwindles. If you combine the 2019 and 2020 statistics, two teams (Royals and Orioles) have OPS below .700 and slugging percentages below .400 from first base, while the Marlins and Rangers are just above .400. These are the numbers for center field from first base.
First base hit just .247 in 2020, the lowest in the live ball era. Let’s take 2008 as a point of comparison. In 2008, teams scored an average of 4.65 points per game, the same amount as in 2020. The first baseman hit .272/.353/.464, compared to .247/.328/.458 in 2020. In 2008, 13 qualified first basemen had a .500 slugging average. In 2020, there were only five – Freeman, Abreu, Dominic Smith, Luke Voight and Jimer Candelario. First basemen hit with power, but less than average – a symbol of the era we’re in, sure, but perhaps also a sign of how the change has hurt slow left-handed pitchers, many of whom are first basemen.
The resurgent years of players like Matt Olson, Max Muncy, Anthony Rizzo and Pete Alonso will help in 2021, but note that while those four were more productive in 2019, the overall TOPS+ remained the same as in 2020. In 2009, this figure was 125. And don’t expect this to increase in the coming years. Besides Spencer Torkelson (#4 on Kiley McDaniel’s Top 100 Prospects list) and Andrew Vaughn (#8), prospects at first base, only Triston Casas (#52) made the top 100.
Gold Era: 2000 (124 tOPS+)
Okay, there are some eras that can claim to be the best.
1972 (134) : This is the best season for tOPS+, although subjectively I wouldn’t rate it that high. Dick Allen had a top season and was voted AL MVP that year, and Henry Aaron played first base, which helped a lot. The other top hitters were one-dimensional guys like Nate Colbert, Mike Epstein and Lee May. There were other stronger seasons in that era, including 1969 when Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey were MVPs.
1934 (132) : Second place on the list is also high thanks to Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Fox and Hank Greenberg and other seasons in the mid-30s. Bill Terry and Jim Bottomley are also Hall of Famers, although Bottomley is one of the weaker ones and was not good in ’34 (0.6 WAR). Hal Trosky could have been a Hall of Famer, but migraines ended his career.
2000 (124) : You can pick any season in the late 90s and early 2000s and you get a long list of huge offensive numbers. The first baseman hit .286/.377/.503 in 2000, which is the best season signal at that position. They have two Hall of Famers in Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome, plus Todd Helton, who led the NL with an 8.9 WAR after hitting .372/.463/.698 and also batting inside. Jason Giambi was named the AL’s Most Valuable Player and Carlos Delgado hit .344 with 41 home runs and 57 doubles. The second group includes Rafael Palmeiro (39 HR, 120 RBI), John Olerud (.392 OBP) and Will Clark (.418 OBP). Mark McGwire hit 32 home runs in 89 games, Mike Sweeney hit .333 and brought in 144 runs, and Sean Casey hit .315. Yes, it was the height of drug era baseball, but these guys could steal.
2009 (125) : Albert Pujols won his third MVP, Prince Fielder hit 46 home runs and brought in 141 runs, Ryan Howard hit 45 and 141, Adrian Gonzalez was a beast, Miguel Cabrera hit .324/.396/.457, Kevin Youkilis hit .413 OBP, Joey Votto hit .322/.414/.567. Mark Teixeira and Carlos Pena led the AL with 39 home runs. Derrek Lee and Kendrys Morales had great seasons. The AL first baseman finished second, fourth, fifth and sixth in the MVP voting. They finished first, third, fourth and ninth in the NL.
2019: 90 tOPS+ (79th since 1920).
2020 : 91 (69-я)
Yes, the comments about the decline in catches over the last few seasons are not an exaggeration, although we should note that historically they have not been as low as some of the other positions here. However, this contrasts with not so long ago, in 2012, when the collective catches were close to the league average (tOPS+ 99). It was Buster Posey’s season, Yadier Molina’s best offensive season (he was fourth in MVP voting), Joe Mauer hit an OBP of 416, Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Lucroy hit the 300 mark, and Miguel Montero had a good season.
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A popular theory that explains the decline in hitting catchers is that with the development of fielding metrics in the last decade, teams have begun to emphasize that skill and neglect offensive skills. There may be a grain of truth in this claim, but it also suggests that in the pre-analytic era framing the field was not considered important. This is absurd. I mean, we all grew up with Tim McCarver telling us how important it was. This ability can now be quantified more accurately, but that is not to say that it was ignored in the past.
Still, there’s no doubt that there’s a lack of stars at this position, and J.T. Realmuto only remotely fits that description. We just had a bit of a dip as the Posey/Molina/Mauer team got older or retired and players like Gary Sanchez didn’t develop as expected. There are some potentially good young catchers in the majors or on the road with players like Will Smith, Sean Murphy, Alejandro Kirk, Adley Rutschman, Luis Campusano, Joey Barth, Tyler Stephenson, and Ivan Herrera, among others, so I expect an increase over the next few seasons.
Golden Era: 1977 (102 tOPS+)
Wow, you had four Hall of Fame recipients, more or less in their prime: Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench. Fisk had his best season (7.0 WAR), but they were all worth at least 5 WAR. Jim Sundberg, a terrific defensive catcher (he won six consecutive Gold Gloves from 1976-81), was a kind of Yadier Molina of his generation without the same notoriety. Thurman Munson won the MVP title in 1976. He hit .305 with 100 RBI in ’77. Among your sophomore catchers were guys like Gene Tenace (.415 OBP), Joe Ferguson (.379 OBP), Bob Boone, Darrell Porter, Butch Winegar and Steve Yeager. Baseball-Reference counts eight players in the top 36, all with at least 4.0 WAR, which puts 1978 and 2013 tied for the most catchers with 4 WAR in a single season (there were seven in 1979, so this era spans multiple seasons).
(What, you want designated killers too?) Well, here’s a sad reality for you: Designated hitters hit worse than the league average in 2020. Only the catcher and second baseman are hitting worse. Best years for DH: 1991, 1995 and 1996, all with 117 OPS+. Long live Edgar Martinez).
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