Feature photo courtesy of Sammetsfan.
By Connor Mount
It hasn’t been the best year for major league shortstops. Andrelton Simmons isn’t developing as a hitter. Asdrubal Cabrera seems finished being useful at the plate. Marcus Semien has already committed 28 errors, which is more than Pedro Alvarez led the league with in each of the last three seasons.
All in all, there are five shortstops with a qualified number of plate appearances who are sporting a negative wins above replacement by Fangraphs metrics, and none of them are the players I just mentioned. Likewise, that doesn’t even factor in the unqualified batter Danny Santana of the Twins, whose -1.7 WAR is the lowest in baseball per Baseball Reference’s interpretation.
It’s still early-ish in the season, but the most negative-fWAR shortstops there have been in a year over the last decade was three, in 2006. In terms of sub-replacement level players at the position, shortstop is the worst in baseball this year (excluding pitchers), trumping first base and right field, which had four such players each.
Two players’ poor seasons are somewhat forgivable: Jimmy Rollins is 36 and Alexei Ramirez is 33. Yes, they were worth about four and three WAR respectively last year, but at their ages, a decline can happen suddenly without warning. The other three shortstops’ appearance on this list is inexcusable.
Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond are supposed to be franchise players for the Rangers, Cubs and Nationals. Instead, they’re some of the least valuable assets on their teams this year.
Andrus at his best has been average at the plate. His offensive ceiling was never that high, but he could steal bases and was a premier fielder. Well, after stealing 42 bags in 2013 and 27 in 2014, he has only 10 so far this season. Plus, he’s having the worst year in the field of his career, according to fielding percentage and advanced metrics such as ultimate zone rating and revised zone rating. In fact, he’s in the bottom six among qualified shortstops in all three categories and is the worst in revised zone rating, which indicates what percentage of balls hit into the fielder’s zone are converted into outs.
Not helping matters at all, Andrus is having the worst offensive season of his career as well. His slash line of .246/.299/.324 is downright gruesome. Right now, Andrus is a player with no offense, little speed and poor fielding. Have I mentioned he’s in the first year of an eight-year, $120 million extension? Teams live and die by the contracts they give out. The Texas Rangers, thanks to Andrus’ deal and the seven-year, $130 million contract given to Shin-Soo Choo before last season, seem ready to keel over and could be buried in irrelevance for years to come.
In a way, Andrus is somewhat lucky his team isn’t really a playoff contender because it keeps the spotlight off his shortcomings. The same can’t be said about Castro and Desmond.
Castro was the first prospect to reach the majors in the Cubs’ rebuild, with a spectacular debut on May 7, 2010, when he went 2-for-5 with a triple, home run and six runs batted in. He finished that season batting .300. In 2011, he became the youngest player ever to lead the National League in hits, with 207 knocks at the tender age of 21. He was named an All-Star that year as well as the next.
But in 2013, a disastrous one on the North Side, he fell apart. After batting .300, .307 and .283 his first three campaigns, he crashed and could only muster a .245/.284/.347 slash line. His speed became a non-factor, going from 22 and 25 stolen bases in 2011 and ‘12 to nine. His strikeouts shot up, and his defense remained atrocious, as it had been since the day he stepped onto a major league ball field. He posted a WAR of -0.1.
Castro rebounded nicely in 2014, batting .292 with the best OPS of his career and another All-Star Game appearance, but 2015 seems to be a repeat of 2013. As of June 23, Castro has the worst slash line of his career: .239/.272/.310, and an OPS of .582. His speed is all but gone now, so it doesn’t help that he’s chopping the ball into the dirt at by far the highest rate of his career: a groundball percentage of 51.3 in his rookie year had previously been his most, but this year, it’s at 56.3 percent. Castro is not Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton; he’s not going to reach base beating out infield dribblers.
Known in recent years as a bit of a hacker, Castro has backed up that reputation at the plate in 2015. According to Plate Discipline stats on Fangraphs, Castro is swinging 36.5 percent of the time at pitches outside the zone, well above his career average. Yet at the same time, he’s swinging at pitches inside the strike zone 64.9 percent of the time, below his career rate. That’s a pretty good indicator that he’s not seeing the ball well, along with all the rollouts and his career-low walk rate.
The Cubs are chasing their first playoff spot since 2008, and this is the first time in their rebuilding process that the possibly of playing into October is fathomable enough to excite the city. But Castro has been pretty much as unhelpful as he possibly could.
His infield, with Addison Russell learning a new position and Kris Bryant trying to stick at third base, is error prone and in need of stability. Castro can’t provide it. The Cubs’ lineup, striking out often in their youthful inexperience, needs a bat making consistent contact. Castro isn’t that bat right now.
Still young at 25, Castro has ironically become something of an elder statesman for the team as its longest-tenured member. Yet he’s playing just like the rookies learning the ropes. Five years in the majors is way too long for him to still be doing that, and that’s why his trade value has vanished.
Castro’s been involved in rumors for about a year, many citing the Mets as a good landing spot in exchange for one of their quality young arms. The Cubs still need another starter, but they won’t be getting one in exchange for Castro after his disastrous start to 2015. If Castro doesn’t turn it around and the Cubs miss the playoffs, he’ll probably be acknowledged as the main culprit.
Now for the team with the biggest stakes riding on this season: the Washington Nationals. Title windows are tough to predict, but the Nationals could be closing if they don’t win it all this fall. After all, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Denard Span will be free agents this winter, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are on the wrong side of 30 and starting to break down and no one knows how long Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg can be retained with Max Scherzer’s giant contract already on the books.
Unfortunately for Washington, if this is its last chance, it’s catching a lot of bad breaks. Key cogs Anthony Rendon, Zimmerman, Span, Werth and Strasburg have all missed significant time with injuries, and Strasburg has struggled while on the mound. The pieces the Nationals have remaining need to step up.
Maybe Desmond didn’t get that memo. After three straight 20-home run, 20-steal, Silver Slugger-winning campaigns, he has just eight homers and 26 RBI. His current slash line of .213/.260/.339 sags well below his career marks of .264/.311/.422. Although more than 18 percent of his fly balls landed beyond the fence last season, that rate has dropped off a cliff and fallen to 10.3 percent.
His power seems to have dried up, and like Castro, he’s grounding out and swinging at pitches outside the zone like never before. Also similar to Castro, he can’t play a lick of defense; Desmond has 21 errors so far and some of the worst fielding metrics of his career.
The Nationals are going to stick around because they’re too talented not to, and maybe more importantly, they play in a weak division. Desmond, when locked in, was one of the best shortstops in baseball, as evidenced by the Andrus-esque seven-year, $107 million contract extension the Nationals offered him last winter, which he rejected. He was a tremendous advantage Washington had over just about every team it faced. But come October, he could be their biggest weakness unless he finds a way to turn it around. If he doesn’t, Desmond might be the main man shutting the Nationals’ title window closed.
Every team has players who fail to live up to expectations (hello, Padres). Only a few can pin a majority of their problems on just a player or two. That’s why it’s unusual that so many shortstops have been public enemy No. 1 to their respective fanbases this season.
Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond operate in different situations, but they have all done the same thing: held back their teams with all their might.