Second Basemen Go to College, Shortstops Not So Much

Earlier today, I published the third in a three-part series devoted to producing and analyzing objective demographic data regarding those players who’ve become good major leaguers. The thought has been that, at best, the results might have some predictive value regarding future good major leaguers; at worst, that they’d at least document the origins of the league’s best players.

In the third part of the series — an examination of which college conferences had produced the most good players over the last five years — I noticed that the Pac-12 Conference was responsible for an inordinate number of talented second baseman. Jason Kipnis, Dustin Pedroia, and Chase Utley were all drafted and signed out of Pac-12 schools — and Ian Kinsler had been compelled to leave Arizona State for Missouri only because he was displaced at shortstop by Pedroia.

Collectively, those four players have produced 75 wins since 2010, averaging just over 4.0 WAR per every 600 plate appearances. Of the 50 player-seasons of three wins or better* produced by second baseman since 2010, they’re responsible for 16 (i.e. nearly a third) of them. And this is merely accounting for those second baseman who were members of Pac-12 schools. Ben Zobrist, another college product who’s played mostly second base, has recorded another five good seasons. Danny Espinosa, Dan Uggla, and Rickie Weeks have all also recorded multiple good seasons by this measure.

*Or what I’ll also refer to as a “good” season throughout the remainder of this post.

That seemed like a lot of college players developing into good major-league second basemen. On account of I’m paid to do such things, I endeavored to determine if it really was.

First, to establish a benchmark of sorts, consider the graph below, which depicts all 397 good batter-seasons from 2010 to -14, classified by the relevant player’s final amateur status (and which was originally presented by way of a three-dimensional pie chart that offended a number of readers).

All Good Batters by Amateur Origin

Roughly speaking, about a third of good players since 2010 signed originally out of a four-year college; another third, out of high school; a third third, out of a combination of junior college or international free agency. All things being equal one might suppose the distribution of good second-base seasons to roughly approximate the distribution found here.

It doesn’t do that, however. Regard the following chart, which depicts the distribution of the 50 good major-league seasons produced by second basemen, classified by the relevant player’s final amateur status.

Good Second Basemen by Amateur Origin

Indeed, former college players are disproportionately overrepresented at second base relative to all positions as a whole. Roughly two-thirds of good second-base seasons since 2010 have belonged to former collegiate players. That’s double the rate of overall good batters who attended four-year institutions. Prep signees, meanwhile, comprise a distinctly lower portion of good second basemen. It’s just three seasons of Brandon Phillips plus Kelly Johnson and Neil Walker.

Shortstops, meanwhile, feature a very different demographic makeup. Below is a bar graph depicting the 50 good major-league seasons produced by shortstops since 2010 — once again, classified by the relevant player’s final amateur status.

Good Shortstops by Amateur Origin

In this case, collegiates are underrepresented by about 50% relative to their distribution among the entire population of good batters. International free agents, meanwhile, are ubiquitous. Elvis Andrus, Erick Aybar, Starlin Castro, Jhonny Peralta, Alexei Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes: all seven of them have produced multiple good seasons and all were signed as international free agents. Indeed, the one former junior-college player to have produced a good major-league season since 2010 is also an international player: Andrelton Simmons. A native of Curacao, he turned down professional offers as a 16-year-old before eventually ending up at Western Oklahoma State Junior College, out of which school he was drafted and signed.

There are probably multiple implications about the unusual distribution of college and international players between second base and shortstop. As suggested by the middle installment of that three-part series on demographics — which post reveals that over 70% of good players who signed out of high school were drafted within the first two rounds — as suggested by that, prospects who are notable for their physical tools are generally signed at an earlier age. As the most demanding position (besides catcher, but in a different way), shortstop is the defensive position that requires the most in the way of physical tools. Thus it’s not unusual that such players would be signed quite young — and international free agents are generally signed at age 16, or two roughly two years before the typical America high-school prospect can sign. It also wouldn’t be shocking to find that there was some racial profiling at work, even if it’s well-intentioned. Such considerations require more care and art than the author is willing to provide here, though.

What these findings do suggest, however, is where one might find the good second basemen and shortstops of the future. With regard to second basemen, it’s almost certainly among the players at America’s four-year universities. LSU’s Alex Bregman and Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson, for example, are both juniors this year, among the top players available in the next draft, and currently playing shortstop for their respective universities. It’s possible that they’ll go the way of Troy Tulowitzki — that is, a former collegian and currently good major-league shortstop — but that’s been a rare outcome in recent years. With regard to shortstops, all the future ones are probably with the Yankees, which club endeavored to sign the bulk of the Dominican Republic this past year.

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Makes some sense to me. Second basemen are baseball’s odds and ends, who can’t quite play shortstop but most often don’t have the size and raw strength to get drafted as bat first corner guys. That’s exactly the kind of player that scouts under-rate because they lack a standout tool. Since scouting in small samples is everything for HS prospects, a guy whose best fit is at second base is exactly the kind of guy who gets overlooked. It’s only by going to college and performing regularly against real competition thqt they can get their due. Devon Travis and Robert Refsnyder come to mind as potential ‘good’ second basemen who have had to perform at every level to overcome the stigma of their unexciting tools.