When good players of a similar age and position come up at the same time, it makes for some sweet debate fodder. I've always been jealous of the arguments in New York in the ‘50s, when Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider all played center field at the same time.* In the ‘80s, Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens -- two of the most electric arms ever -- were both being hazed at the same time, and while Gooden got off to the faster start, Clemens caught up quickly. The debates must have been fantastic. Like, General Hospital vs. All My Children fantastic.
*Also, I’ve always wondered how tortured the Snider fans’ arguments could get. Take an eight-year-old kid, throw in some blind loyalty, let it simmer for a decade ... mmm, that must have been some delicious irrational-argument stew.
Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus aren’t Hall-of-Famers yet. They only have one All-Star appearance between them, and they aren't household names like Gooden and Clemens were, early on (or later). But their careers have started with the kind of promise that hints at a future in which you can't bring up one without mentioning the other one. Here's a list of shortstops since 1901 who have cracked an on-base percentage of .320 before they turned 21:
It's imperfect to compare untranslated OBP across eras, of course. The league-average OBP in 1978 was .326, while in Castro's rookie season it was .336. But the point isn't to compare apples to apples; it's to find a list of 20-year-old shortstops who were able to hold their head above water offensively. And the list is short. Other than Castro and Andrus, the list has two Hall-of-Famers, two should-be-Hall-of-Famers, and one Hall-of-Very-Gooder. There isn't a flame-out in the bunch.
Neither shortstop would be in the majors if it weren't for their glove. FanGraphs had Castro at just below average in shortstop UZR, with Andrus swinging between Ozzie Smith and league average in his first two seasons. The gloves weren't a concern when they were given a starting job, but any help at the plate was going to be considered a bonus. But while they weren't mini A-Rods -- no one will be for a decade or four -- they held their own.
For perspective, Oakland's Grant Green is a fantastic shortstop prospect. There is the possibility he'll outgrow short, but for now the A's are keeping him there, and in his first season in the minors, he batted .318/.363./.883 in the Cal League. But he was already 22. If it takes him two more years to be a starting shortstop in the majors, he'll be right on schedule. What Castro and Andrus have done is the equivalent of pulling Green from the USC campus and plugging him into a major league lineup. And it worked.
Which young shortstop is better now? The edge probably goes to Castro, who has already proven he can slug over .400 and is having a fantastic start to the 2011 season. If you're a believer in Andrus's 2009 UZR, you're entirely justified to pick him instead, but you don't have to freak out about his limited power just yet. Sometimes the power comes later (though not always). Robin Yount was just as punchless when he was 20, and he didn't have the OBP skills to compensate. The short-term solution is simple: Andrus needs to grow a sweet mustache, and the homers will follow.
Two shortstops, each with a sweet glove and the ability to put up something approaching a league-average OBP before they could buy a bottle of schnapps. It could be a golden era for shortstops. And if Manny Machado would just hurry up and get to the majors already, we can start the Mays/Mantle/Snider debates up all over again.