Is this stud shortstop the next Cal Ripken Jr.?

No matter where his path leads, Cleveland star looks glory-bound

May 5th, 2020

In this Golden Age 2.0 for shortstops, Francisco Lindor sits at the head of the class.

Companions like Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager have all shined at various points, but Lindor has established the most glory-bound path of the bunch. Regardless of when he steps back on the field this year, Lindor has already banked nearly 28 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference) and belted an incredible 130 home runs through his age-25 season. The list of shortstops who hit both of those marks before their 26th birthday has just three names: Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Lindor.

That kind of head start is why it’s already time to start thinking about 15-20 years from now, when Lindor could be walking across the induction stage in Cooperstown to hold his Hall of Fame plaque (and here’s guessing that he’ll still have that boyish smile). Too soon? Well, the projection systems are starting to dream, too. Here’s what FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS system, wrote in his 2020 Indians preview:

“... Lindor is on a Hall of Fame trajectory, with ZiPS now projecting him to finish with around 80 wins, a .279/.339/.490 career line, 443 homers, and 2,600 hits."

The only three modern shortstops who cleared the 80-WAR mark are A-Rod (who played a plurality of his games at short), Ripken and Honus Wagner, so that benchmark -- barring anything that happens off the field -- screams Hall of Fame lock. Obviously that’s a bit of pressure to put on the Indians’ superstar, but until baseball starts again, we may as well have some fun and peer into the crystal ball. Here are three potential career paths for Lindor, with a ceiling, a floor and a middle path. (We’re assuming good health for Lindor at least through the rest of his 20s, and hopefully his dazzling peak extends well beyond that.)

The ceiling: Cal Ripken Jr. (95.9 Wins Above Replacement)

Why not go with a power shortstop prototype? Asking Lindor to mimic the Iron Man’s longevity is a tall task, but their careers look pretty similar at the beginning. Each star quickly shed the slap-hitting reputation of their positions and morphed into the slugging heart of their clubs’ lineups.

Ripken through age-25 (1981-86): .289/.351/.483; 129 OPS+, 133 HR, 11 SB, 34.6 bWAR
Lindor through age-25 (2015-19): .288/.347/.493; 119 OPS+, 130 HR, 93 SB, 27.6 bWAR

Ripken suited up in 130 more games than Lindor at this point, already portending the durability that would define him. But while Cal’s power stood out a little more in a less homer-happy time, Lindor has brought another element to the table with his legs. He’s a legitimate threat to pair 30 homers with 30 steals at some point in the coming years, a feat achieved by just four shortstops (Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins).

Ripken was the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1982, and he captured his first of two career MVP Awards the following year in his age-22 season. Beginning with that ‘83 season and stretching through the next 10 campaigns, Ripken dipped below 4 WAR just once and cleared the 20-homer mark nine times. While Lindor hasn’t matched Cal in the hardware department yet, it’s not hard to close your eyes and picture him matching that same level of consistency through his 30th birthday.

And don’t forget about defense. While metrics are a little fuzzier when looking at Ripken’s era, his defensive WAR total through age-25 (11.3) isn’t far ahead of Lindor’s (8.9) at this point.

The floor: Troy Tulowitzki (44.5 WAR)

A demanding position like shortstop can create some wider variations after a player hits 30, and Tulowitzki is the perfect example. Because while some time has passed, many had the same thoughts about Tulo’s path potentially leading to Cooperstown before injuries took their toll.

Tulowitzki through age-25 (2006-10): .290/.362/.495; 114 OPS+, 92 HR, 42 SB, 20.4 bWAR

Tulowitzki was productive for perhaps a little longer than you might think. In 2014, for instance, he racked up nearly 6 WAR over just 91 games (the third-highest total in any season of 100 or fewer games) before undergoing hip surgery during the summer. Sadly, that surgery was a turning point in Tulo’s promising career, though he did rally for one more productive season in ‘16 (24 HRs, 3.3 bWAR) before things went south for good.

Tulowitzki’s career WAR stood right around 40 -- halfway to Lindor’s long-term ZiPS projections -- through his age-30 campaign, then a litany of lower-body injuries wiped out a promising second half of his Major League tenure. While Lindor has gotten off to an even better start than Tulowitzki, the former Rockies and Blue Jays star is an unfortunate reminder that things can unravel quickly -- even for the brightest of stars. Still, while that ending would be disappointing based on what we’ve seen from Lindor so far, a fate similar to Tulo’s (five All-Star games, three top-10 finishes in MVP voting) would still constitute an excellent career.

The average: Barry Larkin (70.5 WAR)

Larkin might be overshadowed now by the A-Rods, Nomars, Jeters and current crop of star shortstops that came up after him, but he was a bona-fide star of the 1990s and a logical Hall of Fame choice when he retired after the 2004 season.

Larkin through age-25 (1986-89): .289/.338/.413; 106 OPS+, 31 HR, 79 SB, 13.6 WAR

There’s no question that Lindor has gotten off to a faster start; his power certainly evolved quicker than Larkin, though there’s also no question that Lindor is enjoying an environment much more conducive to dingers and slugging. If Lindor were coming up in the late 1980s, he might have been asked to perform a lot more small-ball tasks (see Larkin’s 10 sacrifice bunts in 1988). When adjusting for the different offensive climates through the prism of FanGraphs’ era-adjusted stats, the stars’ slash lines align a little closer.

Lindor through age-25: 113 BA+, 108 OBP+, 116 SLG+
Larkin through age-25: 112 BA+, 104 OBP+, 106 SLG+

The two also feel similar in their all-around games. Larkin is one of those four 30-30 shortstops we mentioned earlier, and he was a 20-steal threat (peaking at 51 during his 1995 NL MVP season) through his age-35 campaign. Like Lindor, Larkin also brought a ton of defensive value, capturing three Gold Glove Awards. Where Larkin could really inspire Lindor -- as a juxtaposition to Tulowitzki -- is in the durability department. Like Tulo, Larkin was nearing the 40-WAR mark after he wrapped up his age-30 season in 1994. But he was nearly as productive in his 30s as well, racking up four 5-plus WAR campaigns in the next five years (including that ‘95 MVP campaign). Larkin didn’t dip below replacement-level value until age 37, and he even rallied for one more All-Star nod in his final tour at age 40.

In total, Larkin walked away with 12 All-Star selections, nine Silver Sluggers, that MVP and roughly 70 WAR. Lindor is on pace for even more than that, but even a “return to the mean,” once all is said and done -- with Larkin representing that mean -- would still make Frankie a Hall of Fame lock. That’s the kind of quality we’re seeing from Cleveland’s generational superstar.