ARLINGTON -- Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus apparently is pretty smart. He has figured out that Michael Young is a better hitter than him. At least right now. Andrus brings this up in explaining why he is hitting .483 with runners in scoring position, the highest in the American League.
"The key is having Mikey hitting behind me," Andrus said. "He has been getting key hits his whole career and the pitchers don't want to face him. They want me to get the hit, not Mike. So I use that as an advantage. They don't want me on base and have to face Mike." That's an astute analysis from a 21-year-old "kid" who broke into the Major Leagues last year because of his obvious defensive wizardry and is rapidly soaring beyond that in his second season. As the Rangers have taken over first place in the American League West, Andrus has moved well beyond the stage of being just a rookie phenom with a flashy glove. He is getting to the point where he has to be considered one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. "He is the best up-and-coming shortstop in the league right now," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "Physically, he has an opportunity to be one of the best, if not the best, shortstops in the game." Andrus was one of five players acquired from the Braves for first baseman Mark Teixeira on July 31, 2007. The Rangers also acquired catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and pitchers Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones. Everything in that deal beyond Andrus appears to be a bonus. "It's a small sample size, but he looks like an impact player," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He has the tools to do it and it looks like he's playing with a lot of confidence. With the impact he's made, there's no doubt he's on his way." Derek Jeter, even at age 35, is still the first name in shortstops in the American League. He has started four consecutive All-Star Games, he has five World Series rings and he will someday be in the Hall of Fame. He is the odds-on favorite to be voted in by the fans to the American League starting lineup again this year. But the Rangers strongly believe that Andrus is moving into that class as well and belongs in Anaheim on July 13 for the 81st annual All-Star Game. "He deserves it the way he is playing," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He should be there. I'm not saying in front of Derek Jeter, but he should be there. He's done everything." That's what separates Andrus from what he accomplished as a rookie. His defense still stands out. He still makes the breath-taking defensive play like diving into the hole, making a backhanded stop on the outfield grass and then getting off a terrific throw to get Angels outfielder Torii Hunter by a step. "He's probably the quickest shortstop in baseball," Hunter said. "He gets up on his feet quick, he's like a cat and he has a great arm. If I was the ump, I would have called me out." But defense has become just another part of his all-around game. Last year, it was his primary strength. This year, his offense has taken center stage. Andrus became the Rangers' full-time leadoff two weeks into the season and has seized the opportunity to become as much of a force with the bat as he is with the glove. "I've seen a little element of everything: real good range, great arm, makes the athletic play, he handles the bat, he bunts well," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "He's a good-looking player. He's going to be a good one, without a doubt." To this point in the season, Andrus is in the AL's top 20 in batting average, and has been in the top 10 in on-base percentage, runs scored, walks, stolen bases and both bunt and sacrifice hits. Most significant, he was 12th in pitches taken per plate appearance through 46 games. He was in the bottom third of the league in that category in 2009. That demonstrates Andrus has learned to work pitchers and get deeper in the count. He said that was one of his goals coming into the season and he had the savvy and smarts to accomplish that goal. "He's a very special talent in a lot of different ways," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "This guy has been brought up right," Washington said. "Where he came from, people taught him the right way to play baseball, whether it was the Braves, the Rangers, the people who he played with in winter ball or the guys on the team right now. Andrus has had some good mentors, including third baseman Young, second baseman Ian Kinsler and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero. Last year, Andrus spent a full season with future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel, who was with the Rangers as a backup infielder, and soaked up as much information as he could. "It impressed me how much knowledge he had about the game at a young age," Vizquel said. "Usually players come up to the big leagues and they have very few clues or what is it like to be a Major League ballplayer. "He's a complete player. He can hit, run, field, have a good arm, and have instincts about the game, which is hard to do at the age of 20. And another thing that I really like about him is he likes to ask questions. He asks about how you think about this or that, and very few players nowadays do those kinds of things." Andrus' biggest challenge is remaining focused. Washington had a couple of chats with him in Spring Training and again early in the season. The Rangers lost a game in Cleveland when Andrus dropped a routine throw at second base. The error was critical in a 3-2 loss. But Andrus is hardly the only young player who has that issue. Former Tigers All-Star shortstop Alan Trammell said the most difficult thing about playing the position is, "concentrating on every pitch in every game." Vizquel talked to Andrus about the same thing. They talked about staying involved in the game and learning how to anticipate each pitch on each hitter as the game progresses, understanding when to cheat toward the hole and when to cheat up the middle, and moving even before the ball is hit. The late manager Gene Mauch once said that "getting a jump on the ball is instinct, and instinct is the residue of concentrating over a long period of time." Concentration equals focus and that's what Washington has been trying to get across to Andrus. The message has been received loud and clear. The Rangers shortstop ranks as one of the biggest reasons why they are in first place. "He has been solid," Washington said. "We've just had father-son type of talks; I don't need to get on his tail for anything. I just remind him that if this team is going to go anywhere, he is one of the guys who must lead us there."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.