Wrong Up The Middle

The Cardinals were faced with a conundrum this past offseason with the free agency of their leadoff hitter and primary SS of the last 3 years David Eckstein. Add to that Adam Kennedy's injury plagued 2007 and it was apparent that the players the Cardinals had intended to be key everyday players last year hadn't really lived up to expectations and weren't great bets moving forward. Change was imminent.

The off season brought news of Aaron Miles being non-tendered and then re-signed and Cesar Izturis being plucked from free agency after watching his career collapse over the previous seasons. Brendan Ryan, who had filled in adequately for Eckstein, was left in the utility role again as the Cardinals attempt to see what kind of production they can squeeze out of their veterans.

So far, the returns aren't very good.

Cesar Izturis - .186/.333/.237 - 59 PAs

Adam Kennedy - .315/.367/.333 - 54 PAs

Aaron Miles - .295/.354/.318 - 44 PAs

That's the batting lines as of around 9:00pm last night for our primary middle infielders. Do you notice anything about them in particular? Their OBP is higher than their slugging in each instance. Slappy singles hitters who take a few walks creates that effect but is that maintainable moving forward.

Major League hitters need a certain level of power in order to keep pitchers honest. If they don't have it, they probably aren't going to last too long in the majors. Pitchers will start pumping fastballs down the heart of the plate and letting their defense take care of the rest. If the worst that can happen is a player gets a single, why bother finessing the situation.

Izturis can't seem to buy a hit as of late but Adam Kennedy and Aaron Miles both have respectable batting averages. You'd think I'd lay off them and pick on Izturis but you'd be wrong. Izturis is running into some BABIP bad luck so his batting average ought to regress toward the mean (think mid-.200s). The other two batters are doing something that seems uncommon -- hitting well and walking but hitting for no power. All three players appear to be on their way to at least 200PAs so let's use that as a baseline for historical comparison.

There were about 3100 player seasons from 1997-2006 of 200 or more plate appearances. Now let's start to apply some filters. There were less than 15% of those seasons where a player posted an ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average -- a better measurement of power than just SLG) less than .100. That tells us it really isn't common to see these players even survive the in the league long enough or receive enough of a role to get that many PAs. But this is the Cardinals run by Tony LaRussa and he likes to mix and match and get his bench players plenty of plate appearances. But even more uncommon is that there was less than 5% of those 3100 seasons where a player had an OBP higher than their slugging percentage. That number drops to under 4% when you combine the two filters (ISO < .100 and OBP>SLG).

So what our middle infield is doing is uncommon. I'd suspect, without looking at the list of players that it's comprised mostly of 2B, SS and catchers (Jason LaRue fits these criteria as well) but we're still talking about a small segment of the baseball community that's capable of putting up these numbers. If you look at the OPS of those players 75% (of that 4% that Kennedy and Miles currently fit into in) had an OPS under .700 -- not good. So only 1% of the players from 1997-2006 who received 200 plate appearances posted an OPS over .700, with an ISO < .100 and an on base percentage greater than their slugging.

That may seem like I've stacked the deck against our middle infield when looking at the numbers (given the number of filters I've applied) but I'm trying to point out how hard it is to have a good season when you are hitting the way Kennedy, Miles and, to a lesser extent, Izturis are hitting. We've seen some turnover in our middle infield but it's a massive weakness offensively and the few things that are going right for them now (taking walks) are, historically, unprecedented over the long term. Giving more playing time to Brendan Ryan or perhaps replacing one of Kennedy/Miles with Jarrett Hoffpauir (although he hasn't displayed the requisite power in Memphis with an ISO of .076 right now) could help but these are all marginal offensive players or marginal upgrades. The team would be wise to try and cobble together some kind of deal with their seeming excess in the outfield and on the mound to try and make a deal at either SS or 2B because things could get worse in a hurry. It's the most glaring weakness for the Cardinals right now and there doesn't appear to be any internal improvements available in the near term.

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