Breakthrough!

Brendan Ryan was never considered much of a prospect when coming up through the Cardinals system. He didn’t do anything offensively that spectacularly but it appeared as though he could play SS. Of course, the Cardinals became accustomed to fairly productive offensive shortstops, what w/ several years of Edgar Renteria and then 3 more of David Eckstein, so it appeared as though Ryan would – if he made it at all – end up as nothing more than a utility infielder. More likely a Bo Hart/Joe McEwing type.

Ryan was drafted in the 7th round of 2003 draft out of Lewis & Clark in Idaho – a school whose most famous major leaguer was Keith Foulke. Ryan signed and proceeded to have what would become his most productive offensive season in the minors during the last half of the 2003 season while playing for New Jersey in the New York-Penn League. He was promoted the next season to Low-A ball w/ Peoria and was again, fairly productive offensively, and spent the 2005 season playing in High-A ball w/ Palm Beach and AA Springfield. 2006 must have been an injury-riddled season as he only had 128 PAs – total – while playing for 4 different teams. He did finish 2006 w/ Memphis, however, and that’s where he began the 2007 season.

He really wasn’t very good w/ Memphis in 2007 (.668 OPS) but we all know of Tony’s hankering for more middle infielders than is truly necessary (of course, when your backup SS option is Aaron Miles, maybe a 4th really was necessary!) and Ryan was recalled in early June. Though he quickly became a fixture in Tony’s doghouse for his base running snafus, swinging at 3-0 counts, and general goofiness he played better for the Cards than he did at Memphis.

Year Age Team Level BA OBP SLG XBH%
2003 21 New Jersey A -- ss .311 .363 .425 30
2004 22 Peoria Low-A .322 .356 .404 19.7
2005 23 2 teams High A; AA .289 .349 .395 29.3
2006 24 4 teams .265 .302 .308 9.7
2007 25 Memphis AAA .272 .328 .341 17.0
2008 26 3 teams Hi A; AA; AAA .261 .308 .450 44.8

David Eckstein was allowed to leave as a free agent at the end of the ’07 season and I thought it would be a good time to see if Ryan could handle the SS position full-time. In fairness, I was skeptical. He had really never established himself as anything more than a utility guy in the minors but I saw ’08 as a transition season – one in which we needed to see if we could find a young SS within the organization – but the team decided to sign the veteran Cesar Izturis instead. Ryan spent most of ’08 either injured or just generally ineffective and I found Ryan’s likelihood of becoming an everyday shortstop in the majors to be even more dubious. Let’s face it – a .669 OPS in the PCL doesn’t exactly foster a lot of optimism about one’s ability to be a productive major league hitter.

The Cards, of course, embarked on their great Khalil Greene experiment this offseason. We all know how well that’s worked and so the Cards pretty much turned to Ryan out of necessity, having no one else to turn to once Brian Barden quit hitting. Ryan has, for the most part, become the Cards’ every day shortstop b/c he has, quite honestly, been terrific. He’s been fantastic defensively – which is probably enough to allow him to maintain his regular position in the Cards’ lineup – but has also been much more than expected offensively. Don’t get me wrong – no one’s going to confuse him w/ Cal Ripken, Jr. – but he’s been better probably than any of us, or anyone in the organization, expected him to be.

Ryan has always had 2 problems offensively that created skeptics of his ability to become an everyday player in the big leagues. The first was that he simply has never been a patient hitter. Ryan absolutely loves to swing the bat and, as a consequence, his walk rate in the minors was always very low – 6.4%. The second is that Ryan simply doesn’t have a lot of power. He’s always been, basically, a singles hitter who didn’t walk much and if you’re not going to hit for extra bases in the Texas League or PCL, it’s going to be really tough to do against major league pitchers. His career minor league extra base hit % is 23.6% and he has 11 minor league homers in 1680 PAs. His career minor league isolated power is .092.

Entering the 2009 season, Ryan – in the majors – had a career OBP of .328, and an XBH% of 22%. Those are adequate numbers, I guess, but nothing that inspired a lot of hope. Defensively, his UZR/150 numbers really didn’t impress at either 2B or 3B. At SS, however, they were pretty stout – 13.7 in 2007 and 14.4 in 2008. Still, we’re talking about pretty small sample sizes as he spent less than half of each season in the big leagues and most of those 2 seasons bouncing from position to position.

This season, however, Ryan has been tremendous. He sits right now at .308/.346/.411. He’s still not walking – just a 5.2 BB% -- but he has been a very good hitter. Looking at his numbers one of the first things you notice is a .355 BABIP which leads you to believe that he’s not going to be able to keep up this level of production. However, at closer glance you see that his LD% this season is 22.6% -- one of the highest in the majors among shortstops – and his GB% is 52.4%. The bottom line is that Ryan hits very few fly balls and popups and is, therefore, able to take advantage of his speed. His infield hit % is 10.8% and, w/ a LD% of 22.6%, his high BABIP may not be a result of extraordinary luck. As long as he continues to hit line drives at this rate, he may be able to keep up this level of production.

Defensively, among shortstops w/ 240+ innings, Ryan has the 2nd highest UZR in the majors – saving the team 7.6 runs so far this season – and the highest UZR/150 in the majors. He’s been worth nearly a win defensively and -- w/ a wOBA of .333 – about a league average offensive player. Put those two things together w/ the fact that he plays a premium position and Ryan has been worth nearly 2 wins to the Cards already – and we’re not even halfway through the season. He’s on a 4-4.5 WAR pace, which would have put him in the top 5 shortstops in the game last season – above notables such as Jhonny Peralta, Derek Jeter, Yunel Escobar, Miguel Tejada, and Michael Young. In fact, this year, his 1.8 WAR puts him behind only Hanley Ramirez, Marco Scutaro (WOW!), Jason Bartlett, Derek Jeter, and Ryan Theriot among major league shortstops.

While Ryan should still work on his plate discipline – an everyday position in the big leagues is going to be difficult to maintain given a 5.2% BB rate – his ability to hit line drives and his ability to play the position well are his keys to holding onto the Cards’ SS position in the coming years. If he can keep his LD% in the 21-22% area – he’ll get on base at a fairly regular clip and, as long as he’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors, his defense will support average or slightly below average offense.

Noon game today. Game thread goes up soon! Sheesh! I better get with it!

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