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Why Brendan Ryan should start at shortstop for the Cardinals

Brendan "Boog" Ryan was the best defensive shortstop in the majors last season. The best. Fangraphs.com has him ahead of Nick Punto in Fielding in 2010. While his batting was below major league levels in 2010, just a year before he was the sixth best defensive shortstop in the majors while slugging .400, with a weighted On Base Average of a respectable .324. Boog looked to be one of the better up and coming shortstops in the game just over a year ago. He was tied with Jimmy Rollins with the 7th highest WAR total for shortstops in 2009, actually outhitting Rollins (who had a .316 wOBA in '09). *

That aside, I'm not really writing this to talk about Brendan Ryan's 2009 season (although he remains a young, exciting player with some hopefully obvious upside). Even if Ryan doesn't hit for a lick again in 2011, his defense has been trending upward, and the StL Cardinals still have Dave Duncan and his groundball inducing willpower; AND the Cards still have a starting rotation that could benefit GREATLY from (one of, if not) the best defensive shortstop in the game: with curveball hurlers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and youngster Jaime Garcia; as well as Westbrook who likely will have the highest groundball rates in his career, even after being well known for that in the past... And I still have hopes that Lohse could develop a sinkerball or have at least a vaguely similar season to Joel Pineiro's miraculous 2009 (or his own 2008). With that kind of starting pitching staff, I wouldn't even relegate Ryan to a defensive replacement role (let alone jettisoning him from the team). I would start him every day without question. And of course, play new acquisition Ryan Theriot at second base where he is better suited (with Skip Schumaker as utilityman/backup). 

But most of that isn't really news to many readers. The Cardinals seem to remain adamant about upgrading offense in the middle infield over glovework, so the only way Skip won't be starting at second and Theriot at short would be to add an additional middle infielder into the mix (Tyler Greene perhaps? I think they might still add another person from outside the team though). This all becomes rather convoluted however, since there could already be a 1-3 WAR player at short: Brendan Ryan. With Lance Berkman looming somewhere in the outfield in 2011, keeping Brendan Ryan at short and benching Skip Schumaker seems so completely obvious that it is nearly a no-brainer. And yet the organization (mainly Tony Larussa it seems) remains rosy on starting a terrible defensive player at second (and yes, he probably will be a bit better defensively going forward, but still...).... while downgrading defense at shortstop.

I think it's pretty much an established fact that with a groundball inducing starting rotation you should utilize every bit of defense you can in the infield, where the balls usually are hit. By downgrading defense or not playing your best defensive assets during the innings where your starters are pitching, you can open up a lot of problems. Particularly for the Cardinals, who have a slow corner outfielder and no one in the outfield with a really good arm. One thing that could help this would be to start Colby Rasmus more often due to his speed and range; but with injuries and a reluctant manager, I would not bank on him playing all the time. Holliday also is a defensive asset in the outfield, so perhaps this is being overstated to some extent. However, if you are banking on Skip Schumaker to have upside next season (where he didn't have any whatsoever last year), you could just as well do that for Brendan Ryan and go with a higher probability for that to happen (he who had an extremely unlucky year with the bat in 2010, and who is the polar opposite in defensive effectiveness). All this analysis is neglecting off the field issues, but that is the manager's main task, to manage such situations.

Here are more thoughts on the subject from another Cardinals blog, describing the headscratching strategy (or lack of), the author also wonders just why Brendan Ryan isn't a fit for the Cardinals: http://cardinaldiamonddiaries.blogspot.com/2010_12_01_archive.html

My closing "argument" is this article about the 2009 Indians, who actually had Jake Westbrook in their pitching staff for most of the season: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/the-indians-incompatible-pitching-and-defense/. By downgrading your infield defense, you are going to have more men on base, even if they are just getting singles most of the time. The ISO and slugging will still be lower since people will be hitting the ball into the ground... But outs are always better than letting a dribbler roll through a porous middle infield. With Lance Berkman starting in right field, this is not a good thought. For the team's best interest, Skip Schumaker should probably be relegated to a non-starting role after the Ryan Theriot trade acquisition, and Boog should be the team's starting shortstop.

So if they continue to name Schumaker as the starting second baseman, Boog should start at short. Be fair. Back to the defensive stats: baseball reference has him in the lead in 2010 for assists at shortstop, 2nd in range factor, first in TZR with 15. If this doesn't illustrate a shortstop who saves runs, I'm not sure what will. If his BABIP returns to normal, he could be a great player next year. He will at least be above average considering his skillset and the makeup of the starting rotation. Could he really be that disruptive? Hopefully the Cardinals organization will re-think this through, because right now it doesn't seem to make much sense.

 

* For reference, Ozzie Smith's second season consisted of .244 wOBA and .8 WAR. The players' first season was also very similar (brendan's first season with more than a few games that is), with Brendan at 2.7 WAR and Ozzie at 3.1 WAR. In my opinion it's not out of the question for Boog to have 4 WAR next season (although probably more likely to be around 2 or 3). It's doubtful that Brendan will ever have the good to great on-base percentage of Ozzie, however he could outslug him while putting up a similar defensive display of wizardly prowess. 

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