Allen Craig & Tony La Russa's 'Back-to-the-Future' Philosophy on the Keystone

This weekend, over at Beyond the Boxscore, Jacob Peterson of Junk Stats* unveiled a fun metric, titled "Traditional Managing Index" or "TMI," which is the combined total of sacrifice bunts and intentional walks a manager's club has executed. The Cardinals' field manager led the big-leagues in TMI, making him the "most traditional" manager. 

*Junk Stats is a wonderful blog that I highly recommend. Even though he is a Braves fan who also writes for Talking Chop which leads to many a Braves-related tweet during Atlanta games, Mr. Peterson's Twitter feed is also a good one to follow for fun little statistical tidbits. 

Tony La Russa's TMI rating is not at all surprising to Cardinal fans, but the metric is obviously a limited one. After all, La Russa's reputation is also one of innovator. This is a field manager oft-credited with inventing the modern bullpen. And there is no forgetting the pitcher-hits-eighth experiment that, unfortunately, appears to have seen its last lineup card. Despite his belief in some of the traditional managerial tactics that have been proven detrimental to a club's chances of winning, La Russa also has established himself a baseball Dr. Frankenstein of sorts who is more than willing to experiment. The position which has been subject to his most recent mad-scientist experimentation is second base.

In early 2009, La Russa and the Cardinals designated veteran gloveman Adam Kennedy for assignment and the field manager informed then-outfielder Skip Schumaker that he would be playing second base. The reasoning behind the move was that the club wanted Schumaker's bat in the lineup and, in 2009, it was an experiment that bore fruit. Despite being an absolute butcher at the keystone, Schumaker proved valuable for the Central Division champs, posting a 1.8-WAR season based exclusively on his offense.* This offense led to the Cardinals inking the outfielder-turned-second-baseman to a two-year contract extension that indicated the club believed it would be filling second base with a 1.5- or 2.0-WAR player. This proved a misplaced belief.

*In 2009, Schumaker posted a line of .303/.364/.393/.757 which equaled a .336 wOBA. It seems so long ago...

Trading defense for offense is a defensible position if the player is, in fact, producing in the batter's box at a level which creates a net gain. As azruavatar noted in yesterday's main post, Skip Schumaker has not hit well enough to justify a roster spot, let alone a starting spot, since signing his contract extension. Last season's abysmal .299 wOBA* has fallen further still in 2011 to .274.** Schumaker's public-relations agent may be right in his attempts to explain away the aging middle-infielder's poor performance at the plate over the last season and two months, but Schumaker's impotence with the bat justifiably has the Cardinals' field manager looking elsewhere on the club's roster for offense from the position numbered four.

*Schumaker posted a line of .265/.328/.338/.667 in 2010.

**Schumaker had a line of .221/.284/.338/.622 heading into Sunday's game vs. the Rockies.

On Saturday, the news of the day for Cardinal fans centered on La Russa's comments regarding the experiment of slugger Allen Craig at second base. Both Matthew Leach and Derrick Goold wrote pieces on the manager's statements. The Post-Dispatch story by Goold contained this nugget on what appears to be La Russa's philosophy regarding second base:

"We've done this formula, and we've been successful with it," La Russa said. "I think the routine play at second base is more routine than it is at short and third. You can catch it. You can knock it down. And throw somebody out. … What the most impressive thing for (Craig) there is not the routine play because he's got good hands, it's that it hasn't affected his hitting. That was the worry. This gives him the opportunity. He's made it work."

La Russa's current views in regard to second base are as radical in contemporary baseball as they would have been commonplace in the early twentieth century. In a way, La Russa's second-base philosophy is his most "old-school" or "traditional." In a must-read work that I cannot recommend more highly, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James addresses the problem in evaluating second baseman historically due to a shift in the way the position was thought of and staffed. James calls it the "Gavy Cravath problem":

The role of the second baseman in turn-of-the-century baseball could be called the Gavy Cravath problem, as applied to fielding. In modern baseball, second base is a defense-first position, but second base in 1900 was a hitter's position--not exclusively, of course, but certainly to a greater extent than it is now. Until 1930, teams tended to emphasize hitting at second base, fielding at third base, rather than the other way around.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract 488 (Free Press 2001).

James expands on this assessment, noting that in the seasons between 1900 and 1930, 48 major-league second basemen scored 100 runs or more in a season, 17 hit 15 or more homers, 113 hit .300 or more for seasons in which they accrued 400 or more PA, second basemen won twelve batting titles, and twenty-one tallied 200 or more hits in a season. On the defensive side of the keystone coin, James notes that this era of second basemen would have only turned 40 to 50 double plays in a typical season compared to the modern second basemen who turn 100 or more.

Whereas Schumaker's batting-average dependent offensive production offered a ceiling of league-average, Craig's ceiling is enticingly higher. Rising through the Cardinals' farm system, Craig has only ever hit--both for average and power. In AAA Memphis last season, Craig posted a .405 wOBA* after posting a .400 wOBA** the season prior, a .386 wOBA*** in Springfield in '08, and a .400 wOBA**** in high-A ball back in '07. This season in St. Louis, Craig has posted a .321/.398/.481/.879 line, good for a .400 wOBA. There is no denying that Craig's .371 BABIP will come down. It is just a question of how much since Craig has frequently posted a BABIP in his minor-league seasons comfortably above the .300 mark which so often falls as league-average.

*For Memphis in 2010, Craig hit .320/.389/.549/938.

**For Memphis in 2009, Craig hit .322/.374/.547/.921.

***For Springfield in 2008, Craig hit .304/.373/.494/.867.

****At High-A ball in 2007, Craig hit .312/.370/.530/.899.

In discussing Craig playing second base, La Russa candidly acknowledged Craig's offensive potential and the value it could have for the Cardinals (as well as Craig's bank account):

"That's one of the things I told him," La Russa explained Saturday. "It's an honest comment. He could be a second baseman and with his offense be a big benefit to the club, which would be a big benefit to him as far as playing time and money. It's not a wacky thing where there's nothing to gain."

For a player shifted off the hot corner and to the outfield due to a combination of his throwing arm, the organization's positional glut, and the need to promote his bat, second base is an incredibly intriguing proposition for a club with three All-Star caliber flycatchers and Jon Jay available as the fourth option to patrol the outfield. Right now, the field manager has been cautious in easing the third-baseman-turned-outfielder into second base, starting Craig and then subbing him out for a defensive replacement for the late innings--as was the case on Sunday in Colorado when La Russa used four players at the position in a hitting or fielding capacity. It's an experiment by La Russa with an implementation that seems as much aimed at 2012 as 2011. And as the momentum builds behind the shift, a fanbase that has grown weary of Skip Schumaker, second baseman, is understandably enthusiastic about the prospect of Allen Craig, second baseman. It is an enthusiasm informed by observations in lockstep with that of La Russa:

"He could be a second baseman with offense, could be a big benefit to the club, which would be a big benefit to him," La Russa said. "As far as playing time and money and ... It's not a wacky thing where there's nothing else to be gained."

It would be a fitting turn of events for a manager so experimental yet so traditional to complete an organizational transformation of the second base position that is so Back to the Future.

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