Last night, the Cardinals left the eye-pleasing confines of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the victors of a three-game series against the insurgent Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals dispatched of the Pirates in the first two games of the series and very nearly swept the Buccos out and into sole possession of third place in the division. A sweep was not to be as the Cards displayed sloppy fundamentals and poor defense in the series finale, blowing three leads en route to losing an extra-inning heartbreaker. Sunday's game is instructive as a microcosm as we look at to the non-waiver trade deadline and beyond.
A focus on the nebulous and easily contorted "intangibles" appears to have sidetracked some in the media who cover the Cardinals and many a fan as the trade deadline hysteria hits its peak. If the season as a whole had not already provided ample evidence to focus the mind on which position is most in need of an upgrade on the Cardinals, Sunday's game provided a Cliff Notes version of season's first 100 games, clearly demonstrating that Ryan Theriot is the club's weakest link.
In the offseason, before shipping Brendan Ryan to the exile that Seattle has become, the Cardinals acquired Theriot and quickly handed the job of starting shortstop to a player who had been deemed unable to play the position by both the Cubs and Dodgers in 2010 alone. Clubhouse chemistry and intangibles ominously factored into the justification for the decision. It was not until seeing Theriot bumble about a baseball diamond with great regularity that this writer achieved an appreciation for how terrible fundamentally the shortstop is, how truly horrendous his fielding is, and the lack of offensive talent he possesses.
No player on the 2011 roster is so fundamentally unsound as Theriot. He uniquely combines a consistent inability to make routine plays on the infield with the poor base-running that led Cubs fans to invent a statistic representative of boneheaded antics on the basepaths--the deliciously titled "TOOTBLAN," which stands for "Thrown Out on the Bases like a Nincompoop," a component of "RTAOBP," or, "Ryan Theriot Adjusted On-Base Percentage." Theriot has carried on running the bases like a nincompoop during his time wearing The Birds On Bat, accruing a -0.3 baserunning runs.
In the field with a mitt on his hand is where Theriot is at his worst, a bungling, booting, rock-handed abomination to any fan of good fielding. In Sunday's game, Theriot was given his sixteenth error on the season. While credited with only one "error" in the box score, he bungled a grounder that a more adept shortstop likely converts into an out and was an accomplice in the winning run making it to third base when Laird's throw made it past Theriot and into the outfield. (Laird was given an error on the play.) Fans were sold the usual bit of spin for an infielder with the range of a potted plant. It's okay because Theriot fields the ones he gets to. Even this rationale, which sets the lowest of all bars for a player's defense, has proven to be hogwash.
Theriot's 16 errors tie him for third-highest for a shortstop in all of baseball, behind or tied with Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro, Jason Bartlett, and Ian Desmond. Of course, Theriot's Assists (234) lag behind his fellow high-errers. Andrus has had 258 Assists; Castro, 268; Bartlett, 249; and, Desmond with 295. Theriot's Fielding Percentage of .950 ranks 25 out of 25 on MLB.com's rankings for shortstops. Theriot's ineptitude in the field is also supported by the advanced fielding metrics. Fangraphs has him as a -10.6 fielder, which is the worst of all MLB shortstops, behind even Yuniesky Betancourt, and Total Zone has Theriot at -11 runs, or, 96 out of 97 players on Baseball-Reference's Total Zone ranking for shortstops. Whether your prefer the defensive stats of yore, the advanced metrics of the present, or the good ol' eye test, Ryan Theriot is a gods-of-baseball-awful defensive player.
Bringing Theriot in as the everyday shortstop was also sold as part of a club-wide, offense-for-defense realignment. Coming off a .286 wOBA in 2010, Theriot seemed like he kinda, sorta might be an okay bet to rebound a little bit. Hitting for a .300 average was Theriot's lone tool and the Cardinals were betting that it had not dulled so much as to render him useless. They were wrong.
Theriot started off well enough, playing to the script penned during winter's Hot Stove in the minds of John Mozeliak and Tony La Russa. League-average offense and horrible defense produced a valuable player by WAR. Perhaps a combination of the decline of age that seems to hit middle infielders hardest and the pitchers of the National League figuring him out, Theriot's production stalled and then launched into an offensive nosedive. The walks were never there and once the worm of luck turned, an OBP propped up by a high average plummeted, as did his OPS and wOBA. As of this writing, Theriot's line sat at .274/.320/.333, the punchless components of a .292 wOBA. It is a line uncannily similar to 2010--the season Theriot was set to bounce back from--in which he hit .270/.320/.333, for a .292 wOBA. For the rest of the way, ZiPS projects a .271/.328/.330 line with a .296 wOBA, which feels about right. If it is, Theriot cannot justify starting everyday at shortstop.
Theriot's value is based entirely on his offense, which, in turn, is based entirely on him putting up a hollow .300 batting average. Theriot has seen the 10.7%, 8.2%, and 11.0% walk rates of his Chicago heyday erode precipitously, to 7.5% in 2009, 6.4% in 2010, and 5.5% this season. There is little hope that this will turnaround. Theriot already demonstrates good plate discipline, meaning he does not chase a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone. Even so, he has a horrendous walk rate. This is likely due to the fact that Theriot does not possess the ability to hit for power. If his slugging percentage isn't enough, simply glancing at his spray chart gives one an idea of Theriot's lack of potency with a bat:
If you were the opposing pitcher and you were facing a hitter with this spray chart to his name, wouldn't you challenge him in the strike zone? There is little risk in challenging so slappy a hitter.
Only by the activation of Gerald Laird is Theriot saved from having the Cardinals' worst wOBA. That being said, even the back-up catcher--a position notorious for its lack of offensive output--was but five points behind Theriot entering play on Sunday. Even with this slight wOBA disparity, Laird has been worth 0.1 Fangraphs WAR on the season. Theriot has fallen into negative WAR on the season and, at -0.1 WAR, has the lowest total on the club's 25-man roster. Theriot's WAR total is also the third-worst in the Fangraphs rankings for shortstop WAR.
In so competitive a pennant race, the Cardinals cannot afford dead weight on the roster. Right now, the deadliest weight being drug along by the club as it attempts to win the division is Theriot. A player at once so punchless a hitter, inept a fielder, and poor a baserunner should be easy to upgrade. Let's hope the front office is able to do so, for the Cardinals' playoff chances may hinge on it.