An Appreciation of Former St. Louis Cardinals' Shortstop David Eckstein's Tangibles

That former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein is officially retiring from the game of baseball, as reported by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, should come as little surprise. After his 1.9-fWAR season in 2010 with the Padres, Eckstein did not receive a contract for the 2011 season. [UPDATE: Although, Jon Heyman tweets that Eckstein turned down a contract offer from the Mariners for 2011.] The 37-year-old is hanging up his cleats after ten big-league seasons "even though there were teams willing to bring him into camp" this year, according to Cafardo.

Eckstein is listed at five feet, seven inches tall. I mention this because there is a rule that any newspaper article or blog post about Eckstein must include his relatively short height. His short stature led combined with his style of play led to sportswriters casting him as an underdog who got more out of his talent than other, more-talented players. And it was this narrative that led to a backlash against the player, a backlash that was led by Fire Joe Morgan.

It is not Eckstein's fault that he became the poster boy for intangibles such as heart, hustle, grit, and baseball smarts. It is not the player's fault that questions from the media caused smart baseball men like Joe Maddon to say things like "Even if he goes 0-for-4 and makes three errors, he helps you." No, it is not Eckstein's fault that baseball people and sportswriters discuss him with backhanded compliments that downplay his skill and play up his intangibles.

Eckstein may have had the greatest combination of intangibles in baseball history. Unfortunately, we'll never know because they're intangibles. The singular focus and resultant battle over his indefinable characteristics unfairly marginalized the reality that Eckstein was a pretty valuable ballplayer in the tangible sense, especially for the Cardinals.

After the 2004 season, the Cardinals failed to sign their incumbent shortstop, Edgar Renteria, to a new contract. Renteria opted instead to sign with the Red Sox, replacing Boston's own free agent shortstop Miguel Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera was signed by the Angels to replace the free agnet Eckstein. As a part of this Hot Stove shortstop shuffle, Eckstein signed with the Cardinals.

In 2004, Eckstein had a season on par with Renteria and better than Cabrera. Eckstein posted 2.3 fWAR that season to Renteria's 2.3 and Cabrera's 0.5. Eckstein received a three-year deal from the Cardinals at a fraction of the salary for which the Red Sox signed Renteria and the Angels signed Cabrera. In 2005, Eckstein had his best season wearing The Birds On The Bat. In 2006 and 2007, Eckstein's numbers would suffer due to injuries. Nonetheless, Eckstein was still a positive value for the Cardinals over the life of his contract.

Year

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

OPS+

wOBA

fWAR

2005

713

.294

.363

.395

.758

99

.335

3.0

2006

552

.292

.350

.344

.694

80

.310

1.8

2007

484

.309

.356

.382

.739

93

.333

1.0

After making 713 Plate Appearances (PA) in 2005, Eckstein made 552 in 2006 and just 484 in 2007. Without the nagging injuries he dealt with during the final two-thirds of his contract, he would have been a great value for the Cardinals. As it was, he was still worth what he was paid over the duration of his contract and more.

As a Cardinal, Eckstein produced 5.8 fWAR while earning $10.2 million. According Fangraphs' Value table, Eckstein was worth $21.2 million to the Cardinals. This is due largely to his 3.0-fWAR 2005 which was worth $10.2 million--or, the dollar amount of his entire contract--according to Fangraphs. Even if his much-ballyhooed yet impossible-to-value intangibles are worth nothing at all, Eckstein was a very nice signing for the Cardinals. If you, like me, believe that Eckstein's intangibles are worth something, then he was an even better signing.

It is a shame that Eckstein has become a symbol for bad sportswriting and a player to be derided by the statistically inclined. The battle lines regarding Eckstein have hardened into a false choice. To praise Eckstein for his production is not to buy into the mythical Eckstein of the newspaper page. Indeed, one can at once appreciate Eckstein for his solid contribution to the Cardinals during his time as the club's shortstop without buying into his unquantifiable grittiness. On this, the day of his retirement, I propose that we do just that. Whether Eckstein's intangibles helped the Cardinals win ballgames or not, Eckstein was a valuable contributor in a very tangible sense to a team that won 100 games in 2005 and another that won the 2006 World Series.

[UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal tweets that Eckstein's agent has shot down the rumors regarding Eckstein's retirement. Eckstein has not retired and, "if the right opportunity arises, he will play." Nonetheless, we can still appreciate Eckstein's tangibles as a Cardinal.]

Star-divide

If you have not yet done so, please let Azruavatar know which bars you feel should be added to the bar section of his VEB's Guide to St. Louis project.

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