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eckstein: stay or go?

a lot of you might have missed the plug for the World Record Baseball Game, which went down over the weekend in o'fallon and culminated in a new standard --- longest baseball game ever played. they're still taking donations toward the goal of $100,000, and the money supports a good cause. derrick goold was a player in this game and blogged about it at Birdland. congratulations, fellahs.

special post today: azruavatar and i are doing a point-counterpoint-style exchange about david eckstein. he's presenting the case for re-signing eck; i'm playing the villainous "let him walk" part. thanks a lot to azru for coming up w/ the research that inspired this post. hope you enjoy it. here's azruavatar:

The Case for Re-signing Eckstein
Inspired by lboros' post on Milton Bradley and Brian Gunn's evaluation of Edgar Renteria's worth back in 2004, I decided to assess how much the Cardinals' current free-agent shortstop, David Eckstein, is worth. Rumors of negotiations between the Cards and Eck have begun to pop up, so it seems like a good time to try this.

I've previously been an advocate of handing Brendan Ryan the starting job at shortstop and finding another high-upside youngster in the hopes that one of them may turn into a cheap league-average regular player. I went into this mini-project of projecting Eckstein's value with the idea that it would show him to be exceedingly overvalued and further the cause for letting him walk. Without spoiling the conclusion, I wanted to take my subjective opinion out of the rationale so I set about to try and evaluate what his worth is going forward.

Here's my quick-n-easy 3 step recipe to arriving at David Eckstein's market value this offseason:

  1. Make a list of shortstops that signed recent free agent contracts or extensions as they were approaching free agency.
  2. Evaluate the overall run contribution of each player using a weighted three-year average.
  3. Averaging the cost of each shortstop per run produced, calculate Eckstein's value based his run value.
I found 9 shortstops that were in the midst of recent contracts: Orlando Cabrera, Angels; John McDonald, Blue Jays; Edgar Renteria, Braves; Rafael Furcal, Dodgers; Omar Vizquel, Giants; Miguel Tejada, Orioles; Jimmy Rollins, Phillies; Alex Gonzalez, Reds; Julio Lugo, Red Sox. Without exploring the wisdom of each of these contracts, I used these players as the comparison pool for David Eckstein. There isn't anyone here that's a great individual comparison for Eckstein. As a contact hitter, he relies on his batting average to compensate for his modest walk rates and lack of power. Defensively he's neither a particular asset nor liability at shortstop, despite his small stature and unconventional throwing style. And, of course, no one touches his grit and hustle quotient. Using the entire pool of players though, we should capture some rough baseline for how much each run produced or saved is worth at shortstop.

I used Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) as my offensive metric for runs. It's a Baseball Prospectus stat that tabulates the number of runs a player has produced over the course of the year. I normalized every player's VORP totals to 600 plate appearances (approximately a full seasons worth) to avoid concerns about playing time. To account for run prevention, former Cardinal advisor's Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is one of the best and most reliable defensive statistics available. MGL normalizes the defensive value of each player to 150 games, which is convenient for my purposes. He released updated stats for the year around the All-Star break, which is what I used for the 2007 defense. Ideally, I'd have a full season of defensive data to call on, but that isn't the case.

I'm also using three years' worth of data (2005-2007) for both metrics. It's a mistake to attempt to project a player using just their most recent season's statistics, and using data older than 3 years isn't really going to reflect their current skillset. With that in mind, I weighted each season in an approximation of what the Marcel projection system does. The defensive weights are different, and there really isn't any science behind those. At this point we now have a weighted average of each player's performance both offensively and defensively. You can download the complete spreadsheet here if you'd like.

Name Oruns/600PA DRuns/150G Total Runs
Orlando Cabrera 23.1 -0.6 22.5
John McDonald -8.9 9.3 0.4
Edgar Renteria 37.1 -1.1 36.0
Rafael Furcal 26.4 8.3 34.7
Omar Vizquel 7.7 13.9 21.6
Miguel Tejada 45.6 -1.8 43.7
Jimmy Rollins 41.6 1.1 42.7
Alex Gonzalez 14.5 3.3 17.9
Julio Lugo 27.3 0.7 28.0

Using the dollar figures from Cot's contracts, I took the yearly average value of the contract to then find how many runs each player is producing per million dollars that they make. We can average those rates to get the number of runs produced by a shortstop per million dollars and use this as our predicting baseline for David Eckstein. That calculation yields a product of 3.4 runs per million dollars. That's an average amount for a shortstop.

Eckstein averages 20 runs offensively and around 9 runs defensively from the last 3 years. If Eckstein were to maintain these averages for the next few years, then --- using the multiplier of 3.4 runs per million dollars --- he would be worth around 8.5M on a yearly basis. Given his injury problems the last few seasons and the fact that he is getting older, let's be conservative and say that each subsequent year he produces 90% of what he did the previous year. If the Cardinals were to offer him a 2 year contract, a reasonable dollar figure would be around 14.75M based on what his peers make. If they made a 3-year offer, $21 million is a good ballpark for negotiations. (For a sanity check, PECOTA estimates before this season pegged Eckstein at 15.35M for 2008-2009 and another 5.6M for 2010 -- which is extremely close to the figures I've presented.)

Given the team's reluctance to play Brendan Ryan on an everyday basis, even when Adam Kennedy had season ending knee surgery, there are still question marks about whether he can handle the position as a regular. I looked at his numbers back in August and noted that they were very much out of line with what we saw from him throughout the minors. He finished the year with an OPS just over .750 as his batting average (and consequently his OBP) came back down. While Ryan is probably a better defender than Eckstein, I'm not sure that he's a good bet to contribute 20 runs offensively. Ryan had an OPS of .669 during his time in Memphis this past year. In 2006, he battled injuries throughout the year. Eckstein had a reasonably productive year despite dealing with some oblique strains. He's a known commodity, and provided there's no bidding war a 2-year contract at 15M doesn't seem wildly unreasonable. A short-term contract for a player that we can expect to be around average doesn't seem like such a bad idea after looking around the league.

The Case for Letting Eckstein Walk
first of all, my thanks to AZ for this excellent piece of work. he's made me think long and hard about the question "well, why not eckstein?" clearly, there is a legitimate case to re-sign him; he's been about as valuable as any shortstop in the league over the past few years. a $7.5m contract might very well be consistent with the market, as azru suggests, but that's only when viewed in the abstract. when i place eckstein within the specific context of the cardinals' present and future, i can't justify that contract for this player.

click "read more" to read the remainder of the post.

before i go on, a disclaimer: i've been a big fan of eckstein's throughout his run here. in 2005, mourning stl's playoff defeat, i named eckstein as the best thing about the cards' season --- and this in a year where albert pujols won the league mvp. here's what i wrote:

[F]or me, the highlight was getting familiar with David Eckstein. After the signing, Cardinal fans were told we'd love his hustle and dedication and all that other bullshit, and I was fully prepared to reject the guy along with the l'il-scrapper storyline. I gradually learned from watching him play that he wasn't just some souped-up version of Rex Hudler. . . . .This guy could actually play, and the vaunted "hustle" was really a misnomer for intelligence and composure. In late July he executed a walkoff squeeze to beat the Cubs; about a week later he hit a walkoff grand slam to beat the Braves. A real winner; a champ.
i also sung eckstein's praises in a guest turn at Amazin Avenue (SB Nation's ny mets blog) last october, right before the 2006 nlcs. so you don't need to accuse me of trashing the guy, and you don't need to explain to me that eckstein's been a good player. i know he's been good. but i don't think he'll be as good in 2008-09 as he was in 2005-07. i also don't think he will outperform the immediately available alternative --- brendan ryan --- by enough of a margin to justify the cost of keeping him here.

at this point in his career, eckstein only has one reliable skill left --- he can get on base. it's such an important skill that as long as he was able to make the routine plays at shortstop, eckstein's high obps made him at least a league-average player. alas, he can no longer make the routine plays reliably; moreover, his on-base skills are eroding quickly. he'll be 33 next year, and we understand player-aging curves well enough by now to know that eckstein has entered high-risk territory: he could suffer a jim edmonds-like collapse any year now. and even if that doesn't happen, he's overwhelmingly likely to suffer a slow but steady decline in performance. indeed, that process is already underway.

let's start with the defense, because his dropoff here is easy to document. every major fielding metric shows eckstein's performance in sharp decline in 2007. the two heavyweights in this field, john dewan and mgl, both had eckstein as one of the three worst shortstops in the league; dewan had him at 15 runs below average, mgl at 10 runs below. (mgl hasn't released his entire set of end-of-season UZR figures, but he did reveal the best and worst at each position.) the two enhanced-zone-rating metrics (by Chone Smith and the Hardball Times) both had eckstein at 5 runs below average, about a dozen runs worse than in 2006; and Baseball Prospectus' FRAA had him 15 runs below, a 14-run drop over the previous season. even the hoary old range factor metric had eckstein dropping off by a quarter of a play per game.

all those metrics are in agreement --- not only with each other, but also with the consensus of naked-eye observers. at least once a series, it seemed, there'd be a discussion in a VEB game thread about eckstein's limited range, his weak arm, his error-proneness. there are going be those who write off the down year with the glove, citing eckstein's injuries. i would counter that the injuries weren't bad enough to impede his hitting or baserunning; he had a banner year with the bat and stole 10 bags in 11 tries. it seems illogical to me that his injuries selectively affected his fielding; i think what we're seeing is part of an irreversible aging process. when you lose half a step at age 33, you ain't getting it back.

projecting eck's offense is a lot less certain a task. we'd expect it to drop off next year no matter what --- besides being 33, he's coming off an abberantly (for him) good season in which he batted 23 points above his career avg and set a new personal best in that category, 15 points higher than any previous single-season mark. not coincidentally, eckstein also had a career-high BABIP of .320, which is 15 points above his career mark. for a player of his age, those don't represent real gains in ability; they're random blips in the data (i won't call them "luck," 'cause it makes people mad). the strong likelihood is that he'll regress to the mean next season.

for eckstein, the mean as a national league player has been about .290 --- not bad, right? well, here's the problem: eckstein's walk rate has been in a freefall the last two years. and that leaves his core skill, ie on-base ability, more dependent than ever on a high batting average. compare his batting avgs and obps for the last three years:

avg obp bb %
2005 .294 .363 8.4
2006 .292 .350 5.8
2005 .309 .356 5.2

david raised his batting avg 17 points this year, but he only raised his obp by 6 points --- and his obp was actually higher in 2005, even though his avg was 15 points lower. if eck's avg regresses to .292 and his walk rate stays in the 5.5 percent range, we're looking at an on-base percentage of .335 to .340 and an ops of about .710 --- which would be about 30 points lower than last year (.739) and almost right on his career mark (.713). the first 2008 projection we have for eckstein, ZIPS, projects him to be even worse than that --- .676 --- and eckstein's pre-2007 PECOTA projection has him at exactly the same figure. i think those are ungenerous estimates, although they're not impossible --- just last year (ie 2006) eckstein posted a .694 ops, and he has been below the .700 mark 3 times in a 7-year career; at some point he's gonna drop below that line for good. but it won't necessarily happen in 2008. let's just use .710 as a working projection; that's in keeping with azruavatar's suggestion that eckstein in his mid 30s will retain about 90 percent of his offensive performance from year to year. even if we allow a .710 ops, eckstein profiles as a below-average defender at a key defensive position, whose signature offensive skill (on-base ability) is fading. he's been a fine player, but his best years are behind him.

let's turn now to brendan ryan. here's what i wrote about him after watching him play back in may 2007:

A .660 ops might be the best Ryan can muster in the big leagues, but he's already better than Eckstein with the glove -- much better, judging from what I saw. So if he can just come close to matching Eckstein's performance at the plate, his superior glove might make up most or all of the difference. And that's not even accounting for salary.

If Ryan finishes strong and can put up, say, a .740 ops over the last 80 games of the triple A schedule, I would consider him to be at least as good an option for 2008 as the incumbent shortstop in St. Louis.

ryan did, indeed, put up a.740 ops in the 2d half --- in the big leagues. so i'm standing by my assessment. now, to be clear, i don't take ryan's 2007 line at st louis (.289 / .347 / .406) as a true indicator of his abilities; i'm well aware that he played over his head, so no need to point that out to me. his minor-league translations suggest that he's capable of hitting about .260 in the majors, without much pop or on-base ability. a bit of context:
avg obp slg
2007 MLE .255 .302 .320
2007 mlb .289 .347 .406
2008 ZIPS proj .265 .315 .351

if ryan were to meet his 2008 ZIPS projection over 500 at-bats, he'd create about 54 runs, which is 11 fewer than eckstein would create given a .710 ops. with a projected .315 obp, ryan wouldn't be able to bat leadoff; he have to slot in 8th (or 9th, if tony comes back). that'd leave the cards needing a new leadoff hitter, for whom they would probably have to trade (reyes for bourn, anyone?). whatever he cost the cardinals on offense, ryan would more than make up for on the defensive side. the same fielding metrics that universally panned david eckstein assessed ryan as a league-average fielder at ss in 2007. and, as with eckstein, the cold hard numbers matched the direct impressions of most fans; i don't see anybody predicting a gold glove for this kid, but he's clearly a step quicker than eckstein and has a vastly stronger arm. he can get to a ball in the hole and throw a man out, something eck can't do anymore. i think a convervative estimate is that ryan is 10 runs better than eck with the glove --- and if that's true, that wipes out most of the 11-run advantage we're projecting for eckstein with the bat. it makes the players pretty much dead even in terms of bottom-line run contribution.

i know many of you will find that conclusion hard to swallow. and i'll acknowledge there's a high degree of short-term risk involved; ryan has a much higher chance than eckstein of being utterly useless in 2008, a complete washout. so based on eckstein's provenness, i'll artibtrarily assign him a 2-game advantage over ryan for 2008. but carry it one year further down the road, to 2009 --- which player is more likely to be utterly useless that year, 27-year-old brendan ryan or 34-year-old david eckstein? we spent last year watching injury-plagued 30somethings jim edmonds and scott rolen lose huge chunks of their value; eckstein has struggled w/ injuries for the last year and a half, and he might very well be next. and he's starting from a much lower elevation than either of those two. by 2009, i think the odds are very high that ryan will be a better player than eckstein --- and $7m cheaper.

but even if brendan ryan disappoints or flat-out flops, here's another reason not to re-sign eckstein to a multiyear deal: if the cards make that commitment, they won't be in a position to pursue the crop of younger, better shortstops (furcal, renteria, uribe, cabrera) who will hit free-agency next off-season. a classic opportunity-cost lesson --- even if ryan doesn't pan out in 2008, at least the cards will have preserved the opportunity to upgrade in 2009. and here's a final thing to think about: eckstein will be a type A free agent this off-season, so if the cards let him walk they'll pick up a couple of top-100 draft picks. that alone might be the best reason not to re-sign him --- they're essentially trading him for two very good prospects if they let him walk. under the most favorable scenario, re-signing eckstein might yield a one-year benefit of a couple of games in the win column --- but it will probably cost the cardinals a lot more games than that in 2009 and beyond, and they'll come out behind on the deal.

let's put this all into a table:

keep eckstein let him walk
2008 2 marginal wins $7m in marginal payroll
opportunity to establish young cheap player
two top-100 draft picks
2009 0 marginal wins $7m in marginal payroll OR
opportunity to upgrade via free agency
two prospects
2010 n/a ryan / renteria / furcal / etc
two prospects

if the cardinals are willing to accept ryan's limitations for a year and spend the $7m wisely to make upgrades elsewhere on the roster, they probably will do no worse than break even in 2008 if they let eckstein walk. beyond 2008, they'll be way ahead. re-signing eckstein is a "win-now" strategy, something you do if you think adding a just-past-peak veteran can give you an immediate shot at a championship. if you're the detroit tigers, you want eckstein badly. if you're the cubs, you take a hard look at him. but if you're the cardinals? i don't think the cards have a realistic shot at a championship in 2008 with or without eckstein. but i think their shot at winning a championship in 2009 and beyond will be vastly better if they thank him for his contributions and let him sign elsewhere.