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If the Schu fits...

[HC left for vacation the other day, and wrote this post before he left town and placed it into the publication queue. that's why there's no mention of yesterday's heroic comeback. --- lb]

Coming into this season, it was, for the first time, a virtual certainty (don’t you like those oxymoronic terms?) that Skip Schumaker would be on the active roster. Though he made the club out of the spring of ’07 as well, nobody saw him as a regular, everyday contributor. In fact, even this spring most didn’t see him playing as often as he has. Most of us saw Duncan, Ankiel, and Ludwick all getting more playing time in the OF than Schumaker and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that Colby Rasmus might also make the club, thus taking even more playing time from Schumaker. Some were even anticipating that Brian Barton would be the everyday CF or LF as Skip assumed the role previously played by So Taguchi.

I’ll admit, when I saw Schumaker’s name in the opening day lineup I saw this as Tony falling in love w/ one of his favorites, ala Miles or Taguchi. After all, Schumaker didn’t exactly have a terrific minor-league pedigree and hadn’t distinguished himself as a major-leaguer either. Sure, there were some signs. His ’07 was pretty good (.358 OBP, 111 OPS+) but he only had 188 PA’s in ’07. His walk rate was a paltry 4.3% and his BABIP was .368 so it was pretty easy to chalk up his ’07 numbers as being fluky.

Here we are, more than halfway through the season, approaching the All-Star break, and Skip Schumaker leads all the Cardinal outfielders in PA’s. Not only that, but it would be unfair and untrue to chalk it up to some sort of favoritism from Tony as Schumaker has demonstrated himself to be an above-average major-league OF. We’ve spoken at great length of the great, All-Star-worthy first half of Ryan Ludwick but little has been said of the great job Schumaker’s done so far. Perhaps it’s that many of us are expecting the other shoe to drop – for Skip’s star to become a white dwarf – so that Rasmus can take his rightful place in the Cardinal OF for years to come.

It’s clear that that time will come – and it will come soon – and nobody’s a bigger Rasmus fan than I am. However, it’s time that we acknowledge that it may not be Schumaker’s place that Rasmus assumes when his ticket is punched. Yes, Ludwick’s been great so far and Ankiel, IMO, has proven himself to be a genuine major-league OF but we can no longer dismiss Schumaker’s performance, and potential, simply b/c he doesn’t hit the homers those two hit.

Schumaker’s evolution as a major-league hitter seems to be genuine. He has, to date, 310 plate appearances so far this season. (numbers are a few days old as I’m now on vacation and had to pre-program this thread.) Skip’s current OPS is .803, making his OPS+ 113. His OBP is a robust .364 – not bad for a leadoff hitter.

His VORP is 16.1. That he’s 7th among NL LF’s masks the fact that the 6 hitters above him are all excellent hitters. They include the likes of Holliday, Dunn, Burrell, Braun, Lee, and Bay. His VORP is greater than All-Star starter Alfonso Soriano, among others. He would be 5th among NL CF’s (w/ Ankiel 4th) and 6th among NL RF’s – ahead of notables such as Jeremy Hermida, Andre Ethier, Justin Upton, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Hunter Pence.

He’s averaging 5.73 RC/27 outs – 19th among NL OF’s. He’s ahead of all the RF’s I just mentioned as well as Chris Young, Juan Pierre, and Jeff Francoeur. His WPA is 1.18 – tied for 11th among NL OF’s w/ Adam Dunn. Never once in Juan Encarnacion’s career was his OPS as high as Schumaker’s over a full season. Most of us considered Encarnacion to be about a league-average OF (though he was overpaid as a Cardinal). That Schumaker, who formerly appeared to be a left-handed version of So Taguchi, has become an above-average OF says something.

The question is not, however, how good has Schumaker been but rather, is his performance sustainable? On the one hand, Schumaker’s BABIP is once again rather high (.326), possibly lending credence to those who question whether Skip has truly turned a corner at the plate. Still, Skip has made a noticeable improvement offensively and nowhere is that more evident than with his increasing BB rate. In his time w/ the Cards last year, as I said earlier his BB rate was 4.3%. In his major-league career prior to this season, it was just over 7%. However, in the first half of this year, Skip has managed to increase his BB rate to 9.1%. Because of his BB rate, this year’s OBP is higher than last season’s despite the fact that his BABIP has fallen by more than 40 points.

The increasing BB rate is important for a leadoff hitter, but Skip has shown considerably more power this season than he ever has before. A full 40% of his hits have gone for extra bases so far this season. His ISO (slugging – BA) is .139 – the highest so far of his career. His EqA is .292 – higher than Derrek Lee’s, among others. The point is that Skip Schumaker is not simply a singles hitter. He has increased his line drive % to 21.2% and that, along w/ his relatively low K rate (12.5%) will help him maintain a relatively high batting average. However, it is the improvement in his BB rate that allows for the increased LD% and increased power. He’s clearly seeing the ball better, recognizing pitches better, and getting better pitches to hit by working pitchers into favorable counts. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and making better contact.

All that said, Rasmus’ time is rapidly approaching. He’s been scalding the ball for more than a month now and he’ll be up before the season’s over. Where will he fit in? I’m not sure but I wouldn’t write Skip off just yet. Though he’s younger than both Ludwick and Ankiel, he probably has less trade value than the others simply b/c he has less power and there are probably more doubters about the sustainability of his 1st half performance. Needless to say, though, I’m starting to feel more comfortable w/ the idea of trading one of the others in order for Skip to play everyday.

I went looking for Skip’s comparables, b/c I had a hard time coming up w/ one myself. Prior to this season, his number 1 comp was the illustrious George Vukovich. I suspect that after this season, it will be somebody else. Who does he remind you of?

The first guy I thought of was Nate McLouth – though comps are usually of former players, not present-day but McLouth is another guy who has really made a dramatic improvement in his game. However, McLouth’s improvement has largely occurred b/c of his reduced K rate, not an increased BB rate. He’s been showing more and more power every year and then he’s really taken off over this season’s first half. Still, they’re built about the same and both play the OF so…

In any case, Schu’s been outstanding so far this season and his improved BB rate and high extra-base hit rate give every indication that he should be able to sustain it – for a few years at least. It will be very important for this team to get above-average production from an OF for the next few years, especially since Skip will be cost-controlled for the next 4. If you remember, many of the complaints about the Encarnacion signing revolved around his league-average production and his cost. Would it not have been so much better if the team had been able to get Juan’s production from someone earning a million dollars a year (or less) rather than $5 or so million per year? And Skip’s been better so far this year than Juan ever was.