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Change for the Sake of Change and Not Production; One Last Kick of a Dead Horse

In the wake of the Ryan Theriot acquisition and the Brendan Ryan trade, the VEB community came down harshly against the middle infield machinations of the St. Louis front office. Over the course of VEB hashing and rehashing the moves, I think many good points have been made and not the least of which, for us as fans, was the point that the Cardinals will not be as much fun to watch without Brendan Ryan at shortstop. That emotional response is a valid one, but is also one that the front office does not much consider. In the wake of the Nick Punto signing, with the middle infield picture in full focus, I thought now might be the time to put on my front office cap (or general manager scarf?) and look at middle infield moves through some objective measures of production.  

One need not be a stat freak to know that the Cardinals' middle infielders in 2010 were incredibly inept with a bat in their hands. The .294 wOBA* put up collectively by Cardinals' second basemen was the fifth-worst in the majors. Believe it or not, the .264 wOBA** posted by the St. Louis shortstops was only bad enough to rank fourth-worst in the big leagues. While walking at decent rates (shortstops, 7.6%; second basemen, 7.5%), there were few hits and little in the way of power. The shortstops managed a slugging percentage of just .300 which was fourth-worth in baseball; the second basemen, with their collective .333 slugging percentage, were also fourth-worst for their position in MLB. 

*In order to ease our transition to wOBA, here is the OPS translation: .657. The .657 OPS posted by Cardinals second basemen would be the seven-lowest in MLB.

**The .589 OPS put up by the St. Louis shortstops would be the fourth-worst in MLB.

After suffering through a season of poor production from the infield's heart, it is of little surprise that the fans and front office each saw the middle infield as the area of the club ripest for an upgrade. The primary players at the positions, Schumaker and Ryan, each posted morale-zappingly low batting averages (Schumaker, .265; Ryan, .223)*, on-base percentages (Schumaker, .328; Ryan, .279), and Milesian slugging percentages (Schumaker, .338; Ryan, .294). Interestingly, Schumaker's .299 wOBA is just 13 points lower than the .312 wOBA Cardinal second basemen have posted during LaRussa's time as manager which is the fourth-worst team wOBA for second basemen in all of baseball during that time span. Ryan's .256 wOBA is 58 points lower than the .314 wOBA posted by Cardinal shortstops during LaRussa's reign in the St. Louis clubhouse**, which is a rather average level of production when compared to MLB shortstops as a whole. This, and clubhouse presence, help paint the picture of why Schumaker's level of production was perhaps more acceptable to the front office and field manager than the slick-fielding Ryan's, in spite of the slick fielding.

*Since Fox Sports Midwest primarily shows batting average, this was the constant reminder in plate appearance after plate appearance of the poor seasons from our middle infielders. The childhood baseball card collector which still lives inside my psyche was continually traumatized by Ryan's batting average and the OBP-watching adult was equally traumatized by Ryan's OBP.

**This is almost entirely thanks to Edgar Renteria, who posted wOBA of .332, .334, .302, .352, .382, and .312 while donning The Birds On The Bat. David Eckstein's .335 wOBA in 2005 and .333 wOBA in 484 2007 PA did not hurt, either.

Using Baseball-Reference, here are the 2010 Cardinal middle infielders' oWAR, dWAR, and WAR:

 

Player

oWAR

dWAR

WAR

Schumaker

0.6

-0.2

0.4

Ryan

-0.7

1.6

0.9

Lopez

0.4

-0.5

-0.1

Miles

-0.1

0.0

-0.1

Greene

0.2

-0.2

0.0

Total

0.4

0.7

1.1

 

To upgrade the offense, LaRussa asked for and Mozeliak signed Lance Berkman to supplant the intriguing right field platoon of the long-missing Allen Craig and premiere chief justice Jon Jay. Having caught Cardinal Nation off-guard with this outfield signing, Mozeliak then moved to fulfill another LaRussan desire by trading for the soon-to-be-released Ryan Theriot from the Dodgers. To ensure that the club would be stuck with Theriot at shortstop even though he has not played much of it since early May of last season, Brendan Ryan was shipped off to Seattle for a minor-league pitcher not to be found on any prospect list. The last piece of the middle infield puzzle was seasoned veteran Nick Punto.

Gone from the 2010 club are:  Brendan Ryan (482 PA as SS), Felipe Lopez (89 PA as 2B, 83 PA as SS), and Aaron Miles (92 PA as 2B, 10 PA as SS, 4 PA as DH). The Cardinals have discarded three players who took 756 PA in a middle infield position last season, but will this make the club's 2011 lineup any more productive?

I have previously covered the likelihood of the Schumaker's potential to bounce back with the bat in 2011, so I will not dwell on the club's decision to retain the cobbler who fields more like a butcher. In the wake of that exercise, it feels like déjå vu to look at Ryan Theriot's 2010 with the bat. Here are the 2010 lines for the Cardinals' 2011 double-play combination:

Schumaker:  .265 BA / .328 OBP / .338 SLG / .299 wOBA / .298 BABIP

Theriot:  .270 BA / .321 OBP / .312 SLG / .286 wOBA / .305 BABIP

The similarities are rather striking. Using StatCorner's wOBAr, which adjusts for park and batted-ball data to give us an idea of what Theriot's 2010 wOBA probably should have been, we get a .318 wOBAr.  Via Fangraphs, Bill James projects Theriot to post a .307 wOBA; Marcel, .304. Such offensive production would make him an offensive upgrade over Ryan but still the -0.8-WAR sub-replacement player of 2010 (as opposed to the 1.6-WAR fielder Ryan was in 2010). For the Theriot move to be worthwhile for the Cardinals, Theriot will need something more than luck evening out and a return to 2009 form. (In 2009, he put up a .316 wOBA/.317wOBAr according to StatCorner.) Theriot will need to return to 2008 form, when he posted a .340 wOBA/.339 wOBAr. One big reason to be doubtful of such a renaissance, is the downturn in Theriot's walk rates, which have gone from 11.0% in '08, to 7.5% in '09, to a lowly 6.4% in '10. 

Aaron Miles's 2010 was smoke and mirrors, and the Cardinals were wise to let the gritty utility man leave. In a feat perhaps only Miles is capable of performing, he posted a .275 wOBA with a .281 BA. Replacing Miles with Punto is an immediate upgrade simply based on defense. Whereas Miles was a dull utility knife in the sense that he was incapable of playing any position in the infield due to a lack of range and no arm strength, Punto is an above-average defender at every infield position. Somewhat worrisome is that, while Theriot was perhaps a bit unlucky in 2010, Punto appears to have been somewhat lucky, with a slightly inflated wOBA that was already below .300 before adjusting for batted ball and home park. Punto put up a .286 wOBA, but his wOBAr was .276 according to StatCorner. So Mozeliak has upgraded at utility infielder in terms of defense, but has made a lateral move in terms of offense. It is worth noting that Punto does have the bright side of a career 9.9% walk rate, though, and, unlike Theriot, his eyesight does not seem to be worsening with age, as Punto walked in 9.7% of his 2010 PA.

Going by Baseball-Reference's oWAR, dWAR, and WAR, Punto is the more enticing edition with Theriot joining the fold being a net negative, however marginal, for the club.

 

Player

oWAR

dWAR

WAR

Theriot

-0.5

-0.3

-0.8

Punto

0.2

0.4

0.7

Total

-0.3

0.1

-0.1

 

I would be remiss not to discuss Tyler Greene, who is not a new face, so to speak, but may not have received enough PA over the last couple of seasons to be considered an old one. For what it is worth, Greene had a .292 wOBA in 122 PA last season. James projects him to have a wOBA of .308 in 2011 while Marcel pegs him for a .306 wOBA. Last season, during his abbreviated return to St. Louis, Felipe Lopez managed just a .292 wOBA over 425 PA, with a 10% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate. I doubt that Greene will manage Lopez's walk rate but am confident he will meet if not surpass Lopez's 20% strikeout rate in putting up at least a .300 wOBA in 2011. Greene's floor is to be to the 2011 Cardinals what Lopez and Miles each were to the 2010 club, that of replacement-level utility man.  It is Greene's ceiling, though, that makes him intriguing. In Memphis last season, Greene had a .357 wOBA; in 2009, his wOBA was .390 as a striped-socked Redbird. (The James and Marcel projection systems know this, yet still find Greene likely to approximate his veteran predecessors with the bat.) He offers the potential to slug at a level not seen from a Cardinal middle infielder since the heyday of Renterîa, a level Greene could surpass. Greene has hit just four home runs as a Cardinal in very limited action, one per every 53 at-bats. For comparison, the next most-powerful middle infield is Schumaker who has hit a homer every 90 at-bats. Showing an utter lack of power is Punto who has homered once every 189 at-bats in his career, and Theriot who hits a dinger about every 153 at-bats. Greene offers an upside not found with any of the other slap-hitting veterans, whatever their established grittiness. This is not to say that Greene will burst onto the scene jacking homers, but that he offers the best chance--however slim--of something more than a replacement-level bat in the middle infield after Skip Schumaker.

And so the Cardinals have configured their 2011 roster on the belief that a player's intangible clubhouse presence will lead to perhaps better run distribution as compared to the year before. There is little reason to think that the 2011 middle infield corps will be any more effective on the field than the 2010 group; in fact, they could very well be marginally worse. While we have no idea how the clubhouse dynamic will be affected by these changes, there is little question that said dynamic will be different if not better. Whether this newly formulated chemistry reflects itself in the team's runs scored, runs prevents, or wins total may never be known. On paper in February, however, the middle infield roster moves look to be not much more than change for the sake of change with little reason to expect much improvement from the Cardinal middle infielders.