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A Tale of Two Centerfielders

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The Cardinals came into 2014 looking to upgrade the center field position. They did so, ultimately, though probably not in the exact way they had in mind.

Greg Fiume

My initial thought for this morning's post was to write about what the Cardinals' bench might look like as we head into the postseason. However, sitting here staring at the computer screen, that post doesn't seem nearly so appealing to me as it did at the moment of conception. (There's a joke there about conception, I think, but I'll probably just let it pass by unexplored.) Part of it is the depressing realisation that the biggest decisions of the bench have probably already been made when none of us were looking, and they'll likely be at least moderately (and probably much more than moderately), frustrating, as I get the sinking feeling we'll be seeing a fair amount of fat on the bench, in the form of things you don't really need in  the postseason, rather than loading up on the kinds of resources that just might turn a game in a big situation.

Also, to be honest, sitting here and eating a leftover bratwurst (which is delicious, by the way), for breakfast in the chilly light of a late September morning, looking ahead simply seems less interesting than I thought it would.

Therefore, I thought I might pen a quick piece about something that looked like a strength coming into the season, seemed likely to be a big weakness for much of the early going, and then ultimately ended up one of the better parts of the 2014 Cardinals: center field.

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We all know about the offseason trade which brought Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk into the fold, sending postseason and Imo's commercial legend David Freese away to Southern California. Bourjos, at the time, was seen as the future of center for the Redbirds, with Jon Jay's intensely disappointing 2013 campaign assumed to have been enough to push him back into his destined fourth outfielder role.

Of course, things didn't work out quite that way, as an horrifically slow start to the season, coupled with Mike Matheny's near-instant reversion to players he has previous experience with when things go in less than ideal directions, pushed Jay back into the starting job, even though for much of the first half of the season he was not particularly deserving.

In hindsight, perhaps we should have expected a slower start from Bourjos, given how much of the 2013 season he missed, and the specific nature of the injury which shelved him. Wrist injuries are notorious for sapping power in hitters, we know, but the simple fact of being on the shelf and unable to properly maintain a swing probably put Bourjos more behind the eight ball than many of us -- myself most definitely included -- may have believed. I blame my own optimism on a temporary, complete leave of the senses, as anyone who knows me will attest to the fact such rampant optimism is absolutely out of character for me.

The early struggles of Bourjos and the abject mediocrity of the chief justice in the first half combined to embleaken (antonym of embiggen; look it up), the outlook for center field to the point there were calls for Oscar Taveras to take over in center immediately; I hope, having seen Oscar play defense for a few months now we can put rest to the notion of him as an everyday center fielder. There were plenty of other voices calling on John Mozeliak to make center field the top priority for the club heading into the trade deadline season. Jon Jay was the same fourth outfielder miscast as a starter in center he was last year, and the Bourjos Experiment was a failure just waiting to be officially aborted.

Oh, how times have changed.

As we sit here at the end of September, less than a week left in this baseball season, I think it's pretty much inarguable that the Cardinals would not be where they are, hanging on to first place in the face of a threatening yellow and black cloud on the horizon which doesn't seem likely to lose another game this season, if not for the strength of their center field combo over the past three months.

Combined, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos have been worth 4.3 wins above replacement this season (by Fangraphs WAR, that is), with Jay contributing the lion's share of that value at 2.5 wins. Given that Jay has amassed that value in approximately 170 fewer plate appearances than he had a year ago, the fact he's already shot well past his 2013 WAR (2.5 vs. 1.8 last year), is pretty remarkable. Jay has turned himself into the Platonic ideal of what he's always appeared to be at the plate; he has absolutely zero power (.077 ISO), walks very infrequently, and essentially relies on putting balls in play at a high rate -- not to mention hitting a very low percentage of those balls in the air -- to get on base at a high clip. Since the beginning of July, Jay has been a huge plus for the Cardinals, posting an OPS of .764. Coming from a premium defensive position he plays at an average level, that's a damned valuable player.

Question: so Jon Jay has posted an .764 OPS since the beginning of July. Care to guess what Peter Bourjos's OPS is over that same span of time? No fair peeking, now; just remember that Jay has essentially taken the centerfield job in a headlock by virtue of hitting like crazy for most of the season, while Bourjos's batting average has lagged far behind that of his lefty counterpart.

The answer: since the beginning of July, Peter Bourjos's OPS (in an admittedly smaller number of plate appearances), is .800. Weird, huh?

The big difference, of course, is perception, not to mention the hole Bourjos dug for himself with his early-season struggles with the bat. The season numbers for Peter haven't entirely come around; his wRC+ is 86, while Jay's is a much more robust 116. Nevertheless, for a big chunk of the season, Peter Bourjos has been a better overall hitter than Jon Jay. Of course, we could change the endpoints around and make the numbers look different, more in favour of Jay or tilt it toward Bourjos, but I don't want to go down that road. I just wanted to point out that the seemingly failed bet the Cardinals made on Peter Bourjos in the offseason has really been anything but, and the continued perception that he's been all glove and given most of that value back with his bat simply isn't true, particularly if we make the rather small logical leap that he may have struggled early in the season largely as a result of coming back from an injury that specifically hurt his ability to work on his offense. I freely admit the small sampling of plate appearances is somewhat problematic in terms of reaching any solid conclusions, but I'm perfectly happy to go to war on that hill.

My point here is not to argue for or against either player in the Cardinals' center field platoon; the fact is, the Redbirds of 2014 have received an outstanding performance from the position as a whole, particularly in light of how dire the situation appeared as late as the end of May, when 2.5 WAR seemed an almost unreachable star from the pair, let alone from just one of them alone.

If we extrapolate each player's numbers out over a more-or-less full season's worth of playing time (i.e. 600 plate appearances), we find that Jay would come in at just under 3.3 fWAR, while Bourjos tips the scales right at 3.8 WAR. (Actually 3.7984, but I feel comfortable rounding that up.) They've done it in wildly different ways, of course; the vast majority of Bourjos's value comes from positive numbers in baserunning and a huge defensive component, while Jay has been solidly above-average with the glove, has given runs back on the bases, and singled his way to a very good offensive performance.

Regardless of how they've gotten there, though, the fact is the Cardinals have received far more value out of center field than I think anyone thought they would back in the early days of the season. And as we head into the final few games of 2014, I think it's important to note that among all the incredibly frustrating things we've seen play out over the course of the year (for instance, the collective performance in one of the other outfield positions...), what looked for a while like an enormous liability for this club turned out to be one of its biggest strengths.

Funny how things work out sometimes, isn't it?