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The Centre, er, Middle Infield Problems of the Cardinals

Coming into 2015, the middle infield looked like a position of real strength for the Cardinals. Now, though, that seems like a distant memory.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

My friends, the Cardinals have lost eight of ten games, and I am currently blackly hungover.

It is also...9:40 as I begin typing this, so it appears my column is going to be somewhat late, as our post editor has reminded me, rather saucily, that this build of the software does not support time travel. (Context: if you try to schedule a post earlier than the current time, is says the bit about not supporting time travel, rather than just saying INVALID TIME or something. I can never decide if I appreciate the stab at humour or am enraged by the gall of this robotic jokester who doesn't recognise that I am a goddamned human, and should be respected and feared.)

It was cool here in St. Louis last night, in that way that speaks of autumn closing in, as Bob Seger might say. It was the first night, I think, where not only the temperature was cooler, but the smell of the air was that of autumn. Have you ever noticed how restaurants smell differently in cold weather than warm weather? Not the inside; the outside. There's something about autumn and winter that somehow magnifies the smell of that restaurant grill air, even driving by at highway speeds. That seems strange, doesn't it? Last night was the first night I had noticed that particular phenomenon this year, and so it feels as if the edge of summer is right here, a physical thing, almost.

Ugh. I feel rotten. And having to come up with something to say about this baseball team currently is not making me feel any better.

You know, coming into the season, it looked as if the middle infield was actually going to be, for the first time in a very long time, one of the major strengths of this club. It hasn't been all that long since we were watching Skip Schumaker playing second base, or the likes Cesar Izturis taking grounders for El Birdos at short. There have been years with good shortstops, and there have been years with good second basemen. There have not, however, been many years with both at the same time. Even last season, when Jhonny Peralta played like the best shortstop in baseball and Kolten Wong was on the roster, second base was still a concern. Wong was inconsistent, which isn't surprising considering his rookie status, Matt Carpenter was otherwise occupied at third base, and the Mark Ellis Option was positively Kozmanian.

Go back to 2013, and second base was the brightest spot on the club, with Matt Carpenter stealing MVP votes due to his inspired play at the keystone. The shortstop position, however, was the home of the Famous Original Kozma Option, which was itself also extremely Kozmanian, though perhaps less surprising in that way.

This year, though...this year looked like it could be different. Here was Jhonny, coming off his down-ballot MVP season of 2014, in which he posted 5.3 wins above replacement. And here was Kolten, fresh off that up and down rookie year, having survived both a trial by fire and by Memphis, and looking ready to take a step forward, to become that consistent lineup stalwart that, if not exactly a cornerstone piece, was still definitely the kind of player you could apply the word Core to without any reservations. Finally, we thought, the Cardinals are going to have a middle infield worthy of the birds on the bat, with Jhonny still shy of his full decline and Wong ascendant. (Tee-hee) One player just entering his prime, one still hanging on to his, and overall a tent pole the likes of which we've rarely seen with these Redbirds.

And what has happened? The Cardinals' middle infielders started off the season just fine, but as the year has gone on, they've been...well, bad.

If you look at just the overall raw numbers, both Peralta and Wong look like fine assets. Wong has produced 2.0 fWAR already this season, giving him league-average value with 20-something games left to go. Jhonny has certainly taken a tumble in value from 2014, producing just 1.9 WAR to date vs that 5+ number last season, but it should come as no surprise to anyone to see him fall off from that level. After all, they're called career years for a reason. Still, even if it's not particularly surprising to see Peralta's value take a dive (after all, Ben and I talked about Jhonny on the podcast back in January, I think, and concluded there was virtually zero chance he repeated his 2014 performance), it's kind of disappointing looking at the size of that dropoff. Even so, a guy hovering around league average with a decent chunk of time left in the season is tough to get too upset over. And the Cards have two of them.

However, the fact is that the Cardinal middle infield essentially produced virtually all of the value we've seen from them early on in the season, and both Wong and Peralta have been fairly wretched the second half of the season.

Let's start with Peralta. In the first half of the season (and I'm using "half" in that way we often do, where the all-star break is the endpoint, even though it's not actually the halfway point, but since that's the way FanGraphs delineates their splits, it's the easiest way to do it), Jhonny looked even more like an MVP candidate this season than last year, if that's possible. The defensive metrics did't think quite as highly of him on a rate basis, but the offense was most definitely there. Peralta hit .298/.355/.473 in the first half of the season, good for a 126wRC+ that was even better than the rather extraordinary 121 he posted in 2014. He was also hitting home runs at a fantastic pace, with 13 of them in 87 games. A shortstop playing plus defense and on pace for a ~25 homer season? Yes, please.

In the second half, however, it's been an entirely different story. Peralta's triple slash since the all-star break is just .227/.287/.308, which translates to a .595 OPS and a 63 wRC+, which is really only interesting for the symmetry of it being exactly half his first-half mark. His ISO is .081 in the second half, compared to .176 early on.

And actually, I do have to admit that Jhonny's slide has been going on longer than just the second half of the season. Or maybe not a slide, exactly, but definitely a lesser performance than what he put up in the early going. Peralta's wRC+ in April was 125. In May he put up a stunning 158, fueled by a near-11.0% walk rate and six home runs in just 122 plate appearances. In other words, Jhonny owned May this year.

He followed those opening months up with two months of slightly below league average offense, posting a 96 wRC+ in June and a 98 in July. So a slower pace, certainly, but nothing you would necessarily worry about too very much. August is where things really started to get bad, as Jhonny put up a 70 wRC+ and .061 ISO, which feels like the worst things could get for a Jhonny Peralta-level hitter, until you look at September. And in September, Jhonny has stepped to the plate 35 times, has six hits, all singles, and is "producing" to the tune of a .182/.229/.182 line, which translates to a 14 wRC+. No, I didn't mean to type some other, more sensible number there. Fourteen is correct.

For the year, Peralta is still actually a slightly above-average hitter, with a 104 wRC+. But the near disappearance of his power stroke the last couple months has largely derailed what looked early on like a repeat of his stellar 2014 season with the Cardinals, if not an improvement. The numbers are trending in the wrong direction, hard. And when you add in a defensive rating that has fallen as well, seeing his UZR/150 go from +12.7 runs in 2014 to -2.0 this year, you get a player who may not suddenly be getting old, but kind of looks like it.

For Kolten Wong, the reality is just as stark, and perhaps even more frustrating. After all, this was his second year as at least the nominal starter at second base, and this was supposed to be the campaign he consolidated the gains he had made over the 2014 season, both in terms of his own learning curve and managerial confidence. There would be no slightly absurd demotion to Memphis over Mike Matheny not putting Wong into the lineup. The arrow for Kolten was supposed to be very much pointing up, as a 24 year old settling in to the big leagues and contributing on both offense and defense.

Instead, the 2015 season has felt like not just a failure to improve for Wong, but a substantial step back in some ways. Like Peralta, he has seen his defensive value take a substantial hit this year, dropping from a +4.2 UZR/150 in 2014 to a -2.1 this year. And yes, I'm well aware single-season numbers are notoriously finicky when it comes to telling us about a player's true talent level, but it's still a fair measure of what has actually happened over a given time frame, and what has happened over this particular given time frame is that Kolten Wong has not played all that well in the field this year. He's made some extraordinary plays, certainly, but overall he seems just as mistake prone this season as last, rather than ironing out those rough edges and occasional lapses.

The offensive side, though, is where things really get ugly for Wong. Overall, he's been just fine this season, with a 97 wRC+ that represents a solid improvement from the 90 he posted in 2014. And really, a second baseman who hits at a near-league-average rate is an asset, rather than a problem.

Again, though, for Wong as with Peralta, the splits are dark dark dark. In the season's first half, Kolten posted a .777 OPS, a .154 ISO, and a 114 wRC+. That's the kind of performance we were hoping for.

The second half: a .600 OPS, an .078 ISO, and a 67 wRC+. I won't bust out 'Kozmanian' again, but I probably could if I wanted to.

There's another, slightly weird parallel with Peralta in Wong's numbers, in that he absolutely demolished the league in May, same as his shortstop counterpart. Wong hit five home runs in May, slugged .509, and overall put up a 147 wRC+. He also started to fall off in July, with a 79 wRC+, and cratered in August, posting a 41. Kozmanian suddenly seems a bit too kind, doesn't it?

To be fair, Wong has hit well so far in September, but given we're talking about just over 20 plate appearances, small sample stuff certainly applies.

The exceptionally worrisome thing for Wong has been the complete disappearance of his power stroke as the season has worn on. To wit, here are Kolten's ISOs by month: .122, .191, .198, .080, .051, .053. That's a .154 mark overall in the first half, and an .078 in the second. Nine home runs and 29 extra-base hits in 353 plate appearances before the break, two homers and just nine total extra-base hits in 194 PAs since. In the first half, Wong's strikeout to walk ratio was 54:25; in the second half, it's 32:10. The picture I'm painting is dark, no?

I don't have the time currently to look at heat maps and all that, but anecdotally it seems like pitchers are working Wong high in the zone more than before, and are taking advantage of a weakness in his swing. I could be wrong, of course; infield flies have a way of sticking in the brain, much the same way as fielding errors, and so I may be giving extra weight to a couple of weak popups on letter-high fastballs. But, if I'm offering an off the cuff commentary, I'd probably go that direction.

Perhaps even more concerning for Wong than the splits by half or by month, though, is another split: the platoon split. Watching Wong the past couple years, he seemed just fine against left-handed pitching. Not great, but just fine. This year, though, he's been anything but fine. You want numbers? Against righties this season, Wong has been a well above-average hitter, to the tune of a 116 wRC+. Against southpaws: a 52 wRC+. It doesn't get much starker than that, honestly. The K:BB numbers are especially damning; against RHP Wong's walk to strikeout ratio is 0.50, while facing lefties it's a brutal 0.19. He flat-out cannot draw a walk against a lefthander, having just a 3.7% BB rate for the season against them. I didn't think Wong was going to be the kind of hitter to have a huge platoon split, but at the moment, I have to admit there's a case to be made that Kolten Wong should be a platoon player. Of course, the sample size is pretty modest, but it's been a very discouraging development this year all the same.

Weirdly enough, even baserunning has been a struggle for Wong in the second half. He stole 10 bases in the first half, and was caught four times. In the second half, he's stolen just five, and has been thrown out...four times. Imagine the Price is Right sad trombone sound drop here, if you will. Why Wong's baserunning would take a hit is really beyond me, but the fact is the Cardinal second baseman just doesn't look like the same player now as he did early on.

There are plenty of reasons the Cardinals are playing poorly right now. And I would never lay it at the feet of just one player, or even just a couple. Lots of things have gone wrong; the offense, defense, rotation, and bullpen have all taken their turns at being the goat of the moment. But if you're looking for one really concerning indicator for the 2015 Cardinals, it might not be the most unfair point to make that the middle infield, which looked like such a strength coming into the year (and even moreso in May), has been a huge liability in the second half. So many other things have gone right that the record hasn't really reflected some of those struggles for most of the season, but the fact is, Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong have cost the Cardinals in a big way since the all-star break. That doesn't negate all the positives from early on, of course, but it has to affect how we think about this team now and going forward.

Still better than having Pete Kozma or Mark Ellis starting everyday, though, right?