With Peralta going down, the Met's signing of Asdrubral Cabrera and trade of Jon Niese to the Pirates for Neil Walker, the stars aligned for Ruben Tejada to become the Cardinals' Opening Day shortstop. My initial take was that Ruben Tejada was an underwhelming option, even at the cheap price he eventually came for. My interest was piqued at the idea of Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz, and Greg Garcia fighting for playing time and seeing what they can do. However there is value in keeping everybody in the roles that were planned for them before Peralta's injury. Letting Diaz start the year at Triple-A for everyday at bats, continuing his development, is probably best for the Cardinals and Diaz. Keeping Gyorko as a utility player makes sure the infield gets regular rest rather than getting burned out, which is the reason Mo and company brought him in. He also offers Mike Matheny the option of finally executing a platoon should Wong continue to perform poorly against left-handed hitters. Though Garcia has a chance to be a below average but serviceable player, he could very well be as valuable as Daniel Descalso (or worse).
So let's look at how Tejada has performed over the last three years, as well as his Steamer/Zips blended projection from Fangraphs:
Tejada the last two years has gotten by from running strong walk rates and better than average K rates to make up for a complete lack of power. Ruben was less patient before then, running lower walk and K rates, as 2013 indicates. His BABIP has been essentially league average over his career, so while 2013 was rough there's reason to believe it was mostly just BABIP noise over a small sample.
The projections see less walks and strikeouts in 2016 compared to last year, an ode to his pre-2014 numbers. When looking at his Plate Discipline numbers, I'm surprised they're optimistic about his K%:
His swinging strike rate took a significant jump last year. Tejada lacked enough PA to be a qualified hitter in either year, but in 2014 he had the same SwStr% as Neil Walker, who was 65th lowest of a 146 qualified hitters. In 2015, he tied teammate Lucas Duda who was 91st out of 141. That's 45th percentile to 65th percentile. At the same time, his O-Swing% raised 5% (an increase of 20%) and concurrently, his Zone% dropped 2% as well. That probably explains a drop in his BB%, from tied with former teammate Curtis Granderson who was 15th to tied with current teammate Brandon Moss at 38th.
2015's BB rate was still well above average, but with little else going on in his offense, it is pretty important to maximize it. Last year's .089 ISO was a career high for him. Here's his Batted Ball stats over the last three years:
With most players you prefer them to put the ball in the air as often as possible, as extra base hits occur much less often on the ground. So you want fly balls and line drives, or their hybrid term which I quite like: fliners. With Tejada, there's so little power that you want him to hit as few fly balls as possible, as higher BABIPs are possible when hitting mostly grounders and line drives. So you want...griners? Man that is not anywhere near as fun to say as fliners. He avoided hitting fly balls at the same rate that Freddie Freeman did last year, at 46th of 146. That's better than average, but it's certainly something that improving on could improve his overall numbers. However, his extreme lack of power isn't something new, so expecting improvement in that category at this point is probably not prudent. He's not particularly fast anyways, so maximizing grounders isn't as big of a deal for him as it is for someone who can leg out a lot of infield hits.
One plus for Tejada last year was his all-field approach. Tejada wasn't someone opposing teams could shift against. If he's not going to hit the ball for power then spraying the ball around the field is almost a necessity. However, that's not something that's been present every year, as 2014 shows.
Overall on offense, Tejada has gotten by by putting the ball in play often, and by walking at a good to great rate. There's little likely improvements that could come about in his contact quality at this point, so it's important that he sustains the plate discipline skills. In 2015 he expanded zone way more than he had before though, and pitchers caught on. Pitchers generally haven't been scared of Tejada's power, so he's generally had high Zone% throughout his career, but pitchers are going to let him chase if he's gives them the option. Players' O-Swing% can move around from year to year though, and Tejada could bounce-back towards his career plate discipline numbers this coming season.
At the same time his contact rate has plummeted, but perhaps do to the more aggressive approach, it didn't translate into a higher K rate. Unlike the O-Swing%, the contact problem could indicate a real change in ability. Maybe he was playing hurt or something else was going on, we'll have a better idea in a month or two from now. It's definitely worth checking up on as the season progresses.
As for the defensive metrics, Tejada has generally been an above-average shortstop according to UZR over his career, but a overwhelmingly bad rating in 2015 of -5.6 runs over 618 innings (or a -11.5 UZR/150) made him below average at shortstop on his career. While you could attribute the really bad score to the inherently high variance that goes into defensive metrics, with a score that bad there's probably both variance and skill change involved. Add-on the leg fracture he experienced courtesy of Chase Utley's take-out slide in the NLDS and his days of being an above average shortstop may be over.
Fortunately for Tejada, slightly below average defense at short is still an upgrade over the internal options, and that seems more than possible. With the noise that accompanies defensive metrics, it'll be nice to get to see Tejada play everyday to get a feel for what he really is at shortstop.
If Ruben can revert back to the high level of patience he utilized in 2014, and can play a level of defense fairly close to the average shortstop, he will be a nice pick-up, if not quite an average player. The good news is, both those things seem pretty likely. I was anxious to see what the internal options could do, but another option will present itself for those guys if they perform, and it will come with better timing than this current moment. There's certainly a non-zero chance that Diaz rakes at Triple-A, and pushes his way into the starting SS spot until Peralta returns. For now though, Ruben Tejada, and his higher floor prevails.