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The early returns from the new and improved Cardinals bench

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After years of shaky performances from the Cardinals bench, 2016 was supposed to be different. Has it been?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series with the assistance of a bench which supported a relatively old starting lineup. The bench was not loaded with superstars, but it did have a number of players which supplemented the starters and complimented their skills and limitations.

Gerald Laird was a perfectly capable backup to the ultra-durable Yadier Molina. Daniel Descalso posted a respectable 91 OPS+ and served well as an infield utility knife, particularly when David Freese missed 51 games due to a left hand injury. Allen Craig was a gifted pinch hitter who could fill in for Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, or Lance Berkman (or occasionally Skip Schumaker, somehow). Jon Jay performed so well in a utility outfield role that the club felt comfortable dealing starting center fielder Colby Rasmus at the trade deadline for pitching help. Even Nick Punto produced a 1.5 Wins Above Replacement season.

2012's bench wasn't quite as potent, though the ability to plug in Allen Craig, who received down-ballot MVP votes, when Lance Berkman was injured, was a nice touch. And Matt Carpenter, with a 125 OPS+, received Rookie of the Year votes as a bench player.

In 2013, however, the bench started to really lose its luster. 2013 had a increasingly mediocre backup catcher in Tony Cruz, Shane Robinson as an adequate if uninspiring fourth outfielder, and the "great" Ty Wigginton experiment (his 21 OPS+ is amazing when anyone who remembers his time as a Cardinal considers that it's possible, albeit extremely difficult, to have a negative OPS+). Matt Adams lacked versatility but he did have a big bat off the bench, so there was that.

In 2014 and 2015, though, is when things got ugly. The 2014 Cardinals had a bit too much staked in Mark Ellis, and of the five players who did not lead a position in plate appearances from it with 150 or more plate appearances, the high OPS+ belonged to Daniel Descalso, who was uncontroversially non-tendered in the offseason. In 2015, the talent for a good bench was there: there just so happened to be such an abundance of injuries scattered throughout the season that a good bench was never really possible.

But 2016 appeared to be different. Although the losses of Jason Heyward and John Lackey seemingly lowered the team's ceiling, the Cardinals seemed to have a host of solid, if not fantastic, players. And what the team lacked in flashy position player improvements (when the one change in lineup personnel was a departed free agent being replaced by an in-house solution, it's difficult to rationalize that the team itself would consider the lineup improved), it had at least upgraded in reinforcements, at least on paper. It perhaps wasn't going to be enough to win the NL Central in 2016, but it was going to allow the Cardinals to weather the storms if 2015's bad injury luck continued.

With the standard "small sample size" caveat still very much intact, let's look at the production of members of the Cardinals bench so far, compared to how his 2015 equivalent fared.

Catcher

G PA HR R RBI BB% K% AVG OBP SLG WAR
Eric Fryer, 2016 5 7 0 2 3 14.3% 0.0% 1.000 1.000 1.333 0.4
Tony Cruz, 2015 69 151 2 6 11 4.0% 21.2% .204 .235 .310 -0.8

Okay, so Eric Fryer is probably the beneficiary of some sample size luck in his seven plate appearances. Whether Eric Fryer would continue to bat 1.000 with a full season's worth of plate appearances is, frankly, impossible to know. He probably would, but let's regress his performance to the mean a little bit.

In order for Fryer, currently at 0.4 Wins Above Replacement, to reach Tony Cruz's -0.8 of last season, he would need to be worth -1.2 WAR over 144 plate appearances. Exactly one catcher in the 21st century was that unproductive over such relatively few plate appearances: Matt Walbeck of the 2003 Tigers, who was worth exactly -1.2 WAR in exactly 144 plate appearances.

Since we don't know what Eric Fryer is, let's be somewhat conservative here and estimate that Brayan Pena will return and perform at the WAR rate of his worst full season: his -0.4 WAR in 226 PA. At this rate, over the 144 PA difference between 2016 Fryer and 2015 Cruz, the season production of Cardinals backup catchers would be around 0.15 WAR, a noticeable improvement over the sub-optimal Tony Cruz.

Utility infielder

G PA HR R RBI BB% K% AVG OBP SLG WAR
Aledmys Diaz, 2016 13 42 2 11 8 7.1% 7.1% .385 .429 .744 1.2
Jedd Gyorko, 2016 10 30 2 2 4 10.0% 23.3% .185 .267 .407 0.1
Pete Kozma, 2015 76 111 0 15 2 9.0% 18.9% .152 .236 .152 -0.7

Diaz is arguably a misnomer as he has started at shortstop regularly, but with Ruben Tejada now on the 25-man roster, it is possible for Diaz to be relegated to part-time duty if he is not able to keep up his torrid early season pace.

But regardless, Gyorko should be a comfortable upgrade over Pete Kozma. To this point, Gyorko's thirty plate appearances have been an exaggerated version of what he is: a player whose offensive profile is built largely around power in spite of a relative inability to get on base.

As for Kozma, while much was made last year of his lack of extra base hits, ranking 2nd in the 21st century in plate appearances for a player without one (former Cardinal Mark Grudzielanek had 119 for the 2010 Cleveland Indians), his 2 RBI are a pretty incredible sight to see. I recognize that RBI is a limited stat which does not account for the context in which a player is batting, but two? By the way, only Brian Bixler and Sam Fuld, with 120 and 115, had more plate appearances with two or fewer RBI this century.

"The Fast Outfield Guy"

G PA HR R RBI BB% K% AVG OBP SLG WAR
Jeremy Hazelbaker, 2016 15 48 3 7 7 6.3% 27.1% .310 .340 .643 0.3
Peter Bourjos, 2015 117 225 4 32 13 8.4% 26.2% .200 .290 .333 -0.5

Although his 2015 metrics were lackluster, few doubt that Peter Bourjos was defensively no worse than a very good center fielder. But with his mediocre bat, Bourjos had a very specific potential role (as defensive replacement and pinch runner, again, assuming his poor steal rate was the result of small sample sizes) which never really materialized in St. Louis. Depending on one's perspective, this could be attributed to mismanagement from Mike Matheny or to Peter Bourjos not being a very well-rounded player. Meanwhile, if Hazelbaker even kind of keeps this up (he might!), he is a more useful pinch hitting option.

And if that doesn't work out, there's always Tommy Pham.

So what does any of this mean?

The above comparisons, in addition to the fact that Matt Adams or Brandon Moss, both of whom have performed reasonably well as MLB hitters, comes off the bench nearly every day, underscores the improvements of the Cardinals bench from 2015.

Admittedly, some of these improvements look a bit exaggerated today. Eric Fryer will not bat 1.000 if he continues to play, Aledmys Diaz will not manage a 1.173 OPS, and Jeremy Hazelbaker will not, if he gets 600 plate appearances, hit 37 1/2 home runs (although if you have an explanation for how he could hit 37 1/2 home runs, by all means share it). But while the gap between the 2015 and 2016 benches probably won't be this overwhelming, there does seem to have been an improvement.