There exists an enlightened baseball fan who doesn’t have a team allegiance and just seems to enjoy the sport for what it is. Most of us don’t get to watch the game this way. We don’t get to decide who’s on the team we cheer for. We’re stuck falling in line with the old Seinfeld trope and rooting for the laundry. At last year’s Winter Meetings, while all of our attention was still on Jason Heyward, we learned that imperfect ballplayer Jedd Gyorko would soon be sporting Cardinal laundry and that’s turned out fine because it’s becoming more apparent that Jedd Gyorko rules.
Acquired in a trade in exchange for Jon Jay several days before the Heyward debacle, Gyorko had 1,426 plate appearances under his belt with the Padres and had been worth just 2.9 wins per FanGraphs. As far as newly-acquired players go, he represented the opposite of Heyward: a slow, below average defender, relegated to a utility role in the infield and whose career seemed to be trending downward.
Now, he’s probably still a below-average defender, still slow, but one whose utility services have benefitted an injury-riddled team and who happens to be hitting the ball all over the park.
The bigger story for the Cardinals this year has been Brandon Moss and he’s starting to get the requisite press. For players with at least 300 plate appearances, Moss’ .570 slugging percentage ranks behind only Daniel Murphy in the National League. In the top of the 4th inning in yesterday’s 9-0 win over the Phillies, Moss hit a solo home run to center field to give the Cardinals a still-modest 2-0 lead. It was his team-leading 23rd of the season, which now has him averaging a home run for every 12.6 at-bats in 2016. This leads all of baseball for players with at least 300 plate appearances.
Fifth on this list, and second in the NL, is Gyorko (13.6 AB/HR), who hit home run number 20 in the eighth inning yesterday. The game was long out of reach when Gyorko went deep but his impact this year has been almost as meaningful as that of Moss.
It’s probably not fair to already declare that the Cardinals “won” the Gyorko/Jay trade. Center field has not been a bastion of stability for the Cardinals in 2016, and Jay was having a solid season for the Padres before he broke his forearm in June. Besides, it sounds insulting to a former player who spent six seasons of his career in Cardinal laundry.
But with that out of the way, and from a sheer numbers standpoint, the Cardinals probably did win this trade. Gyorko is on pace for his best season as a pro. Nearing 300 plate appearances, his walk rate (8.4%), strike out rate (19.8%), ISO (.250), on-base percentage (.309), slugging (.496), and wRC+ (112) are all at career bests. As a result, he’s been worth 2.2 wins per FanGraphs in just 298 plate appearances.
And, vital to this stretch playoff run, he’s been better as the seasons has wore on. Since the beginning of July, he’s hit .265/.327/.581 (including 13 home runs in just 136 at-bats) with a wRC+ of 136.
What’s made Gyorko’s season so interesting, however, is how he’s been deployed in the field and on the lineup card. It’s been tantamount to finding an empty spot and throwing him in. Like a secret weapon for the modern era, only one who happens to also hit homers.
During Saturday’s telecast, it was mentioned on Fox Sports Midwest that not only has Gyorko played every position in the infield (excluding catcher), but that he’s hit a home run while starting at each position. It’s true and he’s unique in this regard.
A Baseball-Reference Play Index search for utility infielders show that 20 total players have all played first base, second base, shortstop, and third base at some point this season. (That’s about 15 more than I would have guessed.) Gyorko’s 20 home runs leads the pack with Javier Baez second with 13. Only four (Gyorko, Baez, Wilmer Flores, and Marwin Gonzalez) have logged at least 250 plate appearances while playing at least 5% of their games at all four positions. Also, Gyorko has batted from each lineup spot, 1-9, at some point in the season and has homered while stationed in six of them.
To be clear, these are somewhat meaningless fun facts - evidence of Gyorko’s season being interesting though not necessarily evidence of it being great. Arguably, it’s a product of managerial malfeasance. A guy with a career .296 on-base percentage should never be batting leadoff. And Gyorko should probably not be playing shortstop when, at the very least, Jhonny Peralta is in the lineup taking hacks.
These are valid grievances for another day. Heading into this year, Jedd Gyorko was never the type of player I would have immediately chosen to play for the Cardinals and now we’re nearing the end of August and he personifies the spirit of this flawed, fun team as much as anyone, and that spirit is this: An imperfect roster, one that can’t field or run the bases that well, can hit a bunch of home runs and more good things will happen than not.