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Jhonny Peralta, In Dhecline

The Cardinals are locked in a dead heat for a playoff spot. They’re also running out a player clearly in freefall on a nearly nightly basis. Something has to give.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four year deal worth $53 million following the 2013 season, it seemed an incredibly canny move. Here was John Mozeliak, operating at the very height of his powers, making a single, strategic strike to fix the club’s biggest weakness. In 2013, the Redbirds made it all the way to the World Series, despite starting Pete Kozma at shortstop on a more or less everyday basis. The Kozma saga was simply the latest installment in the Cards’ inability to fill their long-term hole at shortstop; David Eckstein had a solid season in 2005, and Brendan Ryan added a 2009 campaign that saw him worth nearly three wins based entirely on defensive acumen. Aside from those two seasons, the Redbirds had been chasing after a shortstop since Edgar Renteria defected to Boston following the 2004 campaign.

By adding Jhonny Peralta, though, Mozeliak basically turned the club’s single huge weakness into a huge strength. In 2013, Pete Kozma provided exactly replacement-level production, by dint of above-average defense at the toughest position on the field, coupled with a ghastly wRC+ of 49. In 2014, Jhonny Peralta replaced the Koz and put together a 5.3 WAR season. The math is easy; 5.3 minus 0 equals 5.3. One signing; five wins worth of upgrade.

Mo would replicate the feat the next season, going from the black hole that was the 2014 Cardinal right field (something like -2.0 cumulative WAR), to the 2016 Jason Heyward Experience (6.0 WAR), for a net gain of roughly eight wins. Upgrading a great team with one gaping hole is perhaps the most satisfying thing a club can do; it’s why the 2016 Cardinals seem so devilishly tough to upgrade.

Anyhow, back to Peralta. When Jhonny signed the contract, it was not only a surgical strike to improve the club, it came with a built-in bit of intrigue in terms of the structure of the deal. It was what every internet baseball commenter has been irrationally, unrealistically positing for pretty much the past decade: a bona fide front-loaded contract. The fact the Cardinals had so much payroll flexibility in 2014, with perhaps less later, led the front office to give Peralta more money up front, making his contract even more attractive toward its end than it might otherwise be.

At the time, it looked to be a contract with very little risk. Peralta was a power bat at a premium position, who also just happened to be a premium defender at said position (though in a somewhat aesthetically unexciting way). He came on a reasonable deal (in spite of some grousing from various quarters about him being rewarded for breaking the rules), and represented an amazing level of performance upgrade for the Cardinals’ specific situation. If one wanted to see why John Mozeliak has been such a successful General Manager in his time at the helm, you would need look no further than the sheer perfection of the way he augmented what was already an excellent roster with Jhonny Peralta.

And yet here we stand now, in September of 2016, and Jhonny Peralta is not only perhaps the weakest link on the Cards’ current roster, but represents a unique and potentially damaging problem for the Redbirds as they try to secure a sixth straight playoff berth.

The downturn in Peralta’s production has been remarkably quick in coming, and clearly at least somewhat precipitated this season by injury. What is perhaps more surprising is how he’s fallen off across the board, and not just in one or two ways that would suggest it’s all the thumb.

In 2014, Jhonny put together a .263/.336/.443 line, good for a 120 wRC+. In other words, he was 20% more productive than a league-average hitter, while also playing plus defense at the toughest spot on the infield. That line was driven by multiple things: a solid walk rate (9.2%), a good strikeout rate (17.8%), and a well-above average isolated slugging percentage (.180 ISO).

In 2015, Peralta dropped from a 120 wRC+ to a 105. That would be the sort of dip easily explained by something as random as a BABIP downturn, but there’s bad news on that front. Jhonny’s BABIP last year was actually up from his 2014 campaign, from .292 to .311, meaning he was more fortunate, rather than less. Unfortunately, the drop in Jhonny’s production was motivated by a drop in walk rate (9.2% to 7.8%), and a big fall off in power on contact (.136 ISO in 2015).

Also of concern was what appeared to be a big time downturn in the quality of Peralta’s defense. The numbers are what they are, and not reliable in such a small sample, but we don’t really need the numbers to tell us what was fairly obvious. The glove dropped off pretty severely for Jhonny in 2015, as he went from having mediocre range propped up by an extraordinarily accurate arm and precise positioning to seemingly having lost that one step that his other attributes could no longer make up for. We don’t need to take that ugly UZR/150 rating and accompanying WAR cliff dive as gospel (5.3 wins in 2014, 1.7 in 2015), to understand that Jhonny Peralta got much worse in what seemed like a very short period of time.

This season, things have gotten even darker. Through 273 plate appearances, Jhonny’s fWAR currently sits at -0.8, and again, we don’t need to buy that WAR number specifically to know he’s been very, very bad. And again, it’s been an across-the-board dropoff that has torpedoed Peralta’s value. His walk rate has fallen significantly, from a still-decent 7.8% last year to just 5.9% in 2016. His strikeout rate, which actually held steady from 2014 to ‘15 (technically, it fell by a little less than half a percentage point, but let’s not split hairs too fine here), has risen from 17.3% to 18.7%. Not a huge deal, but when you’re talking about a fairly large drop in walk rate and a modest increase in strikeouts, it’s a bad combination. The BABIP is way down, which could indicate some bad luck, but anecdotally it seems as if Peralta is hitting the ball with significantly less authority this season than in the past. The numbers don’t necessarily paint a picture of a player who simply can’t make solid contact anymore, but we’re talking about such a small sample that I hesitate to put too much stock in the batted-ball numbers. In his defense, Peralta’s ISO has risen a bit this year, from .136 to .150, so perhaps reports of his demise are exaggerated.

Jhonny has also moved from shortstop over to third base, which has pulled away another big chunk of his value. Admittedly, he may have moved as much because of what the club sees as his position of greatest opportunity due to the ascent of Aledmys Diaz as any real downturn in talent, but considering how slow he looked at times on balls up the middle last season, I also think there’s a good chance the club just doesn’t believe he’s going to be much of a shortstop at this point.

So what we have is an aging player whose previously well-rounded game has seemingly seen all its various parts degrade from what was, in fact, a career year in 2014. He’s not contributing real value to the team right now, has been pushed off his previous position by the breakout season of a young slugger in the making, and yet is receiving playing time at a rate that would suggest he is still the solution the Cardinals signed a little less than three years ago.

It would be one thing if Peralta were the only option the Redbirds had at one position or another. If it was a necessity to play him, we could all grit our collective teeth and simply accept that injuries and age were conspiring to hurt Jhonny, but perhaps there was a little of the old magic left in him for a playoff push. But that’s not at all the case. In fact, what the Cardinals have right now is essentially a surplus of average-ish infielders, and that might be selling at least a couple of them short. Jedd Gyorko, in particular, looks like the third base power bat option Mike Matheny clearly wants Peralta to be. Kolten Wong should play because his defense is outstanding (at least at times), and he’s getting on base lately. Aledmys Diaz should play because he is the future, and really the present as well.

If it comes down to a choice between Jhonny and Greg Garcia, what direction should the club go? As strange as it seems to say, it’s very hard to argue against the guy with the .390 on-base percentage in favour of the mediocre defender and the OBP over 100 points lower.

So why, is the obvious question. Why is Jhonny Peralta still playing so much? And the answer is as obvious as the question: because Jhonny Peralta is a Core Player, and I’m certain if asked the right question, the manager would respond with something along the lines of, “Our best team has Jhonny Peralta contributing on it. We have to get him going.” Which, of course, is a huge problem when the need is to win right effing now.

The Cardinals do not have the luxury of getting any players going at the moment. They are in a fight for their lives. (Figuratively speaking, of course.) If ever there was a moment to manage as if there’s no tomorrow, this is pretty much it.

And yet, Jhonny Peralta is still the guy with the big contract, who earned the trust of the manager by being a fantastic contributor two years ago, and being a good soldier one year ago. And so we see Jedd Gyorko sharing playing time with Kolten Wong, rather than simply sliding into the role of starting third baseman, which — and I never thought I would be saying this — is absolutely where he belongs for the rest of this season.

After this season, there will be an opportunity to trade Jhonny Peralta. He isn’t worth much at this point, but there will be a team out there willing to spin the wheel of former quality on a one year, $10 million lottery ticket hoping for a bounceback. There are far worse bets to be made, particularly when the market looks the way it does heading into this offseason. But for now, there can be no thought of Jhonny Peralta reestablishing his value, or getting himself back into a groove, or getting going, or anything else of the sort.

This is playoff survival. Jhonny Peralta has no real place on this roster right now, and doesn’t have a spot on any potential playoff roster, either. It makes me honestly sad to say this, as I admire the hell out of the kind of player Peralta has been, ephedrine suspension and all. But the Cardinals need to keep winning, and in order to keep winning they need to maximise every bit of value they can cram into every game from here on out.

And Jhonny Peralta, former core player, former shortstop capital-A Answer, former all-underrated team supserstar, does not fit into that need. Not now, and maybe not ever again.

If the Cardinals miss the playoffs this year, there will be plenty of things to look back on and lament. The shaky rotation, the closer implosion (I call it a closesplosion), the weird home record shenanigans. I just hope that if it comes down to looking back at a season which broke a playoff streak, we don’t have to look over at third base, where yesterday’s lion continues to both struggle and take away time from other, better options, and think what might have been had John Mozeliak not solved a previous problem quite so perfectly.