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How struggling players still manage to get playing time in the Mike Matheny era

How do 2016’s underperformers compare to underperformers in the first four years of the Mike Matheny era?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Entering today, during the Mike Matheny era, the St. Louis Cardinals have won 56.9% of regular season games in which they have participated. This probably doesn’t sound quite as overwhelming as it is—no team has won more games since the beginning of the 2012 season than the Cardinals, and only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals come particularly close.

This incredible run of success also coincides with the departure of Albert Pujols, the most dominant Cardinals player in several generations. While the Cardinals have certainly had very good players in the time since, the team has been built instead on a large collection of good players rather than a few transcendent ones—the top Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement season since 2012 by a Cardinals position player (Yadier Molina’s 6.9 WAR in 2012) ranks just 33rd in seasons since, and the top Cardinals pitching season, 2013 Adam Wainwright (6.2 WAR), ranks just 23rd. Consistency is the key to modern Cardinals teams.

And yet, inevitably, lesser players slip through the cracks. Which leads me to a concept which has intrigued me for years—baseball’s Least Valuable Players.

The LVP is an assessment of the player which produces the most negative value, as measured by bWAR for the sake of this exercise, for his team. “Least valuable” is something of a misnomer, as it implies that the LVP is the team’s worst player, which is frequently not the case—the worst player on a team might be an emergency catcher or relief pitcher call-up who barely plays and then quickly returns to the minor leagues. Usually, a team’s Least Valuable Player was able to accumulate negative WAR by virtue of, for whatever reason, getting a decent amount of playing time.

Here are, at the moment, the four least valuable 2016 St. Louis Cardinals (the four-way tie for fifth place led to this arbitrary cut-off).

  1. Jhonny Peralta: -0.9 WAR
  2. Ruben Tejada: -0.5 WAR
  3. Trevor Rosenthal: -0.4 WAR
  4. Jerome Williams: -0.3 WAR

In two of these cases (Peralta and Rosenthal), the player came in with a solid reputation, and particularly in the case of Peralta, a tidy paycheck. While a player like Peralta, who has combined a .286 on-base percentage with increasingly poor fielding, would not likely be able to keep a spot in the Majors, much less semi-regular starting duty, if he were a 24 year-old making the league minimum, teams have a difficult time (irrationally, since the cost will be incurred regardless) allowing a player making $12.5 million to languish on the bench.

This is probably a bit of a cynical takeaway, though—there is also the fact that, up until very recently, Jhonny Peralta was an excellent player, and the Cardinals may have been trying to recapture the level of performance that led to Peralta leading the team’s position players in WAR in 2014. Likewise, while Rosenthal certainly struggled early in 2016 and one could easily make the argument that the Cardinals waited too long to make the move to Seung Hwan Oh as closer, this was the same Trevor Rosenthal who registered 93 saves over the previous two seasons.

In the case of Tejada (side note: the only reason his WAR is lower than Rosenthal’s is because of his wretched pitching performance, which doesn’t seem fair), John Mozeliak took a relatively low-cost chance on a shortstop at a time of desperation for the position; once Aledmys Diaz emerged as an everyday starter and Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia emerged as adequate substitutes, while Tejada struggled, the team cut bait quickly.

Jerome Williams would have likely received similar treatment if his role on the Cardinals were particularly relevant: he has pitched just nine times and has yet to enter a game in which a team was leading by fewer than five runs. He is a prototypical mop-up pitcher whose sole job is to absorb innings in long-since-decided games so that better pitchers are not exposed, and since the games are effectively decided, the standard to which he is held is very low.

These four comprise a small sample, though, so here is a look at the top ten LVP seasons from the first four years of the Matheny era.

  1. Oscar Taveras (-1.4 WAR, 2014)—Taveras was the most ballyhooed Cardinals prospect in years, and as such, once he was promoted to the Majors, he received relatively ample playing time. His death following the 2014 season at age 22 meant that we would never see whether or not he could eventually fulfill his promise, though in 248 plate appearances in 2014, he struggled both at the plate and in the field and remained in the outfield rotation largely as a product of his prospect pedigree rather than as a reflection of his 2014 performance.
  2. Kevin Siegrist (-1.3 WAR, 2014)—Following a good season by FIP which was an amazing season by ERA (2.29 FIP; 0.45 ERA) in 2013, Siegrist gave back his differential in 2014. Following a forearm injury, his ERA ballooned to 6.82.
  3. Mitchell Boggs (-1.3 WAR, 2013)—A very effective setup man in 2012 under Jason Motte, Boggs stepped into the closer role and in 18 appearances, had an 11.05 ERA. And there was no demotion of which to speak; he entered a game against the Kansas City Royals with a one-run lead, blew the lead, and never pitched for the Cardinals again.
  4. Ty Wigginton (-0.8 WAR, 2013)—A free agent signing, Wigginton was an utter disaster as a bench player. Mercifully, he only managed 63 plate appearances through July 5 before being released with 1 12 years left on his contract.
  5. Tony Cruz (-0.8 WAR, 2015)—Tony Cruz spent four years as the backup at a position, catcher, which normally requires relatively ample off-days. While one can criticize Mike Matheny’s refusal to give Yadier Molina sufficient rest, the alternatives at his disposal have generally been sub-optimal.
  6. Peter Bourjos (-0.8 WAR, 2015)—Following a good 2014 season in which he was not the primary starter, Bourjos had a bad 2015 in which he was the team’s most frequently utilized center fielder (this is a weird statistical anomaly, but one which greatly entertains me). 2014 implied that Matheny was never really dying to give Bourjos playing time, and that he got so much in 2015 is probably more of a reflection on the team’s injuries than his actual standing on the roster.
  7. Justin Masterson (-0.8 WAR, 2014)—Mozeliak made a semi-aggressive move for Masterson, trading prospect James Ramsey for him. But Masterson’s performance was so poor that he did not even crack the postseason roster, despite being acquired specifically as a rental.
  8. Allen Craig (-0.7 WAR, 2014)—He was a good bench player in 2011 and a good starter in 2012 and 2013, but in 2014, Allen Craig fell apart. But he remained fully entrenched in the Cardinals lineup, starting 16 of 23 games in July before being dealt to the Boston Red Sox, where he somehow performed worse.
  9. Seth Maness (-0.7 WAR, 2015)—After two seasons in which he enjoyed a reputation, earned or not, as a GIDP-inducing specialist, Maness was hit harder than ever before. Arguably he was used too much, and his reputation prior to 2015 as a clutch pitcher had been exaggerated, but in the team’s defense, his usage was not being confused with that of (pre-2016) Trevor Rosenthal.
  10. Pete Kozma (-0.7 WAR, 2015)—Kozma was on the Cardinals the entire season and, somehow, did not manage an extra-base hit. He did not play a ton (which itself hurt the team in the sense that Jhonny Peralta seemed to desperately need an off-day down the stretch) and, especially knowing what he has produced in 2016, he probably should have been designated for assignment in favor of Greg Garcia. The Cardinals had long ago moved past any illusions that Kozma’s 2012 performance was sustainable; this always seemed to be a move to keep the out-of-options Kozma in the fold.

This group of ten includes a variety of player types, though in most cases, the Cardinals went into the season with a player in whom they had faith and they held on to that faith too long. And while this season’s LVP, Jhonny Peralta, has not been nearly the disaster of, say, Ty Wigginton, on a rate basis, this also means that the Cardinals seem (reasonably) to have more faith in Peralta to bounce back.

But unlike in 2013, when the alternatives to Wigginton were so poor that the team kept him for three months despite rarely playing because there were little alternatives for improvement, the 2016 Cardinals have options. And if Peralta is not going to improve, those alternatives may be a difference-maker in a season with razor-thin margins for error.

On September 23, no matter how bad he is, it wouldn’t make sense for the Cardinals to release Jhonny Peralta, or anything that dramatic, but he still starts a majority of the team’s games—he has started 13 of 19 games in September and has appeared in 17 of 19. In September, his OPS+ stands at 74.

Maybe Peralta can eventually bounce back, but the Cardinals appear to be running a risk in the short term by trying to force the issue in 2016 during critical late-season games. The Peralta contract, thanks largely to his tremendous 2014, may still pay off on the whole for the Cardinals, but as was the case with Allen Craig before him, Mike Matheny is giving more credence to (years in the) past performance than current performance.

The “Mike guy” term is one I’ve long hated, because it implies that Matheny plays favorites based on arbitrary personal biases, which I do not believe is the case. In the cases of Craig and Peralta, the bias Matheny seems to have is towards guys who produced for him. Which is fine for fans, but for managers, it prevents the team from fielding the best lineup possible and fails to give the team the best chance to win the game being played that day.