As we move from the Hot Stove and nearly into February, our discussion about the Cardinals has changed. The free agent and trade markets are still in our periphery, but our focus is starting to shift to the players already on the team, and how to use them effectively in 2017. Position battles are always sure to grab some attention. The Cardinals - or at least General Manager John Mozeliak - would like to see Kolten Wong start often at second-base. I think that’s the right decision, and added a new reason to that on Monday. Assuming Kolten actually does get a longer leash for a starting job, that leaves third base as a battle between Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko.
2016 was of course the last time we saw either, and the two had quite contrasting seasons. Here’s how both performed:
Jhonny was a below-average hitter for the year, fueled by a below-average ISO. Gyorko was above-average, fueled by a sky-high ISO that more than made up for an incredibly low batting average on balls in play. You might think Jedd should be due for a bounce-back in BABIP with it being so low, but his profile screams low BABIP hitter. That’s OK, because of the power.
Peralta had a horrible score on defense this year, but that shouldn’t be expected going forward. Here’s what I had to say about it a few weeks ago:
According to Inside Edge fielding, Peralta only had 30 plays at third which were neither impossible (0% chance of making play) or routine (90-100% chance of making play). We wouldn’t want to judge a hitter much based on 30 plate appearances, so we wouldn’t want to judge a fielder too strongly on 30 plays.
A better way to judge Peralta is on his defensive performance at every position over the last three years. With everything adjusted based on position, Peralta has been 3 runs above the average player per 150 games. Perhaps he’s declined some over that time, but he didn’t go from a strong defender at short to a weak defender at third over night.
As for Gyorko, he’s been essentially an average defender: he’s exactly one run above average on defense for his career, adjusted for position. I think Peralta is a better defender at third going forward, though with the decline in fielding numbers, even in short samples, I could see how one could see Peralta and Gyorko as pretty interchangeable their going forward. There’s not a big difference between the two defensively.
The similarities get stronger when we move to offense. I understand that might throw you off being that you just looked at their lines for 2016 above, which were plenty different. It might surprise you to know that Peralta and Gyorko had strikingly similar batted ball quality. Check it out:
BBE stands for “Batted Ball Events” and is the amount of batted balls recorded by MLB’s Statcast technology. EV stands for “Exit Velocity”, and represents the speed - in miles per hour - that the ball left the bat. Average fly ball and line drive Exit Velocity (avg FB/LD EV) is of particular importance because - as we found out on Monday - it has so far been more predictive of future HR/FB% than HR/FB% itself is. We only have two years of data to go on right now, but that’s still neat. xHR/FB is based on the best fit line in this graph, showing the correlation of average fly ball and line drive Exit Velocity in 2015 and HR/FB% in 2016:
That’s a stronger relationship than the historical one between past HR/FB% and itself, which scored .338. Anyway, both players have nearly identical Exit Velocity averages, and virtually the same xHR/FB% as a result. That’s despite a wide gulf between the two on the results. Over the same number of fly balls, Jedd would be expected to hit 17 homers in 2017, quite a drop from his total of 30 in 2016.
I’m not the first to argue that the Statcast data supports the idea of a Peralta bounce-back. Zach Gifford pointed it out two weeks ago. The intriguing thing is the idea that Peralta may have also been hindered by a still recovering thumb in 2016. He could be seen as having more upside than what the data above indicates. He’s also six years Gyorko’s senior though, so he has more downside as well.
The differences don’t stop there. We’ve talked defense. We’ve talked contact quality. What about when they’re not making contact? As we saw, Jedd walks a bit more but also strikes out more. It turns out to be just the right ratio to make them virtually the same when ending a plate appearance with an unintentional walk, strikeout, or hit by pitch:
If you’re curious, Peralta was hit by a pitch once, and Gyorko had one intentional walk. Both are slightly below the average non-contact wOBA of .200. The average on-contact wOBA was .367, so most players have a larger on-contact wOBA than non-contact. Kolten Wong was the only Cardinal last year that was an exception (.308 non-contact wOBA to .297 on-contact). Since they’re so similarly valuable in both non-contact and on-contact settings, Peralta’s lower percentage of non-contact plate appearances gives him a slight edge.
Peralta vs. Gyorko figures to be a common discussion from now until Opening Day, if not longer. That makes sense, this is the time of the year for position battles. However, this one doesn’t seem worth getting worked up over. When one player just hit 30 homers over just 3/4th of a full season, and the other just played below replacement level, you might not even see a need for a debate. Beneath the surface though, we’re talking about two very similar players.