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Jedd Gyorko should be the starting third baseman

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the stats that are relevent at this early stage support it.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After winning four out of five, it looks like the Cardinals are getting back into the thick of things. They’re still only 7-10, which by all accounts is not a good record. However, it’s all relative. The Birds are two games back of the second Wild Card. That’s currently being held by the Reds, a team projected to be 20 games worse than .500 the rest of the way. The Diamondbacks are a game and a half better than that, and project to lose seven more games than they win the rest of the way. The Rockies are leading the N.L. West (of course), relegating the Diamondbacks to the first Wild Card spot.

Of the teams the Cardinals were expected to compete with for the Wild Card, they’re one game back of the Mets (8-9), half a game back of the Pirates (7-9) and one game ahead of the Giants (6-11). They’re also just a game back of the Dodgers, who are currently third in the N.L. West. The Cardinals had a horrid start to the season, but weak starts by many critical teams have kept them in things.

Some might find it odd, or even offensive to do this much scoreboard watching early on, but I can’t help myself. I blame missing out on October baseball last year. And hey, every game counts, the standings aren’t something to ignore. The Cards banked losses early, but have at least partially pulled out of it. I’m sure I’m not the only one here relieved by the latest string of games.

In terms of evaluating a team and it’s respective players, you don’t want to take too much stock of what has happened so far. You also don’t want to give it zero value though. The projections feel similarly, as many player’s projections have changed since the beginning of the year. Let’s look at how they’ve changed for the Cards’ position players.

Change in projections.txt

Player Pre-season WAR/600 ROS WAR/600 Difference
Player Pre-season WAR/600 ROS WAR/600 Difference
Jedd Gyorko 2.1 2.3 0.2
Matt Carpenter 2.6 2.6 0.1
Yadier Molina 3.0 3.0 0.0
Kolten Wong 2.1 2.1 -0.1
Stephen Piscotty 2.0 1.9 -0.1
Matt Adams 1.4 1.3 -0.1
Aledmys Diaz 2.5 2.4 -0.1
Dexter Fowler 2.1 1.9 -0.2
Randal Grichuk 1.6 1.3 -0.3
Jhonny Peralta 1.7 1.4 -0.4

Jedd Gyorko has pushed his projection a couple tenths of a win forward. Okay, that might not be much. At the same time though, his competition has went the other direction. The projections see Peralta has nearly a half a win worse over a full season than they did at the start of the year. That’s just how bad he’s been. The projections expected a bounce-back for Peralta, but evidently they don’t like what they’ve seen thus far.

I know, he was just placed on the D.L. with an upper respiratory illness. It’s also easy to write off his struggles last year, when he was returning from thumb injury. At the same time though, the last time he was worth more than 2 WAR in a season was in 2014, and he’s been worth -0.8 WAR in his last 340 plate appearances, covering 2016 and 2017. Among 371 players with over 200 plate appearances over that timeframe, that’s the 23rd worst.

Even if you thought there was little difference between Peralta and Gyorko before the season (like I did), both have trended in opposite directions, even though neither of the two have a qualified amount of plate appearances. Including the gap entering the year, the projections see nearly a win difference between the two over a full season. That’s just projection, it doesn’t include the difference between the two in production thus far. While I couldn’t get worked up over who played between them going into the year, it’s looking more and more like there is a significant difference.

While there’s a lot of noise still at this point of the season, what’s most telling right now for hitters is plate discipline stats. That’s how often a player swings at pitches in and out of the zone, and how often he makes contact. A week and a half ago, I showed that Contact% in April is almost as important as Contact% the year before. When looking for changes early on, Contact% can have something to say about it. Here’s how the Cardinals have fared so far:

Change in contact.txt

player 2016 Contact% 2017 Contact% Difference
player 2016 Contact% 2017 Contact% Difference
Jedd Gyorko 76.1 80 3.9
Kolten Wong 83.2 84.5 1.3
Randal Grichuk 72.1 70.7 -1.4
Dexter Fowler 79.4 77.1 -2.3
Stephen Piscotty 76.3 72 -4.3
Matt Carpenter 82.6 77.9 -4.7
Aledmys Diaz 83.4 77.3 -6.1
Jhonny Peralta 82.1 74.2 -7.9
Matt Adams 76.3 66.7 -9.6
Yadier Molina 86.7 75.3 -11.4

Jedd comes out with the best improvement, with Peralta holding the third biggest decline. Yadier Molina has the largest negative drop in Contact%, and that’s certainly concerning to see from someone the Cardinals just extended for three years after this one. Matheny is doing ridiculous things to get Adams’ bat in the lineup, but he’s making a lot less contact.

Except for Gyorko and Kolten Wong, the Cardinals lineup has had worse contact rates across the board. League-wide, Contact% is down 1% from last year, but the average of these ten differences is -4.25%.

Another things we can look at is strike zone judgement. Generally speaking, the more you swing at pitches in the zone, and take pitches out of the zone, the better you’re going to do. For that, I have a stat called “Correct%”, which is calculated as follows:

Correct% = ((Zone%) x (Z-Swing%)) + ((1 - Zone%) x (1 - O-Swing%))

If the pitch was in the zone and the hitter swung, the hitter was correct. If the pitch was outside the zone and he didn’t swing, he was correct. Otherwise, he was incorrect. Let’s see how the Cardinals fared last year and this year in this category:

Change in Correct%.txt

Player 2016 Correct% 2017 Correct% Difference
Player 2016 Correct% 2017 Correct% Difference
Jedd Gyorko 38.5 42.6 4.1
Matt Carpenter 43.4 46.0 2.6
Stephen Piscotty 36.8 38.8 2.0
Yadier Molina 34.1 35.8 1.7
Kolten Wong 40.8 40.7 -0.1
Matt Adams 37.8 35.5 -2.3
Randal Grichuk 35.1 32.4 -2.7
Dexter Fowler 45.9 41.3 -4.6
Jhonny Peralta 42.2 36.8 -5.3
Aledmys Diaz 40.2 30.5 -9.7

Again, Jedd is the most improved. Also again, Peralta places near the bottom. This gives a pretty clear idea of the divergence between the two thus far in 2017. One was expected to regress to worse production, but has come out strong again. The other was expected to regress to better production, and has done about as bad as possible.

Peralta isn’t the only one to worry about. Aledmys Diaz placed near the bottom in both Contact% differential and Correct% differential. That’s definitely something to be watch going forward. You can say the same about Dexter Fowler and Randal Grichuk, though neither is as extreme. However, there’s not quality players on the bench that are blocked by those two. That’s describes the situation with Yadier Molina as well, who has the biggest decline in Contact%, but with a small increase in Correct%. Those three together though do make me a little more interested in Harrison Bader and Carson Kelly’s progress this year.

Peralta, however, is part of a crowded skilled infield. There’s no reason to keep with him when there is a respectable alternative that both outplayed him last year and is supported by strong peripheral statistics so far this year.

That doesn’t mean he should be buried on the bench, just like Gyorko wasn’t buried on the bench before. Players get hurt, and even if they don’t, they need days off. Pitchers need pinch-hitters in high-leverage situations, even on Mike Matheny’s team.

Maybe Peralta’s thumb and bad luck on fly balls hindered him last year, and perhaps an illness is all the reason for his struggles this April. When he returns from the D.L., he’ll get a chance to show that was the case. Still, while the season is only barely underway, I’ve seen enough to say this: Jedd Gyorko should be the presumed starter at third base going forward.