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What kind of player is Yairo Munoz?

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That’s a more difficult question to answer than you think.

St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

During an offseason where Michael Girsch and John Mozeliak are sure to make a move or two for at least one starter, the bench will also be decided. Jedd Gyorko, Tyler O’Neill, and Jose Martinez are three players whose fates depend on the offseason. Any one of them could be traded, penciled in as the starter, or relegated to bench duty. There are two players who played most of the season on the bench whose fates are a lot simpler: on the bench or off the roster. Those two players are Greg Garcia and Yairo Munoz. Garcia will either be on the roster or off the team and while that’s a question I’m curious to know the answer to, I’m choosing to write about Munoz today.

Munoz had a very divisive 2018. That’s not something you can usually say about a player who ended up with 0.0 fWAR and 0.2 bWAR. It’s not that he ended the season as essentially a replacement player: it’s how he did it. For one thing, he did get a lot more plate appearances than a replacement player usually gets, though to be fair a large reason for that is that Paul DeJong got hurt. Between May 18 and July 5, while DeJong was hurt, Munoz received 135 of his 329 PAs for the season. Whatever you think of Garcia, who was essentially the only other SS option, it was worth playing Munoz just to see what he had.

What he had was, well, I’m still not really sure. He’s not a very good defensive shortstop. I’m pretty sure of that. I’m also skeptical of his defensive abilities at the other positions he plays. The advanced stats were not kind. At 2B, Munoz was -19.5 runs below average over 150 games played. At 3B, -10.5 runs below average. At SS, he was -23.6 runs below average. And he played less than 100 innings in the OF, but he was below average at CF and RF, but well above average in LF.

There’s only one problem with this. None of these numbers can be trusted. Everything we know about defensive stats says that Munoz had a comically small sample. I have a friend who scoffs at using defensive stats with 2,000 innings. Munoz accumulated 305 innings at SS, and nothing above 200 for any other position. I feel like I’m doing a disservice calling this a small sample, because it’s much smaller that what I would usually call a small sample. His innings at SS comprise roughly 8.7% of a good sample and that’s his largest sample of innings at any position.

Offensively, I’m relatively optimistic about Munoz. Munoz had an overall good season with the bat, vastly exceeding expectations and projections. It’s not only that he had a better hitting season that his projections. It’s how he beat his projections. Munoz didn’t project well as a hitter, because he was a very impatient hitter with only a moderate amount of power in the minors. The projections thought he’d remain an impatient hitter, but his strikeouts would rise and his power wouldn’t offset it. I guess there was also something in his numbers in the minors that said he’d have a low BABIP even though his minor league BABIPs weren’t particularly low.

The biggest thing is that Munoz became a much more patient hitter in the majors. With a projected 3.7 BB%, Munoz ended up walking at a 9% pace. He did get intentionally walked seven times, but if you take that out, he’s still at a fairly respectable 7.1%. There’s a world of difference between a hitter with a 7% walk rate and a 3.7% walk rate, so that’s big. He had a projected .136 ISO. He finished with a .137 ISO. He had a projected 19.7% K rate. He finished with a 21.6%. But after striking out in 11 of his first 20 plate appearances, he got sent down. He got called back up when DeJong got hurt and from that point on, his K rate was 19.4%. Lastly his BABIP was projected at .284, but he finished the season with a .338 BABIP.

I wish I knew what ZiPS 2019 projection was, but he doubled his walk rate and had a much higher BABIP than the original projection. I’m sure in the 2019 projections, his BB% and BABIP will both be higher than in 2018. Also, because he had his 2018 season at 23, he’s more likely to get a bigger boost than a 26-year-old with a similar season. Still though, his 2018 projection was for a 72 wRC+ so that doesn’t exactly mean they’ll start thinking of him as a good hitter.

For 2019, I’m fairly certain of two things about Munoz. His advanced stats on defense will be better and his offense will be worse. The key to Munoz’s 2019 is to what degree of difference. Defensively, he has nowhere to go but up. His numbers say he was twice as bad as basically the worst fielders on record over an adequate sample. Offensively though, he can fall pretty hard too.

Let’s look offensively first. Statcast is not that kind to Munoz unfortunately. Munoz had a .327 wOBA on the season (.326 according to fangraphs so close enough). His xwOBA was .292, which is essentially taking his batted ball data and figuring out what his wOBA “should” have been. So that’s not great. A .292 woBA in 2018’s run environment is roughly an 80 wRC+.

Looking deeper into the Statcast numbers, Munoz has an average exit velocity of 87.2 mph, which ranks 217 out of 332 qualified hitters. His hard hit% of 29.5% ranks 270 out of 332. The amount of balls he “barreled” of 4% ranks 259th. This may sound disconcerting but these aren’t necessarily a given for becoming a bad hitter. Lorenzo Cain has a worse barrel%. Matt Kemp has the 7th worst average exit velocity. And old friend Jon Jay has basically made a career out of not hitting the ball hard. (To preemptively defend Jay, he has a career 102 wRC+, which I would very much take from Munoz)

Meanwhile, defensively, we can only make educated guesses. Contrary to popular opinion, UZR does actually take into account errors. And errors is most of his awful defensive stats. For example, he was -4.9 runs below average in 305 innings at SS and his errors runs above average was -3.4 alone. Munoz committed a whopping 18 errors in 690.2 innings played. That’s about 76 games worth of innings. I think it is reasonable to think he can improve on that, seeing as it’s hard to get worse than that.

Let’s start with the floor. From 2004 to 2006, Michael Young was a -12.9 UZR/150 defender at SS under a good sample. He ended his career as a -10.2 UZR/150 SS. Alex Cintron was a -12.3 UZR/150 SS in almost 3,000 innings over his career. Yuniesky Betancourt from 2008 until 2010 was a -13.9 UZR/150 fielder over three full seasons. He finished his career as a -8.4 UZR/150 defender at SS. Lastly, Jonathan Villar has an eye-popping -18.8 over 2,400 innings. Using a positional adjustment from his -4.3 UZR/150 at 2B in 1,700 innings, he is apparently a -14.8 UZR/150 shortstop. So that seems like the floor.

I would be surprised if Munoz is truly the floor, but the floor of -15 runs below average is still almost 9 runs better than what the small sample of 300 innings spit out for Munoz for 2018. I think -10 is a much more reasonable estimate as to his defense at SS. (UZR sample size adherents would probably argue even lower in fact) If he’s a -15 defender, his defense at 2B and 3B should be accepted as -10. At 2B, that’s nearly 10 runs better than what his 2018 numbers were. At 3B, it’s the same as his 2018 numbers. I’m not even going to guess what his outfield numbers could be.

Alright, now’s the fun part. The part where I look at how good of a player he is with all the different variations. First off, let’s look at worst case scenario. He’s the worst fielder possible and an 80 wRC+ hitter.

80 wRC+ hitter, -15 UZR/150 SS: -0.1 WAR

For the record, that’s over 600 plate appearances, so over the amount of plate appearances he would get for 2018, that’s essentially a replacement level player. I expected this to be worse, honestly so I don’t think this is a bad “worst” case. You have to be pretty pessimistic to think he’s an 80 wRC+ hitter AND that he’s literally a worse defender than Yuniesky Betancourt. Let’s move on to bad hitter, my educated guess at defense.

80 wRC+ hitter, -10 UZR/150 SS: 0.4 WAR

Still not great. Let’s see my educated guess for offense and defense put together.

90 wRC+ hitter, -10 UZR/150 SS: 1.1 WAR

Again, this is over 600 plate appearances, so it would be more like 0.5 or less for the plate appearances he would be likely get. At this level, he’s not a great bench player, but more or less your average bench player. Not at replacement level, but clearly not starter caliber. Let’s try below average hitter, worst defense.

90 wRC+ hitter, -15 UZR/150 SS: 0.6 WAR

Lastly, let’s try the most optimistic offensive output. You might find it weird that my most optimistic offensive output is still below his 2018, but if he matches or exceeds his 106 wRC+, well then he’s pretty clearly a good bench player so I don’t think this is necessary.

100 wRC+ hitter, -15 UZR/150 SS: 1.3 WAR

100 wRC+ hitter, -10 UZR/150 SS: 1.8 WAR

What kind of player is Yairo Munoz? Only time will tell. Barring his defense being better than expected, he’s a below average player. Most bench players are. It’s why they’re on the bench. But I set a pretty low bar for his defense. It’s not particularly outlandish to suggest he could be better than my optimistic scenario, which again still suggests he’s about on par with the worst defensive shortstops in UZR’s recorded history. Luckily, the Cardinals have DeJong, who should be expected to play every game in which he’s able. But since he’s unlikely to play 162 games and since I don’t expect Garcia to be back (honestly more for 40 man roster reasons than anything), Munoz will probably get the spot starts in short. Let’s hope DeJong can stay healthy next year.