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WAR - What is it good for? (Evaluating Cardinals)

Some crazy ideas have been floating around about position changes and playing time. Luckily, we’ve got a stat for that.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As the Cardinals spiral towards the abyss near the All-Star break, I’ve seen several crazy ideas floated about who should be getting playing time and at what position.

This team is not that good, and as has been their problem for several years, they have a glut of average-ish players, with few real standouts who clearly deserve to start at a particular position. They’ve got guys who are strong defenders, but weak hitters, and vice-versa. To me, it’s become clear that there just is not enough talent overall, but I understand the thinking that maybe they could eek out a few more wins if they just reshuffled the talent they have.

Here’s the thing: A number of these ideas I’ve seen floated from the coaching staff, broadcasters and fans are just plain ridiculous. You can shoot from the hip and mumble things like “gotta get his bat into the lineup,” but if you look at Wins Above Replacement - and its component parts - its often clear where the team is getting the most value.

Jose Martinez

I love that Jen Langosch noted in this story from two weeks ago that Mike Matheny, “unprompted”, brought up the idea of moving Jose Martinez to the outfield. Nobody prompted him because why would you bother moving Martinez to the outfield?

Yes, he’s been really bad at first base this season. His -6 Defensive Runs Saved ranks 20th out of 21 qualified first basemen this season. But his 1.1 WAR ranks 7th on the team because he is the club’s 2nd best hitter with a 129 wRC+. It’s not like that’s a player type we’ve never seen before. The first baseman with a big bat who is a defensive liability is as American as the proverbial apple pie.

So sure, maybe you want to mitigate those runs you are giving away on defense by moving Martinez to his “more natural position.” But have you looked at his defensive numbers as an outfielder?

Small Sample Size Disclaimer, but Martinez has actually been WORSE as an outfielder by both DRS and Ultimate Zone Rating in his brief Cardinals career. Maybe in the long run, he would be bad there but not quite as bad as he is at first base. On the other hand, he’s also likely to improve at least nominally with more time at first.

Harrison Bader

I keep hearing people talking about how Bader has “cooled off” at the plate, or how he can’t hit right-handed pitching. His numbers dipped in June, but already in July are back close to what he posted in April/May. That looks like just random fluctuation to me.

As for the platoon thing, Bader is posting a 147 wRC+ against lefties and an 87 wRC+ against righties. So while it’s true he doesn’t hit righties as well, an 87 wRC+ is still absolutely playable when you provide elite defense. And folks, Harrison Bader is an elite defender.

Bader is currently 5th in Statcast’s Outs Above Average, which measures only how well outfielders get to fly balls. When you throw in his elite arm, which is part of the mix for stats like DRS, Bader currently leads ALL OUTFIELDERS with 18 Defensive Runs Saved.

It should be no surprise then that Harrison Bader currently leads all Cardinal outfielders in WAR with 1.4. But remember also that WAR is a counting stat, and Bader still trails Pham and Ozuna significantly in innings. When you factor that in, he has been the most valuable Cardinal outfielder by a pretty wide margin.

Yairo Munoz

Since the return of Paul DeJong, Yairo Munoz has started one game at 2nd base, and on this week’s Mondays with Mo podcast, Dan McLaughlin asked the Cardinals GM if they were going to work Munoz into the outfield mix to “get his bat in the lineup.” WTF?

Note: I wrote this yesterday... then last night Matheny actually started Munoz in CF. CF!

Munoz has been a nice addition to the club in a utility infielder role, and he filled in reasonably well while DeJong was on the DL. It’s also true that Munoz is a better hitter than he is a fielder, but the idea that you need to get his bat into the lineup is nuts.

Munoz 108 wRC+ is above league average, and frankly pretty good for guy who can play shortstop. But Munoz can’t play shortstop all that well. In fact, in almost 300 innings there this season he has been a -5 DRS. He’s also been slightly underwater at both 2nd and 3rd base.

Is Munoz a better defender in the outfield? I doubt anyone knows. He appeared in the outfield in just 33 of his 500 minor league games. His sprint speed is 27.9 ft/sec, which is right around average for outfielders. But even if his outfield defense is something like league average, as opposed to his below-average infield defense... which outfielder are you sitting to get his mediocre bat into the lineup?

In terms of WAR, Munoz has been basically replacement level this season at 0.1.

Kolten Wong

No player has been less appreciated by Cardinals Nation over the last several years than Wong. For all the hand-wringing about his “inconsistency” from fans and managers, he has been one of the most consistent players, year-to-year, in terms of WAR.

Here’s Kolten Wong’s WAR/600 PAs, which I’ve used to level out his fluctuating playing time:

That is remarkable consistency. And again, why is it so hard to understand what kind of player Kolten Wong is? He is an elite defensive 2nd baseman and a somewhat below-average hitter.

Again, WAR gives us an easy way to understand this value. Wong is currently 6th on the team. That puts him just ahead of Tommy Pham and Marcell Ozuna at the moment, even though they both have around 100 more PAs than Wong.


I’ll stop there, because these are the players that factor most into the crazy lineup and position changes I’ve seen proposed lately. And yes, I realize these half-season WAR numbers are not necessarily predictive, but as a snapshot of where they are now, coupled with the track records of some of them, I think the conclusions should be pretty clear.

Harrison Bader should be a full-time starter. Pham and Ozuna are underperforming projections, and I hope both bounce back in the 2nd half, but they will need to do so significantly - or Bader will need to fall off significantly - to overcome the total value Bader provides through his elite defense.

Jose Martinez needs to continue to start regularly because he is the team’s 2nd best hitter. He will be a defensive liability whether those starts are at 1st or in the outfield, but it will be worth it to have his bat in the lineup. With Bader flourishing and Pham and Ozuna underperforming but not disasters and seeming primed for some improvement... who should you sit so Martinez can play the outfield? And what do you gain by that - moving Carpenter to 1st to get Gyorko more starts?

Again - the Cardinals problem is too many average players across the board. So maybe it’s fine for Martinez to play occasionally in the outfield, spelling the three starters and getting Gyorko some at-bats, but that feels more like just moving the pieces around than any overall improvement.

Yairo Munoz should be the primary backup for SS and 2B, and a frequent pinch-hitter. Maybe the fact that he can play in the outfield provides some versatility in an extra-inning or injury-riddled game, but he shouldn’t be out there much more than that. And while he is probably a better hitter than Kolten Wong, Wong’s overall value is so much higher that Munoz should only replace him for the occasional spot-start.

Adding Munoz to the outfield mix makes very little sense. We haven’t even touched on Dexter Fowler, who despite very poor underlying numbers is still likely to rebound at least some of his value. As long as Fowler is on this team, he’s still probably your 4th outfielder. Then you’ve got Martinez, leaving Munoz what... 6th? If he picks up a few innings in the outfield in extra innings or due to injuries or weird circumstances, fine. But the idea that Munoz needs to get “into the mix” in the outfield is preposterous.

It’s become clear who this team is. Moving players around may look like progress, but this team needs a more substantial overhaul to get back to relevance.