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Why won't the St. Louis Cardinals play Matt Holliday at first base?

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This week's possibly season-ending injury to primary St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, Matt Adams, has added fuel to the fire of moving veteran left fielder Matt Holliday to first base in some fan circles. A look at the composition of the St. Louis active roster upon Jon Jay's forthcoming activation from the disabled list shows why.

  • The Cardinals currently have three catchers on their 25-man roster. Tony Cruz owns a career .223 batting average (BA), .270 on-base percentage (OBP), .307 slugging percentage (SLG), .255 weighted on-base average (wOBA), and 58 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Ed Easley has not yet had a major-league PA, but the 29-year-old has hit .304/.375/.450 over 823 career Triple-A plate appearances (PA).
  • St. Louis has five infielders presently on the active roster. In addition to their four starters, a group that now includes Mark Reynolds, there is Pete Kozma, who has hit .227/.288/.305 (.288 wOBA, 61 wRC+) in 622 career big-league PAs and .238/.311/.348 in 3,189 career minor-league PAs.
  • Holliday, Jay, Jason Heyward, Peter Bourjos, and Randal Grichuk are the five outfielders populating the St. Louis 25-man. Not only do the Cards have five outfielders with Jay's activation, there's an argument that all five deserve to play because each and every one of them likely bring more production to the club in the outfield than Reynolds is likely to produce playing daily at first base.
There are three ways that a position player generates most of his baseball production: hitting, base-running, and fielding. If you're a Cardinals fan who grew up in the Whiteyball era, you're well aware of the importance of each facet of the game. Even if that period in St. Louis history was before your time or your time as a baseball fan, it makes sense that we would want to consider the totality of a player's performance when assessing him as a player. This desire has led to the development of advanced metrics to gauge a player's fielding. Sabermetricians have also developed Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which attempts to place a number value on a player's overall performance. It does so by creating run values for various plays. Offensive runs (batting and base-running) have been sussed out rather thoroughly and are more accurate than the defensive measures such as Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which is used in Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) or Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which is used in Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR) for those seasons from 2003 to the present.

Dan Szymborski of ESPN has developed the ZiPS projection system for ballplayers and is regularly tweaking it. ZiPS is publicly available for free at Fangraphs and Szymborski is generously ready, willing, and able to interact with fans and blog writers alike on Twitter or email. As a result, ZiPS is the projection system I like to consult to give me an idea of what to expect going forward for the Cardinals. The following charts compares the ZiPS rest-of-season (RoS) projections for the five Cardinals outfielders, Reynolds, and Adams.

2015 ZiPS Rest-of-Season Projections

Player

PA

HR

RBI

BA

OBP

SLG

wOBA

wRC+

Def

zWAR

Adams

363

12

46

.274

.311

.442

.326

106

-4.7

1.0

Reynolds

327

13

40

.223

.313

.402

.315

100

-4.7

0.5

Holliday

422

13

57

.283

.376

.454

.362

131

-7.3

2.2

Jay

359

3

32

.279

.349

.359

.315

100

3.7

1.6

Heyward

425

12

43

.263

.338

.417

.332

111

7.0

2.8

Bourjos

221

4

20

.255

.316

.396

.312

97

2.2

1.0

Grichuk

372

13

43

.252

.288

.440

.314

99

0.9

1.2

By ZiPS projected WAR, each of the Cardinals' outfielders projects to help the team more with his hitting, base-running, and fielding over the remainder of the season than Reynolds and it's not particularly close. Making these numbers all the more striking is that the player closest to Reynolds in projected RoS WAR is Bourjos and that is over about 100 fewer plate appearances. It's reasonable to believe that, if Bourjos, Grichuk, and Reynolds each received 350 or so PAs over the remainder of the year, Bourjos and Grichuk would produce one win above replacement more than Reynolds because of their roughly equal batting production and the outfielders' superior base-running and fielding.

So why wouldn't the Cardinals try to get their outfielders more playing time than Reynolds moving forward so that they can leverage their all-around skills into a collective improvement of a win above replacement or two? Holliday is the least well-rounded of the fly-catchers because he isn't particularly skilled at ranging to catch flies. Why not move Holliday to first base to keep his consistently excellent bat in the lineup and give the Cardinals a better starting nine game in and game out?

The Colorado Rockies selected Holliday as a high-school third baseman in the seventh round of the 1998 MLB draft. There was just one problem: Holliday was a horrendous fielder at the hot corner. And it only got worse. Unfortunately, I was unable to dig up any scouting reports on Holliday's minor-league fielding as a third baseman, but I remember reading such assessments that were particularly harsh at some point in history. (If you can find such a scouting report, I'd be grateful if you shared it in the comments.)

One of the reasons that advanced defensive metrics such as UZR and DRS came to be is the limited usefulness of traditional fielding stats such as fielding percentage. Here's the formula for fielding percentage:

(Putouts + Assists) / (Putouts + Assists + Errors)

Fielding percentage is somewhat representative of the number of outs a player makes out of the batted balls he gets to. Only the denominator gives us an indication of range. The stat in its final form, a percentage, gives a player no credit or punishment for good or bad range. It's a very narrowly-focused stat of consequently limited utility.

Fielding percentage is about the only stat we have from Holliday's days as a third baseman in the low minors. Despite its limited nature, fielding percentage nonetheless offers us a window into just how awful Holliday was in the field as a third baseman.

Holliday's MiLB Fielding Stats: Third Base

Level

League

Age

G

Chances

Putouts

Assists

Errors

Fielding %

Rookie

ARIZ

18

24

67

11

46

10

.851

A

SALL

19

108

286

57

192

37

.871

A+

CARL

20

112

300

55

213

32

.893


There are lots of problems with the error as a stat. I don't remember the last time I even bothered to look up the number of errors a player made in the field. Even so, Holliday's minor-league error totals at third base are eye-popping. As are his third-base fielding percentages.

To be sure, errors and fielding percentage encompass throwing as well as the player's ability to snag a batted ball with his mitt. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that the stony hands Holliday often shows us in the outfield were present when he was 18, 19, and 20 years of age and playing third in the low minors. Further, they disqualified him as a third baseman in the eyes of the Rockies front office, who moved Holliday to the outfield after his age 20 season in high-A ball as opposed to first base. It's unlikely that, at age 35, Holliday would be better at fielding grounders or throwing the ball around the infield than he was between 1998 and 2000.

First base is an easier defensive position to play than third base, though there are similarities. Lefties pull the ball toward the first baseman in the same way righties do to third. A difference is the amount of scooping. And that's an issue that sticks out for me. I don't see any reason to suspect that Holliday would be anything other than bad at this given the way he fends off fly balls in the outfield. Overall, it seems distinctly possible that even with his superb hitting, he might give back as many runs on defense as the outfield saves with him at first and prove at best a lateral move to an alignment with Reynolds at first, Holliday in left, Heyward in right, and Jay/Grichuk/Bourjos in center.

Then there is Holliday's stature as a proven veteran in the clubhouse. Manager Mike Matheny has demonstrated during his young managerial career that he is nothing if not beholden to veteran proveyness. As A.J. Pierzynski remarked to Rob Rains during spring training, the Cardinals clubhouse is dominated by Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Yadier Molina. It seems unlikely that Matheny would ask perhaps his most established, proven veteran to switch positions midseason, especially when it's an open question as to whether such a move would actually be a net benefit for the team.

When we combine the cloudiness of the whether it would produce a net benefit to the team's chances of winning games with the fact that St. Louis owns the best record in baseball and has opened up a healthy lead in the Central standings, it's understandable that the Cardinals may not feel compelled to engage in such an experiment in the middle of the 2015 season.

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