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The "great" 2016 Cardinals center field experiment

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Recent trials in center field for Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong reveal very different approaches to handling the position.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Randal Grichuk was supposed to be the starting center fielder for the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals. He had rotated around the outfield positions in 2015, mostly because of injuries, but had performed well in center field. And Tommy Pham, who started in left field on the first day of the season, was supposed to be the backup, dutifully filling in when Grichuk had the day off. Even Jeremy Hazelbaker, a surprising inclusion on the Opening Day roster, had the speed to profile as a potential center fielder.

The Cardinals had three center fielders on the Opening Day roster. Only one of them, Tommy Pham, currently occupies a place on the Cardinals' 25-man roster, and even his seemingly inevitable starts in the middle of the outfield have been taken by two very different members of the Opening Day roster.

Although drafted as a third baseman, Stephen Piscotty spent the overwhelming majority of his minor league career in the corner outfield positions, primarily in right. And while he did show some defensive upside both in the minors and in 2015 in St. Louis, with a strong arm and perhaps the ability to improve his route efficiency (as with the NFL's Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went to Harvard, you will likely get very used to hearing on national broadcasts about how Stephen Piscotty attended Stanford), nobody was confusing his right field defense with that of Jason Heyward. He was merely a competent fielder who would be able to not destroy the value he would amass at the plate.

And yet Piscotty has started five games this season in center field. By contrast, he only appeared in four games in center field during his entire minor league career. Per Inside Edge Fielding, he has made 100% of plays categorized as "routine" and 0% of plays categorized as "impossible", and he has yet to face a situation which falls somewhere in between. While you should never draw significant conclusions from 36 innings of fielding data, you really shouldn't draw any from Piscotty's 36 innings of fielding data.

In lieu of a great Stephen Piscotty play in center field, here's a video of him hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS last year.

Actually, this highlight is a pretty good summation of why the Cardinals want to play Piscotty in center field: because he's a really good hitter. And while he could hit just as well in left or right field (or first base, where he has also played), playing him in center allows the Cardinals to play Matt Holliday in left field, Brandon Moss in right field, and Matt Adams at first base.

While this is (very) likely not the optimized defensive alignment, the Cardinals appear to, once again, be placing a higher priority on offense than defense when utilizing this look. And whether you agree or disagree with this, there is a logic to it.

And while Stephen Piscotty in center field was certainly a surprise, this didn't come nearly as out of left center left field as Kolten Wong.

Wong has had an interesting 2016 season. At the plate, he was a little bit below MLB average in 2014 (90 wRC+, with 100 being average) and 2015 (96 wRC+), but in 2016, Kolten Wong has a wRC+ of 63. His walks are up, his strikeouts are in the neighborhood of previous seasons, and his batting average on balls in play has been just below his career norms, but his lack of power (his .056 isolated power is lower than the ISO of Eric Fryer or now ex-Cardinal Ruben Tejada, and is ahead of only pitcher Mike Leake among Cardinals with at least one extra base hit in 2016) is what caused his demotion earlier this season to Memphis.

By Ultimate Zone Rating, Kolten Wong has been below average in 2016, though in much larger samples in 2014 and 2015, he was slightly above average. While he makes occasional frustrating gaffes on seemingly routine plays, Wong has also shown a penchant for the spectacular. And yet despite his decent track record, the Cardinals tried Wong, who did play some center field at the University of Hawai'i, in the outfield while in Memphis.

With the Cardinals playing Matt Carpenter at second base, Kolten Wong has played center field exclusively since his return to St. Louis. As with Piscotty, the numbers are too sparse to conclude much. He took a poor route to a ball hit by Albert Almora on Monday, but Inside Edge Fielding counts the chance of a center fielder making the play as "remote": perhaps Wong could have put forth a better effort, but it would take Billy Hamilton to have any expectation for the play to be made.

Interestingly though, like Wong, Billy Hamilton was also converted from the middle infield to center field. Hamilton, initially a shortstop, moved down the defensive spectrum in 2013.

But this was a move made largely out of necessity for Hamilton: he committed 39 errors at shortstop in A-ball in 2011 and 31 errors at shortstop between high-A and AA in 2012. While errors are far from a perfect statistic by which to measure fielders, totals this high are alarming. And in these two seasons, Billy Hamilton had stolen 103 and 155 bases, so there were no questions about his speed.

And as it turns out, Billy Hamilton is a capital-e Elite defensive center fielder. Even if he had come around and become, say, average at shortstop, he would have more value at a less valuable defensive position at which he is truly special. By contrast, Kolten Wong was relatively better at second base than Hamilton was at shortstop, and while Wong has decent speed, it does not compare to Hamilton's.

Perhaps the Cardinals see something promising in Kolten Wong in center, but this does beg the question of why it would take until after two full MLB seasons and an extension to experiment. If the Cardinals are simply hoping that Wong will perform competently in center field, as they are with Stephen Piscotty, it is peculiar to not only go with Wong over the superior hitter in Piscotty but also over Tommy Pham.

Tommy Pham is by far the safest option in center field for the Cardinals. He has a 118 wRC+ in 181 MLB plate appearances, sandwiched between Piscotty and Wong, and unlike the two, he has been a center fielder for most of his adult life. His injury concerns are plentiful, which should give the Cardinals pause when it comes to, say, offering him a contract extension, but at the moment, he appears to be healthy (if he is not, and the Cardinals promoted him from Memphis anyway, this is a heavier concern than anything regarding who plays center field).

Stephen Piscotty is the high upside option. Things could go very wrong, but things could also go gloriously right, and with the firepower it enables, the Cardinals could maintain their torrid offense from the first 71 games of 2016. Tommy Pham is the safe option: we know he can play center field and we are reasonably certain he won't be a complete non-factor at the plate. Kolten Wong, however, seems to be the worst of both worlds. And barring a Herculean defensive renaissance in center field, Kolten Wong should probably remain at second base.