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Forecasting the weirdness of Jedd Gyorko

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The Cardinals’ third base job appears to be a battle between two players which are nearly impossible to predict

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In his 1,864 career Major League Baseball plate appearances with the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals, Jedd Gyorko has hit a home run about once in every 23.6 trips to the plate. Looking only at Gyorko’s debut season of 2016 in St. Louis, he went yard one out of every 14.6 plate appearances.

There is not much particularly intuitive about Jedd Gyorko’s power. He is a 5’10”, touch over 200 pounder who primarily has played second base—he may not be Jose Altuve, but he certainly is not Giancarlo Stanton, either. But the statistics indicate that his power is very much real.

Since Gyorko’s 2013 debut, he is one of just 35 players in Major League Baseball with so many home runs and with a home run rate as prodigious as his. To give you an idea of how high of quality the players on this list are, the player worth the third-fewest Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement of the group is Mark Trumbo, who just signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract this off-season with the Baltimore Orioles (the worst of the group, by far, is Ryan Howard, the superstar who accumulated -3.3 WAR while playing out the final four years of his five-year contract extension).

The numbers are even more promising just going by 2016, where Gyorko was among the most productive power hitters in baseball. Only four players with more than five home runs on the season hit home runs at a quicker pace than Jedd Gyorko: the aforementioned Trumbo and Howard, Khris Davis, and Gary Sanchez.

The complete list of St. Louis Cardinals in franchise history with 30-plus home runs in a season while hitting a home run at least once every 14.6 plate appearances? Mark McGwire (three times), Jim Edmonds (twice), and Albert Pujols (once). And now, Jedd Gyorko. The guy that many fans assumed was added as some salary relief for the Padres taking on the contract of Jon Jay.

Looking at these stats, and looking at the 2016 stats of Jhonny Peralta, fresh off of a -0.4 WAR season, it seems absurd that the Cardinals would even consider starting Peralta at third base over Jedd Gyorko. And while I lean towards the camp that would prefer Gyorko start the season at third base and that Peralta remain as a bench player (some fans have proclaimed that Peralta should be jettisoned in order to save Mike Matheny from penciling his rapidly-aging shortstop-turned-iffy-third-baseman into the lineup every day, and in a vacuum I understand the logic, but there sure seems to be an easier solution to this problem), a closer look suggests that starting 2017 with Jhonny Peralta at the hot corner may not be an unreasonable proposition.

Notably, Jhonny Peralta probably isn’t going to be that bad again. Peralta was a below-average hitter in 2016, accumulating a 90 wRC+, though as far as his complete value, he was mostly hurt by his abhorrent base-running and his cratering defensive metrics. He has been a consistently terrible base runner throughout his career, so that ship has probably sailed, but just two years ago, Peralta was a well above average defensive shortstop. In 2015, his numbers dropped, but not to nearly the extent that 2016 brought.

Given that he is now at a much less demanding position, it wouldn’t be absurd to suggest he, with a larger sample size from which to judge, could be an average-ish third baseman in the field. This would put him, along with a somewhat below average bat, in the territory of 2016 Maikel Franco or Adonis Garcia, which may not inspire great confidence, but at the least, he’d be working firmly in “above replacement level” territory.

Gyorko, on the other hand, offers the potential for instant offense—he holds the ability to change the dynamics of a game with one swing of the bat. One needs not worry about batting average on balls in play when the pitch goes over the fence, but unfortunately, in 2016, when the ball didn’t go over the fence, Gyorko was considerably less successful.

Although Jedd Gyorko has always been a somewhat low-BABIP hitter (intuitively this makes sense: he tends to swing for the fence a lot, and therefore he hits an above-average number of fly balls, which tend to be outs when they are not home runs, and Gyorko, with his zero stolen bases in the last two seasons, is not exactly known for his ability to beat out infield hits), it took a turn for the worse in 2016.

Just eight players in baseball last year had a BABIP at or lower than Gyorko’s .244 with at least 300 plate appearances. FIve were sub-replacement level, a sixth (Derek Norris) produced a 55 wRC+ and stayed afloat thanks to the substantial positional adjustment for being a catcher, a seventh (Todd Frazier) hit 40 home runs and was still only a 102 wRC+ hitter, and the eighth was Jedd Gyorko, whose 111 wRC+ was easily the best of the group.

And if Gyorko can continue to be one of the five most efficient home run hitters in baseball, he can certainly survive a low BABIP. But it would be overly optimistic to assume that if his power drops (in his 901 plate appearances in 2014 and 2015, Jedd Gyorko hit 26 home runs, not appallingly low in general but a bit thin for a player so dependent on dingers for his value), it will definitely be counteracted by a spike in his BABIP. The underlying batted ball statistics, after all, suggest that Gyorko’s BABIP should have declined in 2016—his line-drive percentage was a career low and his fly ball percentage was a career high.

Though perhaps most alarming was Gyorko’s home run to fly ball rate, which skyrocketed. His previous career high was 15.9% in 2013, his rookie season and prior to last year, his peak home run season. In 2016, his HR/FB% was 24.4%. While there was a power spike in Major League Baseball last season, the league rate stood at 12.8%. The most powerful players are going to have some advantage in this category, but is Gyorko nearly twice as good at this skill as the league at large? Of the 203 players last season with 400 or more plate appearances, Gyorko ranked 8th by home run to fly ball rate.

At the end of the day, Jedd Gyorko doesn’t have to be as good as Kris Bryant or even as good as Matt Carpenter to warrant winning the third base job for the Cardinals—he just has to be as good as Jhonny Peralta, which is a completely realistic (and perhaps probable) aspiration. But the possibility absolutely exists for Gyorko to take a step or three back in 2017. And while 2016 could have just been a breakout year for him (it was, after all, his age-27 season, and it’s not as though players have not blossomed around this point in their careers), it’s probably foolish to expect it to continue unabated.