MLB The Show: The Proselytism of Matt Holliday

If you’re a Cardinals fan, you know that there are a ton of Cardinals fans who want to turn Matt Holliday into a first baseman. Their goals are noble and fully understood. Holliday didn’t come to the Cardinals as the best of left fielders and he hasn’t gotten any better. Despite putting up consistently great offensive numbers for half of a decade, some people seem to remember him best for a defensive miscue back in 2009. Matt Adams has started 2015 with an uninspiring performance, and the Cardinals have a glut of intriguing outfielders. Moving Holliday to first, giving both at-bats and defensive opportunities to Grichuk, Bourjos, Piscotty, etc. sure sounds nice. There’s only one problem.

Matt Holliday has never played first base as a professional. In fact, he has over 200+ games at third base in the minor leagues but not a single professional inning at first. But is that a problem? First base requires the least mobility of any position on the field. It’s poorly-sourced common knowledge that anyone can play first base. It doesn’t require range. It doesn’t require much of an arm. A first baseman needs to be able to catch the ball and react quickly. But those are skills generally required of all positions. So, surely, Matt Holliday can play first base?

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that there is only one way to answer any question about players out of position. It needs to be simulated in MLB: The Show.

MLB® 15 The Show™_20150524133703

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Craig Paquette: A Look Back

On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate.  When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston.  The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era.  The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July.  Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36.  He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.

Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway.  Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression.  He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play.  Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF.  Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him.  In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk.  On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30.  Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?

As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette.  La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons.  During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons.  And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals.  He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base.  Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465.  That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.

I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette.  At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on rec.sports.baseball.  La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me.  It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated.  My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.”  Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.

Now I realize how spoiled I was.

Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals.  Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about.  But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.

There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.

Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo.  Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.

Sure, there were plenty of mistakes.  Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso.  And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?

Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).

Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette.  Damn, that’s depressing.

 

 

Call Me Mabry

John Mabry stepped into the batters box in the top of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first base.  He already had three hits on the night–a single, double, and a triple in that order.  Hitting for the cycle is never easy, but Mabry couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in which to knock the ball out of the park and finish the feat in style.  The year was 1996 and the “juiced ball” era was beginning its peak with a league average ERA of 4.60 and luminaries such as Jay Buhner, Todd Hundley, and Brady Anderson socking over 40 HR.  It was a balmy night in pre-humidor Coors Field, where the Rockies would give up a stunning 122 HR on the season (and hit 149 of their own).  The pitcher was Mike Munoz, whose career is a testament to both the time period in which he played and the ballparks in which he was moored (Coors and Arlington.  From 1989 to 2000 Munoz managed to pitch in 453 games despite a career ERA of 5.19.  Munoz was a lefthander, sure, but Mabry never had much of a platoon disadvantage.  In fact, in 1996 he crushed lefties to the tune of a .351/.382/.536 line.

After falling behind behind 2-0, Munoz grooved a pitch to Mabry and Mabry connected, crushing the pitch over the wall in right field. Just like that, John Mabry made baseball history.  He didn’t just hit for the cycle; he hit for the natural cycle. Single. Double. Triple. Home run. In that order.  Only fourteen players have ever hit for a natural cycle, making it a rarer feat than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play.

The Cardinals still lost the game.

There’s no more precarious position than the hitting coach of an underperforming team.  It’s not entirely fair, but the hitting coach has become something of a designated scapegoat for fans, media, and even teams themselves to heap all the blame of a faltering season. The reasons for this are clear enough.  There are three prominent coaching positions on any baseball team: manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach.  Teams are reluctant to fire their managers mid-season, and pitching is seen (perhaps incorrectly) as requiring patience.  Batting, however, is violent and quick.  Each at bat lasts only a couple minutes (unless Clay Buchholz is pitching) and ends with a definitive result.  Batters don’t often get injured while batting, and are known to have more control over the result of batted balls than pitchers. For these reasons, it’s easy to think that a change in batting coaches might fix a team whereas swapping pitching coaches might just disrupt the rhythm of a staff.

The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals present a particularly formidable challenge for a hitting coach.  In 2013, the Cardinals led the National League in runs scored on the strength of one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history.

The 2013 Cardinals numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t just historic; they blew away the previous records and resulted in a split (versus bases empty situations) so huge that it will likely never be approached. I don’t particularly like the idea of taking an entire year of stats and declaring them meaningless, but projecting anything from the performance of the offense in 2013 is useless. You might as well be positing halfway through the 1941 season that Joe Dimaggio would never go hitless again.

Unfortunately, that’s what everyone has done. The Cardinals came into 2014 as favorites to retake the pennant, largely on the strength of the pitching but without much concern over a lineup that was losing one of its best hitters (Beltran), gaining one of the streakiest batters in the game (Peralta), and wasn’t nearly as good as it performed in the first place.

John Mabry had a rather unusual career as a player.  1996 was the only season he received more than five hundred plate appearances, and he put up a line of .297/.342/.431, which is respectable for just about anyone other than a firstbaseman in 1996. He had a couple more years clustered around ’96 in which he received 400 or so PAs. But other than that, he spent his fourteen season career as a bench and platoon guy.  That, by itself, isn’t strange except that Mabry was a corner OF/1b who played in one of the biggest offensive environments in baseball history and he was a rather unremarkable hitter. A career .263/.322/.405 line isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, either. Guys like him don’t usually stick around, since corner OF who can slug a little are some of the most fungible players in baseball. Most GMs probably think they have a RF who can manage a 90 OPS+ somewhere in their minors right now.

There are a few reasons Mabry was different. First, there was the impression he could play third base. He couldn’t, but still managed to be sent out there for 800 or so innings, in which he had .905 fielding percentage on the balls he could actually reach.  This perceived utility gave him a leg up on the Thomas Howards of the world. Second, Mabry had a hell of a sweet swing. Effortless yet strong, Mabry looked like he knew what he was doing, even when he struck out. He was Will Clark or Mark Grace without the results, but that’s often enough to get you onto a major league bench over a dozen similar guys. Third, Mabry was a classic clubhouse guy. Whenever he was in the lineup, you could guarantee that the announcers would talk about his intangibles, his willingness to play any position (he even pitched on two occasions), and his place as a role model for younger players. His future in coaching was a topic of speculation as early as 2004 during his last stint with St. Louis, three years before he would retire.

John Mabry is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting. The Cards are scoring 3.74 runs a game, good for third worst in the NL and fifth worst in baseball. They have scored fewer runs in more games than the Royals and the Phillies. The team’s OPS is .680. They look listless and lifeless at the plate, though struggling will do that for any lienup. And so, of course, people are calling for Mabry’s head.

In general, I’m reluctant to shift the blame from underperforming players to the coaching staff. Matheny and company deserve the heat for bad lineups, strange bullpen usage, and double switches that do nothing but cripple the heart of the order. But there are usually far more believable culprits-luck, age, regression-when it comes to poor performance. What could Mabry possibly be doing to turn Allen Craig into a pumpkin or to sabotage every prospect called up from Memphis? The idea is rather absurd, and it’s never seemed quite right to lump all the responsibility on the hitting coach.

So I won’t say that firing John Mabry is the answer to the Cardinals woes. But there might be enough to start asking the question. One stat I’ve left out above is the Cardinals’ home run totals. So far, through 66 games, the Cardinals have only hit 36 home runs. Barry Bonds started 2001 with a 66 game stretch in which he personally hit 38 home runs. Different era and Bonds was a freak. But god damn. The Cardinals slugging percent is at .360 as a team, third worse in the majors behind some pretty awful Mets and Padres squads, both of which have hit more balls out of the park.

What’s more, this squad shouldn’t be so anemic. You’ll never confuse Craig or Holliday with Mark McGwire, but they aren’t slap hitters, either. Matt Adams has been hurt, but he’s still had over 200 PAs to knock some pitches over the wall. So what’s going on? Just for a thought experiment, let’s look at some HR rates

In 2011, his breakout year, Allen Craig smacked 11 HR in 200 ABs, for a rate of one per every 18 at bats. In 2012 this number dipped slightly, to one HR for every 21 ABs. Not a big change, and arguably can be written off to the changing run environment. Then, in 2013 Craig’s HR power disappeared. He hit one HR every 39 ABs, but was still quite productive, in large part due to an almost unbelievable .474 BAbip with runners in scoring position. This season, Craig has hit one HR for every 42 ABs, his BAbip cratered, and he’s just now working back from a terrible slump that consumed the first part of the season.

Of course, Craig was injured and those injuries are clearly the most likely reason his power was sapped. So let’s look at Matt Holliday. In 2012/2013 he hit a HR for every 23 ABs. This season, it’s once every 59. Matt Adams 2012/2013 hit a HR every 20 ABs. For what it’s worth, throughout the minors he hit one every 18 ABs. In 2014, he has three HR in 194 at bats, a rate of one per 65 ABs.

I want to briefly stick with Adams for a moment, because he had a great few moments early in the season, in which opposing teams put a hard shift into play expecting him to pull the ball and he blooped it the other way instead. It was funny the first time, and still the second, but as it continued to happen you couldn’t help but wonder if he was letting the shift beat him after all. Adams had been a power threat and suddenly he was 2013 Allen Craig, relying on BAbip and misplayed balls turning singles into doubles.

Aside from Craig, Holliday, and Adams there aren’t any other good examples because no one else ever really hit for much power. Carpenter is hitting ever fewer balls out of the park than expected, but his totals last year were modest anyway. And then there is Jhonny Peralta, who leads the team with 10 HR, but if we’re theorizing that this is something that can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, Peralta hasn’t been with these guys long. Also if I’m letting myself go down this rabbit hole, it’s worth pointing out that four of those HR were in the first couple weeks of the season.

So what am I suggesting here? That John Mabry is coaching the team to not hit home runs? No, because that’s silly. I don’t particularly like it when coaches and managers talk about how they don’t need the long ball to win (because it’s not true) but I don’t think anyone would coach HR power out of a player. But I do wonder if adjustments meant to improve, such as working with Adams on going to the opposite field, are leading to unintended results. Last season the Cardinals had such an inordinate amount of success “hitting it where they ain’t” with runners on that it looked more like a viable strategy than it really is. I think we’ve come to the point where I hope that John Mozeliak and the front office are at least asking for these questions. Find out what’s been going on at BP and in video sessions, and just make sure that Mabry and Matheny aren’t taking the wrong lesson from 2013 (and the only right lesson from 2013 is that baseball can be real god damn weird).

John Mabry’s final season as a player was a month-and-a-half-long stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies, the victim of his natural cycle all the way back when Bill Clinton was finishing his first term. His swing was as graceful as ever, though slowed by age, and it was clear it was time for him to move on.  He played the majority of his 30 inning at third base, even though at age 36 he really couldn’t play the position. He had four hits, including a HR, in 39 PAs and then he was released. He became a spokesman for a chain of stores selling hunting supplies, then a color commentator, and then a coach.

He finished 2007 with a .466 OPS, which is better than Daniel Descalso’s 2014.

 

 

 

The Beltran And The Sea

Carlos Beltran was and outfielder who hit from both sides of the plate with a Marucci maple bat and he had gone fifteen years now without taking a ring. This was not for lack of effort. In the first six years he been in Kansas City where he learned to regard their logo, a crown, with a certain sense of irony. But after six years he traveled to Houston then New York then St. Louis and he proved his worth every October. But each year he would come home with his fingers bare.

In his first years in baseball he was really very fast. He stole bases and went stood out in centerfield. He was so fast that he flattened Mike Cameron with just his running speed. But now he was an old outfielder. His knees were crooked and his arm ached when he pulled it back for a throw. Everything about him was old except the crack of his bat which was the same tenor as a thunderclap and was bold and undefeated.

“Carlos,” Miller said to him as they climbed the stairs of the dugout. “I could go out there with you. We’ve won some games.” Beltran had taught Miller about baseball and the boy loved him.

Beltran looked at him with confident eyes. “If you were my player, I’d take you,” he said. “But you are Matheny’s and there are match ups.”

“He hasn’t much faith.”

“I know,” Beltran said. “But haven’t we?”

They sat on the bench and many of the other players made fun of Beltran. Others looked at him and were sad. The successful players of Boston and St. Louis already won their rings and displayed them in glass cases with wooden plaques and now only looked to add to their glory.

“Carlos,” Miller said. “Can I get your batting gloves for you? If I cannot play with you, I would like to help in some way.”

“You brought us here,” Beltran said. “You are already a man.”

“This is your sixth post season series in St. Louis. Do you think that is a lucky number?”

“Six is a serious number,” Beltran said. “How would you like to see me bring in a ring dressed out with six hundred diamonds? Think perhaps I can?”

“Keep your bat warm, old man,” Miller said. “Remember we are in October.”

Keep my bat warm, Beltran thought. He hoisted the maple stick on his shoulder and, swinging it back and forth with a certain menace, he stepped onto the field. There were other players at other positions stretching and sprinting on the grass and Beltran could hear the roar of the crowd cheering for them but not for him. Beltran stopped in in the on deck circle and waited.

Beltran watched as Matt Carpenter faced the pitcher. Lester was left-handed but Beltran was ready.

This is the World Series. Beltran’s at-bat will be only one at-bat in all the at-bats that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other at-bats to come will depend on what Beltran does in this at-bat. It had been that way all year. All of baseball is that way.

He had no mysticism about baseball though he had played it for so many years.  Most players had superstitions. Beltran had facts. He did not wear a phiten necklace because of its magnetic properties but because its color gave his eyes a certain comforting warmth. He did not eat an entire chicken before each game for luck but to be strong in October for the truly important home runs. He did not tap his bat to hear its sound as a ritual. It was a science. The sound of a good bat is different than the sound of a bad bat. Beltran did not use a bad bat.

Carpenter fouled a pitch back towards the on deck circle. The ball rolled towards Beltran. He knelt down and picked it up.

“Baseball,” he said. “I love and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Beltran  would have liked to come to the plate with a man aboard but the next pitch retired Carpenter. It was a cutter out over the plate and Carpenter should have taken hold of it for a drive but this was baseball. Baseball is a game of skill and a game of luck. The wind always blows harder in your face than at your back. Beltran knew that better than anyone. But he did not dwell on that.

After fifteen seasons without a ring Beltran knew he was not a lucky player. It was good to be lucky. Ryan Theriot was lucky. Pete Kozma was lucky. It was better to be exact. Every at-bat is a new at-bat. When the luck came Beltran ‘s way he would be ready for it.

Beltran stepped to the plate for the first time in a World Series game. He would not be defeated.