Pete Kozma Is Here and He Makes the Team Better. Yes, Really.

I’m not going to say that I’m Pete Kozma’s biggest hater, because it might not be true. As far as I know, Kozma may have crippled a classmate with a baseball bat in a high school fight and gotten away with it because he was on the baseball team. That guy, if he exists, probably dislikes Pete Kozma more than me, though I doubt he exists because Pete Kozma couldn’t do that kind of damage with a baseball bat.

Even if I’m not Kozma’s biggest hater, I have made an extensive record of my criticism. And that is going to make what I’m about to write all the more shocking: bringing up Kozma was the right move and will actually improve the team.

Now, I certainly don’t like the circumstances of Kozma’s return. He shouldn’t be on the roster because two starting pitchers got hurt, but he should be on the roster. And not because he’s good. I’m never going to say that Kozma is good.

In 2013, Kozma hit .217/.275/.273, which is actually a bit worse than I expected because I thought he’d stumble into a few more HR and at least pull his SLG above his OBP. It was an atrocious year with the bat that silenced all his boosters and left him stranded in AAA. However, Kozma showed remarkable growth with the glove, especially for a player who had lost his position on the defensive spectrum just one year earlier to Ryan Jackson. I don’t think he was as good as, say, fangraphs which put him as 4th in UZR/150, but he had more range than he showed early in his minor league career and he wasn’t nearly as boneheaded as Tyler Greene.

Nothing in Kozma’s 2014 at AAA shows that he’s learned how to hit. A .234/.341/.372 slash line might indicate some improvement with his batting eye but comes with a hell of a small sample size warning. So what has changed? Why am I happy to see Kozma in the majors when I couldn’t wait for him to be gone last year? Well, it’s all about the other options.

Before Kolten Wong, who himself was struggling through a sore shoulder, went on the DL, the Cardinals had two infield bats on the bench. Mark Ellis is hitting .193/.280/.220 and Daniel Descalso is hitting a putrid .176/.233/.221. These are numbers that would even make 2013 Kozma shake his head.

Now one of those two is the starter at 2b. Maybe they’re in a platoon. It doesn’t really matter, because the result is the same. They are barely outslugging the Cards pitchers (.210) in over 200 PAs. Ellis could shake off the relentless encroachment of old age and return to form. But Descalso has never been good. Never this bad, but never good.  Most importantly, Descalso can’t play shortstop. Mike Matheny thinks he can, but he’s wrong and the experiments have to end.

Right now, Pete Kozma is a more useful player than Daniel Descalso. He might even be more useful than Mark Ellis. He’s probably also better to have around than Shane Robinson as well, since they have the same noodle bat but Kozma can give Peralta some rest. When Wong comes back, or when the pitching staff gets so thoroughly strafed in Colorado that we need a thirteenth arm, Descalso should be the one on his way out, not Kozma.

Until Ellis shows he’s not dead or Greg Garcia proves himself or Mo makes a trade, Pete Kozma is probably the best bench infielder the Cardinals have. Which makes me want to curl up in the fetal position and dream of Nick Punto.

 

 

 

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Allen Craig is Fine. Probably.

NOTE: Allen Craig is out of the lineup tonight versus a left-handed starter, which is crazy because this season he’s been like the CIA in the 1980s: all he can do is hit lefties. Maybe he’s hurt and this is all a moot point. Or maybe Matheny is just going to Matheny and there’s no explanation.

I doubted Allen Craig for a long time. I thought his 2011 was a flash in the pan, a right-handed version of 2006 Chris Duncan, boosting a championship team up on his shoulders when they needed him, before the league could figure him out. Even after 2012, when put together an almost full season slash line of .307/.354/.522, I thought it was only a matter of time until the clock struck twelve and he turned into a couple of mice dragging a pumpkin around the basepaths.

Craig reminded me of so many other players before him. Some people call these guys “quad-A” talent, to indicate that they are too good for the minor leagues but not good enough to hack it in MLB. I’ll put a finer point on it, because there are several types of quad-A players. I’m not talking about the Brad Thompsons or Tyler Greenes but a specific species of player that has tormented fans ever since stats went mainstream.

I’m talking about minor league sluggers. They are usually a year or two older than the competition, either because they were drafted out of college or they’ve been in the organization longer than you remember. You don’t remember when they joined the organization because they weren’t drafted in the first couple rounds or they weren’t highly touted international signings or because they joined as minor league free agents. They don’t play any position very well so they usually end up at first base or right field, but somewhere on their Baseball Reference page they’ve got some minor league innings at 3b or CF because scouts claim their bat won’t carry them at a corner. But those scouts have to be crazy, because these guys are smashing AAA pitching and you just read Moneyball and we’re not here to sell jeans.

I’ll call these guys “Kilas”, after their patron saint and Platonic ideal Kila Ka’aihue, who spent years in the Royals’ Omaha affiliate doing his best Albert Pujols impersonation, seemingly ignored by a Major League team content to give at bats to Ross Gload, Scott Podsednik, and the death rattle of José Guillen. When he finally got his shot at the Majors, Kila struggled to a career .221/.305/.382 line over about 450 plate appearances.

Every team has a Kila at one point or another, and every fan base rallies around him. You can hear them on the radio, you can read them on the message boards, and if you’ve got a co-worker who read some of Baseball Between The Numbers, you’re probably never free of it. “Bring up Kila.” “Have you seen John Rodríguez’s slugging percentage?” “Can’t wait to see what Izzy Alcantera can do in Fenway.” “Cut Tino, bring up John Gall!”

So I thought Allen Craig was a Kila. He had all the warning signs. He was never considered a serious prospect, he didn’t have a position, he isn’t terribly athletic, and his tools were limited to the power/eye combo that doesn’t always translate from the minors. I was wrong. Craig had better plate coverage and contact skills than I expected, allowing him to overcome the problem that faces most Kilas, which is the inability to handle a league (mostly) full of pitchers who can locate their pitches on the corners of the zone. Even once I figured this out, I was stubborn and I kept expecting a crash that never came. By the middle of last season I finally accepted that Craig could be a Major League hitter. I stopped waiting for the crash and let myself enjoy the hits.

I’m not writing all this now, with Craig slumping harder than Nintendo’s marketing department, to say that I was right before. I’m not bragging about being right on Craig, because I’m a Cards fan and I always want to be wrong when I’m doubtful of a player. Rather, I just want to give some background for what I’m about to say:

Allen Craig is going to be fine. He may never be what he appeared to be in 2013, but that shouldn’t come off as a surprise. Anyone evaluating the Cardinals offense should probably treat 2013 like season four of Community and just assume what we think we experienced was just the result of fumes from a gas leak. We’re probably never going to see an entire team hit .330/.402/.463 with RISP again in our lifetime, and we’re certainly never going to see it from a team that hit .236/.297/.356 with the bases empty. Allen Craig was arguably the biggest beneficiary of the 2013 gas leak, putting up a line that looks more Ted Williams than Torty: .454/.500/.638

Craig probably won’t be the same hitter we saw in 2011-2012 either, as his home run power has seen a dramatic drop since his first full season. Whether this is the byproduct of nagging injuries or a conscious attempt to trade fly balls for line drives, I’ll leave up to your imagination. There is no way to know for sure, at least not until Peter Bourjos pulls an Edward Snowden and releases tapes from the batting cages before seeking asylum in Chicago.

So why am I optimistic about Craig? First, his BAbip is floating around .225, a hundred points below his career numbers. A big part of his slump has been terrible luck. So far this season he’s hit 64 balls on the ground and only 8 have squeaked through for hits. That’s only good for a .125 BAbip, when his career numbers on ground balls put him at .258. Twice as many hits on just grounders would go a long way to reversing the slump. Second, and on a related note, Craig is hitting way more grounders in total. His gb/fb rate in 2014 is 1.56, almost twice his career rate and high enough that even Ichiro Suzuki might give a respectful nod.

So Craig is hitting twice as many grounders as would be expected, and grounders are producing half as many hits as would be expected. Unless there is a hidden injury here or Craig suddenly has turned into the Kila I feared, unable to cover the inside corner of the plate, expect his numbers to bounce back. He might not make another All Star game, and it might not be enough to stave off Oscar Tavares, but don’t go writing him off based on a month and a half of bad luck just because it follows a year of the stupidest good luck.

The Hits Keep on (not) Coming

Tony La Russa threw a tantrum during his post-game press conference today. Reporters were asking him the questions that were on the minds of Cards fans everywhere. Why isn’t the team hitting? His response, via this STLtoday.com article:

For everybody listening out there (TV audience), you think I’m being unreasonable? It’s the FIRST WEEK OF THE SEASON. I don’t understand this. Are you going to tell me Yadier doesn’t drive in big runs? Are you going to tell me Albert can’t hit? Are you going to tell me the second baseman and shortstops haven’t hit? David Freese? You don’t think he’s going to hit? You think Matt’s gong to hit? You think Colby’s going to hit? You think Berkman’s going to hit? The answer is ‘no’ to all those things?’

Did you (interrogators) accomplish your goal? Three, four times, you ask so I get excited and get upset? That’s not fair. It really isn’t.

Then he walked away. You could say he was a little irritated.

Angry Red Birds

Artist's Rendition of Tony La Russa's Press Conference

I understand that this is a frustrating time for TLR. It’s a frustrating time for everyone who wants to see the Cardinals win. And I’m sure that TLR wants to see them win as much as anyone, though playing Skip Schumaker at 2B is a funny way of showing it. The anger, however, is uncalled-for. That’s because this slump is absolutely mystifying. Every pitcher we face has turned into Bud Norris.

The reporters have every right to ask their questions. Yes, it is only the first six games. But the first six games count just as much as the last six games. This has also been the first six games for the Padres and Pirates pitchers. Maybe they didn’t get the memo that these games don’t matter.

It’s a small sample size, obviously. But the numbers are so bad and the pitchers in question are so bad that it has to call something into question. Let’s look at some of the lowlights:

In these first six games, the Cardinals had 8 extra base hits. This number is remarkably low. The Houston Astros, the worst hitting team in the NL last season, averaged about 2.4 XBH a game. Houston slugged .362 last year, the Cards are struggling around .300. In this same time, the Cards have 10 GIDP. They are more likely to get doubled up with a man on first than drive him home with a 2b, 3b, or HR. Last year, the Giants led the league by hitting into a double play almost once a game. The Cardinals are on pace to double that.

But as I already pointed out, it’s a small sample size. The Cardinals won’t slug below .300 or hit into 300 double plays. That would be historically terrible. Even the 1899 Cleveland Spiders slugged .305. BUT consider the starting pitchers the Cardinals have faced in these six games:

Tim Stauffer: A 28 year old with 39 career starts. Stauffer has spent most of his career in the bullpen, amassing a 4.04 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in spacious Petco. He throws around 90 mph. A former 4th pick overall, he’s got a nice breaking ball but not much else.
Clayton Richard: Arguably a left-handed Tim Stauffer. Has similar stuff and has put together a career 4.28 ERA, 1.44 WHIP. Struggles with control a bit more than Stauffer, but has a slightly better K/9. Relies more on his fastball. Richard at least had a decent season in 2005 (again, getting his home starts in Petco). In fact neither Stauffer or Richard are particularly bad pitchers. They’re just mediocre.The real crap starts with…
Dustin Moseley: 5.13 ERA, 1.49 WHIP in his career. 4.57 xFIP. K/9 under 5. Doesn’t have any dominant pitches. Doesn’t make up for it with stellar control. Shut down the Cards completely for 7 innings.
Charlie Morton: Maybe the worst. 5.88 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 4.54 xFIP. Hits around 91-92 with his fastball and according to fangraphs, he threw 85% fastballs in his game against the Cards. Despite this, he walked 5 batters. He only gave up 1 run. He’s not a power pitcher. He was throwing mainly one pitch. He wasn’t locating that pitch. Five walks, two strikeouts, one run. FUCK.
James McDonald: The fact that he’s the Pirates 5th starter should say everything. The Cardinals didn’t figure him out, but they didn’t get shut down like he was Charlie Morton. They managed 2 runs in 4.2 innings. Still… He’s the Pirates 5th starter.
Kevin Correia: 4.55 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 4.47 xFIP. Gives up a lot of fly balls. Unlike the other guys the Cards faced, has a much longer record of mediocrity. There’s probably a decent amount of video tape on him in the Cards’ library, too. Still managed to shutout the Cards.

So that’s it. Those are the six starters who have given the Cardinals fits over the last six games. Yes, TLR, it’s only six games. It’s only the first six games of the season. But what is this team going to do when it faces Roy Halladay? Cliff Lee? Tim Lincecum? We put up historically bad numbers against six mediocre-to-awful pitchers. We didn’t hit a single one of them hard. Not one.

That’s why there were so many questions at the press conference today. The reporters’ goal wasn’t to get TLR upset. They were concerned, because this “FIRST WEEK OF THE SEASON” has been absolutely terrible.