With One Hand Tied Behind Their Back

As I’m writing this, Albert Pujols is playing at third base. He’s starting there for the first time in almost a decade. Apparently it was his idea, and he approached La Russa about it. The whole thing is ridiculous given the history Pujols has with his throwing elbow. I’m tempted to write about that, but there’s not much more to say than “what the hell?” especially when I heard La Russa’s justification. He wanted to get Allen Craig into the lineup without playing Allen Craig at 2b. Never mind that Craig’s spent significant amount of time at 3b himself…

This brings me to what I really want to talk about. For some reason, the Cardinals have insisted on handcuffing themselves with their defensive alignment. In my last post, I complained about the pool of players that have been “hitting” in the 7-1 slots for the Cardinals. Theriot, Punto, Descalso, and Greene have been Very Bad at Hitting and ideally we wouldn’t see so much of them on a day-to-day basis. But assuming that we have to see them, why is TLR playing them all at the wrong position?

There have been several variations of this problem, but I’ll use the May 14 lineup as the best example.  Tyler Greene at 2b, Ryan Theriot at SS, Daniel Descalso at 3b.

I’ve already talked about Ryan Theriot and how he should play 2b instead of SS.  He’s lost some range in the last couple seasons, and he proved he can play there last season.  He was mediocre, with 7 errors in 119 games, a -1.6 UZR, and fangraph’s Total Zone runs above average pegged him as neither a plus nor minus defender.  It’s not great, but if you have to play Theriot for some reason, 2b is the place to play him.

Daniel Descalso is also a 2b.  Not because of age or skill reasons–he’s actually shown a good arm for 3b so he has the natural talent for the position–but because of experience.  Between his rookie season in 2007 and the beginning of this season, Descalso made 17 plays at third (all last year).   He doesn’t have much experience there.  Counting this season, where he’s gotten almost all of them, Descalso has 239 innings at 3b.

Tyler Greene, meanwhile, never played 2b in the minors.  The first time he was ever asked to play second in pro ball was in the majors.  In two seasons, Greene has shown himself to be a bad second baseman.  He made 2 errors in 76 innings there last year, and has already made 2 errors in 66 innings this year.  His time at 2b is so limited that there simply isn’t enough of a sample size to use advanced fielding stats to determine anything.  Counting this season, Tyler Greene has 160 innings total at 2b in his 7 year pro career.

To put everything together, the Cardinals are surrounding a bad SS (Theriot) with two players who have played less than 1/3 of a season at their respective positions combined.  There’s no reason for this.  Nick Punto, as much as I like to trash him, should probably never be on the bench with the current roster composition.  Not only does he have significant experience at 2b, 3b, and SS…  But he’s actually a good fielder.

The composition of the Cards’ roster isn’t great right now.  But they’re utilizing what little they have terribly.  When the Cardinals keep sending out lineups with defensive alignments like the one on May 14  (or ones featuring Pujols at 3b) they are practically playing with a handicap…and against the Reds, they shouldn’t be hurting themselves like that.

UCB Progressive Game Blog: The Third Inning

Today I am participating in the United Cardinals Bloggers progressive game blog, an annual UCB event where a number of Cards Blogs each cover an inning of a single game.

For coverage of the second inning of today’s game, check out the awesomely-named Aerys Sports Cardinal site Aaron Miles’ Fastball .  For a full list of bloggers participating in the UCB Progressive Game Blog, head over to the main United Cardinals Bloggers page.

After the third inning, the Milwaukee Brewers have a 1-0 lead.  It could be a lot worse.  Fortunately, we can thank Casey McGehee for giving Colby Rasmus the chance to get his first outfield assist of the season, allowing the Cardinals to escape the top of the inning with minimal damage.

It could have been a great inning for Lohse, who struggled with his pitch count through the first two.  He retired Counsell and Braun quickly.  Then Prince Fielder came up and spooked Lohse, probably by looking at the pitcher like he was an extra-large veggie burger.  Lohse all but pitched around him, setting up McGehee’s RBI double.

Prince Fielder scored from first base, the ground shook as far west as Colombia, and Rasmus threw to the cutoff man instead of trying to nab fielder at home.  This was a heads-up play, not only avoiding a potential fatal collision between Fielder and Molina, but catching McGehee off-guard.

If you believe in momentum, that was the sort of play that should have reversed it.  Rasmus stopped a rally before it could get out of hand, and the Cardinals came to bat with the wind at their sails.  Unfortunately, it was also time for the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup.

First up was Daniel Descalso, who earned some leniency with a well-timed HR on Tuesday to give the Cards the lead over the Marlins.  Single game heroics aside, Descalso has been awful so far at the plate.  He came into today’s game batting .221/.276/.368.  After him was Tyler Greene, who has managed to be even worse at .206/.289/.324.

Nine pitches later, Kyle Lohse came up to the plate with two outs to complete an easy inning for Brewers starter Yovanni Gallardo.  If Lohse reached base, next up would have been Nick Punto and his .222/.349/.306 line.  That’s a nice IsoD.  It’s remarkable that pitchers throw Punto anything but strikes.  But it’s still abysmal.

Counting the pitcher, the Cardinals have four players in the lineup with an OPS under .660.  Ryan Theriot is out today.  At least at the moment, he would marginally improve the situation with his .682.  .682 is also bad.  And this success, which is only relative to the rest of the light-hitting infielders on the team, has come from a BAbip-fueled high batting average.  Even when he comes back, the Cardinals are conceding almost half their at-bats to fringe hitters.  Three out of nine starters are utility players who would be fine bench options or #8 hitters on a good team.  Surrounding the pitcher, they create an oasis for opposing starters.  Berkman and Holliday aren’t going to hit .400 forever, and when they regress it’s going to get ugly if they don’t have some backup from the rest of the lineup.  Hell, even an off day from the heart of the lineup could turn into a no-hitter.

To make things worse, we’re not sacrificing offense for defense with these guys.  As long as Theriot continues to start at SS, the infield defense will be shaky.  And it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving any time soon.  So the Cardinals aren’t getting anything out of the black hole at the bottom of the lineup… although I admit that Descalso is incredibly impressive at 3b considering the last time he spent significant time there was 2007 at low-A ball.  It’s not good enough to make up for his hitting, and it’s not good enough to make up for the error machine that TLR installed at shortstop at the beginning of the season.

So, what’s the solution?

I want to see Matt Carpenter and his .429 OBP in AAA on the major league team.  Bat him leadoff.  No, I’m not kidding.  He’s got a career .107 IsoD in the minors.  He gets on base.

Move Theriot to 2b, and platoon him with Skip when he comes back.  Theriot against lefties, Skip against righties.  I don’t like Skip’s defense at 2b at all, but he’s got a .780 OPS against righthanders for his career.  Theriot has a similar .782 against lefties.  It’s not fantastic, but it’s a lot better than what we have.

I wouldn’t mind handing the position to Descalso, hoping he could work out the kinks and find the success he had in the minors.  But TLR won’t give up on Skip or Theriot.  Descalso should work on his hitting in AAA as a starter at 2b.  If putting Carpenter at leadoff isn’t an option (and I know it isn’t) a Schumaker/Theriot platoon could probably get on base at a decent clip.

As for shortstop?  Well, absent a trade I don’t think we have any great internal options.  Punto can take a walk and he has decent defense.  I’d let him have it for now but explore trade options.  Tyler Greene?  At 27 he hasn’t shown any indication he can be a major leaguer.  He needs to go.

Carpenter-Rasmus-Pujols-Holliday-Berkman-Molina-Schumaker/Theriot-Punto.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better.  The Cards need to do something if they’re going to avoid ugly innings like the bottom of the third.

For the fourth inning, head on over to Fungoes.

The Most Unlikely of Heroes

If you pressed me to name the two Cardinals I’d least like to see at the plate during a critical at-bat, I would say Nick Punto and Gerald Laird. Punto is a perennial joke. If not for Cesar Izturis, he’d probably be the worst major league hitter who has somehow continued to be a major league hitter. Gerald Laird is almost as bad, with a worse batting eye. Their value is entirely on the bench, as backups, and they should be as far from critical situations as possible.

But in the last two games, both Punto and Laird have come to bat in those critical situations. And they have both hit go-ahead triples and led the Cardinals to victory. It’s almost enough to make me wax poetic about the magic of baseball.

These are both guys I like to make fun of. Watching Nick Punto hit is like watching Orlando Bloom act. He’s terrible, but he tries really hard.

Announcers say this all the time. We hear all the time about the hustle of Ryan Theriot or Skip Schumaker or Aaron Miles. But I’m inclined to believe it with Nick Punto. Maybe I’m buying into the act. Maybe it’s just that, unlike most gritty terrible players, Punto has developed a good batting eye. Given how awful he is, it’s amazing how many walks he takes. When he gets lucky, and BAbip treats him well (see 2006, 2008) he’s almost decent. He really seems to do all he can with the talent he has. It’s just he doesn’t have much talent, relative to other major leaguers.

I don’t think that’s a good reason to give him a lot of playing time. I think he’s an ideal 25th man because he can, in theory, play every position. It’s helpful to have one player on the team who can fill that role. He can make double switches work smoothly, he can be a buffer against mid-game injury, and he can pinch run/fill in for the terrible defensive players the Cards have in the infield in the late innings.

Gerald Laird, on the other hand, is only on the team because he is a member of the Backup Catchers Club.

The Backup Catchers Club is a mysterious organization. I have never been to one of their meetings. I have never seen one of their membership cards. I have never even heard one of their members acknowledge their existence. But I know they are real. There are certain players who have, through age or some other black magic, become members of an exclusive organization that vouches for their ability as major league catchers. And that is all teams need to know, damn the stats.

How else would Gerald Laird still have a job? Why was Jason La Rue employed past 2006? Is there any other possible explanation for Henry Blanco?

Anyway, because of his membership in the Backup Catchers Club, Gerald Laird is on the Cardinals. And he occasionally starts games because Yadier Molina needs a break and because Bryan Anderson has not yet completed the twenty-six rundowns required to achieve total freedom on all dynamics and become Backstoperating Thetan V and an official member of the Club. Until then, he’ll never be a backup catcher.

So yeah, I kind of resent the amount of playing time that Nick Punto and Gerald Laird get. But that doesn’t mean I don’t cheer for them. In a strange way, a huge hit from an unlikely source is even more exciting. I might hate on Laird and Punto, but was still thrilled by their unexpected triples.

What will happen next? Ryan Franklin triples home the winning run tomorrow?