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.

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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.

Whiskey Tango Franklin

There are a whole lot of things I could write about Sunday’s game against the Braves. Most of them have already been covered earlier at some point in this blog. Ryan Franklin is a bad pitcher, Ryan Theriot is a bad shortstop. Trying to wring anything more out of these subjects would be agonizing. I think everyone knows my opinion about the two Ryans at this point. Frankin is a long reliever and Theriot is a second baseman. Relying on them in critical innings or at shortstop respectively has led to predictable disaster. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Et Cetera. Et Cetera.

But that’s not all that happened. The Ryan-fueled collapse wasn’t the biggest loss the Cardinals suffered on Sunday. David Freese was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his hand. Once again, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a third baseman.

Freese getting injured and missing significant time was almost as predictable as a Ryan Theriot error or a Ryan Franklin walk-off loss. Yes, HBP injuries are unexpected. Yes, it has nothing to do with his ankle. But we’ve seen this before. Think back to June 17, 2001, when J.D. Drew lost 6 weeks to a broken finger when David Wells drilled him in the hand.

These two injuries, combined with the bizarre career of Nick Johnson, almost make me want to believe that avoiding the DL is an innate talent that certain people simply lack. But I won’t go that far. It’s far more likely that this is just confirmation bias rather than some incredibly mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta that allows the victim to play baseball and live a normal life but makes HBPs, foul tips, and bad baserunning far more dangerous.

Whether or not an injury to David Freese can truly be unexpected, the injury still happened. And it caught the Cardinals off guard. In fact, combined with an earlier precautionary exit from David Freese, TLR was forced to move Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since–

Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s not why Albert Pujols had to take his surgically reconstructed elbow across the diamond, where he actually has to use it. That’s not why a player who hasn’t played 3b in nearly a decade was put there during a tie game.

All of that happened because Tony La Russa pinch hit Jon Jay for Tyler Greene. AFTER both of the injuries. The decision was made to pull Greene from the game with the full knowledge that someone would have to play out of position at either 2b, SS, or 3b. (And Ryan Theriot was already playing out of position at SS.)

It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen from TLR. And that’s saying a lot, because I can still remember the day he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman, and when he double switched Matt Holliday out of the lineup during a 20 inning debacle. There’s a reason Albert Pujols is not the Cardinals’ 3b. It isn’t like we’re keeping him at first because of the fantastic options we have at third. He’s a 1b because he’s been diagnosed with a bad case of Fucked Up Elbow. And last I checked, throwing across a baseball diamond is not part of the recommended physical therapy for Fucked Up Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, TLR has backed himself into this corner before. On April 22, 2008, an injury to Cesar Izturis coupled with typically poor bench management by the Cards front office left the team with a deficit of infielders. That time, however, TLR made the right decision. He put Pujols at 2b.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the right decision. But if you start from the assumption that “moving Pujols off 1b” is a critical part of the solution, 2b is the best place to stick him. Throws at second base rarely require much force, and it’s probably the second best position on the diamond for a player with a halfway reconstructed elbow. Yes, Pujols wouldn’t have any range at 2b, but neither does Skip Schumaker and that never seems to bother La Russa.

If TLR moved Pujols to 2b for a couple innings, I might have made a few jokes. It would have been funny. It would have made a few fantasy baseball teams with very low playing time requirements juggernauts. But it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous for the Cardinals’ season, or Albert Pujols’s career.

And now, of course, the team has to make do without David Freese. From the sounds of it, the Cards are activating Allen Craig rather than calling up Matt Carpenter. What does this mean? It means we’re going to have to fill three spots in the lineup (and the entire infield defense minus Albert) with the following players: Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig.

How terrifying is that?

Middle Infield: A Work in Regress

A few days ago, the Seattle Mariners announced that Brendan Ryan would be their starting shortstop. Jack Wilson would move to second base. Ryan, of course, was the Cardinals shortstop last year. Wilson is a former Cards farmhand. He was traded 10 years ago for LOOGY Jason Christiansen. This was Walt Jocketty’s second worst trade as Cards GM, which says more about Jocketty’s success than Wilson’s talent.

Ryan is a very similar player to Wilson. They are both phenomenal fielders and poor hitters, though they show unexpected flashes of adequacy at the plate that can probably be explained by sample size and luck. It’s strange to see them paired up. They will combine to form a terrifying vacuum of offense in the lineup and on the field.

I want to poke fun at the Mariners middle infield. I want to call out the strange decision to let Jack Wilson and his clone get at-bats in the same game. I’m not sure I like their thinking that other infielders can play 2b even if they aren’t experienced there. It didn’t work terribly well with Chone Figgins, and Wilson hasn’t played there in the pros. But I can’t focus on any of these things in good faith because I look back at the Cardinals and they’re doing something even worse:

Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot.

Whenever I start to think about opening day, whenever I start to get excited that baseball is going to begin, I remember that our middle infield consists of Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot. They are memento mori. They remind me that I, too, will die.

Skip Schumaker is not a 2B.

To be honest, I thought the experiment was interesting. I was glad the Cardinals were willing to experiment with the defensive spectrum. I’m still glad the Cardinals are willing to experiment with the defensive spectrum. Lance Berkman in RF scares me, but it’s an exciting gamble.

But Schumaker is not a 2B. We tried. It was a worthy attempt. He’s a hard-nosed, athletic player who didn’t hit well enough to be a corner OF but played infield in college. I don’t blame the Cardinals or Tony La Russa for trying to make him a 2B. If it worked, it would have been great. But it didn’t. After two years, he’s still defensively one of the worst infielders in the majors. Total Zone numbers put him at -6 runs in the field last yar. UZR puts him at -15.4. Fielding Bible +/- had him at -9. He had 16 errors.

I’m wary about fielding statistics. Sometimes they disagree with each other. Sometimes they aren’t consistent year-to-year. But every single one agrees that Skip Schumaker is an absolutely horrible infielder. It’s a consensus, and no one who sees him play would argue against it.

Of course, if he hit well I’d be happy to ignore all those numbers. Defensive statistics aren’t as good as offensive statistics and it’s easy for a good hitter to thrive as a bad fielder, even at a position like 2B. Jeff Kent was a bad 2B and it was foolish to complain about his defensive issues. Dan Uggla is awful but his OPS is in the .800s.

Last season Schumaker had a line of .265/.328/.338. Those aren’t the numbers you want if you’re putting up with a terrible infielder. Those are the sort of numbers that are somewhat easily replaceable, even on the infield. Those are the sort of numbers that would get a guy released if he was an outfielder. And Skip Schumaker is an outfielder.

Schumaker, however, is only half the problem. The Cardinals are replacing the defensive wizardry of Brendan Ryan with the defensive shoddy workmanship of Ryan Theriot. Theriot comes to the Cardinals from the Cubs by way of the Dodgers.

Theriot hit .270/.321/.312 last year, which is to say he was a worse batter than Skip Schumaker. He’s a better fielder, though, and if he was going to be the 2B at least that would be something to feel good about. However, Theriot will be the starting SS for the Cardinals. He barely played at SS last year, but (to be fair) it wasn’t entirely his fault. He was moved off SS for 2B for Cubs rookie Starlin Castro.

Castro, however, wasn’t a terribly good SS. Total Zone has him at -12, UZR at -3. So it wasn’t like Theriot was supplanted by Ozzie Smith. Castro, however, hit well enough to stick and the Cubs never tried switching their positions. The Dodgers never even let Theriot get an inning at SS so the totality of the circumstances doesn’t suggest Theriot was an exceptional defensive SS. And when a starting position player has a .633 OPS, he should probably be exceptional.

That’s the Cardinals middle infield. Schumaker and Theriot. A slap hitting OF and 2B at 2B and SS respectively.

I want to look forward to the season. Sometimes it’s hard.