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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Next Phase in the Cardinals Long Term Strategy

Does David Freese foreshadow the future of Cardinal prospects? Ideally, yes.
The Cardinals of the early 2000s benefited greatly from Walt Jocketty's willingness to trade prospects willy-nilly for veterans. Statistical analysis was still infantile at the time and in a battle of scouting departments, Jocketty usually did well for himself. The addition of guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen at relatively cheap costs proved fortuitous.
The Cardinals of the late 2000s surely look like a transitional period in retrospect. The team went through a rebuilding process that was masked largely by the club's ability to spin gold with mediocre pitchers and having the best player in MLB during his prime. Albert Pujols of the late 2000s masks a lot of sins.
Now the Cardinals find themselves reaping the bountiful harvest of prospects they've been caring for since 2005 on. The organization has built depth in their system and blue-chip prospects that is arguably the best in the league. I'd take the Cardinals pre-arbitration team over just about anyone else's.
The Cardinals aren't likely to see the arrival of pitchers like Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal for a while again and almost certainly not at the same time. The coincidence of their ascendance to the majors makes for a formidable amount of young, cheap talent producing at the same time.
In a few years, it will make for a formidable amount of young, highly credentialed talent headed for arbitration at the same time.
This will be the Cardinals next looming decision on a large scale and it is a fascinating one. The Cardinals aren't the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics that have to trade away their talent. The club has shown a willingness to extend young players when it makes sense for both sides (see: Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig). But extending one or two players is different than extending five or six. The club has also seen some of their early contract extensions hampered by injuries.  Their is risk there.
So while the Cardinals don't have to be the Rays or Athletics, in a sense they get to be those teams -- or at least the best part of those teams. The Cardinals will have the chance to be supremely opportunistic over the next 3-4 years. They get the chance to watch for the next Wil Myers who is about to hit the market from a desperate GM and then trade for that player from their stock of players approaching free agency.
David Freese isn't a perfect parable for this story. He was coming off a down year and the Cardinals received an injured player in return. As much as anything, this was a swap of underperforming players. From a contract perspective, however, this is exactly the type of deal the Cardinals will be looking to make in coming years. They shift a player whose salary is rising and whom they aren't overly interested in extending to another club for a cost controlled, younger asset.
The trade of Freese has all sorts of complicating factors but it's the first indication in some time that he Cardinals are willing to part with some slightly aged Fabrege eggs -- to resurrect the derisive Joe Strauss term from a few years ago. (PS - I have to wonder if Strauss sees how foolish that all looks now that said eggs were the foundation of the Cardinals post season run last year. I'll guess he lacks the introspective quality to acknowledge it. Alas.) The club now has to figure out how to transition from trading those medium value players like Freese to trading someone with a lot more value that they can't agree to a club-friendly deal with.
If you've watched the Athletics or Rays over the years, what they've shown is that there is a pretty clean timeline for moving a player. Somewhere between that player having two seasons of arbitration left and having one season of arbitration left. Basically, there's a two offseason window with a summer trade deadline in between. Trading players too early is giving up too much of their surplus value. Trading players too late means a diminished return during the trade.  Call it the Goldilocks of trade timing: not to early, not to late but just right.
Each trade is it's own beast and no one is immune to a bad trade. The particulars of what dumb/desperate GMs are out there in any given offseason vary. The availability of other prospects that interest a team changes.  But the Cardinals have an opportunity to turn their drafting success into a cyclical product that essentially rebuilds itself -- while continuing to augment through the draft.
The Athletics and the Rays have shown what that model looks like. The Cardinals can emulate it. The fun part is that the Cardinals can emulate it ... and then spend another $60M a year that those clubs can't.
It's a good time to be a Cardinals fan.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Value of a Great Bench

After a weak bench in 2013, the Cardinals' off-season moves have given them as solid a bench as almost any team in the majors.
The Cardinals' bench looks likely to feature Mark Ellis, Jon Jay, and Tony Cruz. The other outfield spot will probably be taken by either Shane Robinson or Oscar Taveras. The other infield spot is a tossup among Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, and Greg Garcia.
That's a pretty outstanding bench to start with.
Oscar Taveras will probably make an appearance at some point during the season. His projections are off the charts, Kemosabe. Oliver's somewhat suspect projection thinks he'll hit for a .347 wOBA and be worth 3.8 WAR, if given 600 PA's. Steamer is more conservative, claiming he'll hit for a .332 wOBA and be worth an extrapolated 2.1 WAR over 600 PA's (I'll use 600 PAs because most of these projections for playing time are speculative). ZiPS splits the difference, aiming at similar offensive production (.334 wOBA) and a 2.7 WAR over 600 PAs.
Last year, ten teams didn't get 2.1 WAR (Taveras' most modest projection) out of their right fielders. Only 12 teams got better than 3.8 WAR from their right fielders. Taveras would be a threat to start in right field in a lot of organizations, not merely a bench player. Of course, Taveras might turn out to be a threat to take over in right field later in the season, or at least to force some shared playing time across right field, center field, and first base.
* * * * *
Mark Ellis started at second base for a playoff team as recently as 2013. He projects to be worth 1.6 WAR by Oliver across 600 PAs, about 1.5 WAR by Steamer, and roughly 2.2 WAR across 600 PAs if I remember the ZiPS projection right. He doesn't often play a full season, last getting 600 PAs in 2007. Still, 11 teams got less than a win and a half from second base last year. He could easily be a starting second baseman for the Rockies, Braves, Nats, Cubs, Marlins, White Sox, or Blue Jays; some teams (like the Mariners) had poor second base production in 2013, but have since shored up their second base position. While Ellis looks like a barely average to slightly-below-average second baseman, second base is a weak position across the league.
* * * * *
Jon Jay also started in center field for a playoff team in 2013, but looks likely to share time at best this season. Projections are all quite bullish on him. He has a 2.5 WAR projection from Oliver, a 2.9 WAR projection from Steamer, and a 1.9 projection from ZiPS. He looks like a solidly average centerfielder. Anywhere from 8-10 teams would be seriously thinking about starting Jon Jay in center field.
* * * * *
Probably in a surprise to some, Tony Cruz does fairly well by projection systems. Oliver thinks he's a 2.0 WAR catcher. ZiPS, extrapolated, would make him a 1.5 WAR catcher across a full season. Steamer's projection looks like it anticipates him being a 1.8 WAR catcher over 600 PAs. There's a good bit more uncertainty in his projection, since he has so little major league playing time, so he gains a fair amount by regression to the norm. But even ZiPS's worst projection basically expects him to hit in line with his career numbers; Cruz has a .263 wOBA for his career, and ZiPS anticipates a .264 wOBA in 2014. If Cruz played up to ZiPS 1.5 WAR full-time projection, fully ELEVEN teams would have been better off with Tony Cruz as their full-time starting catcher last year. Let that sink in for a minute.
* * * * *
The remaining bench players have a hodge-podge of projections. Oliver is way too forgiving of Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma (with 1.9 and 1.5 WAR projections, respectively), but the other systems project them both to be worth less than 1 WAR across a full season. Both Steamer and Oliver think Greg Garcia will hit well as a major leaguer (94 and 96 wRC+ projections for Garcia), while ZiPS places him much lower (a .289 wOBA, which looks like an 84-85 wOBA to me). Garcia's downside basically looks like Descalso's ordinary projection. Shane Robinson projects with some upside. He has a 2.1 WAR projection from Steamer and a 3.0 (!) projection from Oliver, while ZiPS seems a bit more plausible (1.0 WAR across a full season).
* * * * *
Our bench is in excellent shape. We will have anywhere from 2-4 players on our bench who could be starting for lesser teams. And the other candidates for the bench look like proper bench players. Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso look much more appealing when you are no longer expecting them to start at shortstop routinely. As role players, Kozma, Descalso, Garcia, and Robinson look like good fits.

Goold: Have the Cardinals found true glove?

Start with the premise that the Cardinals will score fewer runs in 2014.
That’s something that team has had to obviously consider.
In 2013, the Cardinals hit better with runners in scoring position than any lineup had in several generations. As we’ve detailed before here in the blog and in articles for the Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals’ uncanny .333 average with runners in scoring position (RISP) meant that they scored about 100 more runs in 2013 than they would have if they just hit the league average with RISP. The Cardinals led the National League with 783 runs scored.
Cast them as mere mortals in RISP at-bats and they slip to, oh, about Pittsburgh Pirates level. That’s average, but it’s not aspiration-killing because the Pirates made the playoffs and gave the Cardinals a push before the Cardinals pulled away for a baseball-best 97 wins. The Pirates won 94 games by scoring enough to support a strong pitching staff and the second-best team defense in the National League. In other words, they didn’t have to score as much because they didn’t allow as much. They maintained a strong run differential – plus-57.
The Cardinals had a plus-187 run differential, and they faced in the World Series the only team with strong run differential (Boston, plus-197). Run differential is an excellent way to judge the best teams when scanning the standings. Fourteen teams in the majors had a plus run differential in 2013 and all 14 had winning records. All 10 of the playoff teams in the majors had a plus run differential. Duh. But run differential isn’t just the act of scoring a lot of runs – though that does lead to the league-leading totals that say the Cardinals and Red Sox had. If the Cardinals accept that they are going to score fewer runs, they can still maintain a strong run differential. They must allow fewer runs.
This was the buzzphrase from a few winters ago: run prevention.
Given that the Cardinals’ pitching staff was also one of the strongest in the league in 2013, the way for them to improve their run prevention isn’t on the mound. It is in the field.
The Pirates were a plus-68 Runs Saved on defense.
The Cardinals were a minus-39.
Do the math.
While the club will have to find more power from internal sources, several of the Cardinals’ moves this winter have been done with the intention of maintaining the run differential by improving the defense. The addition of Peter Bourjos means a potential upgrade defensively in center field and cleared the way for Matt Carpenter to move to third base, his more natural position. Rookie Kolten Wong has the inside track on second base, but if he falters the Cardinals this past weekend spent at least $5.25 million to secure one of the best defensive second baseman in the game, Mark Ellis.
The Cardinals’ acquisition of Jhonny Peralta is a downgrade defensively – trading much better bat for lesser glove than Pete Kozma – but the numbers show that Peralta is an “even” fielder. The eyes, which are just as important to understanding defense as the improving metrics, tell us that Peralta uses positioning to make the most of his range and compensate for the reach he lacks at the position. In total plus/minus, Peralta is a minus-25 in his career at shortstop, but keep in mind that he’s a plus-12 in his last 4,184 2/3 innings at the position, and he’s had four Runs Saved in that stretch. He’s improved in the field from his youth. Has to be the savvy, right?
All of that leads to this question: Did the Cardinals substantially improve their defense?
The answer: It should be the most-improved facet of the 2014 club.
The Cardinals set a club record for the fewest errors committed last season. I’m going to assume that we’re all past the point where we believe that is a measure of good defense.
It’s not.
The Cardinals were a below-average defensive team. Subpar. Erratic. Fuzzy. At times, costly. This was on display in the postseason and whenever the team played in one of baseball’s bigger ballparks, like they did for the opening series in Arizona. Bill James Online and Baseball Info Solutions track more-enlightened defensive stats than errors (valuable, but not for defense) and fielding percentage (complete garbage stat). BJO has the plus/minus numbers you’ve seen here before and the Runs Saved metric that is calculated as a result. The Cardinals had a minus-39 Runs Saved, and only statuesque Philadelphia (minus-102) was lower. Seven AL teams were worse than the Cardinals, putting them right at the top of the lower third for defense.
For context, here were the best defensive teams, per Baseball Info Solutions:
  1. Kansas City, plus-93
  2. Arizona, plus-86
  3. Pittsburgh, plus-68
  4. Milwaukee, plus-58
  5. LA Dodgers, plus-47
  6. Atlanta, plus-46
  7. Texas, plus-39
As you can see, defense and Runs Saved is not the indicator that run differential is or offense is when it comes to measuring playoff-bound or winning teams. Detroit, for example, had a minus-66 when it comes to defense. But the Tigers, like the Cardinals, had the offense and the pitching to overcome those heavy gloves. Teams like Seattle (minus-99) or Washington (minus-16) didn’t. Six NL teams were minus on defense. The Cardinals were the only one to reach the postseason, and they won the NL pennant.
The drag caused by the Cardinals’ defense is clearer when going position by position, through the spectrum of fielders (see my trusty Yellow Legal Pad doodle for more info). A look at the team Runs Saved totals for the Cardinals, by position (NL rank in parentheses):
P – minus-4 (12th)
C – plus-10 (2nd)
1B – minus-5 (15th)
2B – minus-3 (10th)
3B – minus-10 (14th)
SS – zero, or “even” (8th)
LF – minus-16 (14th)
CF – minus-5 (10th)
RF – minus-6 (11th)
Baseball Info Solution then adds those up to arrive at the minus-39 for the team. (Keep that in mind.) The Cardinals only had one position – catcher – that ranked in the top third for the league, and the club had five positions that ranked in the lower third. Catcher was buoyed by Yadier Molina, who was a plus-12 (third in MLB) at catcher. Leading individuals at the other eight positions that defined or defied the scores at their positions (MLB rank):
P Adam Wainwright … plus-4 (17th)
1B Allen Craig … minus-1 (20th)
2B Matt Carpenter … even (19th)
3B David Freese … minus-14 (33rd)
SS Pete Kozma … plus-8 (5th)
LF Matt Holliday … minus-13 (34th)
CF Jon Jay … minus-10 (32nd)
RF Carlos Beltran … minus-6 (25th)
It is through these individual scores and team scores that we can gauge whether or not the moves the Cardinals have already made this winter will/should improve the defense.
It takes some finagling with the numbers, some averaging, and some use of rates. But it works. It does hinge on past performance being an indicator of future production, but I’ve tried as much as I can to avoid the Small Sample Size Theater. It’s impossible with rookie Wong, who had 111 innings at second base in the majors in 2013. But that’s a good place to start.
Carpenter was an average second baseman by the end of the season, his first at the position at any level. He was an even fielder there, Daniel Descalso finished a minus-3, and Wong in limited exposure at second base was an even fielder. Ellis is an exceptional fielder there. Ellis’ 12 Runs Saved at second for the Dodgers last season was the second-best of any everyday second baseman. He has 47 Runs Saved at second in the past four seasons, and he’s a plus-48 at the position in his last 3,901 1/3 innings played there.
That takes second base from a minus-3 in 2013 to a potential even in 2014 if Wong takes over the position or a plus-14 with Ellis in the field.
To come to that number, I took Ellis’ average Runs Saved over his previous 3,901 1/3 innings played and stretched over 1,200 innings at second base in 2014. That would be the everyday player – or roughly the equivalent of 133 complete games played in the field. I used that same figure (1,200 innings) to calculate Carpenter at third base, Craig in right, Adams at first base and so on and on. As mentioned above, Peralta has four Runs Saved in his past 4,184 2/3 innings and that hints at one Run Saved as the everyday player in 2014.
Bourjos has to stay healthy and in the field to reach his potential, but with 33 Runs Saved in his past 2,635 2/3 innings in center field, he can be a run-stealer in center.
On opening day 2014, the Cardinals will have only two players returning to their positions: Molina at catcher, Holliday in left, and (from the Dept. of Obvious) Wainwright at pitcher. Six other players will be new to the team or new as the starter at their position or both. That’s a tremendous amount of churn for the pennant-winning team. But it does lead to an improved defense. Check out the same spectrum that we highlighted earlier from 2013 with the potential totals for 2014:
P – minus-4 in 2013 … returns with minus-4 in 2014
C – plus-10 in 2013 … returns with plus-10 in 2014
1B – minus-5 in 2013 … Adams projects for minus-2 in 2014
2B – minus-3 in 2013 … Wong projects for even in 2014
3B – minus-10 in 2013 … Carpenter projects for plus-5 in 2014
SS – even in 2013 … Peralta projects for plus-1 in 2014
LF – minus-16 in 2013 … returns with a minus-16 in 2014
CF – minus-5 in 2013 … Bourjos projects for plus-15 in 2014
RF – minus-6 in 2013 … Craig projects for minus-5 in 2014
(Note: I re-calculated many of these based on the 1,200-inning rate and have not updated the totals below from when the blog was originally filed. -- dg.)
As Bill James Online does to arrive at the team totals for Runs Saved, we can add those totals up to get a sense of how the Cardinals have improved in the field.
The total from the above would be plus-4.
That’s a plus-43 Runs Saved reversal.
Include Ellis as the everyday second baseman, and that jumps to plus-57.
That’s enough glove to get away with less bat.