Cardinals put faith in defensive numbers in signing Jhonny Peralta

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Jhonny Peralta should be a terrible defensive shortstop.

Defensive ability peaks significantly younger than offensive ability, and Peralta wasn’t really any good defensively in what should have been his prime. As a 24-year-old in 2006, he was the game’s second worst shortstop by UZR. In 2007, he was the fifth worst.

By 2008, Peralta graded out better, playing pretty much average defense according to UZR, but the Indians moved him to third base the next year, making room for Asdrubal Cabrera at short. In 2010, the Tigers acquired him and moved him back to short, where he was again average initially. And then a funny thing happened. Here are Peralta’s career UZRs in the seasons in which he played 500 innings shortstop:

2003: 2.5
2005: -6.1
2006: -10.6
2007: -12.4
2008: -1.0
2011: 10.3
2012: 11.5
2013: 3.5

In both 2011 and 2012, Peralta rated as the game’s third best shortstop. In 2013, he was 14th.

It’s a pretty amazing turnaround made more complicated by the fact that we know Peralta was at least dabbling in PEDs for a portion of it. The narrative for baseball is that steroids=home runs, even though it’s never made much sense to look at it that way. Sprinters, cyclists and the rest didn’t take to doping to build up their biceps.

We know Peralta isn’t a particularly fast guy. He has 13 career steals in 11 seasons, getting caught 21 times. However, his range ratings have gone from horrible in his mid-20s to above average these last three years. The rest of his game has always been solid: even during his days as a bad shortstop, he was above average when it came to avoiding errors and average at turning the double play. His arm is a strength.

As for the range, well, that can largely come down to positioning. Cal Ripken Jr. wasn’t fast either. Troy Tulowitzki isn’t speedy. Adam Everett and Brendan Ryan, two of the game’s very best shortstops over the last decade, weren’t/aren’t factors on the basepaths.

Peralta has obviously gotten much better at learning where to play hitters through the years. To my eyes, he still looks for all the world to be a below average defensive shortstop. But after three years of UZR saying the opposite, I have more faith in the numbers than in my eyes.

I’m still not a fan of the Cardinals’ reported move to give him $52 million for four years. He’s a cheater, and if nothing else, it adds greater uncertainty to what we can expect from him going forward. Offensively, he was great in his 107 games when he wasn’t serving his steroid ban last year, hitting a career high .303 with a .358 OBP and a .457 slugging percentage. However, it took a ridiculous .374 BABIP to produce that .303 average; he actually had his highest strikeout rate since 2007. His career BABIP is .315, and he figures to come in much closer to there next year, which could result in a .260-.270 average. He’s far from a consistent force:

2009: .254/.316/.375 – .691 OPS
2010: .249/.311/.392 – .703 OPS
2011: .299/.345/.478 – .823 OPS
2012: .239/.305/.384 – .699 OPS
2013: .303/.358/.457 – .815 OPS

Of course, just getting average offense and average defense from shortstop would be a huge upgrade over what the Cardinals have received of late. I wouldn’t expect much more and I wouldn’t want to be on the hook for the back half of that contract, but for 2014, he makes the NL’s best team considerably better.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.