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.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.