How Important Is The Middle Infield?
Cardinal fans have long associated winning baseball with strong middle infielders. The championships of the forties had All Star shortstop Marty Marion. The powerful sixties teams had All Stars Dick Groat and Julian Javier. The eighties featured arguably their greatest duo in Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and the cocky Tommy Herr. The strong clubs of the early Aughts highlighted the greatest seasons of Edgar Renteria at shortstop.
The last five seasons have been a different story, however, as the team has chosen to install a revolving cast of bit players, converted outfielders, and junk parts in those two crucial infield positions. It’s difficult to argue with the results – two championships and four postseason appearances – but it’s almost shocking to consider how well the team has managed with a middle infield as bad as we’ve seen since 2006.
Think about this: the Cardinals have not received a .300 average from a middle infielder since David Eckstein hit .307 in 2007. They have reached 80 double plays just three times in the last eleven years despite playing behind Dave Duncan pitching staffs groomed for ground ball outs. We haven’t seen ten home runs or more than 50 RBIs from either position since 2005.
That 2005 season may be the last time the team featured a fundamentally-sound, consistent, and offensively-productive infield core. That season David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek each hit .294, and combined for 16 home runs and 120 RBIs. In addition, they fashioned 108 double plays behind Grudzielanek’s astonishing .990 fielding percentage (the best the Cardinals have had in almost two decades).
Prior to that, the Cardinals were accustomed to installing solid, star-caliber players up the middle. In Edgar Renteria, the Cardinals had their first head-turning shortstop since Ozzie last back-flipped across the lawn. Renteria’s numbers impress – .300 average, double-digit homers, 100 RBI seasons, and WAR values above 4.0 – but they look like Hall of Fame statistics after five seasons of players like Khalil Greene, Ryan Theriot, Tyler Greene, and Pete Kozma.
True, there will always be a Tripp Cromer counted on to screw up an occasional season. But up until 2005, the Cardinals always seemed to have at least one strong player to anchor their middle infield.
For whatever reason, the organization has decided that second base and shortstop are less valuable positions, a place to experiment or hide bad players with good clubhouse attitudes. The turning point seemed to come from the 2006 championship, when the Cardinals won the World Series with Eckstein and the gritty Aaron Miles combining for less than 2.0 WAR and somehow snatching an MVP award from the team’s larger talents.
Since 2006, the Cardinals have received exactly one performance of greater than 2.0 WAR from any player in their middle infield, when TLR whipping boy/Chris Carpenter chew toy Brendan Ryan posted a 4.3 WAR in 2009 solely with his idiot-savant defense.
Even more frustrating, the team seems unwilling to settle on any one player to solidify either position. The Cardinals have featured an incredible 10 players in those two positions during the last three seasons. Granted, Rafael Furcal was supposed to hold down shortstop during 2012, but even that signing was more of a gamble than an actual plan.
The organizational assessment of both positions seems wildly out-of-whack. For instance, Skip Schumaker was arguably the best second-baseman on the 2012 team (.276 avg., .986 fielding percentage, 0.8 WAR), but he was continuously benched for Daniel Descalso (.227 avg., .971 fielding percentage, -0.2 WAR). It’s almost as if the team WANTS to field the worst-possible middle infield in defiance of baseball logic.
This is particularly odd considering how the team has been constructed during this time period. Most of the pitching staffs of the last five years have been of the change-up/ground-ball variety, which would seem to indicate the need for a stronger middle infield.
However, the team continues to win despite whatever gimpy, awkward, often embarrassing middle infield is assembled by the organization. It almost makes me wonder how much influence a strong middle infield has on the eventual performance of a team. It also makes me eager to see the team finally groom potential stars like Kolten Wong into real major league infielders capable of ending the Cardinals’ long spell of incompetence up the middle.