Is Ryan Theriot a David Eckstein clone? Comparing Theriot against other shortstops

Tale of the Tape:

PlayerHeightWeightCareer Batting Average (BA)Career On Base Percentage (OBP)
David Eckstein5'7"175.280.345
Ryan Theriot5'11"180.284.348

Yeah, I know, these are simple, outdated statistics.  Fear not my friends; I will bring you other comparisons here such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Defensive WAR (dWAR), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), UZR/150, and Hit By Pitch (HBP) when comparing these two SLWGs (Scrappy Little White Guys).  I had to start somewhere, however, and after heading over to Ryan Theriot’s Baseball-Reference.com page, I noticed that the 3rd most similar batter to Ryan Theriot through the age of 30 is none other than David Eckstein.  If you look at that page, you’ll notice some other familiar Cardinal names on the list of similarity scores such as Aaron Miles and Brendan Ryan.

First of all, let me state that I’m a Cardinal fan who thinks it was not a coincidence that David Eckstein was the starting shortstop on two World Series winning teams.  While I love stats, I also think that Eckstein was one of those players that brought more than stats to his team.  I think there was something special about him.  It could be that Eckstein happened to be on the right team at the right time.  It could be that his defensive range was covered up during his Cardinal years by possibly one of the best defensive 3rd baseman in the history of MLB in Scott Rolen.  It could be that without a once possible Hall of Famer like Rolen, borderline Hall of Famers like Jim Edmonds and Dave Duncan, and definite Hall of Famers like Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa as his teammates and leaders, he never gets a chance at World Series MVP.   It could also mean that without Eckstein, the others never get a championship.

On the flip side of this, it’s hard to say the Cardinals were a better team in 2006 with Juan Encarnacion in right field rather than Larry Walker.  It’s easy to say Walker would have done better in the 2006 than the 4 for 22 that Encarnacion put up in the NLCS, or JE’s 0 for 8 in the World Series.  A few questions are raised here.

1.  Can a key member of a World Series winning MLB team be the 6th or 7th best player on a team?

2.  How do you measure a players worth outside of the box score?

3.  Can you replace a starting player of any championship winning team with another player and say they still would have won?

Let me start with #3.  I always say that if Peyton Manning would have been the starting quarterback on the New England Patriots they would have won as many, if not more Super Bowls than they’ve won with Tom Brady.  It’s my way of saying I think Peyton Manning is a better quarterback, but that Tom Brady has had a better team.  I think the Colts would be lucky to win 2 games in PM ever goes down with an injury.  The fact is that we’ll never know.  Another example I like to use is Derek Jeter.  I think the Yankees could have replaced Jeter with many other shortstops and won just as many World Series titles as they have with him, if not more.  What about the previous comparison of Walker and Encarnacion?  If Walker would have been on the team instead of JE, would that somehow have changed the way the game unfolded that allowed So Taguchi to hit the home run off of Billy Wagner in game 2?  Again, we’ll never know.

So going in the opposite direction, I’ve heard a lot of fans say the Cardinals would have won the 2006 World Series with Edgar Renteria as the starting shortstop.  I’ve always thought that wouldn’t have been the case.  I say that because I felt watching the Cardinals that Eckstein brought something extra.  When you ask Yankee and Patriot fans if their teams would have won without Jeter or Brady, most of them would say no, they brought something extra outside of their stats.  So why should I disagree with them, they watch their teams and have more passion about them than I do.  I mean, really, how many Yankee fans would understand how important David Eckstein was to the 2006 Cardinals?  He was the right player on the right team at the right time.  How can you argue with success?

#2—How do you measure a players worth outside the box score?

With David Eckstein, it was more than watching him play.  It was more than the passion.  There’s actually a stat you can put your finger on.  That stat is Hit By Pitch (HBP).  From 2001-2007, Eckstein was in the top ten in being hit by a pitch every year, leading the league twice.  So you can actually say he took some for the team.

But what is something that doesn’t show up in the box score?  How about the times he danced around after getting on 1st base, causing the pitcher to throw over more to keep him in check, making the 1st baseman hold him on and open up a hole on the right side, distract the catcher, cause the pitcher to make a mental mistake to the batter?  How about the fact that he hustled every single ground ball out, forcing a fielder to make an error by rushing a throw or maybe playing in a little closer.  I’m sure there are plenty of other players that do it this way that we don’t hear about.  Maybe it’s because of their natural talents as a player that makes it less special.  Maybe it’s because I know that Eckstein will play all out on the last day of the season, with his team out of the race and without a contract for the following year that makes him special.  However you want to say it, I don’t think you can deny that Eckstein did more than his stats suggest.

#1—Can a key member of a World Series winning MLB team be the 6th or 7th best player on a team?

If the Cardinals make no other changes and win the WS in 2011, can we attribute that to Ryan Theriot?  What if he puts up below or at career averages?  A lot of questions would be disputed either way.  If the Cards win the WS in 2011, Theriot will not be the best player on the team.  It will be because Pujols, Holliday, Rasmus, Wainwright, Carpenter and probably a few others were surrounded by a good enough complementary team.  It doesn’t mean that Theriot won’t play a big part in getting us there or coming up with a key hit in Game 3 of the NLCS that led to a run and us winning 3-2, for example.  I’m not sure if Jeter has ever been a top 5 talent stat wise on a Yankees championship team.  Number one on the list has mainly been Mariano Rivera in my opinion.  When players can’t hit a pitch they know is coming at bat after at bat, year after year, picking anyone else is a tough sell.  You can add A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia to the 2009 team.

You can point to some stats to prove me wrong, but if you look at Jeter’s Defensive WAR (dWAR) from every year the Yankees won the World Series with him as the starting shortstop:

1996 was a -1.3

1998 was a 0.2

1999 was a -1.3

2000 was a -2.4

2009 was a 0.3

I’m using defense mainly because that’s what the Cards are sacrificing in bringing in Theriot over Brendan Ryan.

You can easily say that Jeter’s defense didn’t get them there.  While his diving into the stands cut under his eye play will forever be etched in everyone’s mind, it doesn’t quite tell the complete story of “Why Derek Jeter doesn’t deserve a single Gold Glove Award.”

Despite his lack of defensive range, you would be hard pressed to find a Yankee fan that thinks the Yankees could have won the WS in any of those years without Derek Jeter.  Jeter has been a consistent offensive punch in the Yankees lineup, and it really is getting hard to call a man with nearly 3,000 hits overrated.  I’m in no way saying that Derek Jeter compares to Eckstein or Theriot, but all 3 of these players have been referenced many times as guys that bring more to their teams than stats.

So, I guess the answer is yes, a key member of a championship team doesn’t have to be a one of the best players on a team.  Eckstein and Jeter are just two examples.

For one more defensive stat, let’s look at Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).  Ryan Theriot’s UZR total as a shortstop in his career is a 3.4.  Derek Jeter has a total of -42.4.  To give Jeter a break, let’s do UZR/150, which is the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games.    I will add Eckstein, Brendan Ryan and Edgar Renteria to the list to give it some base.

PlayerUZR/150
Theriot1.4
Jeter-5.1
Eckstein-2.4
Ryan11.4
Renteria0.2

While Brendan Ryan clearly leads the field, does it surprise anyone how Theriot stacks up against some of the other well known players?  So if we could live with Eckstein’s defense and lack of range at shortstop, can’t we live with Theriot’s since their offensive numbers are similar?

Now, to give Jeter his due and proper, let’s look at WAR.  WAR takes into account offense and defense, and is a great stat for a players overall value.  Let’s take a look at each of the above player’s WAR over their first 5 years, since that’s how many seasons Theriot has had in the majors, excluding his 2005 stats, where he only appeared in 9 games.  I’ll also leave out each players stats before they qualified as a rookie.

PlayerWAR total after first 5 seasons in MLB
Theriot8.4
Jeter24.7
Eckstein12.3
Ryan8.5
Renteria9.9

On another side note, I had to take Brendan Ryan’s first 4 years, average them out, and add the averaged WAR of 1.7 a season to his total to make up for the lack of his 5th year.  Using WAR this way might be a bit of a jump because of the number of at bats involved.  Also, a problem with adding Jeter to the list is the fact that he has many more AB’s per year than most players.  For instance, the Yankees are so stacked that Derek Jeter averages 745 plate appearances and 658 AB’s per year.  If you compared that against Albert Pujols, he receives 705 PA’s and 596 AB’s per year.  Basically, Jeter gets on average an extra 62 AB’s per year than Pujols.  I used Pujols because he’s a star player that has spent a minimal amount of time on the injury list, just as Jeter has.  How many more hits would Pujols have if he played for the Yankees, and how many HR’s, hits and RBI’s could you add to his totals?  That’s another article for another day.

Again, I like using WAR because it combines all aspects of the game.  So, Jeter overall has more value than any player on this list, but not as much as you would think.  And as you can see, Theriot, Ryan, Renteria and Eckstein have WAR stats that are pretty close.  There might be some problems with using this stat here like the number of at bats and injury time, but isn’t time on the DL a factor anyway?  When you look at it from the standpoint of Ryan vs. Theriot, Ryan outshines Theriot 8.5 to 8.4.  So how much will the Cardinals be losing by this move?  Could they possibly be gaining?  Will the clubhouse be better off?

I think you have to take other things into consideration here.  How much of a players mentality over a 162 schedule is damaged by their team not being in the race?  Next, how many times have we seen players come to the Cardinals and be invigorated by the fans and atmosphere and have career years?  How well does a certain player do on a given team as far as team chemistry.  And finally, it’s apparent Tony LaRussa no longer wants Brendan Ryan as a part of the Cardinals.  I’m not sure what goes on behind the scenes, but Ryan is in Tony’s doghouse, and the change has been made.  Maybe it was really because the Cardinals felt they needed more offense and couldn’t take the chance on Ryan putting up his 2010 offensive numbers again.  Maybe they know something about his wrist that we don’t.  Maybe he’s just in Tony’s doghouse, and that’s it.  No matter what it is, it doesn’t look like Brendan will even be around for 2011 as a bench or late inning defensive sub.

While the original title was about Theriot being like Eckstein, I’ve steered off into a few different directions.  The fact is that Tony LaRussa likes what he sees in Theriot, his price was right, and the change was made.  No matter what you think of LaRussa, he’s 3rd on the all time wins list as a manager, his opinion is going to matter and he knows more than we do about what works for the Cardinals.  I’m sure there are many things behind the scenes we will never hear about that have to do with the Cardinals giving up on Brendan Ryan.

Maybe most of the things I say here are a reach, and if you just look at sabermetrics, that can easily be said.  But what about the scout who looks at more than stats?  You have to figure guys like Eckstein and Theriot probably wouldn’t be in the majors without them and how their grit is quantified.

Finally, I don’t know if Theriot is going to be like Eckstein.  I’m not sure either one of them hustled any more than Brendan Ryan ever has.   Like I said, maybe it gets noticed more because of their size and natural ability.  You can’t take out the fact that guys like Eckstein hustle on every play, because let’s face it, a majority of players don’t.  They wouldn’t have gotten as far as they have playing any other way.

There does seem to be something about Brendan Ryan that rubs teammates the wrong way sometimes.  All I know is that besides from what I read about Tony, I’ve seen Albert Pujols give Ryan the evil eye at times, and Chris Carpenter had to pull him in the dugout in Cincy because of a glove.  It also seems that Al Hrabosky has been more critical of Brendan Ryan than others at times, as if he knows someone in the Cards organization isn’t thrilled with Ryan and Hrabosky wants to be on the right side.  Whatever it is, it would seem that there are more to these stories than just a bad throw and a glove.

Because of these things, maybe it’s time for the Cards to look in another direction.  Even though Ryan is the best defensive fielder in MLB, he didn’t hit well last year and seemed completely lost at the plate at times.  So if for no other reason than to replace Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot just might be what the Cardinals need.  Maybe it will work.  Maybe 2006 magic will strike us again with a SLWG.

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