First of all, go read Fungoes’ excellent take on the Cardinals’ decision to replace Brendan Ryan with Ryan Theriot in 2011.
Having realized that each player had terrible offensive seasons in 2010, I wanted to take a look at which player was more likely to rebound in 2011 given batted ball data from FanGraphs. As Joe Strauss pointed out in his most recent chat, exercises like this may prove futile in that the Cardinals’ decision to trade Brendan Ryan is rooted in far more than statistics. About the Theriot acquisition and its implications for Ryan, Strauss wrote:
He IS an offensive upgrade over a guy who hit .223 last season and was twice benched by his manager for pouting. I’m a Ryan honk due to his spellbinding defense. But those who base their opinion on Ryan’s .292 average in 2009 are missing it. This isn’t solely a statistical issue. It’s also a clubhouse matter.
I’m averse to making personnel decisions based on team chemistry as I’m among those that believe team wins breed chemistry rather than vice versa. Strauss is probably right in reporting that the decision was more of a, “clubhouse matter,” but that doesn’t mean Mozeliak is justified in his decision to replace Ryan with Theriot at shortstop. He must believe that Ryan/Theriot would approximate equal value in order to consider Theriot’s character as the tipping point. Theriot clearly isn’t going to eclipse Ryan’s value defensively, so Mozeliak must believe that Theriot’s offensive contributions will be significant enough to disregard Ryan’s defensive prowess.
Could the Cardinals be expecting too much out of Theriot? After all, he generated a career-worst .286 wOBA in 2010 and has only posted above average offensive numbers once (2008) when given more than 500 AB’s; even in that season, he was only one percent greater than league average (101 wRC+). Of course, Ryan’s .256 wOBA indicated even more pathetic offense. The below table displays each player’s 2010 batted ball data with the numbers in parentheses representing career norms minus 2010 rates. Let’s see if either player is due for upward regression given unlucky results.
2010 Batted Ball Data (Career – 2010)
Theriot’s career offensive season was largely predicated on a solid 11% walk rate and impressive 23.2 LD%. The Cardinals can’t bank on Theriot being a very disciplined hitter since his walk rate was 2.6% above career norms in 2008. Although his annually high LD% is encouraging, his BABIP didn’t really suffer in 2010 despite hitting 1.5% fewer line-drives. Whereas hitting more ground balls isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a player with decent speed, grounders don’t result in hits as frequently as liners. Theriot’s 2010 batted ball data doesn’t suggest unluckiness; rather, his numbers were more or less representative of his overall skill set. For what it’s worth, Bill James does project Theriot to regain some patience at the plate in 2011 (8.3% BB), but I’m not so optimistic as Theriot has seen fewer pitches within the strike zone while walking less often every year since 2008.
Brendan Ryan, however, had a huge disparity in 2010′s BABIP, losing thirty-nine points from his career norm. Some of this was undoubtedly due to hitting more balls in the air, not a positive development given Ryan’s lack of power. But even after replacing more than two percent of ground-balls with fly-balls, 39 points is too big of a discrepancy to explain away his decrease in BABIP altogether. I also wonder how much of Ryan’s struggles can be attributed to experimenting with various batting stances throughout the 2010 season. Instead of vowing to return to his 2009 batting stance, Ryan continues to tinker with new ideas such as choking up on the handle, using a bigger bat, and following through with two hands for at least 1,000 swings. Therefore, any team relying on him will have to accept his inconsistent approach at the plate or convince him otherwise. Regardless, he’s due for some positive regression.
Offense be damned, Ryan was still worth 1.0 WAR in 2010 (according to FanGraphs) thanks to 11.5 fielding RAR while Theriot accumulated 0.0 WAR in time split between the Cubs and Dodgers. Had Theriot spent more time at SS, he would have gained a couple of runs in the positions adjustment, but his overall value still would have fallen short of Ryan. This gap would have been even larger had Ryan not hit into such poor luck in 2010.
Combine all of this with the reality that Ryan is three years younger and roughly $2 million cheaper, and I don’t see how replacing him with Theriot makes sense financially or competitively. I’m trying to withhold judgment since other moves could still be made… but I’m haunted by a similar anticipation that was met by the acquisition of Pedro Feliz following the departure of Ryan Ludwick last July.