Eckstein Effect: Ryan Theriot could be exactly what this Cardinals team needs

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The 2006 World Series was where Eckstein’s legend was made in St. Louis. And it took his legacy in baseball to another level.

Eckstein watched from the bench as the Cards seven-game division lead shrank in the last 12 games. St. Louis held on to win the division by 1.5 games with an 83-78 record. Eckstein was just trying to hold himself together.

The Cards shortstop was hurting heading into October with a strained left oblique, strained left hamstring, and strained left shoulder. Eckstein battled through the playoffs, but before Game 6 of the NLCS, the trainer suggested he sit down. Eckstein refused to take himself out of the lineup during the most crucial time of the season and he didn’t miss one inning.

After a brutal 0-for-11 start in the World Series against the Tigers, Eckstein put together some big-time at bats in Game 4, fouling off pitch after pitch before getting hits. He finished the game with three doubles and a single. The momentum continued in the series-clinching Game 5 when he smacked two singles and drove in two runs.

Eckstein went 8-for-22 in the series, earning him MVP honors.

It validated everything he had worked for and it validated him as a proven shortstop in the league. He led a team to the World Series at the position for a second time. That kind of accomplishment isn’t just about talent.

La Russa praised his MVP after the World Series.

“To me, he’s our shortstop,” La Russa said during the postgame celebration. “And believe me, he’s more than just guts, he’s a very good player.

“He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever seen in a uniform.”

***

Ryan Theriot stands a little taller than Eckstein at 5-11, but his reputation and identity is nearly identical.

Theriot began his major league career as a utility man for the Cubs, playing nearly every position in 2007. He made in on hustle and guts, sprinting down the line every time he made contact. Like Eckstein, he plays the game with a youthful energy.

“The Riot” became a fan favorite immediately in Chicago.

He has been a guy who keeps the old soul of the game alive. A guy who doesn’t jump off the page statistically, but plays the right way. Plays winning baseball.

Theriot soon settled at shortstop at Wrigley and played nearly three seasons at the position. He also often hit leadoff, sparking the Cubs big win streak in 2008. He can set the table for the big boppers in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.

The table was often bare for them in 2010, a major reason for the Cardinals disappointing year. Brendan Ryan failed to get the job done at the plate for a team desperately in need of contributors on offense. Ryan hit ninth on a National League team because of his offensive ineptitude. The pitchers hit eighth far too much in 2010.

St. Louis wasn’t a championship team with Ryan. Making a move to shake things up on a team stuck in neutral was essential. The Cardinals can move on and so can Ryan. Neither needed each other.

Right now, one could argue the Cardinals and Theriot need each other. Based on Theriot’s track record, the Cardinals should get a .280 hitter who can steal 20 bases. That would be a beautiful thing for St. Louis, considering the team already loves Theriot for his intangibles and that winning attitude. Theriot needed a team to believe in him again after last season.

***

Joe Posnanski recently questioned his value. Even calling it comical. The idea of Theriot being the reason Ryan could be traded is funny to him an many others.

It’s nothing short of a joke that the Cardinals keep telling everyone. And everyone’s laughing. Except St. Louis and except Theriot. They’ve already dealt with it all before and they’ve had the last laugh.

If the Cardinals could survive without Renteria, they can live without Ryan. Renteria was every bit as good, if not better than Ryan with the glove and he was far superior with the bat.

St. Louis not only survived, they won the World Series.

Theriot can be that refreshing presence in a dead locker room. The Cards didn’t play with an edge or any sense of urgency all season and it showed as the pennant race played out.

Theriot should prevent that complacency from setting in this year. He’ll be out to prove the Cubs wrong for letting him go so easily. The Castro call-up wasn’t the first slap at Theriot. The Cubs challenged and beat Theriot in arbitration last February, a process that can get very personal and all so the organization could save $800,000. And the Dodgers wrong for playing Jamey Carroll at shortstop ahead of him. The same Jamey Carroll who – as Posnanski pointed out – hadn’t played a game at short in the majors in three seasons. The Cubs and the Dodgers, two complete messes, didn’t even respect him.

But the Cardinals do. He’s their shortstop now. And as La Russa said that magical night in 2006 about Eckstein, he’s more than just guts, he’s a very good player.

And he’s also 31 years old, the same age of Eckstein during the 2006 World Series run.

Theriot’s overall scrappy attitude should rub off on his teammates. It should help restore the Cardinal way. And it the Cardinals should help him restore his pride and reputation.

***

Sabermetrics and advanced statistics don’t measure heart and intangibles though. Their proponents often scoff at the David Ecksteins and Ryan Theriots of the world as mediocre players.

The emotionless, black-and-white numbers tell the story objectively. Better than the wise old scout who has sit in ballparks for 50 years watching ballplayer after ballplayer. Better than managers like Tony La Russa who have dealt with players for decades and put together championship teams. And better than the simple-minded and deceiving statistic called the error, which doesn’t account for range.

So, what do the sabermetrics say?

UZR, or ultimate zone rating, is the favorite measure of fielder’s worth in this era. According to FanGraphs, “UZR is the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs and error runs combined.”

Brendan Ryan has led baseball in UZR the past two seasons, making him the top defensive shortstop. It’s an impressive achievement that may have more value than the Gold Glove award which has lost some of its luster and become more of popularity contest in recent years. Ryan earned a UZR score of 11.5 in 2010.

In 2009, his last full season at shortstop, Theriot graded out at a solid 3.7. For some perspective, Jimmy Rollins who won his third straight Gold Glove that season, scored a 4.6. Rollins has outstanding range, a cannon, and he’s one of the smoothest and best shortstops in baseball. According to UZR, Theriot was on Rollins’ level defensively.

Juan Uribe played shortstop for the world champion Giants this season. His UZR was 2.1. He’s not the most athletic guy to ever play shortstop, but he made some great plays.

In 2006, David Eckstein’s UZR was 1.5, hardly Ryan’s gaudy score over 11. But Eckstein’s club won a championship. Ryan’s Cardinals team didn’t even make the playoffs.

The numbers and formulas may add another level of depth to the arguments and comparison, but they don’t give definitive answers either. Errors may be deceiving sometimes, but UZR and Gold Gloves can be too.

***

Theriot is at the very least Eckstein’s equal. He is an above average fielder and that’s all the Cards need — someone to make the routine plays. Someone to play his role to help the team win.

Because when the season starts, it’s all about winning. Period.

Stats are fun to analyze sometimes. Awards make for exciting debates. Offseason moves are questioned over and over again.

But none of it matters if the team doesn’t win. Winning championships is the ultimate goal. It’s all that matters. Unless a player is destined for the Hall of Fame, winning is the only way to be remembered.

David Eckstein will be remembered. Right now, Brendan Ryan won’t be. And neither will Ryan Theriot.

Theriot still has time. And he’s getting a chance with in St. Louis to add and polish his legacy. He’s getting another shot as a starting shortstop in the major leagues. And if he can help Albert Pujols and Co. to a World Series title one day, no one can take that away from him.

No one will remember his 2011 UZR rating 20 years from now. No one will remember how many errors he makes. But everyone will remember how he played. And everyone will remember him if St. Louis is a winner again. And that’s what it’s all about.

Like Eckstein, he’ll have the “Face of a Champion.”

(Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN.com, FanGraphs, Los Angeles Times, MLB.com, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, USA Today)

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Tags: 2006 World Series Boston Red Sox Brendan Ryan Chicago Cubs David Eckstein Defense Florida Gators Baseball Hustle Intangibles Jamey Carroll Jimmy Rollins Joe Posnanski Juan Uribe Los Angeles Dodgers Ryan Theriot Sabermetrics San Francisco Giants Seattle Mariners Shortstop Sports Illustrated St Louis Cardinals Starlin Castro Tony La Russa UZR World Series

  • Ray DeRousse

    I’m sure Theriot will be a great clubhouse guy. But I’d feel better about him in the field if he didn’t have a crippled third baseman to his right and the worst second baseman in baseball to his left.

  • http://redbirdrants.com Ryne Gery

    I agree with that for sure, especially about Schumaker. The ideal situation in my opinion would have been to get another shortstop like Bartlett, have Theriot play second and make Schumaker into the utility player that he is.

    But I do think Theriot deserves a chance before people doubt him and I think the Cardinals can win with him out there. The Cubs had two of their best years, winning the division twice, with him at short.

    And I think his consistency at the plate is the biggest thing. The team struggled last year because no one could hit or make anything happen. If it doesn’t work out, it’s only a one-year deal so I think this pickup can only be a positive thing for the club.