The Eckstein Signging
I've been dragging my feet in regard to writing my thoughts on the David Eckstein signing. Personally, I was expecting the announcement of his double play partner to be announced by now as well, allowing me to discuss both at once. However, since it's now been almost a week since the David Eckstein era began, I decided I'd better get to it.
As has been mentioned many times, Eck has a career OBP of .347. Not mentioned quite as often is the fact that he hasn't had an OBP that high since the 2002 season, when Eckstein helped take the Angels to a World Series championship. In that season, Eckstein had a career high .363 OBP along with 21 stolen bases, putting him in a position to score 107 runs. In the two following seasons, Eckstein only got on base at a rate of .325 and .339 respectively.
In some of the various articles and message boards I checked out after the signing, I began to read some things that - in my mind - made a little sense. Some of the posters on Baseball Think Factory pointed out that Eckstein had actually been very good at drawing walks while in the minor leagues. Their reasoning for his lack of walks in the majors was simple - the Anaheim Angels and hitting coach Mackey Sasser preach against drawing walks. This did not seem completely out of line for me, as I remember many Rob Neyer types during the 2002 playoffs talking about how much the Angels depended on hitting rather than getting on base. The theory then was, if the bats cooled down they were sunk. As it ends up, they didn't, so they weren't. (Of course, they haven't won a playoff series since 2002.)
So - is that true? Was Eckstein better at getting on base in the minors? I looked up his numbers on The Baseball Cube, which I might add is a great resource for minor league and college numbers. What did I see? Quite an improvement. While in the Red Sox system, Eckstein actually drew 87 walks over 503 at-bats in A ball, followed up by 89 walks over 483 at-bats in AA. Unfortunately, however, TBC doesn't have hi by pitch stats from the minors, and thus they do not have minor league OBP values. So....I made some predictions. Based upon his career HBP numbers, I calculated Ecksteins minor league OBP's.
1997 (Low A) - 68 games, .400 OBP
1998 (High A) - 135 games, .425 OBP
1999 (AA) - 131 games, .435 OBP
2000 (AAA) - 134 games, .369 OBP
Interestingly enough, we see (in my estimation) an increasing OBP from level to level until he hit AAA, in which his OBP fell. Of course, those are estimations on my part that could change greatly depending on how many times he was hit by pitch. So, let's just look at his walk rate, which I'm calculating as BB divided by AB (even though a walk doesn't count as an AB).
1997 - 13.3%
1998 - 17.3%
1999 - 18.4%
2000 - 14.6%
2001 - 7.4%
2002 - 7.4%
2003 - 8.0%
2004 - 7.4%
That is quite a drastic change between 2000 (last year in the minors) and 2001 (rookie campaign.) I think that it is in fact quite possible that Eckstein was changing his approach at the plate once he reached the major leagues. Whether is was an edict from the Angels, his own choice, tougher competition, or a combination of the three? Well, we may never know. However, it's hard to imagine a guy that was able to walk around 15% of the time suddenly becoming so overpowered by opposing pitchers that his walk rate fell off by a factor of two. I personally think that this is encouraging. Hopefully, the Cardinals and new hitting coach Hal McRae will encourage Eckstein to get on base more often via the free pass. If so, maybe an OBP of .350 or greater will not be out of the question after all.
The other thing that seems to be of concern about Eckstein is his lack of range and throwing arm. I think most have heard that Eckstein had the fewest errors at short last year with just 6 on the season. However, I also think that many have read that he was very low in regard to range factor, which is true. I'm not sure the story ends with those two statistics, though.
Fielding Percentage - .988 (1st in the majors)
Range Factor - 3.83 (22nd in the majors)
Zone Rating - .859 (6th in the majors)
What do we see here? A guy who makes plays on the balls that he gets to, but who has a mixed review in regard to his range. Range factor claims he has horrible range. Zone rating, however, tells another story. Which is true?
Range factor, for those that may not know, is calculated by simply adding together a player's putouts and assists, then dividing by the number of innings they play in the field (multiplied by 9.) This is a great rough calculation to measure the value of a defender. After all, it does stand to reason that a player with a lot of range should in fact have more assists and putouts than a lesser player. Of course, it does have its limitations. What if a player is on a team that contains a lot of strikeout pitchers, thus having fewer outs required by the defense? Or what if a team is heavy in regard to flyball pitchers, thus making infielders look worse than they are?
In 2004, the Anaheim Angels had the 4th most strikeouts in the major leagues, having a rate of 7.2 strikeouts per 9 innings of play. The Cardinals, for comparison sake, had a rate of approximately 6.4 K/9. St. Louis fielders had almost 1 extra ball hit in play each game in which to affect the fielders Range Factors. What's more, I have read that the Angels staff was a flyball staff, although I have not been able to confirm this despite looking at several web sites.
What does that tell us? Eckstein played on a team that struck out many batters, giving fewers balls in play. Furthermore, they were supposedly a team that gave up more fly balls than an average team, meaning fewer fielding chances for the infield. Those things, combined with Eckstein's above average zone rating, tell me that Eckstein may in fact be a slightly above average fielding shortstop who could flourish on a groundball staff. Here are the 2004 fielding stats of the guy Eckstein is replacing.
FP - .983 (5th)
RF - 4.41 (12th)
ZR - .855 (9th)
There is a chance that the Cardinals may in fact have a player in Eckstein who will end up with similar defensive output to Edgar Renteria when the dust clears after the 2005 season - which we actually saw when comparing defensive win shares per 9 innings in a previous article.
My first instinct on this signing was that it was for too much money over too many years. Overall, Eck received a $250,000 signing bonus, along with $2.25 million in 2005, $3.5 million in 2006, and $4.5 million in 2007 giving the deal a total value of $10.5 million over 3 years. My personal feeling was - why? Here is a guy that would probably have been happy to have signed with the Cardinals for 1-year at $1 million or less. After all - can you name any other team with playoff potential in 2005 that was looking for a starting middle infielder? I honestly can't. A 1 year deal would have allowed the Cardinals to get a feel for Eck, and allow Eck to gain appreciation for St. Louis, thus potentially signing for less money.
But the more I thought about the signing, the more I was ok with it. The Cardinals are, in essence, getting a player very similar to Orlando Cabrera. Of course, they're getting him for 1 less year and $22 million fewer dollars. Furthermore, they are paying Eckstein over the next 3 years essentially the same amount of money they were willing to pay Renteria in 2005 alone. The Cardinals could pay Eckstein his $2.5 million for this year, put another $5 million in investments to draw interest and not even have to worry about coming up with his paycheck through the end of his contract.
Eckstein's contract doesn't even seem to be way out of line until the 2007 season, in which he is due $4.5 million. Of course, as I already mentioned - the Cardinals will likely have the money on hand at that point if they are smart right now. On top of that, they will be coming out of their first season in the new stadium at that point. Revenue's should be a bit higher at that time, making his contract very small potatoes. Right now, it's hard to imagine this contract coming back to "Tino" the Cardinals. And if Eckstein really does re-discover how to draw walks? He could be an absolute bargain.
Eckstein, in my opinion, was the best option for the Cardinals at shortstop in the current market. I would have loved to have had Renteria back, but $10 million a year is too much in my mind. I was never fond of Orlando Cabrera, and would much rather have Eckstein at 30% of the cost. Polanco would have been a nicer option, in my mind - and maybe it's still not too late? Time will tell....
Regardless, the Cardinals have a guy at short that should be adequate. He may not make Ozzie Smith type plays at short, but he's not going to hurt the team. He's never going to display power, but is not in town to carry the Cardinal offense.
Eckstein is the type of player that the press is going to go nuts over. He plays hard, "knows how to play the game," and "does all of the little things." I'm pretty certain that I'm going to get sick of reading articles and seeing reports along those lines by the middle of Spring Training. Of course - I also like to watch guys that play hard. (I prefer guys that play hard with Scott Rolen's talent, but they don't come along every day.)
Worst case scenario? The Cardinals have a hard working, fan favorite type player who is overpaid by 2007, if not 2006.
Best case scenario? Eckstein starts getting on base more like his minor league days, providing the Cardinals with the best leadoff hitter they've had since the 2000 version of Fernando Vina, while providing gold glove caliber defense at shortstop. And I realize I'm biased - but I don't think that's a long shot.