Congrats, David Eckstein: 2006 MOP

Over a month has passed since the St. Louis Cardinals were crowned World Series champions and thankfully the memory of the mediocre level of play has slightly dimmed. Sure, in terms of excitement, it was a good series, but the sheer awfulness of the Tigers' play contributed to the Cardinals title victory.

That's not to detract from the Cardinals' achievement. Over the course of the season they held it together sufficiently to win the NL Central, without convincing many of the likelihood that a WS ring was more than an outside shot. Nevertheless, they dispatched the disappointing San Diego Padres easily and sneaked past an injury-ravaged Mets in seven. Congratulations go to Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa for a good job in trying circumstances.

The poor quality of much of the play dictated it wasn't easy to pick a MVP. Chris Carpenter pitched one gem, but voters are unlikely to be swayed by a single dominant performance. Jeff Weaver pitched well twice, but only got one victory, in the decisive Game 5. In the end, as many suspected in the third inning of Game 4 when he broke a 0-11 slump, 5-foot-7, 165-pound (has there ever been a more quoted height and weight?) David Eckstein got the nod.

Eckstein probably did enough to merit the award. Nobody from the Cards' roster can claim they were robbed. Scott Rolen might have a brief whine, but that's not unusual.

What followed from the assembled media after Eckstein brought home Aaron Miles in the eighth of Game 4 was an orgy of sugary, sticky, little-guy-makes-good nonsense, backed up by some dubious "statistics," a few heat-of-the-moment quotes from over-excited team mates with a couple of urban myths thrown-in for good measure.

The most used Eckstein-related words are "grit," "scrappy," "heart," and "small". Nobody can argue with small — 5'7" is definitely small in baseball terms. In terms of calculating ability, size has no bearing at all. Size is merely an accident of birth. What counts is what happens on the field.

Grit, scrappy, heart, guts, determination, and the rest of the "attributes" awarded to David Eckstein are largely irrelevant on a baseball diamond. They are useful on a soccer field, where a little guy can run around the field maniacally making tackles and generally being annoying to more talented opponents. Indeed, these are fairly prized attributes, as Claude Makelele and Gennaro Gattuso can testify, both having made a good living doing exactly that.

Grit and scrappiness are much less useful on a baseball diamond. Baseball is a far less chaotic game than soccer, with defined positions and a greater need to perform routine tasks, like fielding ground balls and throwing them to first base. There's no tackling, either, unless you count breaking up double plays, which few do. So "grit" is pretty useless if you can't get to the ball and throw the runner out in one fluid motion.

Grit, determination, and heart have a place in all sports, including baseball. But they are largely superfluous in measuring a successful baseball player who has a bearing on the outcome of games with some degree of regularity. A player who routinely hustles to first on a routine groundout, like that scrappy-little-pesky-gnat David Eckstein, might actually beat the throw 1 in a 100 times due to his "heart." Conversely, a player that likes to jog to first on groundouts, like that gigantic-unscrappy-slacker Manny Ramirez, will never force a poor throw even 1% of the time. But a lineup of Manny Ramirez clones would destroy an All-Grit team. Talent would win-out every time.

Ignoring the determination-hyperbole, just how good a player is David Eckstein? Measuring a lead-off hitter in terms of HRs and RBIs is pointless. Baseball Prospectus has a couple of statistics that give an indication of his comparative worth. EqA is a complex formula that expresses production of hitters independent of league and park (and grit) effects. Its composition is readily available on the web if you're mathematically-minded.

The league average for EqA is defined as .260. Over .300 is a very good hitter. Basically, it's batting average in a tuxedo.

Eckstein's EqA for 2006 was .251, which equated to 21st amongst MLB shortstops. Non-determined, super-slacker Manny Ramirez had an EqA of .342. Eckstein did miss 39 games (very ungritty of him), so we'll move on to VORP and see if he fares better.

VORP is Value Over Replacement Player and is another mathematical equation that calculates how many additional runs over the course of a season a player contributes above average available talent. Eckstein's 2006 VORP is a gnat-like 9.2. To put that in context, he ranks 217th in MLB in VORP. Derek Jeter had a VORP of over 80, which makes him around nine times better than our scrappy little super-hero.

But those guys at Baseball Prospectus are nerdy characters who like computers, unlike true baseball experts like Bill Plaschke and Tim McCarver, who value scrapination and bigheartitude. Instead of complex math, let's take a look at some good old regular normal statistics that Joe Buck could understand.

Shortstop Comparison

Given that 2006 was a bit of a bust for our favorite pocket-dynamo, I'll use numbers put up over the 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons. In comparison to his peers, Eckstein is the poorest contributor in each category. Eckstein is the worst producer in 70% of the categories against a couple of fellow shortstops considered to be average or slightly above and one (Guzman) of below average ability.

So, without any evidence to suggest Eckstein is anything other than below average as a baseball player, we're left to ruminate on Adam Wainwrights' comments during the World Series.

"You just jam him, jam him, jam him, and get him 0-2 and he turns into a foul-ball machine. Get him 0-2 and all of a sudden you've thrown seven pitches to him. And then he gets a hit on 3-2 and you've thrown 13 pitches to him. You take a couple of at-bats like that and it really works the pitch count."

Tiring out pitchers is a fairly useful attribute, though it comes some way behind hitting home runs, extra base hits. and walking. Maybe this, finally, is our hero's forte?

If Wainwrights' comments are true, it would hold up in the regular season — a nice sample size.

Eckstein ranks 82nd in MLB for pitches per plate appearance. The Reds are looking to trade Adam Dunn because he strikes out too much. Dunn ranks 11th in the same category.

David Eckstein recently won the 2006 NL Holiday Inn Look Again Award for "overlooked" role players. One of his challengers for the award was Colorado third baseman Garrett Atkins, who just happened to go .329/.409/.556 in 2006 with barely a mention from Joe Buck and friends.

Comments and Conversation

December 6, 2006

Seth Doria:

As someone who has watched the Cards daily since Eck came over, I can tell you stats don’t do the guy justice. He makes the whole team better. Sure he’s no Reyes/Jeter/Rollins/Tejada, but for $3 mill a year, who is? Say what you will about all the nonsense from the comentators, but the dude’s a winner. In the end, that’s all that counts.

December 7, 2006

Mike Round:

Does he win because of the talent of others or is he the catalyst?


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