The Cardinals’ hole at second base

Like many who follow the St. Louis Cardinals closely, I was well aware that recently-released second baseman Adam Kennedy was essentially a part-time player during his two most recent seasons with the club despite having been signed to a three-year, $10 million contract in November, 2006.

Coming off a 2007 during which he had been slowed by injury and batted just .219, Kennedy was not fully able to claim the job as his own due to offensive inconsistency throughout 2008.

Yet until I looked at the numbers associated with the principals at the second base position last season, I did not fully appreciate how much of a job share it truly was, or what an offensive inequity existed between the players. (I did not include Kennedy’s hideous 2007, as it is obvious he was terrible that season, instead just focusing on 2008.)

Was Tony La Russa vindictive in wanting to keep Aaron Miles over Kennedy as some accuse or did the Cardinals’ skipper just realize the former is better offensively?

My conclusion from what you will see here is that the utilityman Miles may be missed more than even I first thought.

Kennedy vs. Miles – 2008

2008 total AB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Kennedy 339 0.280 0.321 0.372 0.692 86
Miles 379 0.317 0.355 0.398 0.753 102
vs RHP
Kennedy 265 0.283 0.326 0.392 0.719 85
Miles (LH) 268 0.317 0.345 0.407 0.752 94
vs LHP
Kennedy 74 0.270 0.299 0.297 0.596 72
Miles (RH) 111 0.315 0.377 0.378 0.755 97

In a comparison of the 12 center cells* in the above table, last season the switch-hitting Miles topped Kennedy in every single measure, including average, on-base, slugging and OPS, whether hitting against left- or right-handed pitchers. Kennedy’s supposed platoon advantage against right-handers is nowhere to be seen.

(* I lumped OPS and OPS+ together in the above statement, since by definition the relationship between the two is hard-wired.)

Of course, neither second baseman is Hall of Fame material, though the best season by Miles in 2008, an essentially major league-average level (102 OPS+), clearly outshone Kennedy’s top season of his two as a Cardinal returnee.

Interestingly, in terms of being in the opening lineup, both were basically part-timers, with 83 and 81 game starts respectively last season. Miles offered the added advantage of playing all over the diamond, though by September, Kennedy was being molded into a utilityman himself for the first time.

Starts 2008 Kennedy Miles
2B 74 49
DH 1
1B 2
RF 6
LF 3
3B 5
SS 24
Total 83 81

Adam ended up making a half-dozen starts in right field during the final month of the season after having covered first base for a few games in June while Albert Pujols was out. They were Kennedy’s first-ever stints at both positions as a major leaguer.

A historical view

La Russa’s deployment of the two at their natural position, second base, illustrates their relatively consistent usage there as starters over their two seasons together as Cardinals.

2B starts 2008 Games 2007 Games
Kennedy 74 Kennedy 75
Miles 49 Miles 62
Lopez 20
Ryan 18 Ryan 15
Barden 1 Barden 2
Spiezio 4
Cairo 4
Total 162 162

Looking at the data, one might conclude that rather than Kennedy having been the one to lose starts at second base to late-arrival Felipe Lopez, it was Miles who ended up seeing less time there.

Taking a bit of a historical side step, here is a snapshot of the recent highs and lows in terms of the primary starter at second base each season during the La Russa era in St. Louis, from 1996 through current.

Team leader Year Player Games
2B starts
highs 2001 Fernando Vina 150
2002 Fernando Vina 149
average 1996-2008 107
lows 2003 Bo Hart 65
2006 Aaron Miles 72

Considering Fernando Vina’s high-water years skewed the 13-year average to over 100 games, it is clear that a significant job-sharing arrangement at second base is not as unusual it might first seem.

In fact, in over half of La Russa’s seasons in St. Louis, seven of 13, his busiest second baseman started in 105 games or fewer. The least stable year at the position was 2003, when Bo Hart led the way with just 65 games started.

More on Miles

Yet Miles was also often deployed elsewhere – primarily as the reserve shortstop, first through David Eckstein’s injuries and later, Cesar Izturis’ struggles at the plate. He did become a credible, if not stalwart defender at the position. Not surprisingly however, the numbers indicate that Miles seemed most comfortable offensively when playing second base.

Kennedy 278 0.270 0.310 0.324 0.634 71
Miles 223 0.341 0.377 0.439 0.817 119

When Miles departed St. Louis after being non-tendered for essentially the third year in a row, La Russa’s comments were exceptionally complimentary.

“We took a big hit with Miles (leaving),” La Russa told the Post-Dispatch in early January. “I never had a teammate any better than Aaron Miles, in all of the years I’ve managed. This guy deserves every bit of credit, recognition, respect for his three years with us that you could give him. This guy was really good for us. It was paining for him to leave us, and he left, and that’s a tough loss.”

At the time, I wrote that off as La Russa simply being politically correct, but looking at these numbers, I can see a bit more of the reason why the manager may have felt that way.

All for the team

Here we have Kennedy’s and Miles’ 2008 numbers split between games the Cardinals won and games they lost.

In 2008 wins AB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Kennedy 174 0.310 0.358 0.443 0.800 86
Miles 199 0.332 0.364 0.432 0.796 86

Last season, in Cardinals victories, Kennedy and Miles were essentially the same player. Miles had a better average, but only slightly better on-base mark, while Kennedy had a bit more power.

In 2008 losses AB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Kennedy 165 0.248 0.279 0.297 0.576 83
Miles 180 0.300 0.345 0.361 0.706 125

On the other hand, when the Cards were losing, Kennedy’s OPS was absolutely terrible, 20 points worse than even his putrid results against lefties. Miles continued to put up good numbers as the club was trying to come back from deficits, especially when compared to the league (125 OPS+).

That led me to go one step farther – to check on how the Cardinals did as a team when these two were starting.

Of course, there are many other factors that determine a win or loss that may be more important than the offensive contribution of the second baseman. Still these numbers have proven to be most interesting.

Starting with Kennedy, we see that the 2008 Cardinals had a sub-.500 win rate, both in any game in which he participated as well as the subset of contests in which he started at second base. Kennedy’s starting mark at all positions combined was buoyed by a 5-1 record posted by the club during his late-September outfield tryout.

2008 Win Loss %
Cardinals 86 76 0.531
with Kennedy 57 58 0.496
w/AK start 43 40 0.518
w/AK start 2B 36 38 0.486
w/others start 2B 50 38 0.568
w/AK start DH 1 0 1.000
w/AK start 1B 1 1 0.500
w/AK start RF 5 1 0.833

It is also worth noting the club lost the same number of games, 38, whether Kennedy started at second or not, yet when another second baseman was in the lineup, they picked up 14 more victories than they did when Kennedy was in there.

Miles’ data tells a different story.

2008 Win Loss %
Cardinals 86 76 0.531
with Miles 67 67 0.500
w/AM start 43 38 0.531
w/AM start 2B 28 21 0.571
w/others start 2B 58 55 0.513
w/AM start SS 11 13 0.458
w/AM start 3B 3 2 0.600
w/AM start LF 1 2 0.333

When Miles was in the lineup at second base or even when coming off the bench, the Cardinals were a winning club. The only exception was when Aaron was given the start at shortstop, reinforcing a point I made earlier.

The bottom line

When putting this all together, I can understand completely why La Russa came out in favor of keeping Miles over Kennedy.

The manager has been known to make dismissive remarks about stats being elevated in importance over what is seen by his eyes, yet in this case, both views seem in concert.

The reality is that we all have to deal with the fact that both players are gone from the 2009 club. Some combination of the contenders now in camp will need to step up and claim what I would forecast, barring a new entrant into the contest, to be a share of an either stated or unstated platoon arrangement at second base this coming season.