St. Louis Cardinals: Jhonny Peralta Isn’t as Bad as He’s Being Made Out to Be

Sep 27, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Jhonny Peralta (27) celebrates after hitting a three run home run off of Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Matt Magill (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Jhonny Peralta (27) celebrates after hitting a three run home run off of Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Matt Magill (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Jhonny Peralta isn’t as impactful of a hitter as Edwin Encarnacion, but having him in their lineup isn’t automatically going to make the Cardinals an afterthought in 2017.

It’s been a stressful 18 months or so for St. Louis Cardinals infielder Jhonny Peralta. After starting at shortstop for the National League in the 2015 All-Star Game thanks to a .828 OPS in the first half, it’s mainly been a downhill plane. Peralta hit just .243/.306/.325 in the second half of that season, sustained a long-term thumb injury in March of this year, lost his shortstop spot due to the outstanding play of rookie Aledmys Díaz, and suffered another thumb injury before ultimately returning for good in August.

In a matter of months, Peralta seems to have gone from being a celebrated franchise cornerstone to a scapegoat among the team’s fan base. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising for a player who came to St. Louis with quite a bit of baggage, but nevertheless, it’s been a crazy stretch for the 34-year-old.

As a matter of fact, Peralta seems to have become the Jay Bouwmeester of the Cardinals online community this offseason. For those uninitiated with the NHL or the St. Louis Blues, Bouwmeester is a former All-Star defenseman and Olympic gold medalist who is rather highly regarded among the national hockey community but serves as a perpetual scapegoat for St. Louis fans.

Like Peralta, who is set to make $10 million during the final year of his contract in 2017, Bouwmeester has a contract that’s considered by most to be unmovable, but that doesn’t stop Blues fans from endlessly fantasizing about replacing him. That seems to have become the case, too, for Peralta, as fans and media have begun resorting to fantasy baseball-like scenarios in attempt to remove Peralta from the Cardinals’ projected 2017 lineup.

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The latest movement involved a desire for the Cardinals to sign longtime Toronto Blue Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion, who hasn’t played more than 100 games in the field since 2008, to play first base while shifting Matt Carpenter–who was often ripped to shreds for his mediocre defense at third last season–back over to the other side of the diamond.

When Encarnacion decided to sign with the Cleveland Indians and continue as a designated hitter, there was more outrage from corners of Cardinal Nation, with certain factions of the media even suggesting that the organization was no longer even making an effort to compete.

Since the Cardinals publicly announced nearly two months ago that Matt Carpenter would be a full-time first baseman in 2017 and don’t have any major free agent upgrades staring them in the face, it now seems most likely that they’ll head into spring training with Carpenter at first and Peralta at third, with Jedd Gyorko available as an in-house safety net.

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While Peralta’s not quite as exciting as Encarnacion, he’s still perfectly capable of being a major contributor in a big-league lineup, and ultimately–as much as some fans would like the Cardinals to become the Dodgers and spend $90 million on players that don’t play for them anymore–he’s owed $10 million next season and is going to get a chance to play. Presumably, because of the mediocre season he had in 2016, he’s not going to be given a terribly long leash as a starer, but the Cardinals aren’t going to eat the multi-million-dollar deal of a player who showed many signs of life last season.

The interesting thing is that Peralta largely developed his Bouwmeester-esque reputation among the fan base because of roughly 110 really bad at-bats in June and July. From the time he initially returned on June 7 until he went down with an injury on July 17, Peralta was just 25 for 113 (.221) with six walks. He did exert some substantial power during that period, as 12 of his 25 hits (seven doubles and five homers) went for extra bases, but his ability to make consistent contact and his patience at the plate was obviously diminished.

After returning from a strained thumb ligament on August 2, though, Peralta was much more like his old self at the plate, posting a .284/.337/.403 line. It was perhaps a bit concerning that Peralta’s power output seemed to dip over that period, as he collected just 14 extra-base hits over his final 176 at-bats, as compared to 12 in his first 113, but overall he looked much more like an everyday starter.

All of this is to say that while Peralta almost certainly no longer makes sense as the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter, like he was for a large chunk of 2015, he’ll be a perfectly competent seven or eight hitter in 2017 if he hits the way that he did over the last two months of 2016. While adjustments in many hitters’ approaches over the past year have diluted the value of elite power, Peralta’s still a player that’s going to make an impact as a home run hitter. He proved that by hitting double-digit jacks for five straight seasons from 2011-15 and then hitting eight in roughly a half season’s worth of work in 2016.

No team is going to have a world-beater at every position (how quickly we forget that the Cubs won a World Series with Jason Heyward and his .642 OPS in right field), so if the Cardinals have a three-time All-Star and proven slugger as the weak link in their lineup, that’s not a bad thing. (One could easily argue that Kolten Wong is actually the lineup’s weak link, but that’s an argument for another day.)

Jhonny Peralta St. Louis Cardinals
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In addition, there seems to be a lot of anger that the Cardinals didn’t get a player like 2016 revelation Justin Turner, who some have argued could be a colossal defensive upgrade at third. Turner, who was ranked by FanGraphs as the rangiest third baseman in the majors this past season, didn’t perform exceptionally well based on the metrics until 2016. Since the Cardinals are going to have to pay Peralta $10 million no matter what, it seems sensical to at least give the longtime shortstop an extended opportunity at the hot corner.

In fairness to the Encarnacion-to-first activists, Peralta’s first experience at third base as a Cardinal didn’t exactly go swimmingly. FanGraphs rated Peralta’s range at third base worst in the majors (-11.2) among players who spent at least 200 innings at the position during 2016. However, he was one of the best third baseman in the league at avoiding errors, receiving a 2.8 grade for that skill (10th best in the majors) from FanGraphs.

It was the second straight year that he struggled with his range but played disciplined defense, receiving -13.6 and 6.0 grades in those categories, respectively, while playing shortstop in 2015. That was a drastic change from his 2014 season, though, when his range was rated significantly above average and FanGraphs graded him out as the third-best shortstop in the league.

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Despite the popular opinion that Peralta was a poor defensive shortstop before coming to St. Louis, he consistently graded out well in the defensive metrics before 2015, ranking among the league’s best at the position from 2011-14. While the fact that he’s unusually stocky for a shortstop probably played somewhat of a role in shaping that common belief, there obviously was a reason that the Cleveland Indians moved him off the position in 2009, then the Tigers bumped him from short in 2013 despite the fact that his replacement, Jose Iglesias, didn’t rank nearly as high in the metrics.

In all likelihood, Peralta wasn’t quite as good of a shortstop as the metrics made him out to be when he was in his prime, and he’s probably not as bad of a third baseman right now as they made him appear to be in 2016. It simply doesn’t seem plausible that Peralta magically lost all of his range between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Sure, Mike Matheny‘s decision to play Peralta in more than 150 games during each of those seasons likely damaged the infielder’s physical skills, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense that he’d just totally fall off a cliff between ages 32 and 33. Those who watched the Cardinals closely during 2015 should know that he wasn’t consistently costing the team games at shortstop–they did win 100 of them, after all–and while he was noticeably bad as he moved back to third last season, it’s not like he stood out as the clear weak link of the Cardinals’ defense.

This isn’t to suggest that the Cardinals should settle for the kind of defense that Peralta put up at third base in 2015. If he continues to struggle there and doesn’t light it up at the plate, alternative plans should be pursued. Jedd Gyorko could earn the lion’s share of playing time, Matt Carpenter could shift back to the hot corner once again with Matt Adams taking over at first, or the team could pursue a mid-season trade, whether that allows them to add a natural third baseman or to acquire a shortstop and shift Aledmys Díaz to third.

But it seems silly to suggest that Peralta–a player that the Cardinals saw as their best defensive option at shortstop, the most challenging infield position on the defensive spectrum, as recently as last spring and continued to play there as recently as August–is an absolute defensive liability at third base. He’s never going to have the range of an Adrian Beltre or Manny Machado–in fact, he’s been challenged in that facet for quite a while–but he’s enough of a levelheaded defender that he shouldn’t hurt the team at the position.

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As an aside, third base seems to be one of the positions for which FanGraphs’ metrics are most flawed. They rated 6-foot-5, 260-pound Miguel Sano as the third-rangiest third baseman in the majors this past season. He isn’t exactly light on his feet. Conversely, Nolan Arenado–who is referred to as a generational defensive talent by nearly everyone who watches him–consistently ranks near the middle of the pack in the rankings.

It’s safe to assume that Peralta’s not going to be a Gold Glove third baseman, and he’s probably not going to bounce back to cleanup hitter form. If he can play solid, disciplined defense and hit for a .750 OPS or so with 15-20 homers, he should be a perfectly suitable bottom-of-the-order starter for the Cardinals.