The Cardinals already made their big splash in the outfield, but there are still some things they can do to shore up the defense. Enter Shane Robinson.
Unlike some of the previous players we have talked about in the “Small Move, Big Impact” pieces, Shane Robinson is a guy you know. The Cardinals drafted him back in 2006, and he stayed with the organization through 2014. The team released him after the season and he has bounced around since then. Robinson was never even average at the plate, but was always great with the glove. The Cardinals could really use that right now.
When the Angels granted Shane Robinson his release on November 16, I got excited. I am likely on a very short list of people who expressed as much, but Robinson can really help the Cardinals. Robinson has played a little more than a full season’s worth of innings in the outfield for his career. In that career, Robinson has recorded 19 DRS, and 15.6 UZR. In 2016, the only players to reach both of those marks were: Mookie Betts, Adam Eaton, Kevin Pillar, and Brandon Crawford. That is one incredible list to be associated with, defensively.
Alas, Robinson resigned with the Angels six days later on a minor league pact. I was hoping he would come back to the Cardinals, where he started his career, and where he makes a great fit today. Look back at that list I just mentioned, and you can see the gap in value. Robinson can’t hit like any of those guys, even Pillar, but Eaton didn’t exactly fetch Giolito, Lopez, and Dunning for his bat. Teams tend to give large boosts in value to guys who can field and hit, or to those who can just hit. Robinson is in the category of players who can just field, and that still makes him worthy of a roster spot.
The Fifth Outfielder
To be clear, I am not recommending a large role for Robinson. However, I don’t understand why he can’t hold onto a roster spot when so many teams own poor fielders. After losing Matt Holliday to free agency, the Cardinals don’t have a poor fielding outfield, but it still isn’t great. Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez are likely penciled in as the two backup outfielders right now. I still think Pham can play, despite his injuries, but the jury is still out on Martinez.
With that in mind, I would much rather have a defensive-minded fifth option. Dexter Fowler is subpar in center field, and Pham didn’t provide any defensive value in 2016. While Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty can hold down the corners, most teams play three in the outfield. Robinson is a guy who currently excels at all three outfield spots, and should continue to do so. Robinson’s career UZR/150 in LF/CF/RF looks like this: 14.5/7.3/17.6. That puts Robinson in the top quartile at each position since his rookie year (and even better at the corners). I think Cardinals fans would sleep a lot easier knowing he is patrolling the outfield when a starter sits, rather than Pham or Martinez.
The Defensive Replacement
Robinson has always been a backup, and he should be. However, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t play in every winnable game. The defensive analog to the pinch hitter is the late game defensive replacement. This role is perfect for a guy like Shane Robinson. In order to put the best product on the field, the Cardinals could substitute Fowler for Robinson after what is likely the starter’s last at-bat. If used correctly, Robinson can get up to 100 innings as a defensive replacement. Given his per-inning stats, Robinson should take away a couple of runs in this role, plus whatever he does when he starts.
I know that I am talking about small fractions of wins, here, but Robinson eliminates runs with the best of them. Add on the effect of taking away Fowler’s likely net negative for those 100-plus innings, and you get even more. If injuries force reserves into bigger roles, then Robinson at least brings something. Looking back to the fifth outfielder last season, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Robinson and Hazelbaker have the same career OBP’s. However, Hazelbaker is about as bad on defense as Robinson is good. That is a bigger factor than the difference on offense by roughly half a win to a full win. By inserting Robinson into Hazelbaker’s role, the Cardinals could save a little more than a win next year.
He walks and he doesn’t strike out
Yeah, this is about as good as it gets with Robinson on offense. For a guy that does so little at the plate, he has a surprisingly high walk rate (8.7 percent). He also manages to strike out very little (14.3 percent of the time). Essentially, Robinson does exactly what you need someone to do when he can’t hit well. He does everything humanly possible in the field, he walks, and he puts the ball in play.
For some reason, he doesn’t take very many pitches; he sees a pedestrian 3.70 pitches per plate appearance. However, he has always maintained that high walk rate. Robinson has a pretty low swing rate at both balls and strikes, so it isn’t that he swings at every strike. The more likely explanation is that nobody is scared of him. Pitchers aren’t afraid to throw it towards the middle of the plate, so Robinson is forced to swing after just two or three pitches in many at-bats. Some reserve players have made the successful adjustment of swinging earlier in the count. This often gives them a pitch towards the heart of the plate, and thus better contact. Maybe Robinson is next in line for this adjustment.
But it’s really about the fielding
The Cardinals were 19th and 22nd in outfield DRS and UZR, respectively. Again, losing Holliday means a lot of improvement in this area. However, the team can still be better here. Dexter Fowler can hit, but his glove is nowhere near great. Adding Robinson means they can mitigate the effect of his subpar defense. Also, having Robinson out there could mean a great defense. In the infield, Kolten Wong and Aledmys Diaz should make a fine pairing, while the trio of Grichuk, Robinson, and Piscotty should not let many balls fall.
Robinson is on a minor league contract, which means the Cardinals can get him for nothing. The Cardinals can purchase him from the Angels, if they want to. There is nothing that catches your eye about a trade like that, but it will make a big difference. The Cardinals may be content with Jose Martinez as their fifth outfielder, but they shouldn’t be. Maybe he is good enough, but the team at least needs some real competition. In Robinson, the Cardinals get an upgrade in an area of need, and someone who works hard to mitigate the effect of his weaknesses (namely, hitting). If someone else shows he is worth that fifth spot, then there is no downside to having Robinson there, anyway. If not, then the Cardinals get a much better defense, something they would have given a lot for last year.
Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea – USA TODAY Sports