Who is your favorite St. Louis Cardinals player of the 2010s, one of the more successful decades in the history of one of baseball’s most successful franchises? Mine is Jon Jay.
Jon Jay was the most ordinary player I can fathom. In six seasons in St. Louis, Jay had a 107 wRC+, making him 7% above league average. He was slightly above average for a center fielder (his primary position) and slightly below average for a corner outfielder (his secondary position). He didn’t have much power nor did he walk much, but he had fairly low strikeout rates and a consistently high batting average on balls in play (high BABIP is usually associated with a temporary run of good luck, but Jay’s career BABIP actually increased once he left St. Louis). Defensively, he had a below-average arm, average range, and an above-average ability to avoid errors–by Ultimate Zone Rating, he was below-average, but not egregiously so. On the bases, Jay was–say it with me–basically average.
But he stuck around. He outlasted Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus and Allen Craig and (barely) Peter Bourjos. Jon Jay was the baseball equivalent of a can of baked beans that sits in your cabinet because it won’t expire for years and it’s too good to discard, but it always feels like you can do better for dinner, even if it turns out you can’t.
Jon Jay was not exactly average as a St. Louis Cardinal–he was worth 2.7 Wins Above Average (not to be confused with Wins Above Replacement, which holds players to a lower standard, that of a readily available AAA player, rather than a league-average MLB player). But he was so-so enough that it seems shocking that twenty-four players in St. Louis Cardinals history accumulated more plate appearances while being less valuable than Jon Jay relative to league average.
These are the Cardinals players, by position, who logged the most playing time for the team while being no better than Jon Jay. Some of these players were essentially average while others were considerably worse, but regardless, they had, for whatever reason, staying power.
Catcher–Del Rice: For parts of twelve seasons, from 1945 through 1956 and again in 1960, Rice was reputationally a solid defensive catcher, and the numbers from his era are too minimal to be able to put up an educated fight against this claim, but offensively, Del Rice was lackluster. His best offensive season as a Cardinal game in 1952, when he posted a 91 wRC+, which puts him three points below 2017 Yadier Molina and below, say, 2006 Juan Encarnacion in terms of offensive production. Catchers are tricky to evaluate, but this excuse could be used for any catcher in baseball history, so going with Rice (6 WAR in 3,537 plate appearances) seems fair. Honorable mention: Tom Pagnozzi
First Base–Charlie Comiskey: When Comiskey, better known today for his ownership of the Chicago White Sox, played, from 1882 through 1891 (with an 1890 detour with the Chicago Pirates), first base was a more important defensive position than it is today by leaps and bounds, as more balls never left the infield and strikeouts were rare. And while Comiskey was an influential fielder, becoming one of the first first basemen to play off the bag, his offense was mostly lacking. He was a better hitter than the aforementioned Del Rice, but a first baseman should be expected to be. In 4,546 plate appearances with what were then known as the St. Louis Browns, Comiskey had an OPS+ of just 92. Honorable mention: Dots Miller
Second Base–Julian Javier: Because he played for some legendary Cardinals teams, starting for three pennant winners including World Series champions in 1964 and 1967, Julian Javier’s numbers are probably quite a bit worse than most fans would expect. Modern defensive metrics view Javier somewhat favorably with the glove (he committed a lot of errors, but this is another way of saying he got to a lot of ground balls), but offensively, Javier was above-average just twice in thirteen seasons with the Cardinals, and he was often considerably below-average. Only eighteen players in MLB history accumulated more than his career 6,197 plate appearances with a lower OPS+ than his career mark of 78, and all but 100 of his plate appearances came as a Cardinal. Honorable mention: Jimmy Brown
Shortstop–Dal Maxvill: Javier’s middle infield partner for nearly a decade, Maxvill’s defensive reputation does hold up to modern statistics, but unfortunately, so does his reputation for abysmal offense. A 69 wRC+ was the second-best mark of his career. Maxvill had 3,492 plate appearances with the Cardinals, and only three players with a lower OPS+ had as many plate appearances in their careers. The Granite City, Illinois native later went on to serve as GM of the Cardinals, and in 2013, either Maxvill or a very convincing impersonator loitered at the bar at Casino Queen as people asked him questions about Bob Gibson within earshot of noted St. Louis Bullpen writer John Fleming. Honorable mention: Charlie Gelbert
Third Base–Ken Reitz: Reitz has a somewhat complicated legacy, as many Cardinals fans will compare his defense at third base in the 1970s favorably to that of Mike Schmidt, with a common refrain being that Schmidt’s superior offense was why his defense was more acclaimed. But in seven-plus seasons in St. Louis, the man they called “Zamboni” was worth 0.4 Defensive Wins Above Replacement (Schmidt, during the seasons Reitz was in St. Louis, was worth 12.7 dWAR). And offensively, Reitz wasn’t in the same galaxy–his 81 OPS+ at a fairly premium offensive position meant that Reitz was worth -1.8 WAR as a Cardinal. Honorable mention: Terry Pendleton
Left Field–Vince Coleman: It seems preposterous for Coleman, a record-settling base thief and Cardinals Hall of Famer, to be on a list reserved for mediocrity, but while Coleman was a fantastic stolen base artist, he was a lackluster hitter (his Cardinals OPS+ was 85, with his final season of 1990 being his lone season in St. Louis in which he was an above-average hitter) and defensively, despite his speed, Vincent Van Go was below average. Honorable mention: Rip Repulski
Center Field–Terry Moore: A Cardinals Hall of Famer widely regarded for his defensive prowess, he was basically an average hitter and his fielding numbers (which, given his era, were pretty rudimentary) aren’t quite as special as his reputation. I don’t actually trust the claim that Moore was less above average than Jon Jay, but I am beholden to the numbers. Stay tuned next week for my column “Why Millennials are Killing Subjective Baseball Analysis”. Honorable mention: Jack Smith
Right Field–Tommy Dowd: I understand that a 19th century Cardinal isn’t necessarily exciting here, but the former player-manager was impressively lackluster. Dowd, who moonlit as head football coach at Georgetown for two years during his playing career, was a below-average fielder in all of his seasons in St. Louis, and below-average offensively in all but one, and yet he survived to make 3,135 plate appearances. Honorable mention: Wally Moon
Pitcher–Bob Harmon: The early 20th century, pre-Cardinals being good pitcher threw 1284 1/3 innings from 1909 through 1913 despite being considerably below-average in terms of run suppression. A 3.78 ERA and 3.66 fielding-independent ERA sound fine by modern standards but Harmon was actually 17% below league average during the Dead Ball Era. Honorable mention: Ray Sadecki
I should clarify something–being on this list is meant as a compliment. Being on this list means that there was something about you that meant that a generally smart baseball organization eschewed statistical evidence. It is one thing to be a great baseball player but it is another thing to be the kind of baseball player who transcends all boundaries of logic and conventional parameters of competence. And Cardinals fans should treasure these weirdos forever.
But preferably don’t actually build the team out of said weirdos. Because it makes it exceedingly difficult to sell at the trade deadline.