Ozzie’s Shadow

In sports, music, and entertainment, legends come along every so often that need only a first name. The Babe, Pele, Madonna (or Lady Gaga’s mom as many of my friends commented during the Super Bowl), Usher, Prince, P Diddy/Daddy/Dandy or whatever the latest name is. If we are talking about basketball and I say “MJ”, you immediately know who I am referring to. If we are talking music, and I say “MJ” you know immediately who I mean.

In sports, those one-name figures cast a shadow so large that it takes a long time before it feels right to watch anyone else play “their” position on “their” team. I was flipping through the channels just the other day, and stopped on the Chicago Bulls game for just a few minutes. Derrick Rose is one of the NBA’s best players, no question about it. For me, it still just does not feel right watching a Bulls superstar not named Michael, even though he has not worn a Bulls jersey since 1996.

In Cardinal Nation, there is a larger-than-life player that also walked away from the game in 1996. He also needs only one name to be remembered; of course I am talking about Ozzie. Ozzie (Smith) was Rookie of the Year in 1978, won an astounding 13-straight Gold Gloves from 1980-1992, played in 15 All-Star Games, was runner-up MVP in 1987 despite not hitting one home run, and was eventually voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In what I consider the most telling stat, Ozzie led the team in WAR (wins above replacement) each season from 1983-1995 (check out Derek Goold’s piece for a great read on this). No other Cardinal has led the team in WAR that many consecutive seasons.

*Quick sidenote: Just as a means of showing the effect of inflation and free-agency on the game, Ozzie made $31.5M during his 15 seasons with the Cardinals.

More than incredible stats, he was the face of the Whiteyball era, and provided 15 years of excellent shortstop play that has not been matched since. He was the back-flip to start the game. He was the guy that kept you glued to the TV not knowing just what he might do next. It still does not feel quite right to me watching anyone else play shortstop for the Cardinals. It takes time to fill the shoes of the legend…actually that is not correct…it takes time to be OK with them not being filled. Ozzie’s shadow still looms large.

This article will look briefly at Ozzie’s career, the shortstops since Ozzie, and what we can reasonably expect from the shortstop position this season with Rafael Furcal as the starter.

During Ozzie’s 15 years with the Cardinals, he had 1944 hits, 644 RBIs, 433 SBs, and a .272 BA. He was the perfect offensive spark during the Whiteyball era of manufacuring runs. Let’s take 1995 and 1996 (age 40 and 41 seasons) out of the equation for a minute and look at average production between 1982-1994.

During those years Ozzie averaged the following line per season:

Ozzie Smith 1982-1994

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

521      72     25    4      2        49      32    64   .273

While these are good offensive numbers, he would not be a Hall-of-Famer simply based on this offensive production alone.

Average WAR 1982-94: 4.42      Total WAR 1982-94: 57.5

WAR by Season

1982: 4.0   1983: 3.0   1984: 4.4   1985: 5.7   1986: 5.3   1987: 7.1   1988: 5.5   1989: 6.3   1990: 2.8   1991: 4.7   1992: 4.3

1993: 2.5   1994: 1.9

WAR factors in defensive play (runs saved above replacement level), and Ozzie’s D was a huge factor in his outstanding WAR levels during his Cardinal years. Only once since he retired has a Cardinal shortstop (Edgar Renteria 2003) had a season WAR higher than Ozzie’s average WAR as a Cardinal. No Cardinal shortstop has topped his season total of 7.1 in 1987. That is impressive.

Here are the season averages for shortstops post-Ozzie. If they were the primary starter all year, only their stats will be measured. If multiple players started a significant number of games, their numbers will be combined for the year(s) being measured. All stat lines are an average per season of the year(s) measured.

Royce Clayton 1997

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

576     75      39    5      9         61     30   33   .266

WAR: 2.6

Royce Clayton, Luis Ordaz, David Howard 1998

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

546      83      25    2      6        49     21    64   .214

WAR: -1.5

Edgar Renteria 1999-2004

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

560      83      35    2     12      75      25   51   .290

Average WAR 1999-2004: 3.0      Total WAR 1999-2004: 18

WAR by Season

1999: 1.4   2000: 2.2   2001: 1.2   2002: 4.2   2003: 6.5   2004: 2.5

David Eckstein 2005-2006

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

565      79      22    4     5         42     9      43    .293

Average WAR 2005-2006: 3.2      Total WAR 2005-2006: 6.4

WAR by Season

2005: 4.2   2006: 2.2

David Eckstein, Brendan Ryan 2007

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

614      88      32     0     7        43      17   39   .302

WAR: 3.2

Cesar Izturis, Brendan Ryan 2008

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

611       80     19     3      1        34      31   45    .264

WAR: 1.8

Brendan Ryan, Julio Lugo, Tyler Greene 2009

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

646       88     33     11    7       57     23   45    .277

WAR: 3.9

Brendan Ryan, Tyler Greene 2010

AB        R       2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB   BB   Avg

543     64     24     3      3         46     22   46    .223

WAR: 1.4

Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso, Rafael Furcal 2011

2011 saw each of these four guys start at shortstop at some point. Everyone but Descalso saw significant playing time at another infield position so short of going through 162 box scores, there is no easy way to split out production from shortstop position for 162 games. For the sake of this article, we will look at the WAR totals for each of the four players that manned the position at some point

Theriot 2011 WAR: 0.00    NIck Punto 2011 WAR: 1.5   Descalso 2011 WAR: 1.2   Furcal 2011 WAR: 1.4

The numbers above show the Cardinals have not received anywhere near the production at shortstop they had during the Ozzie years. Save a couple of Renteria’s seasons and one of Eckstein’s, the Cardinals shortstops have produced at average to below-average levels.

Cardinal fans hope that changes in 2012. Reversing that trend falls on the shoulders of Rafael Furcal. He will have the opportunity to be the everyday shortstop this season, and gives the Cardinals a prototypical leader hitter they have not had in a number of years.

While Furcal will certainly not be Ozzie this year (age 34 season), he does provide hope for good, consistent play that is long overdue at shortstop. If he can stay healthy and approach career norms, he could give the Cardinals better production at the position than they have since 2003. Going back to Furcal’s rookie season of 2000, he has posted the following WAR totals in seasons where he has been healthy:

2000: 3.6   2002: 2.1   2003: 4.9   2004: 2.6   2005: 5.9   2006: 3.0   2007:  1.3   2009: 2.4   2010:  3.8  

A return to 2010 production would exceed the average of the Renteria, Eckstein, and Clayton years. A return to 2005 production, while very unlikely at age 34, would be the best season for a Cardinal shortstop since 2003 and 1989 before that.

Ozzie’s shadow still looms large over the Cardinal shortstop position. He was a once-in-a-generation shortstop. We may never see another like him wear the birds on the bat. But there is hope at shortstop for the 2012 season. There is also a kid by the name of Ryan Jackson that will be at Memphis this year. He is pretty darn good, and will have his chance to be the shortstop of the future. Ozzie’s shoes can never be filled. Furcal and Jackson, however, could be a significant upgrade over what the Cardinals have seen for the last 15 seasons.

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