The St. Louis Cardinals won Game Three of their NLD Series against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, taking a 2-1 lead in said series in the process. Besides Chris Carpenter, who pitched 5.2 scoreless (if not always dominant) innings, the player most directly responsible for the Cardinal victory — by Win Probability Added, I mean — was shortstop Pete Kozma, whose second-inning three-run homer (at .128 WPA) was the game’s single most decisive play and whose 0.11 WPA for the game was tops among Cardinal hitters.
Here’s how you, the reader — provided you’re not a Nationals fan, at least — feel about Pete Kozma, probably: you like him. Here’s why you like him, maybe: because he’s just a little guy. Or here’s why else, maybe: because he was in the minors until the end of August and is now the starting shortstop for a playoff team. Or here’s a third reason, perhaps: because he’s produced better offensively over the last month-plus in the majors than he did at any time, basically, during his previous five months in the very offensive Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
One other possible reason you like Pete Kozma is because you’re his mother — in which case, that’s really great how curious you are about advanced baseball analysis, Mrs. Kozma. Welcome.
Because I’m a nerd and you’re a nerd (except for you, Pete Kozma’s mother, who’s probably just a nice mother), I feel obliged to say this: Pete Kozma isn’t as good as he’s played since his late-August promotion. At no point in this post will I suggest that Pete Kozma is elite. Or, at least, I probably won’t say he is. Che sarà, and all that.
That said, Pete Kozma was pretty good in September and October. “How good was he?” is a question you’ve asked, maybe, but haven’t — because you do real, adult things during the day, like consulting — haven’t actually looked up.
Here, in the form of a table — and, specifically, a table of the top-five Cardinal hitters by WAR from September/October — is the answer to that question:
At 1.4 WAR, Pete Kozma was — as anyone can see — was actually the best Cardinals field player in September and October.
In Kozma’s case, the -R- part of the above acronym (i.e. for replacement) is particularly relevant. Kozma is the Cardinals’ replacement for Rafael Furcal, the club’s Opening Day shortstop and the shortstop who played who played 121 games for the team this season and the shortstop who was their starting shortstop for their 2011 championship team. Furcal, though, left a late-August game with an apparent elbow injury. Tests revealed that the apparent injury was an actual injury, and that the actual injury was a torn ulnar collateral ligament — the sort of injury, that is, for which players generally receive Tommy John surgery.
“How will replacing Rafael Furcal (a real major-league shortstop) with Pete Kozma (a sorta-not-that-great-hitting minor-league shortstop) affect our ball club?” is likely a question that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak asked aloud, maybe even using hand gestures to represent parentheses.
The answer that he received — both from himself and from his closest advisers — was probably something like “Not that greatly.” Despite the fact that Furcal hadn’t been excellent, he was/is still an accomplished major leaguer. Furthermore, the team had sent a potential replacement in Tyler Greene to the Houston Astros literally just three weeks before. That left them (i.e. St. Louis) with two or three options — either Daniel Descalso (who’s probably stretched defensively at short) or, from Triple-A Memphis, either Ryan Jackson or Kozma.
Here is what Pete Kozma batted at Memphis this season in 500 plate appearances: .232/.292/.355. And here’s what Jackson did in 503 PAs, also at Memphis: .272/.334/.396. In neither case did the Cardinals have reason to think that they’d be able to match Furcal’s production. In fact, replacement level was probably a better-case (if not best-case) scenario at that point.
All of this, of course, was happening against the backdrop of a real-live playoff race. On August 31st, St. Louis was only 0.5 games ahead of Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot. The Dodgers were just another game behind the Pirates. Which is to say, wins were at a premium. Rafael Furcal would likely be worth 0.5 wins over the course of September and October. Putting a replacement-level player in his stead would certainly not help the Cardinals.
Instead, what happened is this:
Rather than losing a half a win in losing Rafael Furcal, the Cardinals actually probably gained a win with Kozma’s performance over the last month-plus of the season. For a team that took the second wild-card spot by a mere two games, that kind of contribution (i.e. Kozma’s kind) was significant.
Now, Pete Kozma has hit a three-run home run in Game Three of the Cardinals NLDS with the NL East-winning Washington Nationals. Regardless of what Kozma will do, what he has done is to play a pretty significant role in the Cardinals run at a championship over the past month.