Yes, this sounds absolutely crazy, but Brendan Ryan might record his best season in the Majors. Of course, he isn’t going to swipe 50 bases or steal the Triple Crown from Miguel Cabrera, but Ryan could exceed expectations. Which isn’t saying much, but still.
Brendan Ryan made his Show debut in 2007 for the St. Louis Cardinals. In the Redbirds’ minor league system, the shortstop showcased his glove of glue, while hitting (and reaching base, you pessimists) .292 for his career Minors batting average. During his rookie season with Albert Pujols and company, Ryan batted .289 over 67 games. For the next season, the Cards signed former Gold Glove winner Cesar Izturis at shortstop. Ryan backed Izturis at short that season, with the veteran Izturis mentoring the 26-year-old Ryan.
In 2009, Izturis left the team, leaving Ryan to start the season. Not only did Ryan lead (okay, helped) St. Louis to the postseason for the first time since 2006, but he hit .292 and made only 9 errors between second base and shortstop. His WAR (4.5), defensive WAR (3.2), and confidence were all at career highs. It was much easier to perform better when the offense hits, with a special thanks to Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Ryan Ludwick. Plus, it’s not like Ryan wasn’t fielding; in his first four seasons, the Cardinals ranked in the bottom four in K’s four times, twice finishing in the bottom two.
After the 2010 season, Ryan was shipped to the Seattle Mariners for pitching prospect Maikel Cleto. His offensive career instantly went south, first plagued by Milton Bradley outbursts and 1280 strikeouts (compared to 1088 strikeouts against other teams). Even Ichiro Suzuki played poorly in 2011, hitting only .272. When Miguel Olivo is the most productive power hitter on a team, that really says something about a team. Regardless, Ryan ranked second on the Mariners with 108 hits, 3.8 WAR, including a 2.0 WAR in the batter’s box.
The next year, the Mariners got better, but Ryan got worse. Their offense, bolstered by former Yankee Jesus Montero and Kyle Seager, scored 53 more runs, and this was with Ichiro being traded to the Bronx, though the atmosphere suffered after July and finishing 9-17 in September. Ryan hit only .194 that year. He continued to struggle in 2013, hitting .192 before the Yankees traded for him. He finished his final seventeen games with a .220 average.
This season looks promising for two reasons. The first one is the Yankees lineup. In Seattle, Ryan was counted out to shoulder a fair amount of the offensive duty, and as a result, he tried to overachieve, swinging more for the fences than usual. With a lineup that includes Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and others, Ryan is simply there for his defensive prowess. He can focus on being a primarily strong fielder, like he was in St. Louis, where he did hit a little with no pressure for him to perform. It seemed he was trying too hard in Seattle; sometimes just letting things happen works out best.
The second reason is the Yankees atmosphere. In most player’s first season in pinstripes, they play significantly better than their previous season. This is true for Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, and Eric Chavez. When Ichiro left Seattle, he had a resurgence in New York, hitting .322 in the Bronx to finish 2012. Granted, Ichiro is a much better hitter than Brendan Ryan, but the same general principals apply. Ryan only played a few games with the Yankees last season, so 2014 will be his first significant season in New York.
The hardest issue for Ryan is playing time. A backup shortstop this year for Derek Jeter, Ryan will only play 60 games or so at shortstop, barring injuries to Jeter. However, Ryan has second base experience, and Brian Roberts has been injury prone over the last few years. Hopefully Roberts stays healthy, but with all of his various ailments, he remains a question mark. Plus, Ryan played a little third base in the minors, and he has proven range and arm at the hot corner. Even with Eduardo Nunez and Kelly Johnson on the roster, one of them has to play third, and there is more value plugging in a defensive black hole into a lineup than an average fielder with an okay bat.
Ryan will play 25 games at second base. Statistically, the defensive move makes sense. Ryan’s defensive WAR has been sprinkled throughout the article; it usually averages between 2 and 3.5. Nunez had a dWAR of -2.3, meaning his defense gives up 2.3 more runs than a replacement player. Ryan is approximately 5 runs better.
Kelly Johnson is a much better power hitter than Ryan; offensively, there isn’t a comparison. But Johnson could play either second or third, where he (like Nunez), is somewhat of a defensively liability too, with a career dWAR of a ho-hum 1.7. Better than Nunez’s career total of -3.5, and worse than Ryan’s total of 14.3. Basically, Nunez’s play does not justify a roster spot in the field.
As this piece winds down, the initial prompt still seems crazy. But given Ryan’s superb fielding coupled with the Yankees prodigious hitting lineup, there is a legitimate chance Ryan succeeds. He will definitely stop runs, and will hit better now that the offensive pressure is lifted. This is undoubtedly a long shot, but I honestly think Ryan will hit .280 with a dWAR of 3.0 in 85 games, letting the bigger bats handle the offensive load. To quote Yogi Berra, “Ya Gotta Believe.”