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Schumaker was symbolic link between Whitey and TLR

Bye-ku for Skip Schumaker

Misguided hustle
But his effort honored fans
Howie Shanks approved.

In St. Louis, perhaps like nowhere else, utility and role players can become household names. Skip Schumaker, who has averaged 101 games over eight seasons but only 71 of which as a starter, is one such player. Now that he has been traded to the Dodgers, it’s fitting to give the man his due.

Schumaker played the entirety of his Cardinal career under Tony La Russa, but he could just as easily been at home on Whitey Herzog‘s teams of the 1980s.  A part-time outfielder in the early part of his career with the big club, Schumaker became a near-obsession for us when he courageously went against the grain of player movement along the defensive spectrum, as he learned second base at the age of 29. After playing the first 297 games of his major-league career in the outfield — and thinking as late as a month before 2009 spring training that he would continue there — Schumaker saw his first start of the 2009 season at second base, where he wound up playing 133 games.

His hustle, though occasionally misguided — as evidenced by his penchant for unnecessarily diving into first base — was a hallmark of his game, and he no doubt derived much of his fan appeal by recalling players of the Whiteyball era: someone who lacked flash and physical prowess but compensated by working hard, being prepared to play, subordinating his own ego to the team identity and generally, as people used to say, “respecting the game,” even if his close association with Mark McGwire will always hint at the possibility of impropriety.

In this way, he represented the common bond between the stylistically different Cardinal managers. His name-on-the-front-of-the-jersey-first and yeoman-like effort represented the intersection of the two managers’ preferred-player profiles. He wasn’t a speed burner of the 80s, and at the same time, with a slugging percentage barely higher than his on-base percentage (.377 SLG, .345 OBP), he could never stand out on TLR’s high-octane hitting teams. And yet he made the most of his ability and accepted the challenge to try a more demanding position for both his own and the team’s sake.

TLR’s uneasiness with Schumaker as a defender led to the practice of what we then dubbed “fielding saves,” as a better gloveman, such as Joe Thurston or Brian Barden, would replace Schumaker at second base in the late innings with a lead, while Schumaker often then in turn upgraded the outfield by taking Chris Duncan‘s place in left.

And Schumaker wasn’t even finished with his spectrum movement. He extended all the way to the right of the spectrum by pitching an inning back in 2011 (and striking out two of the five batters he faced).  His biggest hit came when he knocked a two-run go-ahead home run against the Pirates Aug. 9, 2009 (+.470 WPA), and he tied the Cardinals’ single-game hit record with six hits against the Mets in a 14-inning game July 26, 2008.

With a career WAR of 5.6 (a total that Matt Holliday accrues in a single season), Schumaker wasn’t going to be an impact player in 2013. But make no mistake, the Cardinals — and the fans — will miss him. After all, center fielders with an OBP of .345 aren’t exactly easy to find, and even at second base, Schumaker would’ve been an even bet to produce as well as Daniel Descalso. But as Holliday says, “it’s part of the business,” which we take to mean that bad things are the fault of “business” (funny how players never lament the business aspect when they sign $120-million contracts). For anyone who works for a living, be he teacher, banker, programmer, short-order cook or pro baseball player, changing jobs is by nature part of the business. In Skip Schumaker — a 5’10” everyman of sorts — Cardinal fans may have seen something of themselves, as well as an embodiment of “the Cardinal way.” He was never a star, but when fans think on the Cardinals of the late La Russa era, they’ll remember the feats that Skip Schumaker did in those days, then shall his name familiar in their mouths as household words be remembered.

Skip Schumaker’s top plays by win-probability added

Date Opp Inn Play WPA
8/9/09 PIT 8-T Two-run home run off Matt Capps .470
6/28/10 ARI 9-B RBI fielder’s choice off Aaron Heilman and run-scoring error .470
6/19/11 KCR 9-B Walk-off home run off Tim Collins .424
7/22/07 ATL 10-T Two-run home run off Tyler Yates .417
8/19/12 PIT 17-B Single off Juan Cruz .330

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