Chicago Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot stole his 17th base of the season Wednesday, during Chicago's 8-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. The theft was also the 80th of Theriot's career, in this his third full year of Major League ball.
Theriot has attained a firm standing as the number one fan favorite over the past three years, if only by default: each of the other logical candidates has fought injuries and inconsistency. Theriot's intensity, hustle, and exciting style have endeared him to a fan base that prides itself on its personal ties to Cubs players, even if everything from the ticket prices to the lax ballpark atmosphere at Wrigley Field suggest a certain elitist tendency.
Theriot's 75.5 percent career success rate is not dazzling, but with no three other Cubs combining for as many steals as he has recorded over the span of his career, he provides virtually the sole source of versatility and speed in an otherwise lumbering Cubs offense. That should change next year, especially in light of Lou Piniella's recent comments in the Chicago newspapers, which indicate he expects the Cubs to acquire more speed players over the winter.
Theriot's value will not evaporate if his speed is no longer at a premium, however: the diminuitive Louisiana State alumnus has played sparkling defense (5.8 runs above the average shortstop, according to fangraphs.com) at shortstop this season, as he continues to settle in at that position. Moreover, he has found a bit more of a power stroke this year, hitting more homers (seven) than he had in his entire MLB career entering 2009.
A certain level of legitimate concern over Theriot's offensive production has arisen of late, however. Alarmingly, Theriot has already blown away his career high in strikeouts, and his walks have been nearly halved. In fact, according to fangraphs, some five percent of his plate appearances have turned from walks to strikeouts this year.
That is an almost unthinkable, almost unprecedented breakdown of plate discipline skill from one season to the next, and Theriot will have to correct it if he hopes to help the Cubs' offense recover from its highly disappointing 2009 performance.
There is reason for hope, however: Theriot saw about 67 percent fastballs in 2007 and '08, a number that has shrunk enormously, to 58 percent this year. To put that dropoff in context, consider that it's relevant enough to mention a two percent drop in the percentage of pitches Theriot has seen inside the strike zone. Eight percentage points in that large a sample size is ridiculous.
If the rest of the offense returns to form next year, it's safe to assume Theriot will see significantly larger number of pitches to hit in 2010. Assuming he can sustain his defensive contributions into his age 30 season, and continue to add a few runs here and there with his feet, Theriot's bat should recover enough to make him a viable starter on a title-worthy team in 2010.
Hendry must turn his attentions beyond merely next season, however: Theriot will be eligible for arbitration this winter, and has the service record to earn big bucks in the final years before he becomes a free agent. Since he is coming off a down year and figures to recover, it may be wise to buy out his remaining years of arbitration, and even reach into a year of free agency eligibility, at the discount Hendry could get right now.
Obviously, such a move would be risky, and so Hendry will likely hold off until he has money to play with, or until Theriot's play dictates action. In the meantime, he will have to address the other holes in the 2009 club, and hope that Theriot is not the only Cub who rebounds in 2010.