2013 St. Louis Cardinals Season Preview: What Stats to Monitor?

Rob Carr

Today is Opening Day, which means it's the first of 162 days upon which the St. Louis Cardinals will play a baseball game!

Tonight the St. Louis Cardinals take the field for their first game of the season. It's a day upon which every National League Central club is tied for first and anything seems possible, even for the Cubs. As we sit here on the starting line of this year's 162-game marathon, here are the stats I'll be monitoring as the race unfolds.

CATCHER: 136 Games

Here are the games-played totals for Yadier Molina during the 2009 through 2012 seasons: 140, 136, 139, and 138. Molina has played in 553 games combined the past four seasons. This leads the majors. Second place belongs to Braves backstop Brian McCann, Kurt Suzuki, and A.J. Pierzynski, who have all totaled 530 games. Molina's durability has been incredible, especially when one factors in the heat and humidity of the St. Louis summer. On the first day of his five-year, $75 million extension, one can't help but wonder how much longer Molina can keep it up.

Now, not all of those games logged by catchers are games in which they play the defensive position. They pinch-hit, serve as a DH, and sometimes play first base. (In the cases of Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, they play first fairly often.) Nonetheless, the vast majority of the games played by catchers are at the position.

In 2012, 136 of Molina's 138 games played total came at the defensive position of catcher. This ranked second in MLB behind the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero, who served as his club's backstop in 138 games. Will Molina's health allow the Cardinals' franchise player to play in 136 games again in 2013?

FIRST BASE: 21 HOME RUNS

The Cardinals' first season in the post-Pujols era was a rocky one at first base. One of the amazing things about Pujols was his consistency. Here are Pujols's home-run totals from 2004, the first year he was installed at the position, through 2011: 46, 41, 49, 32, 37, 47, 42, and 37.

Plan A was Lance Berkman, but the Puma managed to appear in just 32 games and tally a mere 97 plate appearances (PA) due to injury. The Cardinals called up first baseman Matt Adams from Triple-A Memphis, but the 2011 Texas League Player of the Year managed only a .241 BA, .284 OBP, and .386 SLG, which equaled a .670 OPS and .292 wOBA, in 88 PA over 24 games. The Cardinals relied largely on utility man extraordinaire Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig after that. By seasons' end, Craig had emerged as the club's first baseman with his .307/.354/.522 line, which was good for an .861 OPS and .374 wOBA.

Overall, Cardinals first basemen combined to post a respectable line of .293/.346/.485, which was good for an .832 OPS and 113 OPS+, but the 21 homers clubbed by those playing the position was far less than what the club was accustomed to from this most traditional of power positions. In Anaheim, Pujols added another 30-homer season to his Hall-of-Fame resume. Will the Cardinals be able to get more raw power out of the position this season?

The Cardinals will start the season with Adams on the bench and Craig at first. Craig will receive the bulk of the starts and PAs at first. However, if injury befalls Carlos Beltran, it seems likely that Craig will shift to right field and Adams will man first. Craig and Adams both have the ability to hit dingers. The question is whether they will be able to combine to knock more balls out of the yard in 2013 than the St. Louis first-sackers did in 2012.

SECOND BASE: .269 BA

Last season, manager Mike Matheny played Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso at second base the majority of the time. Schumaker logged 208 PAs at the keystone and Descalso .273. (Tyler Greene totaled 160 PAs at second.) Overall, St. Louis second basemen hit .240/.309/.363. Major Leaguers as a whole hit .257/.318/.383 while playing the keystone. The Cards' .672 second-base OPS was 29 points lower than the league-average .701 for the position.

Enter the Carpenter.

Last season, Carpenter hit .294/.365/.463 while playing an array of positions. Naturally, the Cardinals decided to attempt a Schumakiavellian shift for Carpenter to second base. In an Easter Sunday radio interview, general manager described Carpenter's transition as having gone "seamlessly." However, with David Freese's lower-back injury, Carpenter will likely start tonight at the majority of the team's early games at third base. Nonetheless, once Freese returns from the disabled list, Carpenter will likely become the Redbird's primary second baseman. He likely won't hit .294 again this season, but an average of the ZiPS, PECOTA, Bill James, Steamer, and Marcel projection systems forecasts him to hit for a .269 BA along with an average projection of a .356 OBP and .418 SLG. If he can manage this batting line while adequately defending the area between second and first, the Cardinals will have an even more valuable player on their hands.

SHORTSTOP: .666 OPS

Other than pitcher, shortstop was the worst offensive position in the big leagues last year. Major-league shortstops posted a .688 OPS in 2012. The next lowest was second base, 13 points higher at .701. This is not a new development as we are currently in anything but a golden age for shortstop batting. Here's a graph showing the position's futility at the plate over the last three seasons.

SHORTSTOP OPS VS. SECOND-WORST POSITION OPS (2010-2012)

Year

SS OPS

2nd Worst OPS

2010

.693

.701 (C)

2011

.697

.703 (C)

2012

.688

.701 (2B)


This is not a high offensive bar. Yet, the biggest offensive question mark facing the 2013 Redbirds is whether Kozma can clear it. If you're wondering why, here are Kozma's batting stats for the minors, with St. Louis in 2012, and for spring training this year.

PETE KOZMA STATS: MiLB, 2012 MLB, & 2013 SPRING TRAINING

Level

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Rookie

135

.252

.341

.370

.710

Low-A

28

.148

.179

.222

.401

High-A

434

.284

.363

.398

.760

AA

1029

.231

.305

.352

.656

AAA

948

.223

.286

.324

.610

‘12 MLB

82

.333

.383

.569

.952

‘13 ST

69

.359

.406

.578

.984


We can all agree that two of the rows in this chart are not like the others. The projection systems recognize this, as well, and give more weight to Kozma's larger minor-league body of work. Averaging ZiPS, Bill James, PECOTA, Steamer, and Oliver gives us a forecast of .225/.282/.336, which works out to a .618 OPS. If Kozma hits his averaged projection, his OPS would be 70 points lower than the 2012 MLB average for shortstops.

So the question is: How much offensive production must Kozma provide for the Cardinals in order to be satisfactory. The defensive metrics liked his glovework last year in limited playing time. According to the Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, Cardinals scouts now grade him the best defender at short in the organization. Assuming, he's above average on defense, I'm going to set my benchmark at a .666 OPS. Will the warlock be able to OPS the symbol of the beast? I think that is what it will take for him to be manning shortstop come September.

THIRD BASE: 10% WALK RATE

David Freese followed up his immortal October heroics with a very good 2012 season. Freese hit for a .298 BA with an excellent .378 OBP and solid .474 SLG. His .846 OPS ranked sixth amongst MLB third basemen with at least 400 PAs. The players with a higher OPS than Freese are a skilled lot: Miguel Cabrera (.999), Adrian Beltre (.921), Aramis Ramirez (.901), Evan Longoria (.896), David Wright (.883), and Chase Headley (.875). Not bad company to keep.

Freese seems unlikely to hit for a .298 average again this season. Last year, he posted a .352 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). League-average is typically around .300; last year, it was .297. An average of those projection systems that forecast BABIP--ZiPS, Bill James, Steamer, and Oliver--sets Freese's most likely 2013 BABIP at .332, which would still be quite a bit above average. Nonetheless, this will likely drag down Freese's BA and his great OBP. The question is how much.

Last season, Freese employed a disciplined approached while at the bat. He walked in 10.1% of his PAs, a marked improvement over his 6.6% walk rate in 2011. Once Freese is activated from the DL, it will be interesting to see whether he continues to grind out tough at-bats. Will he continue to work walks? Can Freese post a walk rate over 10% for a second consecutive season?

LEFT FIELD: .500 SLG

Matt Holliday is an impressive hitter. He hits for average and power. For Holliday's career, an average season is this: .313 BA, .387 OBP, .536 SLG, .923 OPS. He has a career 137 OPS+. Last season, while playing his home games in pitcher-friendly Busch, he hit for the following line: .295 BA, .379 OBP, .497 SLG, and .877 OPS. While his OPS was lower than his career average, MLB's offensive environment has seen a downturn as well. Consequently, Holliday's 138 OPS+ was right in line with his career average.

Holliday's 2012 season was his first with a SLG below .500 since his rookie year. Holliday is 33 and entering the fourth year of his seven-year contract. Age is likely to start its inevitable erosion of his production. The back troubles he has endured during each of the last two seasons may be indicative of this and make one wonder all the more whether he will continue to be able to uncoil his violent swing with metronomic results. I'll be watching to see if Holliday can once again combine a high average with enough doubles and dingers to reach the .500-SLG benchmark.

CENTER FIELD: 55% GROUNDBALL RATE

In baseball circles, a player's "slash" stats are his BA, OBP, and SLG. Sometimes his OPS is thrown in there, too. To look at Jon Jay's slash lines is to see a player that is the model of consistency. Even using more advanced metrics such as wOBA or wRC+ demonstrate how consistent the former Miami Hurricane has been. The following chart shows Jay's big-league numbers for 2010, 2011, 2012, and his career.

JON JAY'S CAREER STATS

Level

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

OPS+

wOBA

wRC+

2010

323

.300

.359

.422

.780

113

.347

116

2011

503

.297

.344

.424

.768

112

.338

115

2012

502

.305

.373

.400

.773

113

.341

116

Total

1,328

.300

.359

.414

.773

113

.341

116


About the only change one might notice in Jay's stats is the welcome uptick in OBP last season and downtick in power. Jay's SLG fell by 20 points even though his BA went up by 8 points. Jay's batted ball profile sheds some light on why this happened. He hit a ton of grounders last year. At 59%, Jay had the third highest GB% in all of MLB behind Ben Revere (66.9%) and Derek Jeter (62.5%). For more context, the league-average GB% for 2012 was 45%.

Jay's high GB% is the primary cause of his drop in power. MLB players hit for a .234 BA on grounders last year and slugged .254. Jay hit for a .318 BA on grounders and slugged .350. MLB players hit flyballs 34% of the time in 2012 and slugged .651 on them. Jay hit flies 19.3% of the time last year and slugged .522 on those aerial hits. Needless to say, I'm fascinated by Jay's 2012 batted-ball profile and interested to see if he can keep snaking grounders through the infield as successfully as he did last year. So I'll be watching to see how many groundballs he raps out in 2013.

RIGHT FIELD: 11.1% HR/FB

Carlos Beltran signed with the Cardinals during the 2011-2012 Hot Stove on the heels of a season that was Berkman-esque as a comeback. After undergoing knee surgery, Beltran had the 2011 season to establish his health before hitting free agency. The veteran switch-hitter responded by hitting .300/.385/.525 with the Mets and Giants. Beltran's 152 wRC+ in 2011 was the highest of his illustrious career.

Beltran came out of the gates hot in 2012 and earned an election to the All-Star team. However, he struggled in the season's second half and wound up with an underwhelming .269/.346/.495 slash line. Beltran's 125 wRC+ was still good. His value was largely based on the 32 homers he clubbed with the Redbirds.

Beltran hit homers at a rate he hadn't since his prime. HR/FB is a stat that measures the percentage of flyballs a player whacks over the fence. In 2012, Beltran posted a HR/FB rate of 15%. Beltran has had a 15-year career in the big leagues. He has posted a HR/FB rate higher than 15% once, in 2006, when it was 17.8% while he was playing his home games in Shea. Last season's 15% HR/FB ties his combined 2004 mark with the Royals and Astros. It was well above Beltran's career average HR/FB rate of 11.1%. This season, it will be worth watching Beltran's smooth stylings in the batter's box to see if he can match last season's home run explosion.

STARTING ROTATION: 6.1 IP/GS

In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation was fronted by workhorse Chris Carpenter, who led baseball with 237 1/3 IP. That year's rotation tallied 999 IP over 162 games for an average of 6.1 IP per start. This was due in no small part to Carp averaging 7 IP per start. With the ace sidelined for nearly all of 2012, the rotation totaled 998 1/3 IP, which averages to...6.1 IP/GS.

The rotation will once again be Carpenter-less. It will again feature Jaime Garcia with health concerns. The rotation will also rely heavily on a rookie to fill the Carp-sized void just as it did in 2011 when Lance Lynn performed very well filling in for the veteran ace. This year, this unenviable job will fall to top prospect Shelby Miller. Will Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Garcia, Lynn, and Miller be able to fill throw as many innings as the rotation has each of the last two seasons?

BULLPEN: 22% K RATE

Last season, the Cardinals bullpen was the club's weakest link. It turned a roughly average K%, BB%, and LOB% into a worse-than-average ERA and FIP thanks in part to a higher-than-average HR/FB rate. The following chart compares the Cardinals relievers to MLB relievers as a whole.

CARDINALS RP VS. MLB RP (2012)

RP

K%

BB%

HR/FB

LOB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

STL

21.7%

8.2%

12.4%

75.0%

3.90

3.92

3.79

MLB

21.9%

9.1%

10.3%

74.5%

3.67

3.79

3.92


On Opening Day, the bullpen is already in some disarray. A forearm injury has landed closer Jason Motte on the DL. Mitchell Boggs has assumed that role. Unlike last season, Randy Choate (22.6% K rate in 2012), Trevor Rosenthal (28.1%), and Joe Kelly (24.2% K rate in 15 2/3 IP as RP) will be at Matheny's disposal in the pen. This trio should help improve the relievers' numbers from last year.

BENCH: .655 OPS

Last year, NL pinch-hitters hit for a cumulative line of .230/.309/.346, which equaled a .655 OPS. Cardinals pinch-hitters hit .190/.275/.256. Their .532 OPS was one of the worst in the league. During the Hot Stove, the Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton to bolster their bench corps with his righthanded bat. They've taken the additional step of naming Matt Adams to their Opening Day 25-man roster. Their pinch-hitting line was a good bet to improve without any upgrades. It will be interesting to see if Wigginton and Adams can help with the club's pinch-hitting fortunes this year.

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