There were nine members of the St. Louis Cardinals who reached the double-digit home run mark last season. Three of those nine — Brandon Moss (28), Matt Holliday (20), and Jeremy Hazelbaker (12) — will each be donning a new uniform in 2017 (most likely). A closer-to-fully-healthy, but-still-aging Jhonny Peralta projects to increase on his total from 2016 (8), but alone, he will still fall well short of filling the void left by Moss and Holliday. And if Peralta struggles to rebound, Jedd Gyorko will be the direct recipient of more playing time, and though he led the team with 30 round-trippers last season, it is unreasonable to expect that number from him again in 2017.
Subsequently, the home run total will almost certainly decline in 2017. Heck, even if the team did retain the players listed above, the home run total would still likely drop, due to both age-related decline among lineup constituents and the 2016 team well outperforming its projections. Fortunately, 2017 isn’t John Mozeliak’s first lineup retooling as general manager, and on the final day of winter meetings, Mozeliak successfully landed Dexter Fowler, the Chicago Cubs primary center fielder and leadoff hitter in each of the last two seasons.
Now, while Fowler should reach double digits in home runs, this is not a primary reason in which he was targeted by the Cardinals. Rather, the organization made it a priority, from the very beginning of the offseason, to become more athletic in center field. Of course, it is still up for debate as to whether or not Fowler is an actual defensive upgrade over Randal Grichuk in center, but early returns have him benefiting from “nerds” telling him to play deeper. Plus, we are fairly confident in Grichuk’s corner outfield abilities, so even if you strongly consider center field a wash, Grichuk over Holliday in left is a crystal clear net positive.
The Cardinals scored 779 runs in 2016 — fourth most in Major League Baseball. While the pitching should improve from where it was in 2016, it is unlikely to return to its 2015 level. In what could go down as one of the most obvious statements ever, the Cardinals will benefit from scoring a near league-leading amount of runs next season. One way to score a lot of runs is stacking a lineup with high slugging percentage guys, similar to what ended up happening last season. Another way to score a lot of runs is stacking a lineup with high on-base percentage guys. A third way is stacking a lineup with good base-runners, but one must remember even good base-runners must first get on base (i.e. the rate-limiting step in Billy Hamilton’s overall value).
Thus, the addition of Fowler helps fulfill the ideas behind the second and third ways for scoring a lot of runs. One, he gets on base a lot — his .393 OBP tied for 10th highest last season — and two, he is a terrific base runner — his 6.2 BsR (FanGraphs’ primer on BsR) was eighth best in 2016. Of the many measures factored into BsR, one is taking the extra base — known as XBT% (abbreviation for extra base taken percentage) on Baseball-Reference.
Fowler took the extra base 63% of the time in 2016 and has maintained a career clip of 61%. The 2016 Cardinals took the extra base 38% of the time — two percentage points below the league average. In 2015, the Cardinals weren’t much better, either, taking the extra base on 39% of occasions (right at league average). Thus, the benefit of having Fowler at the top of the lineup is two-fold: he will not only reach base at a near-league-leading rate, but he will also then take the extra base when given the opportunity by his teammates.
If Mike Matheny rightfully bats Matt Carpenter second, given Carpenter’s bevy of batted balls to right field, we could see Fowler on third or even crossing home plate before the opposing pitcher even throws all of the pitches in his repertoire. Will Fowler alone make up for any run scoring that may be lost in 2017? No, alone, he will not, but his ability to get on base and subsequently take the extra base will play a major role in the Cardinals’ 2017 success. Here is to hoping a full, healthy season of Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong will provide the Cardinals with base-running threats at three different parts of the lineup (leadoff, third, and seventh or eighth) — something we have not seen in quite some time.