As I write this before Friday's game, the Cardinals sit in second place in the Majors with 33 home runs, tied with the Rockies and surpassed only by the Diamondbacks, two teams that play in very home run friendly parks. How big of a deal is this power output? Looking at it on a per PA basis, the 2016 team has hit dingers at a faster rate than any Cardinals team in the 21st century:
Amazing. The 21st century can be split up into the "Steroid Era", a historically high run environment, and a more recent, high K%, low run scoring environment beginning in 2012. Nevertheless, the 2016 Cardinals (for one month) have still hit homers at a faster pace than any other Cardinals team in the 2000's. I created the stat HR+ for this post, calculated as follows:
HR+ = ( Team HR / Team PA ) / ( League HR / League PA ) * 100
As you can see the stat is League adjusted but not Park adjusted, like most other "+" stats, but this gets us close enough there. The Cardinals' homer rate, compared to average, is far and away the best of any 21st century Cardinals team. The contrast if even more stark when compared to the last three years: After three years of bottom tier home run production, the Cards appear now to suddenly be a team full of sluggers.
Regression is inevitable, as a month isn't long enough to know a team's power output. But when there's a change this big, there has to be some underlying talent change. According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, the Cardinals have done exceedingly well in average home run and fly ball distance. Most the playing time has gone to 11 players, and here's some batted ball stats from those eleven:
The only homer not accounted for here is Greg Garcia's. Moss, Piscotty, Holliday, and Hazelbaker all rank near the top of the league in average home run and fly ball distance. The list is out of 247, which also puts Diaz and Gyorko just outside the Top 35%, not a bad place to be by any means. Adams is a little behind that, with Carpenter in the middle, Grichuk solidly below average, and Molina and Wong near the bottom. Wong is better than just one player, some guy named Jason Heyward.
These batted ball distance stats aren't exactly perfectly reliable at this point in the year, but they do help corroborate the story that the home run totals are showing us. As I wrote concerning Diaz's hot start, these numbers will regress, but not as much as someone who's just been lucky to get a hold of a few that just leave the yard. The Cardinals are putting up strong numbers on the surface that are backed up by very strong metrics, and that's not going to regress as hard as home run numbers without several strong performers in average fly ball distance.
As for Brandon Moss, get the man some more playing time! Not only is each fly ball travelling far distances, if he had a qualified amount of PA's he'd be 17th out of 194 in FB%. Moss posted a 51.8% FB% in 2013, and was in the high-40's the previous two years, so this might not change all that much throughout the course of the year. The 26.3% HR/FB% almost certainly will take a step back, as it's the highest in his career, and he probably won't post a career high in such a stat in his age 32 season. It's very close to his 2012 HR/FB rate of 25.9 though, so we've at least seen production this strong out of him before on a full season basis. That should mostly be offset by some BABIP regression though, as his .242 BABIP thus far is quite a bit under his career mark of .295.
With Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker both having historically strong starts to their career, the success of Stephen Piscotty may have been overlooked. The former comp pick is putting up a .221 ISO this year along with a double digit walk rate, leading to a 139 wRC+ that still looks really good after regressing his .367 BABIP a bit. Unlike Moss, he's not superb at getting the ball in the air though. Here's his 2015 and 2016 batted ball distribution:
This year's FB% is pretty close to last year's at the MLB level, but both are a bit lower than what he posted at Triple-A (the minor league numbers come from MinorLeagueCentral.com). This makes sense, major league pitchers are generally going to be better at making hitters put it on the ground than minor leaguers. But with Piscotty already successfully making a conscious adjustment to get the ball in the air more, more gains could be on the way as Stephen gets more comfortable against major league pitching.
You might think that Piscotty's 19% HR/FB% is bound for regression, but Mike Podherzer, in calculating his Pod Projections, saw his distance and batted ball angle last year (with a ball to straight-away center-field equaling zero, so not exit angle like Baseball Heat Maps) and projected a 20.7 xHR/FB rate. Regression is probably still likely, but it could easily be less than you might expect. It could end up mostly offset just by raising the FB% a bit.
Going into the season I was a bit worried about Holliday, as his 2015 numbers included much lower than usual Hard%, Pull%, and FB%, which seemed to me to back up a career low HR/FB rate. However, elite fly ball distance in the first month of the year definitely helps alleviate those fears. His Hard% and Pull% is also back up to career norms, so any rumors out there of Holliday's demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Through April, Holliday looks like same ole age-defying Holliday.
While these players may see some regression in the wrong direction, some players may very well see positive regression as the season goes on. Last year, Grichuk was 23rd in average fly ball distance at Baseball Heat Maps, and 9th in average EV among players with over 180 tracked batted balls by Baseball Savant. I wouldn't be surprised if Grichuk hits a groove at some point and pulls the homer numbers up. I think Wong is due to bounce back once he fixes whatever he's got going on, but if he doesn't, his playing time will continue to be cut into by Jedd Gyorko, who has posted satisfactory power numbers in part-time duty so far this year. And Matt Adams is even starting to produce at a better rate as well.
No, the Cardinals aren't going to be one of the very best teams in the league at hitting home runs, and this version of the team isn't going to be the most homer happy of any Cardinals team in the 21st century. But this team has some real power to it and I expect them to continue to be an above average team in generating power. I love pitcher's duels and all, but count me among those that find this team more fun than recent teams to watch, due to the increase in offense.