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How Important is a Big Bat, Really?

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The offseason narrative is going to be very specific this year. That’s probably not very productive, though.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The stated goal of the front office this offseason is to acquire the kind of impact bat many of us have been stumping for, but which has almost certainly become overemphasised along the way somewhere. I listen to sports talk radio shows here in town, I listen to the Cardinal-centric baseball podcasts, and I hear endless chatter about how the Cards just have to get a Big Bat for the middle of the order. The offense just isn’t good enough, and until there’s a Force, or a Presence, or an Enforcer, or any other of a half-dozen other vague terms with implied capital letters sitting in the middle of the lineup there is simply no way this team can possibly return to prominence.

“The Cardinals have to get a hitter who offers the rest of the lineup Protection,” is one of my favourite tropes of this sort. Never mind that lineup protection in the way it’s being talked about here was proven nonexistent a decade ago; the proponents of this argument are somehow convinced that a Terrifying Presence (you know, like the Fallout perk), slotted into the cleanup spot in the lineup is somehow going to alter the way pitchers attack the number seven hitter.

This, of course, is the part where I complain that all these people, many of whom are paid quite well for expressing their opinions, no matter how inane or pointless, could go and pull up a FanGraphs leaderboard just as easily as I can. And what would they find if they bothered to pull up, say, the non-pitcher team wRC+ leaderboard for the second half of the 2017 season? Why, they would find that the Cardinals, desperately underpowered and hopelessly adrift without a Big Bat, had the second-best offensive attack in the National League after the all-star break, behind only the Cubs, whose own 116 wRC+ (to the Cards’ 109), was largely powered by a .329 BABIP that suggests some quality hitting, yes, but also a hot streak unlikely to continue without some measure of regression. (To be fair, the Cards’ second-half BABIP was .313, which is probably a little high as well, but not as far out of range.)

In other words, with no Presence, no Enforcer, no Intimidator, no Force, no Scary anything hitting cleanup, the Redbirds were, at least in the second half of the season, one of the very best offenses in the National League. Actually, we can extend that out a bit if we like; if we change the field from the NL to the whole of the major leagues (keeping the non-pitcher portion the same, though), we find the Cards slotted comfortably in the sixth position, behind those hot-streaking Cubbies and four American League teams who still derive some benefit from the DH, even if sticking to non-pitcher categories nullifies that to a certain extent.

So really, what we’re looking at is a club with what was, at least in the second half of 2017, a collection of position players one doesn’t have to squint too very hard at before they start looking at least sort of elite. The Cards were one of only five teams in baseball with a team walk rate over 10%. They were third in baseball in on-base percentage, and one of the two teams ahead of them was the Rockies, who as always in discussions of offense, don’t really count. Even some of the areas where we tend to think of El Birdos as deficient turned out as positives; the Cards generated the sixth-most runs on the bases in the second half, right behind the Rays and right ahead of the Braves. (Which, yes, pretty much proves that baserunning is one of the least impactful aspects of team performance, in terms of correlation to actually winning.)

The St. Louis Cardinals, maligned for much of the 2017 season for lacking talent on the position player side of the ledger, sit in sixth place in all of baseball for position player WAR in the second half of the season. Better than the Yankees. Better than the Dodgers. Better than the Astros.

So where, exactly, is the disconnect here? Well, it’s not that hard to see how and why the Cardinals of 2017 might appear to have a position player problem. After all, the only impression more important than the last one is the first one, and for the first couple months of the season, the Redbirds really did have a problem on the position side of things. That early-season club that dug such a hole for the later version of the team to try and climb out of had a fair bit of Jhonny Peralta baked in. It had a way-too-large smattering of Aledmys Diaz smeared all over the place. It had Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk both in the lineup pretty much every single day, and very little Tommy Pham mixed in to lighten the batter and improve the texture.

But once the Cardinals made the moves they needed to make, getting Pham into the lineup every day, replacing Diaz with Paul DeJong, taking Jhonny to that nice farm upstate where they sent Ty Wiggington, slotting Jose Martinez’s bat into the middle part of the lineup most days, I have to say the Cardinals ended up looking an awful lot like a team with a pretty good collection of position player talent.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I happen to agree in broad strokes with the sentiment that what the Cardinals need is a middle of the order presence to help this team take the next step forward. Going forward with an expectation that absolutely no regression is coming for some of the Cards’ breakout hitters would be, frankly, crazy. The club could really use some insurance against underperformance, against sophomore slumps, against the league finding holes in certain guys’ games with the benefit of time to prepare. The opposition will not be caught by surprise by DeJong or Pham or Jose Martinez in 2018; it would be a very, very good idea to try and build in a little bit of insurance, you know?

And even without worrying too much about regression coming for certain guys, the offense, good as it was, could still use a little work. The Cardinals were among baseball’s best in walk rate and OBP, but if we look at the power stats they were more of a middle of the road offense. They ranked eighteenth in home runs. They were right around the middle of the pack in isolated slugging. The Redbirds did an outstanding job of getting on base, but even the really good version of the Cardinal offense we saw in the second half of the season was a little light on thump.

Oh, and one other thing: the Cards were elite at getting on base, and their overall offensive production ranks among the game’s best. One problem, though. That second best in the NL wRC+ only translated into 349 second-half runs, which ranks...sixth. Six out of fifteen in runs, the actual number that wins games. Sixth best wRC+ in baseball, fourteenth most runs.

Now, plenty of that probably comes down to terrible timing, which even the good version of the Cardinals seemed to possess in spades. But some of it also has to come down to the offense bringing OBP to a slug fight, and when we talk about a middle of the order bat, that’s what we’re really talking about. We’re talking about dingers, plain and simple, with the hope that one serious slugger sitting there behind all the on-base percentage the current version of the club offers will have a transformative effect on that bottom line number under the column marked ‘R’.

I think it’s fair, though, to question whether that middle of the order slugger is, in fact, the best way to upgrade the 2018 Cardinals. The pitching staff, after all, was really more of an issue in the aggregate than the offense, particularly in the second half. Second half of the season, the offense was carrying a pitching staff that flagged, badly, in fact. So perhaps a #1/2 starting pitcher, wherever you might find one, to pair with Carlos Martinez atop the rotation would be the better way to go. I’m sure the closer role will get plenty of attention, seeing as how the bullpen of 2017 lost an inordinate number of games. If I weren’t personally so set against investing big resources into a bullpen as a matter of principle, I might actually have more to say about that. But even as a believer in the kitchen sink approach to building a bullpen, rather than trusting in proven commodities that break down only slightly less often than the 1965 Norton I inherited years back and have spent as much time working on as riding, I have to admit the idea of trying to buy security in relief is very tempting to consider.

Or maybe run prevention should be the focus, even if we’re not talking about pitching specifically? A run saved is as good as a run earned, and while the second half Cardinals were solid defensively, they weren’t close to the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Marlins. Jose Martinez’s 160 wRC+ in the second half (before you go check, no, that’s not a typo), is obviously nice to have, but he’s not helping out the pitching staff in any way, shape, or form, regardless of where he’s playing in the field. Would it be better to pursue players who keep runs off the scoreboard, rather than those who put them on?

In the end, I think I still lean toward trying to get a slugger to plug into the middle of the lineup. But am I absolutely certain that’s the best way forward? No. I am not. I think that adding a Josh Donaldson or Giancarlo Stanton or J.D. Martinez to the lineup would have the biggest impact on the success of the 2018 Cardinals. But I don’t know. At the very least, I think it’s worth pointing out, again and again and again if necessary, that every time someone tells you that the biggest problem with this team was the offense, that they just don’t have the firepower to win, that until there’s a Presence in the middle of the lineup they’re going to be mired in mediocrity, that person is just dead wrong.

The Cardinals need to improve their team before pitchers and catchers report for 2018, because there is no baseball scheduled today in the city of St. Louis, and that’s a real bummer. Playoffs are fun, and we should have them. Ergo, the Cardinals should get better this offseason. And if you put a gun to my head and demanded I choose a single upgrade for the Redbirds to make, I would a) suggest you’re probably taking your baseball discussions a little too seriously, and b) likely choose that new cleanup hitter so many are jonesing for. The Big Bat is probably the best way to make the team better, I think.

But really, the upgrade doesn’t have to take one form or another. The Cardinals should get better, but they should get better in whatever way makes the most sense in terms of what is available. They shouldn’t spend huge resources on a J.D. Martinez if he’s going to slug like crazy in the four hole but give back half his value on defense and running the bases, just because he fits the archetype of a Big Bat. They’ve already got an offensive monster and defensive liability in the outfield named Martinez; spending ~$150 million to add another just might not be that efficient.

My point, ultimately, is this: it may feel some days like the only way forward, the only way for the Cardinals to really get better, is to go out and get one specific type of player who fits a certain narrative of what the club needs. But that’s not really true. There are multiple avenues for the club to improve, even if their strange, high-floor roster makes it occasionally seem impossibly complicated to actually do.

The only way for the Cardinals to really get better is to get better, whatever form that takes. Let’s just hope the front office doesn’t lose sight of that this offseason, when the constant calls for a Big Bat become occasionally deafening. It doesn’t have to be just one way. Just get better, in any way you can, El Birdos.

(That being said, I’ll still take one Giancarlo to go, please.)