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Five Things About the Cardinals

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Quick hits! Hot takes! They’re both here today!

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Good morning, all. Cards won last night in grand fashion over the really-starting-to-phone-it-in Reds, and one might think that would make for some happy fans. Somewhat fascinatingly to me, though, the negativity of the Redbird fanbase after enduring exactly one playoffless season and half of another frustrating, inconsistent year — notice that neither of those years actually included losing records, nor has this intolerably bad stretch yet reached two complete seasons — seems to know no bounds.

For instance, if one were to cruise over and read Bernie Miklasz’s most recent column, about how things are breaking the Cards’ way since they’ve gone to their young, internal options, suggesting that perhaps John Mozeliak was right to give said internal options a try before throwing out who knows how many babies with the bathwater, you will find howling negativity as if the club were in the midst of its tenth consecutive sub-.500 season. There’s at least one accusation of Bernie being bribed with whiskey or cigars, which I find at least moderately annoying, seeing as how no one from the Cardinals has ever bothered to even ask and see if I could be bought off. I mean, if he’s getting good whiskey and cigars, I feel like I deserve at least a little something in the old Christmas stocking. Hell, I’ll tell you John Mozeliak is the handsomest man alive and his testicles taste like ripe Rainier cherries for a bottle of St. Bernardus or something. I fold cheaply, Cardinals. Just ask!

But anyhow, the negativity is weirdly deep this season, considering how shallow the struggles have been. I mean, I’ve certainly criticised the Cardinal front office for being too conservative, too risk-averse, and too slow to change course plenty of times over the past couple years. But at no point have I ever believed this front office or ownership group is less than committed to winning. I find the accusations of the club deliberately putting a subpar product on the field in order to pocket vast profits by rooking the rubes to be baffling.

Again, I happen to think the Cardinals need to adjust their thinking about the best way to build a winning club, and be a bit more willing to go outside their comfort zone in several ways. But not trying to win? Less than two years after they concluded a run of three straight division titles, winning 100 games in 2015, and following a decade and a half of being the winningest team in the National League? What the hell is going on in some of these people’s heads?

And no, don’t give me the World Series-NLCS-NLDS-missing the playoffs over the last four years logic. That’s fucking stupid. If you’re basing how good a team was on how deep they went in the playoffs, the only thing you’ve proven is that you aren’t worth paying attention to. That’s three playoff years and one year missing the postseason. Period.

So anyway, people are all pissed off, and it seems really strange to me. The Cardinals have shifted direction, have made some important roster changes this season, and are in a much better place now than they were in May. The team they began the year with was not a playoff team. This one probably is. The only question is whether they can overcome the mess that first team made. That doesn’t mean the job is done, and further improvements don’t need to be made this offseason. But if you don’t see how much better this current club is than the early-season iteration, you’re either completely in the dark or being willfully obtuse.

Sigh. I’m tired of being grumpy, but I can’t seem to avoid enough people online to not be anymore. Everything seems to be a cesspool.

Anyhow, moving on.

When I think of something, I make a note to turn it into a column. Usually the note is of the mental variety; I’m not quite at the age yet where I begin to worry about cognition and memory just yet. Occasionally, though, it’s an actual note, either in the phone, or on my computer, or literally jotted down on a scrap of paper. The problem is, a lot of those notes end up being things to slight for actual columns. It’s really hard to turn a three week hot streak by a random player into 2000 words. I mean, that doesn’t usually keep me from doing it, but it’s hard, damn it.

So these are things I’ve made notes of recently, that are too long and substantial to simply tweet out, but aren’t quite long enough to make into proper content on their own. Six things, in fact, that have jumped into my brain recently.

  • Matt Carpenter walked four times last night in five trips to the plate; in his other plate appearance he doubled. It was, in point of fact, an extremely Carpenterish game. What I find really fascinating about Carpenter’s season is just how extreme a hitter he’s become recently, and how much his shoulder injury might possibly play into how he’s approached his offense this year. Since the beginning of August, a period which covers 139 plate appearances, Matt Carpenter has only collected 20 hits, exactly half of which have gone for extra bases. Five home runs, four doubles, and one lonely triple make up his extra base production over that period of time, and while a 50% extra base rate is pretty good, 20 hits in 139 plate appearances is a .192 batting average, which is very, very not-good. He’s also struck out in 22.3% of those plate appearances, which is on the high side for Matt Carpenter. On the other hand — and this is the really interesting bit — Carp has absolutely earned his Galveston Grinder nickname over the past month and a half, as he’s walked at a nearly 1:1 ratio with his strikeouts, putting up a 21.6% BB rate since the first of August. Thirty walks, 31 strikeouts. I do find myself wondering if Carpenter doesn’t need to maybe adjust his approach a bit to actually deemphasise pulling the ball in the air as his primary batted-ball goal (his .202 ISO during that time is encouraging, but the .221 BABIP is worrisome), but his plate discipline is just unreal.
  • Paul DeJong has now played just over 600 innings at shortstop this season. And while I still can’t quite wrap my head around his offensive profile — striking out ~29% of the time and walking ~4% of the tie cannot possibly add up to a successful hitter inside my brain — I find it very pleasing to look at his defensive numbers and find them all pointing in a positive direction. DeJong this season is a +4 defender at short by plus/minus, a +2 by DRS, and a +3.7 by UZR/150. I think we all know enough about defensive metrics to know single-season numbers are very untrustworthy, much less partial seasons, but even so, it’s better to have all the metrics pointing in a positive direction than the alternative. My eye test tells me DeJong is about an average or slightly above defender at short (which I still find fascinating and hard to believe, honestly), and the numbers tell me he’s been slightly above-average at short. It’s pleasing when one doesn’t have to try and reconcile differing numbers or personal perception that’s wildly out of line with said numbers. The fact DeJong has put up solid defensive numbers, even in limited samples, is a big part of the reason I think he has a better chance of sustaining success than Aledmys Diaz did. Even when DeJong’s offensive numbers take an inevitable downturn, I still he can actually play the position, which was not really the case with Diaz.
  • With Trevor Rosenthal out next year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Cardinals try to offer Juan Nicasio a relatively short-term contract. Something like a 1+1, $6-8 million next year with either a club or mutual option for 2019 at a similar rate, maybe. Since moving to the bullpen with the Dodgers a couple years ago, Nicasio has become a substantially better pitcher, particularly in terms of limiting walks, which was always an issue for him earlier in his career. I’m not sure he’s Established enough yet as a late-inning force to warrant a three or four year deal at Brett Cecil money, but he’s an intriguing guy to take a chance on over the short term. One year and a mutual option would serve both he and the club well, by helping fill one spot in what currently looks like a somewhat unsettled 2018 bullpen for the Cardinals, while allowing Nicasio himself to continue auditioning for some team to make a mistake with.
  • I don’t think we’ve really properly given enough time over to appreciating just how extraordinary Tyler Lyons has been for much of this season. Since the all-star break, Lyons has been on a tear, which is lucky for us seeing as how he’s been one of the very few stabilising forces we’ve seen in this year’s bullpen. His strikeout rate has actually fallen a bit the last week or so, but even in that context he’s punching out 34.7% of all hitters he’s faced since the break, while walking a very reasonable 8%. That walk rate isn’t elite, but relievers do accumulate more ‘tactical’ walks than starting pitchers do, and regardless, a 26.7% K-BB ratio is remarkable. He might be carrying a few extra lbs this season, but that 1.84 FIP since the middle of July is attractive enough to make up for whatever slightly elevated number might show on the scale. (Come at me, AYVSI!)
  • Did you know that, since the beginning of August, Matt Adams has put up a 98 wRC+? He’s still hitting for good power, but his walk rate is only slightly higher than that of Paul DeJong. He’s also currently out of action with a hamstring issue, and is still limited defensively to being either a pretty good first baseman or an horrific left fielder. So please, please please, can we once and for all knock off this shit about how the Cardinals, “gave him away”? I still see this narrative plenty of places, and hear it all too often on the radio or podcasts and the like. Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Adams just isn’t all that good a major league baseball player. His hot streak when he first got to Atlanta had a whole bunch of people up in arms about the Cardinals sending away such a talent, but he’s reverted to basically the player he was here in St. Louis. He’s not a bad player; he’s just not all that good. He’s a first baseman with a bat that’s only slightly above league average on good days and has been very brittle in his major league career. That’s just not worth being upset about losing. Okay?

That’s all I got this morning, folks. This was originally titled ‘Six Things About the Cardinals’, but it was getting long, and the sixth thing I think really is worth an actual column. So five things it is. I’ll see you all next time, when hopefully the Cardinals are going for their third series sweep in a row Sunday afternoon at Chicago. I’m not holding my breath, but that doesn’t sound nearly so far-fetched with this rotation as it did a month or two ago, right?