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Late Season Offensive Trends

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As the Cardinals try desperately to tend to the dying embers of their 2017 playoff hopes, it’s worth looking around at where the offense is as we approach the end of the season, and what it might all mean in the longer term.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The season, ladies and gentlemen, is not over. As hard as the Cardinals have tried the past week to officially end things, with the offense going to sleep in Pittsburgh, Luke Weaver suddenly remembering he’s not Tom Seaver, and the bullpen doing that thing where the end of every game is only really lacking the numb left arm in simulating a heart attack, we find that the season is still, in fact, not over.

Now, that’s not to say the Cardinals are in good shape; two and a half games out of a playoff spot with five to go is, in reality, a very very very bad place to find oneself. But, considering how disappointing the April through June Redbirds were, meaningful baseball the final week of September is its own small kind of victory, I suppose.

However, in spite of the season not yet being over, I think it’s probably unavoidable that our conversations will, to a large extent, turn to the future. After all, the Cardinals right now are essentially faced with the task of simply winning every game the rest of the season. Any less, and they’re probably done. If they win the final five, they have a shot. If not, it’s 2018 time. And that’s hard to write about. It’s hard to analyse. Win every game or go home has very little nuance to it. Thus, when we think about the Cards these days, we’re probably thinking in terms of more than just this hoped-for six game win streak to close the season.

To that end, I wanted to take a look at some of the trends in performance we’ve seen from Cardinal hitters as we wind down this season. After all, what we see now will likely affect what we see when Opening Day 2018 rolls around — even if we know offseason moves will almost certainly shake things up — because when you have an organisation entering a stage of forced pruning and reshaping, auditions are mighty important.

Tommy Pham

Season line: 513 PA, .310/.411/.530, 23 HR, 23/30 SB, 12.9% BB, 22.2% K, 150 wRC+

We will start off our roundup with the team’s season MVP. And first off, not included in those season stats above are the baserunning value Pham brings to the team — +3.8 runs above average — and his defensive value, which is even greater. By DRS, Pham has been a +8 defender in left field this season (707 innings), and a +3 in center in just 272.1 innings. Obviously, those samplings are far too small to determine true talent, but he looks like a very good fielder, and all the defensive metrics paint him as a very good fielder. His career numbers are good as well; +5 DRS in slightly over 900 career innings in left and +5 in just about 750 center field innings. My point is simply that when considering Tommy Pham, his tremendous offensive value doesn’t paint the full picture, which we would do well to remember.

And if that all isn’t enough to get you excited about the potential impact that Tommy Pham could have on the Cardinals teams of the next few years, then consider this: Tommy Pham is not wearing down as the season goes on, nor is the league figuring him out.

In fact, Pham is actually getting better.

To wit, if we consider Pham’s numbers early in the season, from the time he came up on Cinco de Mayo through the end of June, we find a very, very good hitter. Over that time frame, he put up a .289/.378/.480 line, good for a 128 wRC+ in 201 plate appearances. He hit a barrage of early home runs — 5 in his first 80 PAs — then slowed down a little in the power production. His walk rate was a very solid 10.9%, and his strikeout rate was a manageable 24.9%. Striking out a quarter of the time in 2017 is obviously not unheard of, but there were some concerns that Pham striking out that often without elite power was a little worrisome. Take that elevated BABIP (it was at .353 through the end of June), and regress it down and that K rate could be more of an issue.

In just over 100 July plate appearances, Pham hit the everloving hell out of the ball, with a .438 BABIP and .247 ISO. He also improved his walk rate (12.1%), and strikeout rate (23.4%). Encouraging! Yes, he was still getting a lot of run from the balls in play going for hits, but he was also trending positively in other areas as well. Fun fact: in July, Tommy’s batted-ball profile was beautifully symmetrical: he pulled the ball 34.8% of the time, went up the middle 30.4% of the time, and went to the opposite field 34.8% of the time. That’s some Stan Musial home and away hits kind of shit right there.

Now here’s the good part.

Since the beginning of August, a period of time covering 205 plate appearances, Tommy Pham has done more than be a very good hitter, or even a very good hitter on a crazy hot streak like he was in July. In August and September, Tommy Pham has looked like a truly, absolutely, 100% elite hitter. His slash line over those 2015 trips to the plate is .307/.433/.542, which translates to a .417 wOBA and 161 wRC+. A plus defender in left and center fields who is also 61% above league average with the bat? No, you’re not quite verging into Mike Trout territory just yet — Trout’s career wRC+ is 169 — but you’re far closer than one has any right to expect.

The best part of Tommy’s line in August and September is this: his batting average on balls in play over that time is .356, which is high and likely to come down, but not as completely absurd as the .438 he ran in July. So it’s not as if he’s riding a streak of hot batted-ball luck. Rather, the big improvements for Pham the last two months have come on the non-contact side of things. His strikeout rate in August and September is just 19%, comfortably better than league average, and his walk rate is 15.1%, which is downright remarkable.

In that earlier sample of May and June, Tommy saw pitchers throw pitches inside the zone 49% of the time. He also chased pitches out of the zone 20.2% of the time. That’s not a bad chase rate at all; for reference, Matt Carpenter’s career chase rate is 20.8%, and for 2017 he’s at 18.6%, while Paul DeJong goes fishing where he oughtn’t a very worrisome 35.3% of the time.

In August and September, though, Pham has seen his Zone% drop all the way to 45.1%, and he’s cut his chase rate to 18.8%. In other words, pitchers are challenging Pham much less often now than they did early in the season, and he’s letting more of those pitches outside the zone go by. That’s a hell of a combination.

How much of those gains Pham can hold on to as we move from 2017 to 2018 will go a long way in determining just how productive a hitter he is. The guy we saw early on was an excellent player, as an all-around contributor with a solid 55 grade bat if we saw some regression coming in the batted-ball profile. The Tommy Pham of August and September, though, has elite non-contact skills, basically plays at a 25/25 pace over 600 plate appearances, and still steals runs in the outfield.

Early Pham was really good. Recent Pham is a legit MVP candidate.

Paul DeJong

Season line: 425 PA, .280/.320/.523, 24 HR, 4.7% BB, 28.5% K, .344 BABIP, 118 wRC+

Remember a couple minutes ago, when I used Paul DeJong as an example of what someone with a really bad habit of chasing balls out of the zone looks like? Well, here he is, and we need to talk about DeJong, since for the second year in a row the Cardinals have found what look like a potential longish term solution at shortstop who comes with some scary question marks.

The good news about DeJong, as compared to Aledmys Diaz, is that the defense on DeJong has held pretty firm at a slightly above-average level. He’s played a little over 700 innings at short, and he’s a positive in all three major systems. Plus/minus has him at +2, DRS pegs him at +1, and UZR/150 sees him 3.7 runs above average over a full season. Those may not look like huge numbers, but remember, he’s playing shortstop, which is the toughest defensive position on the field (aside from catcher, which is so different I prefer to consider it separate entirely), and doing so with approximately eleven total months of experience at the position under his belt. He made the switch from third to short last year in the Arizona Fall League, so yes, this is his first year actually playing shortstop. His recent run of wild throws is a bit concerning, but it’s also possible Paulie D is just a little worn down. First year at an extremely demanding position, getting the most plate appearances of his life, and playing into late September in a pennant race? I think there’s a decent chance DeJong has just hit a bit of a wall here late in the year.

Still, let us never forget that DeJong has been a positive defender at the toughest position, and even considering how small the sample is, ask yourself this question: do you get that tingly, clenched feeling in your nether regions when someone hits a ball to shortstop this year? Seems to me we have a whole lot less fight or flight going on with routine grounders to short in 2017, and the difference between Aledmys Diaz’s -13 career DRS at the position (~1500 innings), and DeJong’s +1 probably has a lot to do with that.

Anyhow, moving on from nervous sphincters and defensive metrics, I have some good news for everyone! The August/September version of Paul DeJong does not look to be in danger of falling apart. Since the first of August, DeJong’s line is .273/.326/.478, good for a 111 wRC+. His BABIP over that time is .338, he’s hit 10 homers in 221 plate appearances, and he’s walked 5.4% of the time, which is very low, but actually better than what he did when he first came up, which was basically not walk at all. The strikeout rate is still high at 26.7%, but when you do the damage on contact Paul DeJong does, even striking out over a quarter of the time isn’t fatal.

If we narrow the time frame even further, though, to just September, we find something even more interesting. In September, DeJong’s line is .241/.313/.437, which translates to a 98 wRC+. That’s the bad news; that DeJong here late in the season hasn’t put up the numbers he did early on, and the losses have come in terms of contact quality, as his BABIP this month is just .298, and his isolated slugging has dropped to .195. Neither of those numbers is terrible, mind you; it’s just that it’s fairly clear he isn’t making quite as loud contact as he did early on.

However, on the non-contact side, we see DeJong seemingly trying to adjust to the league. His strikeout rate in September is 27.1%, still very high, and probably just kind of what we have to live with from him. His walk rate, though, is where things start looking much better; Paul’s September walk rate is 8.3%, which is...not bad at all. In fact, an eight percent walk rate you can absolutely live with.

DeJong has cut his chase rate markedly; from the time he was called up through the end of June, his O-swing% was a ghastly 40.6%. In September, it’s 28.6%. Again, he’s not as disciplined a hitter as Carpenter or Pham. but that’s okay. Incremental improvements for DeJong while still maintaining an overall aggressive approach can work just fine.

It’s a little concerning that DeJong’s quality of contact seems to have dropped off late in the season, and we don’t actually see pitchers throwing him pitches inside the zone much less often, nor throwing him fewer fastballs. I would have hoped we would see pitchers going to soft stuff out of the zone more often, more afraid to challenge Paul than less. However, the fact he’s adjusting his approach to try and be more patient is encouraging, and helping to prop up his numbers even as, I believe I mentioned before, he looks a little down physically this late in the season. The September version of Paul DeJong isn’t as pyrotechnically entertaining as the early-season version, but he’s still holding his own as a roughly league-average hitter. If he comes back in 2018 with anything approaching his earlier ability to do damage on contact, and can hold on to some of the plate discipline gains he’s made as the season has gone on, I think we have nothing to worry about as far as the shortstop position goes for a good long while.

And if he does regress, and ends up more of a 90-95 wRC+ hitter, then he’s still playing shortstop, and looks pretty good there.

Dexter Fowler

Season line: 482 PA, .269/.367/.498, 18 HR, 7/10 SB, 12.9% BB, 19.9% K, 125 wRC+

Sign me up for that line from Dexter Fowler every season of his contract, please. He’s been worth 2.9 fWAR in under 500 plate appearances; over a full season this year’s version of Dex is probably about a four win player. That’s pretty great.

The only real downside has been nagging fragility, as Fowler has missed time on a few different occasions — some requiring actual DL time, some not — and hasn’t looked quite as spry overall due to leg and foot issues, particularly his troublesome heel. To wit, his defense in center has been appalling — DRS pegs him as a -17 defender in center over 913 innings — and he’s seen his baserunning value drop from 6.2 runs in 2016 to just 1.6 runs this year. The club needs to swap he and Pham next season, and I would hope Fowler could find a medical solution for his heel spurs. He’s been a tremendous addition to the club this year; the poor defense and general slowing have been slight wet blankets.

Here’s something fun, though: since the 7th of August — which is when Fowler came back from his last stay on the disabled list — Fowler has been a complete monster at the plate. In 149 plate appearances in August and September, he’s hit .336/.443/.607. No, you’re not reading that wrong; that’s a 1.050 OPS, and a 169 wRC+. Now, yes, that .407 BABIP over that time is super unsustainable, but Dex has been flat-out murdering the ball over that time as well, so it isn’t just luck. He won’t stay this hot, but these results are pretty legitimate. Eleven doubles, four homers and five, count ‘em, five triples speak to the kind of dynamic offensive game he’s brought to the lineup over the past six weeks or so. It’s not a coincidence the offense has mostly cruised over that time frame.

There’s also the matter of his 14.8% walk rate in August and September, which is ever higher than his career-best 14.3% of 2016. His strikeout rate has held steady at about his season average, at 19.5%, which is the lowest of his career.

There has been some frustration with Fowler this season from some Cardinal fans, partly due to the injury issues and partly due to simple frustration with the overall season being pushed unfairly on the new guys. But when we look at his offensive output this season, he’s added more ‘old player skills’ to his game than ever before, hitting for more power and, particularly here late in the season, leaning on his walk rate to put up excellent on-base numbers. He’s also done that while actually cutting his strikeout rate, which is maybe the most exciting change of all.

Fowler probably needs to be moved to an outfield corner, and he’s probably not a 20 stolen base guy anymore. But the gains he’s made this season look real to me, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if he came back next season and put up another 125-130 wRC+ season. The guy is a hell of a hitter.

Stephen Piscotty

Season line: 390 PA, .239/.346/.375, 9 HR, 13.1% BB, 21.8% K, 95 wRC+

Okay, so...these aren’t all going to be positive.

The overall season line for Piscotty is obviously a downer; he signed what looked like a very team-friendly extension early in the season, and it looked like the Cardinals had locked in a solid regular player eager to be here at a very reasonable rate. And then, well, 2017 happened. Piscotty’s power has disappeared, his swing has changed a dozen times, and off-field family issues have probably taken a toll on him, even if I’m sure he would refuse to use that as an excuse. Athletes always want to pretend as if nothing in the world can possibly negatively affect their performances, but I think we all understand that’s just not true. Shit happens in life, and sometimes it bleeds over into everything no matter how you try not to let it.

If we focus in on Piscotty’s line since the 20th of August, the night he came back from the minors for the Little League classic and then stayed on with the big club, we find a line of .259/.364/.412 and a 105 wRC+. The on-base percentage is good, helped out by a very good 14.1% walk rate, but he’s also struck out 26.3% of the time, which is completely uncharacteristic for the player Piscotty has been his whole career. Early in the year, he was running tremendous walk numbers while keeping his K rate under 20%, and it looked like if he could just get his swing squared away there was a potentially 60+ grade bat in Stephen’s future. The patience has stayed, but at no point this season has Piscotty ever really appeared to get his swing in a proper groove. He looks so overextended on most swings, and the bat looks slow as a result. I liked the leg kick he added over the offseason, thinking it gave him a good trigger to engage. The kick has come and gone half a dozen times, though, and mechanically he’s seemed to be about 10% off where he needs to be all year.

The good news for Piscotty is he does have that outstanding patience, and he’s a solidly above-average defender in right field. (Career +10 defensive runs saved in 2100 innings.) I really do hope he ends up getting moved to some West Coast team this offseason, where he can hopefully have a little more peace of mind and work with fresh eyes on getting his swing squared back to where it needs to be. Stephen Piscotty putting up an OBP-heavy wRC+ of 110-115 with +5ish defense in right is a solid regular, probably about a 3 win player. Piscotty with a league average or slightly worse line and the same defense is more of a 1.5-2.0 win player, and even on a friendly contract probably having to scrap and claw for playing time. My ideal offseason for Piscotty would be to see him dealt to Oakland for something like Logan Shore and Nolan Blackwood, getting him back home and into an organisation that has had success retooling swings over the past half-dozen years.

Jedd Gyorko

Season line: 473 PA, .274/.342/.477, 20 HR, 9.7% BB, 21.8% K, 114 wRC+

Jedd Gyorko has been one hell of a find for the Cardinals the last couple years. Remember, the Redbirds picked him up from San Diego in exchange for one season of Jon Jay. So, um...good job, A.J. Preller. You’re clearly not an idiot.

We can go back to the beginning of August with Gyorko, but have to keep in mind the sample is smaller than in many other cases due to him missing a fair chunk of time with a hamstring strain. We have 104 plate appearances to work with over that time, and I have to admit I wasn’t expecting those plate appearances to be as productive as they have been. In my mind, Gyorko was awesome early on, and then has been fairly bad the second half of the season. In reality, though, he was awesome early on, slumped brutally in July, and then has been good again since the trade deadline passed.

The line for August and September goes like this: .255/.327/.479, with a 9.6% walk rate and 24% strikeout rate. So, pretty much exactly like his overall season line, actually. He’s hit six homers over that time, which feels a little high, but the fact is Jedd Gyorko is probably just something like a 110-115 wRC+ hitter. The shape will change a bit over the course of a season, but this is probably a solid 55 hitter. Add in that his defense this year has been ungodly good, and while I’m certainly not buying a +16 DRS at third this year in less than 900 innings, I think it’s fair to say he looks like a plus defender at the hot corner.

In other words, Jedd Gyorko is a very good player on a very reasonable contract, and absolutely a playoff-level starter. Personally, I still can’t shake the feeling he’s going to decline, and if I’m being honest would probably move him this offseason while his value is at its highest, but that’s entirely a gut feel thing, and he might be too valuable to move, unless the major offensive upgrade the Cards are exploring happened to be a third baseman.

Kolten Wong

Season line: 411 PA, .285/.376/.412, 10% BB, 14.6% K, 107 wRC+

The 2017 season for Kolten Wong has been one of both improvements and contradictions. The improvements are easy to see in that line above; he’s put together easily his best offensive season overall this year, taking an all-fields, patient approach that probably fits his physical tools better than his approach earlier in his career, when he occasionally fell into bad habits, i.e. expanding his zone and swinging for the fences in an attempt to make something happen, rather than taking what pitchers offer and getting himself on base consistently.

The contradictions, though, come in the form of much-reduced defensive value, caused largely by a serious case of erroritis early in the season, and persistent injury issues that have impacted his ability to stay on the field. Kolten Wong with this year’s offense, previous season’s defense, and a full load of 650 plate appearances is probably closing in on 4 WAR this year. Instead, he’s sitting at 2.0 fWAR, and while he’s added plenty of value on the bases, it’s still felt like an incomplete season once again for Kolten.

If we take the chunk of season Wong has played since the first of August, we find a player with a 114 wRC+. A 9.5% walk rate, 15.1% strikeout rate, .143 ISO, and .325 BABIP. So, basically the exact same player we see in the full-season stats. Or close enough, anyhow.

On the other hand, if we go just since the beginning of September, there’s a little more cause for alarm.

Kolten’s line from the first of September through the 25th (the last game he played), is just .170/.302/.208. Now, we’re talking about 63 plate appearances, so obviously small sample warnings are in full effect, but still, it’s worrisome. Why? Because Wong has dealt with intermittent back issues for a big chunk of the season, and it’s kicked up a couple different times here in the stretch run. Given a player who appears to be physically compromised, looking at the numbers and seeing a .191 BABIP and .038 isolated slugging suggests he’s not being able to swing freely enough to drive the ball.

On the other hand, that .302 OBP with .170 batting average is tremendously encouraging, as Wong has posted a 12.7% walk rate and just 9.5% strikeout rate in September. So he’s been able to partially make up for his inability to make quality contact by improving his non-contact results, but long-term we have to worry about a back injury in a player this young.

Wong is one of those interesting players where, if you could take the best pieces of him, you could make a tremendous line. But we have yet to see Kolten put all those pieces together at the same time. When the power is there, the patience isn’t. When the approach is there, the defense has been bad. And now we have multiple nagging injuries in a season.

It sure would be nice to see Kolten Wong put everything together all at the same time. It’s an open question how likely that is, though. Nonetheless, he’s a quality player on a reasonable contract, and it’s tough to ever see one of those as a problem.

All the rest

Those are the players I wanted most to highlight, for one reason or another. There are other hitters on the team, though, of course.

Matt Carpenter has turned it on late in the season in a big way, putting up a 136 wRC+ in August and September. He has a 40:42 BB:K ratio in 188 plate appearances, and a .245 ISO. The BABIP of .250 would seem to still tell the story of a player with a compromised shoulder, but he’s still performing at a remarkable level.

He’s actually been even more incredible in September; a 25.7% walk rate, .333 ISO, and 172 wRC+ are all pretty good, right? I mean, I know he’s the biggest problem on the team and needs to be traded and all, but offensive production 72% above league average seems alright to me.

Jose Martinez has been good all season, to the tune of a 134 wRC+, but since the beginning of August he’s been on another plane. A triple-slash line of .331/.421/.529 pretty well represents the type of hitter we’ve seen; he just hits everything, and hits it hard. A .198 ISO is, admittedly, more very solid than truly elite, but a 13.6% walk and 15% strikeout rate are both fantastic.

I’m not going to lie; I have no idea what you do with Jose Martinez going into 2018, or how big a part of your plans you make him. Nor do I envy the front office guy charged with sitting down and figuring out if he’s really really really for real, really.

Randal Grichuk has been pretty good in August and September, posting a 108 wRC+ in 151 trips to the plate. The line is .250/.298/.521, which gives a pretty good idea of what kind of slugger ol’ Randy has been. Lots of strikeouts, not many walks, an average BABIP (.297, to be exact), and enough power (.271 ISO), that you just can’t quite bring yourself to give up on him.

Still, even with that huge power, the best version of Randal Grichuk is probably only a slightly above league average hitter, and I think the organisation can do better.

Speaking of slightly above-average hitters, Luke Voit hasn’t gotten a whole lot of playing time, with just 118 plate appearances since the beginning of August, but he’s put up a 107 wRC+ over that time that speaks well to his contributions to the club. He’s been more of a low-walk, swing and miss slugger in the big leagues than he was in the minors, and I tend to think with regular playing time he would actually be a better hitter overall. But playing time is tough to come by on a club like this Cardinal team, and Voit keeping himself ready for pinch-hitting duty should be admired. It’s not an easy job, but he’s done it fairly well.

There are other hitters, but this is really long, and I think most of the really important guys got their due here. Greg Garcia has been good down the stretch. Harrison Bader has made a lot of contact in September. Yadi has been phenomenal the last two months. I think that’s pretty much everyone.

The issue, of course, is sorting through all these players, deciding who is really this good, who is really not, and who the organisation needs to keep. We’ve seen a fairly excellent offense the second half of the season, and particularly since the start of August, when the Carpenter/Pham/Fowler trio really solidified itself as one of the best 1-2-3 lineup combos in the league. Having the good version of Jose Martinez hitting cleanup behind those guys was a huge difference maker, as well.

But what does that all mean for 2018? Tough to say. Probably have to leave it for another day.

Besides, the season isn’t even over yet.