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The Cardinals’ Season by the Numbers

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Assessing the overall qualities of the 2018 Cardinals, with the help of distance and statistics.

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

Good morning, all.

First off, thanks for all the feedback to those who offered it in yesterday’s thread. (The kind words from many were appreciated as well, it should be noted.) A couple of notes about those suggestions:

  • I will be writing up a trio of Japanese pitchers who could be posted this offseason (actually, one has already been announced), probably on Wednesday. I’m a little less certain there are any position players from the East primed to come over and potentially make a splash right now, but I may try to get some names out on that front as well down the road. I’m also not sure if there are any Korean players looking to come over this offseason, but I’ll look into it.
  • Several people mentioned my old shadow drafts, or else some kind of retrospective comparisons covering the draft, in terms of what the Cardinals got vs what they could have gotten at their respective draft slots. I drifted away from doing the shadow draft posts mostly because of an issue I didn’t really think of at the time when I began them, but which pretty quickly became obvious after a couple years: they got longer and longer, by leaps and bounds, every single year. It’s the problem with doing a running series with a set starting point; every new one you write has to include everything up to that point, and it gets overwhelming. However, I will be trying to incorporate some more draft retrospectives this year. I’m thinking that doing one year at a time in a post, just looking back at the class, what the Cards did, what they missed on, and what we/I thought at the time would fulfill that same aim. I’ll probably do them as single-year posts, scattered throughout the winter and early spring as I start rolling toward 2019 draft coverage.
  • Someone mentioned they’d like to see minor league targets from other clubs’ systems. I’ll try to work on that. I usually hesitate to do that, because it occasionally feels like overly indulgent rosterbation/wishcasting, but if there is an interest in what sorts of players might be of interest elsewhere in baseball in terms of potential trade chips and the like I’d be glad to try and do some profiles.
  • Some discussion of focusing a little more on defensive standouts in the system; I could probably knock that out in one post. Or, if one of my fellow writers wished to do so they could as well. I always try to include info about defense in my player writeups, but something like the Cards’ minor league all-glove team could be a useful post as well, I suppose.
  • In a similar vein, someone asked for a ‘best tools’ type inclusion, similar to what Baseball America used to do in their top 30 lists. (Maybe they still do? I forget, honestly.) I’ll try to remember to include something like that on the big list this offseason, probably as part of the big wrapup overview post at the end.

So that’s that. There were a couple other suggestions, things that would be a little more complicate in terms of analysis, and I’ll either try to look into them myself or possibly quietly suggest those topics to John, who happens to be a magnificent research paper type guy, far better than anything I can turn out in that sort of format. I’ve got the words, a good scouting eye, and an ability to zoom out to the big picture pretty effectively, I think, but when it comes to drilling down on a single set of numbers or questions, compiling data and chartsengrafs, I struggle with that format. It just doesn’t fit my nature very well.

Anyhow, moving on to today’s topic. Thanks again to everyone who had something to say yesterday.

So what I want to do today is to look, in very general terms, at the Cardinals’ season just concluded. We all have a feel for what kind of club the Cards were, I think, but a lot of the context gets lost in the everyday ups and downs. It’s easy to lose sight of what kind of offense a club actually had when they go in the toilet for a week hitting-wise. Same thing with a pitching staff on a hot streak; the pleasure of the roll can make us forget the aggregate.

But before we start too far down the road of what needs to happen this offseason, what has to happen for us to believe the Cardinals aren’t a sham organisation just playing the long con to bilk us all out of our ticket money while deliberately missing postseason play by two or three games every year, it’s probably a good idea to look over what the club was, and what it did, in 2018, without the distortion that day to day micro view tends to bring with it.

The Offense

Team Runs Scored: 759

MLB Rank: 11th in MLB, 6th in NL

Non-Pitcher wRC+: 103

6th Best in NL; 12th Best in MLB

Ah, the offense. Source of near-constant consternation — or at least concern — as we all watch the Cardinals struggle to bring home titles with an offense that seems prone to huge swoops from productive to hopeless, seemingly with not reason or logic behind the day to day performances.

Well, here’s the actual story: the Cardinal offense was pretty good. No better, no worse. A little above average. Sixth in the National League is clearly not elite territory, either in runs scored or the underlying hitting stats, but it’s also certainly not the sort of area where one starts to really worry. A club built around run prevention with a #6 ranking in offensive stats? Absolutely fine.

The problem, of course, is that the Cardinals weren’t built for run prevention, not really. Or, how about, not often enough. The Cards have excellent defensive players at this point, but the overall roster construction forces the club to choose between offense and defense, often leading to more flawed players getting playing time that is perhaps less than optimal, in order to try and support an offense that requires production through depth, rather than concentrated performance. Punting on defense at one or two spots in order to keep centerpiece offensive players in the lineup is fine, but a decentralised offense like that of the Cardinals can require too many sacrifices and choices to be made all at once.

On the positive side of things, it should be noted that the Cardinals managed that respectable, if not elite, level of offensive production while receiving a disastrous performance from Dexter Fowler, about half a disastrous season from Kolten Wong, long slumps from Matt Carpenter (which, admittedly, were offset by his ungodly hot stretches), losing Paul DeJong to a hand injury for well over a month, and having Tommy Pham disappear after about the beginning of May. Marcell Ozuna was painfully mediocre, as well.

The thing is, I’m not sure there were any huge offensive outliers on the positive side this season, while there were several big underperformances we almost certainly didn’t see coming. Matt Carpenter was one of the best hitters in the National League for a big chunk of the season, an outcome we probably shouldn’t bank on again, but he was also utterly terrible for other long stretches, and his season wRC+ ultimately landed at 138, which is two points higher than his 2016 number, and one point lower than his 2015 season total. So yes, Carp carried the club for a period, but he also served as a stone around its neck for awhile. The overall numbers were very good, but not unprecedented for Carpenter by any means. Harrison Bader will probably be a little worse going forward, but not so much that I think it changes the overall outlook for the offense drastically.

Fun fact: the Cardinals, for all the carping from fans and broadcasters about the terrible baserunning, ended the season at +13 runs on the bases, which ranked third in all of baseball behind the Yankees (+14.6), and Indians (+13.8). Now, some of that value came from players like Matt Carpenter being very good at not hitting into double plays, but definitely not all of it. Unforced errors on the bases are always hugely frustrating, but in general this season the Cardinals gained runs rather than lost them.

In other words, the Redbird offense is both better than many seem to think, and also kind of exactly what we believe it to be, i.e. a solid unit that excels through depth, but is still lacking in that concentrated middle of the order production that could both propel the offense into higher realms and also allow sacrifices to be made elsewhere in favour of defense without compromising the club’s ability to score runs.

The Defense

Total Defensive WAR (fWAR version): 48.3

MLB Rank: 5th overall

Now here, I think, is where the biggest disconnect is, in terms of how fans view the club vs how the team actually performed in 2018. Fans and broadcasters are obsessed with the idea that the Cardinals were a terrible defensive team, with plenty of writers parroting the ‘led MLB in errors’ stat without any context, which by the way I think isn’t just stupid, but actively does a disservice to their readers. Rather than trying to educate the fanbase about the advancements in defensive metrics and all the amazing things we know now that we didn’t fifteen years ago, people like the staff at the Post-Dispatch and others use numbers we know, factually, are far less accurate and useful, keeping their readers in the dark. It’s maddening.

Anyhow, here’s the thing: the Cardinals in 2018 appear to have been a very good defensive club. I say appear to have been because we know that one-year samples, even for a team, can be sketchy in terms of defensive numbers. For instance, Matt Carpenter rated as a very good third baseman this year, but I wouldn’t expect him to be that going forward. First base I think he’s a plus; third I think the throwing issues hurt him long term. To his credit, though, he made basically all the plays he should have this season, wherever he played.

Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Paul DeJong, and Kolten Wong all graded out as elite defenders this season. Marcell Ozuna, for all his arm issues, put up another season of very good defensive numbers. How, you ask? Because throwing for outfielders is hugely overrated, that’s how. Bad throws are extremely visible, and often costly, causing them to stick in our minds, but the overall impact of an outfielder’s arm is dwarfed by his legs, and Marcell Ozuna tracked down a lot of balls in left this year.

Yes, Jose Martinez probably needs to go, considering how much better he fits on an AL club with the DH in play. And yes, Yairo Munoz needs to improve his consistency with the glove and not make so many errors. But on the whole, if the Cardinals ran the same club out in 2019 they had this year, one could argue they’d have defensive pluses at all three outfield spots (assuming O’Neill in right), both middle infield spots, catcher, and potentially one or both corner infield spots depending on the exact personnel playing on a given day. Maybe that’s a little too optimistic. But it’s very hard for me to look at the players the Cards could bring back next season and not feel the defense could, and should, be a strength.

The Starting Rotation

ERA: 3.52; MLB Rank: 5th overall

FIP: 3.78; MLB Rank: 7th overall

GB%: 45.2%; MLB Rank: 7th overall

K/9: 8.24; MLB Rank: 14th overall

BB/9: 3.25; MLB Rank: 10th overall

Beginning the season, the Cardinals’ starting rotation was seen as perhaps the strongest aspect of the team. At the end of the year, it turned out the starting rotation was probably the strongest aspect of the team, but in a completely different fashion than we expected.

Injuries hit the Cards’ starting unit as hard as any group in baseball this season, with Michael Wacha missing most of the season, Carlos Martinez hitting the DL on three separate occasions and finishing out the year closing games, and Alex Reyes making less than one full start at the big league level. In other words, things went about as poorly as could be expected, and still the organisation’s remarkable pitching depth held things together to a fine degree.

The Cards’ rotation is a little light on strikeout punch, but excels at managing contact. The high groundball rate seems as much an organisational philosophy at this point as a Dave Duncan-specific trope of the past, even with Mike Maddux’s more varied and K-friendly approach in place these days. Cardinal starters were very good at keeping the ball on the ground and in the park this past season, a plan which is admittedly aided by Busch Stadium’s pitcher-friendly confines.

I could certainly be talked into the Redbirds making a starting pitching investment this offseason, even if it’s one of the stronger areas of the club already. The injury bug is, of course, a constant wild card, but a potential top three of Martinez-Mikolas-Flaherty is as good as nearly any in baseball. Adding another plus starter to that group could add some rocket fuel to the club’s winning percentage. In the end, I tend to believe there are still more pressing areas to address, and better places to invest, than the rotation, but I could be talked into doubling down on run prevention through starters. (More on that Wednesday, speaking of.)

The Bullpen

ERA: 4.38; MLB Rank: 20th overall

FIP: 4.27; MLB Rank: 19th overall

Total WAR: 0.5

MLB Rank: 25th overall

Look, is it okay if we just don’t talk about the bullpen? I really don’t want to. I don’t think you really want to hear about it. Here’s the cliffs notes version: the bullpen really was roughly as bad as you think it was. This isn’t an overreaction by fans; the Cards’ relief corps in 2018 was a disaster. I think the organisation had a good plan going in, but basically everything that could have gone wrong did, and the bullpen as a whole was a tire fire inside of a dumpster onboard a satellite burning up on reentry into the atmosphere all season long. There’s no useful analysis to be had when two of your biggest offseason bullpen acquisitions each spend almost the entire year on the disabled list and Greg Holland does what he did in a Cardinal uniform. The ‘pen obviously will have to be rebuilt again this offseason, with a few positive pieces already in place.

But overall, there just isn’t much useful to say about it. So let’s not, okay?

In the end, what the Cards’ numbers for the year tell us is that they were a good team, but not a great one. Earth-shattering analysis there, I know. But specifically, we can say that the infusion of young, athletic defenders is one of the biggest positives the club has working for it, along with a starting rotation anchored by a young star and an innings-eating stud that will hopefully get one of the most talented pitchers in baseball back healthy next season.

There’s certainly more good than bad here, which is always the case when it comes to the Cardinals. But it’s fairly obvious there are also a few real opportunities for improvement. The bullpen has to be a priority. Adding some power, preferably concentrated power, to the offense would be a big help. Alternatively, if the club wanted to double down and go whole hog on run prevention, adding another rotation stalwart and pushing even harder on defense could be a viable direction as well.

I won’t discuss specific players or upgrades here; there’s plenty of time for that. But this is what the 2018 Cardinals were, in reality, without the day to day blinding us to the bigger picture. This is where they’re starting from.