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The Best Bench(es) in Baseball

The Cardinals have one of them.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The bench has been a major asset for the Cardinals over the past decade. As the patented Cardinals Devil Magic™ continues to churn out Daniel Descalsos, Greg Garcias and 2016-Jeremy Hazelbakers, St. Louis has put together some strong numbers from those who are, more often than not, riding the pine. One would expect the Cardinal bench to be at its strongest in a year like 2018, where a top-heavy farm system is bursting with prospects who are ready to try their hand at the major league level. So how has the bench done so far this season? We’ll find out in yet another episode of Small Sample Size Theater.

It’s important to look at these things in context, so I took the fWAR totals for each team’s part-time players from the start of the season through end-of-play on 4/24, getting some help on team structure from RosterResource. A few caveats:

  1. Any player who started on the bench, now filling in for an injured player on the 60-day DL is not included. If you’re a full-time player for two months, that production isn't up for bench consideration.
  2. Almost-equal platoon splits are considered one starter. Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp are virtually splitting time behind the dish in Philly so it isn’t fair to consider one a bench player.
  3. All bench production up to this point is included, regardless of the player’s current roster/team status. For example, Trayce Thompson is included for both the Athletics and the White Sox, and Yairo Muñoz is still dragging down the Cardinals’ output.
  4. No Ohtani.
More like “Rocky Mountain LOW,” am I right?

The Cardinal bench is in a three-way tie for fourth in terms of WAR. Out of all position player war for St. Louis, the bench makes up roughly 17%. That’s not the highest percentage in the league, but it’s a lot when you’re looking at guys like Garcia, Harrison Bader, and Jedd Gyorko contributing one-sixth of the team’s position player WAR. Just to confirm it’s not primarily defense-driven, here’s a list of wOBA per team when lumping all bench player PAs together, essentially viewing the bench as one player:

2018 MLB Bench wOBA

LAA 0.389
NYY 0.367
STL 0.357
NYM 0.341
CHC 0.331
PIT 0.330
OAK 0.323
TB 0.321
BOS 0.315
LAD 0.308
TOR 0.293
ARI 0.291
SF 0.288
MIL 0.287
SEA 0.271
SD 0.265
CIN 0.261
WSH 0.260
PHI 0.260
HOU 0.260
DET 0.254
MIN 0.253
CHW 0.250
TEX 0.250
KC 0.242
BAL 0.239
CLE 0.231
ATL 0.222
MIA 0.198
COL 0.186
(Seeing as these are hand calculations across multiple players, you aren’t getting wRC+ here. Sorry ‘bout it.)

Here we go. The Cardinal bench has a .357 wOBA through 118 PAs, trailing only the Yankees and the Angels. If you wrote out the back-of-the-baseball-card stats, this fictitious player would have a line like this:

118 PAs, .278/.385/.423, 17 R, 5 2B, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 4 SB, 27.12% K%, 12.71% BB%

Taking those numbers and the wOBA into account, a hitter with that line over the course of the season looks a lot like 2017 Eugenio Suarez. That's a valuable player. It also helps to explain why this offense has been so good, even if it’s sometimes felt like the opposite. Across all MLB teams, the 2018 Cardinals rank fourth in HRs, fifth in BB%, seventh in OBP, and sixth in wRC+, just to cover a few categories. As it stands St. Louis easily has a top-5 offense in the NL, close to top-5 in all of major league baseball. One-sixth of that is owed to the bench, which is good.

It’s also a bit worrisome, however.

Yes, those numbers are dragged down by a dismal 20 PAs from Muñoz, but they’re also propped up by a 2-HR performance from Garcia in Cincinnati and Bader’s .400 BABIP. While I don’t expect them to start tanking at the plate, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect that level of continued production. The (obvious) key to making sure this offense sustains its output is shoring up the heart of the lineup — Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, and Marcell Ozuna.

It makes the Cardinals’ offensive ranking all the more impressive when you consider that the wRC+’s of Fowler, Carpenter and Ozuna are 86, 83 and 60 (yeesh), respectively. The thing is, those are players who are bound to turn it around. Fowler and Carpenter both had slow starts last year. They’ve both hit into some bad luck, with respective 2018 BABIPs of .211 and .204. Ozuna’s situation is a bit mystifying (though we would all probably agree he could stand to walk a bit more), but he’s currently tied for the fourth-highest hard-hit percentage among all qualified batters, sitting at 42.2%. As the weather heats up, so will Ozuna.

Ultimately, I’m not predicting MVP-caliber play from these three, just saying that the unavoidable truth known as regression will eventually bring these lines back up. If the everyday bats that are playing well (like José Martínez, Tommy Pham, and Yadier Molina) keep playing, the bench keeps performing, and the core of the offense at least performs to their projections, this lineup could be a real terror.