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How Bad was Sunday’s Lineup?

Or: Rocky Mountain low and a Cardinal surprise

Greg Garcia strikes out against the Brewers

Any way you slice it, Sunday was a great day for Cardinals fans. Jack Flaherty might have just thrown the best game he’ll ever throw in the majors. Alex Reyes struck out roughly a trillion batters and looks ready to take the majors by storm when he’s eligible to return. As a cherry on top, the Cards beat the Phillies and Tyler O’Neill continued to show that those forearms aren’t just for show, continuing his hot streak with a home run and three hits. In the gamethread, however, there was discussion of how anemic this Cardinals lineup looked. Someone said it might be the worst lineup in the NL, and close to it if not. I thought about who was clearly better and clearly worse than the Cardinals, and didn’t really get that far. The Cubs, Nationals, and Braves are probably better. The Phillies? Sure, why not. I was pretty sure the Padres and Rockies had worse lineups, but only pretty sure. Past that, I was stumped.

Well, I know a good article idea when I see one, and my overall lack of a clue of how good the Cardinals lineup was sounded like just the ticket for a deeper dive. It’s easy enough to compare team wRC+ or OPS numbers, but that’s not really the question here. The Cards’ lineup has been a little bit below average so far this year, but this lineup was missing some serious thump. Paul DeJong won’t be back for a while. Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly are down, leaving Francisco Pena in charge at catcher. Marcell Ozuna had a day off (okay, he’s not hitting this year, but hopefully he will soon). Harrison Bader, he of the newly excellent plate discipline, also sat this one out. As a refresher, here was the Cardinals’ lineup:

  1. Tommy Pham CF
  2. Matt Carpenter 3B
  3. Jose Martinez 1B
  4. Tyler O’Neill LF
  5. Dexter Fowler RF
  6. Kolten Wong 2B
  7. Greg Garcia SS
  8. Francisco Pena C

Look- that’s an absolutely awful lineup relative to what the Cardinals expected to run out this year. It could very well be the worst-hitting lineup Mike Matheny has penciled in all year (take note, Mickey Callaway- pencil!). Still, though, league-wide offense has been terrible this year. There have been more strikeouts than hits, and the NL skews even worse than that without the benefit of a DH. It was time to dig deeper.

First things first- I took the lineup of every NL team playing on Sunday. The Brewers were playing with a DH, so I ignored the worse-hitting of the two 1B they played, and ignored the pitcher for all teams. I didn’t add the AL due to DH equivalence concerns. Also, if you twist my arm, I didn’t include the AL because the way my databases were set up, that would have been an exasperating amount of work. I took every player’s wRC+ and OPS, unless they had less than 40 PA so far this year, in which case I went to Fangraphs projections for that hitter. Here’s how the teams look on wRC+, my favorite overall hitting metric:

So uh, wow, the NL West is bad at hitting. I knew the Rockies weren’t hitting well, but 23% below league average sounds almost impossible. The Rockies are collectively hitting as well as Albert Pujols. That would be exciting if it were career Albert Pujols, but bad news for the Rockies- I’m talking about 2017-2018 Pujols. Yikes. The Diamondbacks aren’t much better, and that might even be more distressing considering that Daniel Descalso is currently propping that lineup up from being even worse. The Cardinals are definitely low on the list, though. They’re 11th in the NL, roughly tied with the Brewers in 10th. Now, I’m aware that not everyone loves wRC+, because it’s a little opaque. The concept of working out how much hits are worth is really solid, but between park adjustments being folded in and just the general unfamiliarity of the stat, some people would rather see OPS. Here’s the NL ranked by OPS instead:

Look, I know this is about the Cardinals, but are you kidding me with this Rockies team? They play half of their home games literally a mile high, in the best place of all time for hitting baseballs. Despite that, they sent out a lineup five points of OPS worse than the Cardinals’ already anemic lineup. I just can’t even come up with words for that. In case you were wondering, of COURSE they’re a half game in front of the equally woeful-hitting Diamondbacks for first in the NL West. Baseball is some game.

Alright, so this rough first cut says that even with some terrible hitters this year, the Cardinals aren’t outright abysmal. There are plenty of bad teams out there. This isn’t really the question asked, though. If we’re talking about the weakest lineup, it’s probably more relevant to look at how these lineups are projected to hit for the rest of the year. To do this, I took Fangraphs’ Steamer projections for the rest of the year. I used Steamer for two reasons. First, it’s the fastest-moving public projection system, meaning that it reacts most to this season’s stats. I don’t want to give Dexter Fowler extra credit for being good in the past- I want some he’s-done, trade-Fowler-for-spare-parts level hot takes from my projection systems if possible. In a few instances, though, it was a little too hot-take-y for guys with very few ML plate appearances this year. In those cases, I used Steamer600 and ZiPS, both of which are more measured when it comes to adding in new data. This, I thought, would surely expose the Cardinals as pretenders. The wRC+ and OPS graphs:

Well okay- maybe we are thinking about this lineup the wrong way. The Cards are in an even tie for seventh by wRC+, behind the lineups I consider to be very good (Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves) but ahead of plenty of playoff contenders. This, again, is a Cardinals lineup missing three opening-day starters and Jedd Gyorko, all of whom projected as better than the people currently replacing them in the lineup. Not only are they missing those starters, they’re missing Carson Kelly, who was expected to cover for Molina in any extended absence.

What, then, keeps the Cardinals from sinking into the depths of truly disgusting offense? As far as I can tell, two effects really help- two effects which are pretty correlated with each other. First, the Cardinals don’t have any true offensive black holes. Even with Wong and Fowler struggling (to put it mildly), they’re hitting around 65 wRC+. That’s not really playable without good defense, to be clear. Still, though. Do you know what Jett Bandy’s wRC+ on the year is? It’s 42. Manuel Margot, a trendy breakout pick, is at 45. Avoiding players that terrible is key to having a good overall offense. The second reason that the Cardinals are a better offensive team than you think is that they have incredible depth. Remember when I went through the list of notable Cardinal injuries above? Every team has injuries. Yoenis Cespedes, A.J. Pollock, Starling Marte, and Daniel Murphy all missed Sunday’s games with injury, just to name a few. Remember how I mentioned that Marcell Ozuna was resting? Every team rests players. Kris Bryant, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chris Taylor, Todd Frazier, and Andrew McCutchen all had the day off on Sunday. Average players take days off too. The Cardinals get shockingly far ahead by replacing their days off with Tyler O’Neill and Greg Garcia rather than Jarrod Dyson and Chris Owings (sorry, Diamondbacks, I had to pick on someone).

In the end, I learned a lot more than I thought I would looking at Sunday’s lineups. First, I learned how bad the Rockies hitters are. It’s frankly stunning. More importantly, though, I inadvertently saw the effects of the Cardinals’ depth in action. Was the Cardinals lineup on Sunday far below their best potential lineup? Absolutely. For the record, that lineup projects 8 points of wRC+ better, which would give the Cardinals the best projected stats from this past Sunday if they were playing all their regulars at once (they wouldn’t be). The thing I’ve been missing all along, though, is that every team is playing a lineup far below their best. Baseball is somehow a marathon at the same time it’s a sprint- regulars are always getting hurt or resting, even when they’re going full speed while in the game.

I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty down about the state of the offense going forward before writing this. It’s been a down year at the plate so far, and looking at Sunday’s lineup made it easy for me to believe it would get worse before it got better. A quick look around the majors, though, gives me hope. I would still like the Cardinals to pick up a shortstop. I’d still like Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler to stop being terrible, and Kolten Wong to be 2017 Kolten again instead of whatever groundball monster he’s become this year. While I’m being greedy, I’d like Tommy Pham to become Mike Trout instead of a not-quite-facsimile thereof. Even without those improvements to the offense, though, they have the horses to stay in the game. As long as their pitching holds up, the offense looks to me to be doing enough with depth to make up for the lack of star power.

Also, a quick Monday night addition to this as I was procrastinating in writing- wow Tyler O’Neill is exciting. Harrison Bader must be pretty annoyed- what does a Cardinal have to do around here to get a fourth outfielder job?