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Making a Crowded Outfield Work

Five players for three spots doesn’t have to be a weakness — it can be a strength.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve played any iterations of the Out of the Park Baseball series, you’re familiar with its limitlessly-intricate rest system. Any combination of backup players, across multiple positions, across any combination of days. Your fourth outfielder can be substituted for your left fielder every 14th game, or for your right fielder against every second lefty, or both. This level of extremity when dealing with lineups is a blast when you’ve built a virtual super team and your sole intention is to incite chaos on the digital diamond, but it’s often viewed as far-fetched when applied to real players on a real team. The Cardinals would have to really dig into their settings and (continue to) override some manager controls, but a complex rest system could keep this glut of outfield talent fresh and contributing where they can provide the most value.

Many in the baseball world are in favor of steady plate appearances. “Players need to play consistently,” they say. “He’s a rhythm guy, he needs regular at-bats.” I understand that line of thinking. When a player is right, you want to keep him in the lineup as much as possible. When a historically sound player is struggling, you feel like his breakout is right around the corner. But for the Cardinals, an outfield lauded during the offseason of its assembly as one of the best in the majors has largely underperformed to this point in the season (excluding Tommy Pham, of course). Dexter Fowler will eventually be fine, sort of. Marcell Ozuna could probably afford to take a closer look at his mechanics. Still, it’s hard to ignore some pretty atrocious splits from the regulars and the production of young, valuable players. It would be unwise to ride the He’ll Sort It Out Express when it’s costing the team offense. Mike Matheny seems to have realized that and has already made some moves one wouldn’t have expected from him a year ago.

Matheny has long been criticized for the seemingly-contradictory stances of both overemphasizing the hot hand and staying overly loyal to his veterans. I believe he deserves a bit of credit for some of his decision making when it comes to these subjects. He made the decision to pinch hit for Carpenter with the game on the line when he was, as we can see now, right at the end of his tough early-season slump. He put Bader in the game to face a lefty in Minnesota due to Bader’s splits against LHP. Bader hit into an out, but it was still the right move; Carpenter struggles with lefties. It was a move that prioritized the team’s success. He’s been making similar moves since Tyler O’Neill started punishing baseballs, with O’Neill being intentionally penciled in for four consecutive starts. He played today due to Ozuna’s alarm issues, so it wasn’t really intentional, but Matheny recognized the importance of O’Neill’s bat in the lineup when he’s hitting like this. Matheny was quoted on the subject:

That’s not a manager playing Dexter Fowler because he’s a veteran. That’s a manager saying, “hey, this kid’s hit three home runs in three days. I should probably put him in the lineup.”

Granted, that’s not a hard decision to make, but it’s progress — progress that, I hope, will continue.

This outfield could benefit from more steady splits of playing time. If not to get ABs for young bats, then to strengthen their numbers in handedness matchups. Let’s do a bit of the modern baseball blogger’s favorite exercise: Player A or Player B? Who would you rather have facing lefties?

Player A: .032/.184/.032, 13.2 BB%, 34.2 K%, 3 R

Player B: .292/.414/.625, 10.3 BB%, 27.6 K%, 7 R, 3B, 2 HR

This is obviously not meant to spark any sort of discussion. Player A is Dexter Fowler, through 38 PAs. Player B is Harrison Bader, in 29 PAs. Fowler has historically been a good hitter against lefties, with a 117 wRC+. This year, it’s -24. Negative. Twenty-four. In his very small sample size, Harrison Bader’s wRC+ against righties is 47. Against lefties, it’s 196. Bader has the edge over Fowler against left-handed pitching, at least in 2018. Combined with his plus-plus defense (5 outs above average, per Statcast), it’s a no-brainer to play Bader in right against every lefty, at least for the foreseeable future. One could even cycle in Tyler O’Neill here regularly, who was slashing .360/.370/.600 against southpaws at Memphis this season. On the other hand, Fowler’s five home runs this season have all come against righties. His left side has been his power side through the past two seasons. His 2018 wRC+ of 84 against RHP, while still rough, is significantly better. This could very well be a discussion of if Fowler should stop switch-hitting, but for the time, play to the team’s strengths.

On the subject of rest, both Carpenter and Fowler seem to have, at least temporarily, benefited from extended time on the bench to reset. Ozuna, too, appears to have had a positive impact come from a scheduled rest day. Marcell was benched on Sunday against the Phillies. It was the first time he’d been benched since April 22, a stretch where he posted a .222/.278/.289 triple-slash line. Between his two starts on Monday and Tuesday, he went five-for-eight with a walk and two runs. Matheny continues to say he’s sticking with Ozuna, and I still think he should get the bulk of the PAs, but days to mentally reset should not be seen as a lack of confidence — especially with O’Neill currently crushing major league pitching.

This is far from a statistically-sound piece full of concrete analysis and clear conclusions. It isn’t meant to be, though. Some decisions start with realizing that rest is good, platoon splits benefit the team, and an abundance of resources have to be used when they’re available. Ozuna and Fowler will improve, but that doesn’t mean they should take plate appearances from young, productive talent in the meantime. Matheny has started to show signs of accepting that reality, and if we continue to see these five cycling through the lineup, we might really start seeing that top-notch outfield we were promised — just not the way we expected.