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Somewhat Surprising Stats on Memorial Day

As we round the first corner of the three-sided racetrack that is the MLB season, let’s look at some statistical indicators of what kind of team the Cardinals have been.

St Louis Cardinals  v Pittsburgh Pirates
Stop striking out so much, Tyler. It’s unbecoming for a Canadian superhero.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Memorial Day is one of the big landmarks on the baseball calendar. Besides ugly uniforms, the holiday always brings with it a moment, or two, of consideration for the club. You’re usually right around the end of the first trimester of the season — this year the Cards are two games short of that, the result of April games lost to inclement conditions — and it’s always a Monday, meaning you’ve just finished a series the day before. Milestones are important to keep perspective, and as I’ve always said, the first third of the season is for figuring out what kind of team you have, the second third is for fixing the team you have, and the third is when you just try to win. We should now be right about the point where we know what kind of team the Cardinals have.

So what do we think?

Well, the Redbirds this year are...a good team. They are not a great team. There are aspects of this club that could point toward greatness, but there are enough other things dragging the club down that greatness feels very much out of reach right now. The bullpen has been an issue, but not necessarily in the ways we expected. The offense has been a big issue, and absolutely not in the ways we might have expected.

On the plus side, we have the starting rotation. My god, do we ever have the starting rotation. The Cardinals’ starters are third in baseball in ERA, just behind the historically great Houston Astros’ starters and the Max Scherzer-led Nationals, and that’s without Alex Reyes even throwing a pitch yet. It’s with Adam Wainwright’s zombified remains making several starts. It’s with John Gant somehow allowing 60% of the baserunners who get on against him to come around and score. It’s with Carlos Martinez being on the shelf, and the biggest offseason acquisition for the rotation being a 29 year old journeyman returning from Japan who the majority of Cardinal Nation seemed ready to lynch after two spring training starts being the club’s most consistent hurler.

Just because I can’t believe it every time I read or type it: seriously, why didn’t the Cardinals have any real interest in signing Max Scherzer? It’s the most inexplicable refusal to make a move I can recall, period. These are Scherzer’s numbers since joining the Nationals: 729.1 innings, 2.70 ERA/2.89 FIP, 514 hits allowed, and a 936:163 strikeout to walk ratio. Why is he not a Cardinal? He wanted to be here, and he’s working on his third consecutive Cy Young award this year. Why? Why, why, why?

Okay, anyhow, now that I’ve temporarily purged that venom from my system (don’t worry, it will be back, probably by about mid-afternoon), let’s move on. I won’t keep you all long today; it’s a holiday, after all. So here are some statistics that I think are somewhat surprising (as referenced in the post title), and illustrate some aspect of the 2018 season in remarkable fashion.

  • Did you know that Matt Carpenter’s expected slugging percentage, according to Statcast, is .571? Can you imagine what we would be saying about Matt Carpenter’s 2018 season if he were actually slugging .571 right now? It’s nice that he’s back above league-average offensively at the moment, sitting at a 103 wRC+, but it’s hard to imagine how different this offense would look if he were pushing a .600 slugging percentage.
  • Speaking of Matt Carpenter, all three major defensive systems at FanGraphs think he’s been an above-average defender this season at third base. UZR/150 sees a modest positive, pegging Carp as a +1.8 defender, while plus/minus and DRS both see him as a significantly better fielder than that, even. Plus/minus has him at +6 on the season, and DRS believes he’s saved seven runs already in 2018. Now, obviously we’re dealing with tiny samples, far too small to be stable, but I have to say, the fact all three point in the same direction (positive), is exciting, and if I’m being honest, that actually matches my own personal eye test this year. I know he’s always awkward to watch throw a ball, but can you honestly think of many plays Carpenter hasn’t made this year it seems like he should have? He’s not flashy, but he’s getting the job done at third in a big way this season, it appears to me. I know fielding percentage isn’t a particularly useful measurement, but Carp’s is .975, and if we accept that his best asset is probably avoiding mistakes in the field, then a number indicating he makes very few mistakes in the field may actually mean something. He’s also been surprisingly good coming in on the ball and charging this year to my eye. So we have a strange, upside-down world where Matt Carpenter has been a below-average hitter for most of the season, but has held down third base at a very good level. Weird.
  • Marcell Ozuna has been a bust. Like a Tino Martinez-level bust. His wRC+ this year is 81, and that horrific performance has been driven by both a lack of plate discipline (5.9% walk rate, though it’s been better since the first three or so weeks of the season), and, more damningly, a complete lack of power. His ISO this season is a ghastly .079, and he’s hitting more ground balls this season than ever before, to the tune of a full 51% of his batted balls being on the ground.
  • I wrote not too long ago, questioning whether the Cards should have held out and tried to trade for Christian Yelich, or gone for JD Martinez, or some other such thing, rather than going for Ozuna. I forgot to include this option, but probably the winning answer would be, “Just sign Lorenzo Cain.” I was not super into Cain this offseason, given his age (he’s 32 currently), and somewhat inconsistent offensive profile. So far this year, Cain is running a 137 wRC+, the highest walk rate of his career, and has been worth 2.3 WAR already. So fuck me and my dumb opinions, right? He’s also playing excellent center field defense, which means the Cards could have either shifted him to right, where he might be Jason Heyward good, or moved Tommy Pham there, and enjoyed ridiculous defense covering 23 of their outfield. In fairness, it’s too early to say the Cain contract will remain a win all the way through, but so far it looks like the Cards would have been much better off to spend money over talent and go with the all-around player rather than the masher.
  • Bonus hypothetical world stat: in the imaginary scenario of signing Lorenzo Cain, the Cards would have had to sacrifice a draft pick, and therefore might have been more hesitant to give up another for Greg Holland, thus bringing the number of Gregs Holland on the 2018 Cardinals to 0, which would be a massive improvement over the 1 we have seen instead.
  • Want some encouraging news pointing toward a better bullpen future? Since returning from his knee strain on the sixth of May, Sam Tuivailala has thrown 8.1 innings, allowed one run on six hits, and has an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Over that time his ERA is 1.08 and his FIP is 1.55.
  • Counterpoint to signing Lorenzo Cain: the last athletic outfielder in his early 30s the Cardinals signed has not worked out so well, as Dexter Fowler was a defensive liability last year, and has been just a flat-out liability all around this season. Fowler currently sits at -0.8 WAR, making him our own miniature Albert Pujols, and is running a 62 wRC+. His power has disappeared, he’s running a terrible BABIP, and while that should point to a turnaround, he’s also seen his soft contact percentage spike from 12.7% to 20.2%, and he’s basically just hitting a ton of lazy fly balls that do no good for anyone other than the opposing team. He’s also been just as terrible a defender in right field as he was in center. Also, he’s under contract for three more seasons after this one. That’s a problem.
  • Miles Mikolas’s walk rate this year is 2.7%. His ERA is still, even after a tough fifth inning yesterday, 2.58 on the season, and his FIP is 3.15. He’s awesome, and the Cards should offer him a new contract for 5/$70 million starting next year and see if he’d be willing to be part of an historic rotation for a little while.
  • Luke Weaver’s ERA is 4.31, but his FIP is 3.51. He’s done more than enough to hold on to his rotation spot.
  • Michael Wacha, meanwhile, has a 2.88 ERA and 3.43 FIP. He’s also done enough to secure himself a place in the brave new world of Cardinal pitching, but the organisation is going to have to decide who to prioritise going forward. I’m not saying you make a deal just to make a deal; there’s always enough injury risk and things of that nature that these situations mostly work themselves out one way or another. But you have needs elsewhere, you have a surfeit of starting pitching, and there may be moves to translate value x in starting pitching to value x+n in some other arena.
  • Jose Martinez, after basing his amazing 2017 breakout mostly on hitting the ball in the air more and for more power, is back to putting the ball on the ground a higher percentage of the time, with a GB% that has jumped from 42.1% in 2017 to an even 50% this year. His line drive rate is almost identical; all those grounders are coming at the expense of fly balls. I still like Martinez as a hitter a lot, but I really wish he would go back to getting the ball in the air more often. In fairness, though, it seems pitchers have been much, much more cautious this season with him, so I think we’re seeing an adjustment on the pitching side as much as we are a philosophical shift for Jose.
  • I was dead wrong in thinking the Cardinals should have waited to extend Paul DeJong. DeJong’s walk rate at the time of his injury was exactly double his 2017 number (4.7% vs 9.4%), his power has held up nearly as well as in ‘17, and he’s been above average defensively by all three systems, with DRS (my personal favourite) pegging him at +2 so far in 2018. He was on pace for something like a five win season this year. Hurry back, Pauly D.
  • Kolten Wong is running a .190 BABIP and 59 wRC+. I know that John Mabry is Mike Matheny’s BFF and clubhouse informant, but with several Cardinal hitters really struggling to make good contact, I do wonder if new voices on the subject of swings, and hitting, in the clubhouse might not be called for.
  • Bud Norris has a 1.53 FIP. The Cardinals would be well and truly screwed this year if not for Bud Norris.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my post for this Memorial Day. Huh. ~1850 words already. Guess I didn’t keep it as brief as I had planned? I know, you’re all shocked, absolutely shocked.

Anyhow, have a happy holiday, have something good to drink, cook some portion of an animal over a fire, and watch the Cardinals try to beat the maddeningly overperforming (though admittedly quite good), Milwaukee Brewers this afternoon.

‘Til next time, everybody.