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The Cardinal Offense: Dysfunctional? Or just Malfunctioning?

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The runs have not rained down like pennies from heaven just yet. Why not?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The season is over a month old at this point, and while it’s still far too early to draw really ironclad conclusions about the 2018 Cardinals, we’re getting into not-so-small sample territory at this point. We don’t know know what the Redbirds are this year just yet, but we kinda know what they are this year. You know?

So here’s what we appear to have: we have a starting rotation with extraordinary run-prevention numbers. Miles Mikolas is proving to be one of the most extreme control pitchers in baseball, and a tremendous manager of contact as well. Carlos Martinez has been even better at throttling hitters’ damaging contact, and his early-season wildness appears to be abating. Luke Weaver is in a bit of a funk, but the peripherals (mostly) point toward a return to the excellence he showed early, rather than the hit-fueled struggles we’ve seen lately. Michael Wacha has had perhaps the most uneven season of any of the Cards’ starters so far, but has also shown that he can still be a weapon, so long as he’s maybe kept on a slightly shorter leash than some other pitchers. As far as the Adam Wainwright Memorial Rotation Spot, it’s been a mixed bag. Jack Flaherty has made a couple starts with positives and negatives swirled together. John Gant will toe the rubber tonight against the Twins, a start for which I’m actually really excited. Waino himself has looked shaky (at best), but has also managed not to self-destruct. It’s a concern, but also a manageable one.

We have a bullpen that has been, mostly, disappointing. I won’t say they’ve been bad, exactly, but it’s been frustrating to see the unit fail to come together as well as it maybe could have. The Greg Holland Situation (patent pending), has been a near-disaster so far, costing the Cards two wins they had pretty much in the bag, but he has looked better here and there, so maybe there’s still hope. Bud Norris has been a, well, not a revelation, since there were plenty of us who lauded the signing as a very smart one at the time, but considering we were mostly drowned out by Yu Darvish-Bud Norris-related wailing, it’s been awfully nice to see Norris perform the way he has.

Sam Tuivailala looked really good last night, and I’m hopeful his velocity is fully back now that his knee is healthy. If he pitches anything like he did in spring training, that’s a potential game-changer. Tyler Lyons is still searching for that dominant 2017 form, it seems, and Ryan Sherriff has been mostly fine when healthy. Dominic Leone has had a weird season, with ridiculous K:BB numbers but also a handful of really bad pitches that found the seats, and now he’s hurt. In other words, it’s been a mixed bag, and the overall results have been weaker than I had hoped coming into the season. Still, there’s real upside in the ‘pen, I think, if the pitchers therein can all get healthy and right going forward.

It would also help if the Cards would stop playing so many extra-inning games and forcing relievers to throw three-inning stints every few days. Just saying, guys, nothing wrong with winning in nine, okay?

And that brings us to the offense, which has, so far, been the most baffling and probably frustrating aspect of this team, at least to me. Yes, the bullpen has lost a few games pretty much all on its own, but that’s just something that happens with bullpens. What I’ve found more puzzling, frankly, is watching this offense struggle to put together consistent production. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am absolutely aware of how that runs counter to the emotional high many of us are probably feeling after the weekend’s gritty comebacks, but I had this column planned before those games, so deal with it. The numbers are still what the numbers are.)

Part of that frustration, of course, comes down to expectations, and preseason expectations for the unit were high. Sure, there were spots you could look at in the lineup and say regression was inevitable, or at least very likely, but you also had a 1-4 of Dexter Fowler (121 wRC+ in 2017), Tommy Pham (148 wRC+), Matt Carpenter (123 wRC+), and Marcell Ozuna (142 wRC+), ready to get on base and roll up RBI totals like nobody’s business. Add in Jose Martinez carrying forward even just some of his remarkable breakout, Paul DeJong bringing uncommon thump from the shortstop position, Yadier Molina continuing to do what he does even late in his career, and you had a lineup that looked like it might produce some extraordinary results.

And yet, right now the Cardinals are, basically, a middle-of-the-road offense. They rank seventh in the National League with 142 runs scored (to be fair, they’re slightly on the low side as far as games played due to weather issues, but so are the Cubs and Phillies, both of whom rank higher than the Cards), and are closer to the Brewers, in fourteenth place (128 runs), than they are the Pirates, in second (165 runs). If we widen our scope out to baseball as a whole, the Redbirds rank fourteenth. It’s not a bad offense, exactly, but it’s also not the sort of mashing unit I think we rightly thought they could be.

However, as I think we all understand, runs scored isn’t the end-all, be-all in terms of offense, at least not as far as offensive analysis is concerned. In the end, runs scored is the thing that matters, but it’s not the only measure that tells us how an offense is actually performing.

If we go to wRC+, we find the Cardinals in slightly better shape. I used the ‘non-pitcher’ version of wRC+ for this exercise, to try and get a more level playing field to compare the Cards against all other teams, by the way, in case you were wondering. El Birdos currently have a non-pitcher wRC+ of 105, meaning the offense as a whole has been 5% more productive than league average. That ranks twelfth in baseball, just behind the Rays and just ahead of the Cubs. (Which is interesting, yes.) In the NL, they rank sixth, three points off a three-way tie at 108 between the Dodgers, Nationals, and Giants. So in runs, they’re 7/15 or 14/30, and in terms of the components of offense, they’re 6/15 and 12/30. Nice and symmetrical, really.

Now, we can break things down a little further. The Cards are third in the NL in walk rate. They’re seventh in strikeout rate (seventh lowest, that is), so about middle of the pack. They don’t have a strikeout problem, per se, even if some fans like to think they do, and they walk at a strong clip.

The club is just seventh in the NL in isolated slugging, at .163, which is frankly somewhat surprising, given how much power they seem to have added over the past year or so. So good walks, moderate strikeouts, moderate power. That’s a decent formula, if not an elite one.

There is one other number I should really mention before we move on to other matters. The Cardinals’ batting average on balls in play, for the whole team (non-pitcher, again), is .280. That figure is the second-lowest in the National League, ahead of only the Rockies’ .273. (Which, yes, is strange, given the realities of Coors Field, but shit happens in small samples, remember.) And here is where we start to get a feel for what is really going on with the Cards’ offense. I know there are those who object to use of the word luck in describing batted-ball results, but what we really do appear to have here is a team whose collective fortunes on batted balls have been exceptionally poor. If we were to bump the Cards’ overall BABIP even up to just the midpoint in the NL — the Cubs’ .293 mark ranks eighth — the offense would look a fair bit different.

So those are the results-based numbers. The Cards are middle of the pack in terms of scoring runs, a little better than that in terms of their weighted production numbers. A bigger question we need to consider is this: what has gone wrong? And, to a lesser extent, what has gone right?

Well, to give you the good news first, I’ll say this: what has gone right has been Tommy Pham. And Tommy Pham. And Tommy Pham. Pham is by far the best hitter on the team, with a 173 wRC+ on the season. He’s running a 17.5% walk rate, has barely struck out more than he’s walked, has essentially the same ISO as last year (.212 vs .214 in 2017), and is on pace for another 20/20 season. (Actually more like 25/25, but we only care about round numbers.) In short, Tommy Pham is the Cards’ best hitter, best player, and if he can stay on the field he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. So there’s that.

What has also gone right is Jose Martinez starting the season off like a house on fire. Martinez has a very good 123 wRC+ right now, but that’s with a brutal recent stretch of baseball baked in. On the 15th of April, his wRC+ sat at 189, with an 8:5 walk to strikeout ratio and a .236 ISO. Since then, he has struggled badly, posting a 61 wRC+ and a groundball rate of 46.2%. For a guy who really took off when he started putting the ball in the air, that second number is a big deal. Now, the pessimist might say ah, the league has finally caught up with Martinez, and they’ve adjusted to him, and this is who he really is. And there might be some truth in that. The league probably has figured out this guy has to be handled much more carefully, and are attacking him in a different way. (Exactly how they’re attacking him is a project outside the scope of this post, in case any of my fellow authors are looking for an idea.) But I think it’s way too soon to write Jose off as a flash in the pan, particularly in light of some other numbers I’m going to hit you with later in this post.

Yadi has been good, and occasionally really good, with a 104 wRC+. Amazingly, he’s done that while walking just 3.3% of the time and running a BABIP of .269. Paul DeJong has been up, then way down, and now up again, with an overall wRC+ of 121 feeling just about right for his season in the aggregate.

Quick break-in for a PDPD Report Supplemental edition: DeJong’s walk rate on the season now stands at 9.9%, and his strikeout rate is 31.9%. Obviously not ideal on the Ks, but the walks are fantastic to see. Also of extra note: since the 20th of April, which I chose purely because it was the start of a series (the Reds at Busch, specifically), Pauly D’s walk rate is 14.8%, while his strikeout rate is just 18%. Now, he’s only hit two homers over that span, which covers 61 plate appearances, so perhaps he’s given up a bit of his aggression in terms of attacking pitches to achieve this level of discipline, but that’s a hell of a ratio all the same. This has been a special presentation of the PDPD (Paul DeJong Plate Discipline) Network. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Kolten Wong had, up until recently, been horrible with the bat, but he’s raised his season wRC+ to 95 following a handful of very good games recently, and that’s even with a still-low BABIP of .242. Good timing on Kolten’s part, as several other hitters have had rough stretches lately, and the injury bug has obviously bitten hard.

Where the offense has really struggled, though, isn’t hard to see. There are three hitters in the Cardinal lineup who have been, frankly, awful this year, and all three are huge components of what the Redbird offense is trying to be. Remember a bit ago, when I talked about the awesome 1-4 the Cards thought they were putting together in their lineup? Well, that 1-4 was Fowler/Pham/Carpenter/Ozuna, and of those four, Tommy Pham has been Tommy Pham, and Tommy Pham is the fucking man.

The other three?

Matt Carpenter — 82 wRC+

Dexter Fowler — 71 wRC+

Marcell Ozuna — 73 wRC+

That is...less than ideal. When three quarters of your initial four-man gauntlet atop your lineup are hitting at levels that look more like a number eight hitter, maybe a defensive specialist at shortstop or something, you have a problem. Add in Wong’s struggles up until the last week or so, and you essentially had half the lineup on a given night just not producing at all.

So what’s the deal? And how worried should we be? Well, that’s complicated, but I’ll try to lay it out for you.

Here’s the thing: Ozuna’s plate approach this season has been horrible. Just awful. His walk rate is below 4%, and as a power hitter that’s tough to do. He’s just swinging at everything. Or, at least, he was, early in the season, but he seems to be settling in lately a bit. I’m still a little concerned, as his out of zone swing rate is up five percentage points from last season, but a lot of that seems to have been sliders in the dirt the first two or three weeks of April.

As for Carpenter, I’m worried about his declining contact rate, but as we’ve heard from the Cards’ own analytics people, and as we’ll see in a moment, he’s still making plenty of hard contact when he does hit the ball. He’s also running an 18% walk rate, so the on-base skills are still outstanding, even with a BABIP of .200 currently.

Fowler is maybe the guy I’m most worried about, actually, given that his quality of contact this year is worse than we’ve seen in the past. His groundball rate is way up, from 38.2% last year to 46.5% this season, and he’s making markedly less hard contact than in the past. Author’s correction: Dexter Fowler is not, in fact, hitting more groundballs this year. In fact, he is hitting more fly balls, and I misread the columns on his numbers. However, his soft contact rate has increased markedly, by six percentage points, and his hard% is down by most of that. (Although, reading his wife’s tweet after the game, perhaps he’s seen a rebound in hard%. Wakka wakka.) Thanks to commenter cardfanSJC for the catch.

But here’s the thing: something funny is going on with this team in general. Maybe it’s the cold weather, maybe it’s Busch Stadium, maybe it’s just the baseball gods balancing out the pitching staff’s good strand rate luck with some hitting frustration on the other side of the ledger. So let’s talk about xwOBA for a second.

Most of you probably know what xwOBA is by now. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a new metric based on the statcast data we have. It takes the quality of contact a hitter is making — exit velocity, mostly — along with the hitter’s non-contact skills, and tries to spit out what that player should be putting up in terms of wOBA. Now, wOBA is basically just wRC+ that isn’t scaled to league average or anything (i.e. it’s not expressed in terms of 105 being 5% above average and 80 being 20% below), so we basically have a metric that is estimating a player’s true talent level based on how well he has hit the ball over a period of time, with all of the results stripped out completely. A weak grounder that turns into a hit? Good in reality, bad if we’re looking at quality of contact. A screaming line drive right at the right fielder (cough-Jose Martinez-cough)? Bad in the real world, good indicator of the long-term health of a player.

I’ve got just a couple more numbers before I let you go for the day. First off, I went to the xwOBA stat over at Baseball Savant, and I sorted out just the Cardinals. Here is the chart.

Now, first off, an interesting tidbit: the league, as a whole, is underperforming their xwOBA to date, but 23 points of wOBA. That’s interesting, and I honestly don’t know what it means. I would posit right now that it’s a reflection of lots of cold weather, still, when batted balls probably weren’t performing as they do in general over the course of a whole season. I don’t know if that’s a common thing to see early in the year or not, but I think there’s a strong possibility it will be. In the case of the Cardinals, though, that means that a guy like Tommy Pham, whose actual wOBA of .417 is 26 points lower than his expected wOBA of .443, is basically right on track with the rest of baseball. Everyone is undershooting xwOBA right now by a certain margin, so a guy whose margin is close to that shouldn’t really be seen as underperforming that much. Again, I would blame the weather.

However, if you’ll look at that far right column of the chart, the one breaking out the different between the actual wOBA of the Cardinal hitters and their xwOBAs, you should notice something startling. Of the eleven Cardinals with 25 plate appearances this season, only two are outperforming their xwOBA. Kolten Wong, amazingly enough, has actually made such weak contact for much of the season he should be even worse than his .222 batting average and .358 slugging percentage, and Jedd Gyorko has been very fortunate on his balls in play this season relative to the quality of contact he’s made. Now, his xwOBA is still .426, which is really good, so it’s not as if he’s a mirage. He’s just had good luck so far in addition to socking the hell out of the ball this season.

Beyond those two, though, the other Cardinals are all underperforming what we should expect. DeJong, Greg Garcia, and Harrison Bader are all within that moderate margin that most of baseball is seeing right now, or close to it, anyway, so I’m not going to read too very much into their numbers. (Bader is a little unlucky even relative to that number, but not by a huge margin.) There are a few names, though, that stand out as having truly abysmal results relative to their quality of contact this year. And is it any real surprise those names are the guys who seem to be the misfiring cylinders in the offense this year?

Look at Jose Martinez. He’s underperforming his xwOBA by 92 points. That’s incredible. He’s been a very good hitter this season, but it appears he should basically be the guy he was the first three weeks of the year, rather than the last three weeks. Marcell Ozuna? Under by 83 points. Now, launch angle isn’t really incorporated into these numbers, I don’t believe, so the fact that Ozuna is putting the ball on the ground too often this year maybe makes us a little less sanguine about a huge breakout just around the corner. Even so, even with the terrible walk rate and the iffy approach and the groundballs, he appears to be one of the unluckiest hitters in the game this season.

Dexter Fowler, as I said, is the guy I’m most worried about, and hopefully you see why here. Yes, he’s 59 points below his xwOBA, but that .327 mark still isn’t great. Matt Carpenter, on the other hand, looks like he should be awesome this year, with a .404 wOBA, but instead he’s sitting at .285, or 117 points below his xwOBA. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Now, admittedly, the shift seems to be hurting Carpenter more than usual this year, but I’m also convinced he’s had more warning-track fly balls caught due to the cold and damp of this spring than just about any other player I’ve ever seen.

Here’s a fun chart. If we set the plate appearance minimum to 100 to try and capture just full-time players, and sort by xwOBA, we find Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto at 1-2-3. That seems to be about right, don’t you think?

If we scan down just a few more names, though, we find Tommy Pham at number seven. We then find Jose Martinez at number nine. That’s right; by xwOBA the Cardinals have had the seventh- and ninth-best hitters in baseball this season. Go down a little more, and we find Matt Carpenter at 31. We see Yadi at 37. We’ve got Marcell Ozuna at number 92, which isn’t great, but there’s a lot of not-walking built into that. Paul DeJong is the 100th best hitter in baseball, and he’s a shortstop, so hey, pretty good.

Now let’s sort by that last column, the difference one. What do we find? We find that Matt Carpenter has the single largest xwOBA-wOBA difference in baseball. Largest negative difference, that is. Who do we see at number six? Jose Martinez. Yadier Molina at number twelve. Marcell Ozuna at thirteen.

Of the twenty most unlucky hitters in baseball by this metric, three teams have multiple players. The Reds have two in Adam Duvall and Votto. The Indians have two, in Yonder Alonso and Jason Kipnis. Two Ohio teams, both of whom have seen a lot of cold weather this spring. If we extend to 21, the Cubs get two guys in, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo. Again, Chicago and lots of cold and snow.

In the top twenty, the Cardinals have four players.

Now, we don’t have enough years of this sort of data to have a full grasp of how strongly it predicts performance, particularly when you start chopping things up by teams or stadia or that sort of thing. But on the player level, xwOBA seems to say a lot about where a player should be headed, if there is a big gap in his quality of contact vs his results. And the Cardinals, according to this way of looking at things, anyway, have four of the least lucky hitters in all of baseball.

So to answer the question posed in the title: is the Cardinal offense dysfunctional? No. It’s not. It’s about middle of the pack right now, and even by results should be a touch better with neutral sequencing. Is it malfunctioning? Well, that’s tougher to answer, because it has not been the sort of bashing juggernaut I know I was hoping for. But looking under the hood at the best guesses we have right now for where things should be, rather than where they really are, it doesn’t even look like the offense is malfunctioning, at least not by much.

If I were a betting man — and I’m generally not; I’m too pathologically opposed to losing money — I would be that this offense, in another month, is going to look like the giant red feathered beast of the National League we were hoping for. Well, given health, anyway, which is obviously a caveat here, particularly in light of recent days.

But overall, this still looks like an enormously talented unit. And why so many Cardinals specifically seem to be hitting the ball very, very hard and getting bupkes for results? I really don’t know. Maybe look for voodoo dolls in Javy Baez’s locker.