Morning, all. Cardinals are playing their best baseball of the season — and they haven’t even had to have the Reds in town to do so! — and will go for a series sweep of the Royals today at one o’clock. Let’s take a quick look around at some things happening in the sphere of Redbird baseball in the midst of this very exciting run, shall we?
The Downside of Dakota
Up until this point, we’ve really been treated to the absolute best version of Dakota Hudson. Sinking fastball that parks at 95 and is impossible to really square up, matched with a nasty cutter that will miss a few bats, but almost always misses the barrel. The strikeouts haven’t really shown up yet, which seems surprising given the quality of stuff on display (sounds like I’m talking about Jordan Hicks, doesn’t it?), but he’s attacked the strike zone mercilessly and forced hitters to swing on his terms. It’s been extremely effective.
Last night, though, we got a glimpse of what the bad version of Hudson looks like, and it’s basically as simple as walking a couple hitters. He’s always got the chance of a double play in his back pocket, yes, but the great part about Hudson’s repertoire is just how difficult it is to do much damage against. He excels at weak contact. The only problem there is that if you’re walking hitters you aren’t forcing them into suboptimal outcomes via weak contact, and if you don’t miss that many bats it’s easy to get backed into a corner with too many men on base and too thin a margin for error.
Hudson has obviously been a huge boon for the club in terms of his results so far in relief, and I’m really hoping he gets a chance to start a game or two the rest of the way this year. But we also saw last night in K.C. that he could really use a pitch more capable of getting swings and misses, rather than just weak contact. And until he finds that pitch it’s going to be an open question how successful he can be long term.
Did you know that Jack Flaherty has a strikeout rate of over 30% this season? He does, you know; it’s 30.2% after last night, to be exact. As a starter. At 22 years old. I was in on Flaherty from the moment he was drafted, but this level of strikeout punch is a little surprising, to be honest.
Even more interesting, from the beginning of July through last night, Jack’s K rate is 32%, which is higher than the season strikeout rates of Jacob DeGrom, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and half a percentage point higher than Trevor Bauer’s for the year. Now obviously we’re talking about a little over a one-month sample, which isn’t entirely a fair point of comparison, but those are the waters Flaherty has been swimming in this most recent run of starts.
The downside? Over that same period of time, Jack’s walk rate has been 10.7%, which is not good, and he’s allowed six home runs in less than 42 innings. Overall, he’s having a fantastic rookie season, and he’s missing bats at a rate even I didn’t expect, as optimistic as I’ve been about him for years now. But the rest of his results have been remarkably middling, considering just how unhittable he has been for much of the time. Still, a pitcher capable of racking up the strikeouts the way Flaherty has been is in an enviable position to make modest improvements elsewhere and catapult into star-level production.
Gorman Moving Up
I’m sure many of you are aware by now that Nolan Gorman, the Cards’ first-round pick from this year’s draft, has been moved all the way up from Rookie level Johnson City to full-season Peoria in the Midwest League. It’s even a slightly more aggressive step than the Cards took with Dylan Carlson, whom they sent to Peoria at eighteen in just his first full season of pro ball; Gorman is no younger than Carlson was, necessarily, but the fact he’s moved up so quickly in his draft year is almost unprecedented in the St. Louis system up until now.
So anyway, how is Gorman doing so far? Well, he’s only appeared in three games and made thirteen plate appearances, but that’s long enough for him to have hit his first home run and drawn a pair of walks. He struck out a bunch his first two games, but made it through last night’s contest without a K. The overall line is .182/.308/.455 with a 15.4% walk rate, good for a 115 wRC+. So...pretty good so far.
Just the other day I wrote a column about potential acquisition targets for the Cardinals this offseason, as they try once again to nab themselves a middle of the order force to really turbocharge what has been a very inconsistent offense. In the comments, someone brought up Michael Conforto of the Mets, who then came up again in a comment section a day or two later. (I don’t remember which thread.) Conforto didn’t really occur to me as an option for the Big Bat role, but he’s at least worth considering.
Here’s the downside with Conforto: he’s having a not so great season, and there’s at least some reason to be concerned that the reason he’s having a not so great season is because he is physically diminished.
Conforto was having an absolute monster season last year, with a 146 wRC+ and 4.3 wins above replacement in just 440 plate appearances, when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder in late August when he swung and missed at a pitch. It was an unusual sort of dislocation, too; just 10% of all shoulder dislocations are of the type Conforto experienced. He ultimately had surgery to repair the damage, began 2018 on the disabled list, and came back a little over a week into the season.
The good news is Conforto has been healthy all season, with seemingly no issues taking the field more or less every day. The bad news is he has seen his performance drop off dramatically, particularly in terms of power. Conforto’s isolated slugging percentage in 2017 was a robust .276; this year he’s fallen to just a .159 ISO. His batting average on balls in play is down as well, but that’s a noisy enough stat I don’t want to read too much into it in terms of quality of contact.
Still, Conforto has seen his hard hit% fall this season, from 43.5% in 2017 to just 38.4%. His xwOBA has fallen from .386 to .349. His barrel% has dropped from 12.6% to 8.2%. In other words, we have substantial evidence that Michael Conforto is simply not hitting the ball as hard, or as effectively, this season as he did last year.
With all that said, it’s a little tough to parse out whether or not Conforto would still fit the definition of a Big Bat. If he’s the guy he was in 2017 coming back next season, then by all means, he is. If he is permanently reduced physically, if there has been a permanent loss of some power due to the shoulder injury, then the answer is probably no. At that point, in fact, he’s really not much better than Marcell Ozuna. I mean, at least in the case of that low-powered left fielder he’s already on your team.
There is, however, plenty still to like about Conforto’s profile, including a walk rate just a hair shy of 15% this season and left field defense that rates very well. He’s stretched in center field, and really doesn’t have the kind of range you would prefer out there, but that wouldn’t be an issue for the Cardinals, as they have one of the fastest players in baseball patrolling center for them. Conforto in left, with Bader and O’Neill taking the other two outfield spots, would contribute to a nearly air-tight defense in the outfield.
It’s tough to say if Conforto is even available, or what the Mets would want in return if he were. Still, that’s a club desperately in need of talent at multiple spots on the field, and a deal for Conforto could represent one of those consolidation opportunities for the Cardinals if they felt confident the power will come all the way back another year removed from surgery. At the very least, Conforto and his Brian Giles-esque game would give the Cards another serious on-base weapon in the 2-4 range in the lineup.
Bader, Powering Up
Speaking of one of the fastest players in baseball who also plays center field for the Cardinals, one of the most encouraging things about the last couple games, honestly, has been seeing Harrison Bader show off some real power for the first time in quite a while. The walk rate for Bader this year has been relatively stable; he seems to be settling in as a ~7.5% BB rate guy, which is fine. The strikeouts are too high, particularly considering his speed and the opportunities to make things happen he has when he puts the bat on the ball, but even if he could just keep the number around 25% or so you can live with it. What was really concerning to me this season was how little power he had shown, which surprised me. A lot.
Bader’s swing isn’t really built for lift and power, but he still showed an ability to drive the ball effectively in the minors, which we hadn’t really seen much of at the big league level yet. Perhaps his quality of contact simply wasn’t going to be enough to bring much power, was the concern floating around his MLB numbers. Well, a .150 ISO still isn’t all that inspiring, but a couple no-doubt homers in a yard like Kansas City’s certainly are, and that’s going to be very big for Bader when his BABIP comes back down to earth a bit.
Harrison Bader with even a 95-100 wRC+ is potentially a star due to the defense and baserunning adding 2-3 wins a season. Let’s hope the power isn’t an illusion, and he ends up something like that. It’s awfully fun watching him patrol center.
Donaldson Close to Returning; Potential Waiver Pickup?
Over the past week, there’s been a lot of chatter that Josh Donaldson is getting close to returning from the calf injury that has sidelined him a huge portion of the season. Now, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back within the next week or so, but it’s looking like the timetable is now in days and weeks, rather than weeks and months.
I mention this only because the Cardinals have been so heavily linked to Donaldson in the past, and I wonder if there would still be interest in bringing him in on a waiver claim or post-waiver wire deal should the third baseman make it through waivers unclaimed. Now, obviously there is a contingent of people who want nothing to do with Donaldson at this point, seeing as how he’s sort of old, has a calf injury, and hasn’t been good when he’s been on the field this year. However, it would also be an ideal situation to bring a guy in and get him a couple month audition for a contract, just to see if he’s entirely healthy. Donaldson is 32 now, which is certainly a concerning age, but he could rebound and have a couple more good seasons. If an organisation wanted to pick him up this August, play him down the stretch to see how they felt about his health and future production, it could give them a leg up in offseason negotiations, both in terms of familiarity and knowledge.
Of course, the big names this offseason will be Machado and Harper and maybe Arenado, but the advantage to Donaldson would be that, at his age, he probably won’t be able to command nearly so long a contract. A three year pact would be about the longest I think I could see happening at this point, even if he really tore it up in September. The good news about that time window: it would be pretty much ideal to find a three year solution if your organisation suddenly found itself swimming in young third base prospects, at least one of whom you expect to be ready within the next two to three years....
That’s pretty much all I got this morning, folks.
Actually, I take that back. I have one other thing.
Mike Shildt is 15-9 so far in his tenure as Cardinal manager. Those 24 games have included eight against the Cubs, as well as fifteen games total against clubs with winning records. (Colorado, Chicago, and Pittsburgh all have winning records, K.C. and Cincinnati do not.) A 15-9 record against mostly winning teams is pretty good, don’t you think? After all, that extrapolates out to a 101-win pace over a full season. And no, that’s not the true talent level of this squad. But if you had asked me two months ago if at any point this season the Cardinals would play winning competition to the tune of a 101-win pace, I would have flatly said no, and had a tough time keeping a straight face while doing so.
I’m just saying, is all.
Let’s hope the team can keep it rolling. A sweep today in Kaufmann would be a great start.