Earlier this season I expressed some frustration with the disconnect between the front office’s message of “youth as a weapon” and the usage of those young players on the field. Namely that they weren’t really being used at all. That problem has evaporated since Mike Shildt took the helm, with youth seemingly the driving force to the Cardinals’ resurgence in the standings (along with an absolutely ridiculous performance from Matt Carpenter). Yes, some of the correction on that front had to be created by the front office through roster moves, but the bulk of it was born out of a “trust your guys” approach that left younger players—especially pitchers—sitting on the bench for the bulk of the games.
Looking at the current Cardinals team, it’s hard to make the connection that they’re the same group we were watching in June and July.
I mean, they really aren’t.
It started with the bullpen makeover on July 27, when both Greg Holland and Tyler Lyons were designated for assignment. Combined with the ongoing injury struggles of Dominic Leone and Luke Gregerson, the bullpen was bolstered with a wave of Memphis Redbirds, completing what had before been a steady stream of pitching promotions throughout the season. To this point, all of the members of the Memphis opening day rotation are in St. Louis, with several stepping into the rotation when needed.
Let’s isolate the bullpen: the main source of frustration. Since that shakeup in late July, the Cardinals’ relief innings leaders have been Dakota Hudson (10.1 IP), Daniel Poncedeleon (9.2) and Jordan Hicks (9.2). Three guys who hadn’t seen an ounce of major league time before the start of the 2018 season. They lead the next-highest total (shared by Bud Norris and Tyler Webb) by two innings. Shildt has taken an aggressive, youth-first approach with the bullpen and it’s completely paid off, as the team’s 2.09 ERA since July 27 is the best in the majors in that span.
The bullpen isn’t the only source of young talent contributing to the team; far from it. Overall, the St. Louis active roster has an average age of 27.2, tied for the third-youngest in the majors and sandwiched between five rebuilding teams: the Rays, Padres, Marlins, Orioles, and White Sox. The Cardinals are the youngest team in the NL Central, ahead of both the rebuilding Reds and the hybrid Pirates. For what it’s worth, this Cardinals team is roughly two years younger than both the Brewers (29.1) and the Cubs (29.2). The age alone should speak to the potential of this team in the future, given that they’re in the thick of a postseason race at this moment.
The young players have responded to the trust put in them with some very solid performances. The Cardinals have both a position player and pitcher who are close to leading the fWAR leaderboards for rookies on the season. Jack Flaherty is in a three-way tie for fWAR among rookie pitchers with 1.6, just 0.2 shy of the Giants’ Dereck Rodríguez (though Flaherty has pitched about 23 more innings than Rodríguez). Harrison Bader has been perhaps the most impressive, as his 2.5 fWAR has him in sole possession of second place on the rookie position player boards, 0.2 behind teenage phenom Juan Soto—and Bader has done so in 44 fewer plate appearances than Soto. He sits ahead of Ronald Acuña Jr., Miguel Andújar, and Brian Anderson, all having accumulated more PA than Bader. Though his total isn’t outstanding, Yairo Muñoz’s 0.3 fWAR has him 24th on the rookie list.
It hasn’t been an individual effort by any means—the Cardinals have had a record eight major league debuts this season. At this point, St. Louis is fifth in rookie position player WAR, tied for sixth in rookie pitching WAR, and third in overall rookie WAR. Some teams have had outstanding contributions from young players on one side of the ball, but St. Louis has had balanced contributions from both sides. Unsurprisingly, then, rookies have contributed 16.9% of the team’s overall value in 2018, good for the fifth-highest percentage in the majors and second to just the Atlanta Braves when looking only at teams hunting a postseason spot. With the bullpen composition, Flaherty’s importance to the rotation, Bader’s everyday chances in the outfield, and Tyler O’Neill’s return, that ratio is only going to get more drastic.
We’ve spent years hearing about the importance of youth to the St. Louis Cardinals and seen plenty of turnover in that department, with young outfielders who failed to flourish in St. Louis getting sent away to give the next crop a chance. The organizational pitching depth has been lauded, but the bullpen of the past few years has been comprised of the same cast of characters causing frustration among fans. We’ve entered a time where the youth movement is in full, unrestrained swing, and this team is showing fight. An eight-game win streak. A powerful offense. A sturdy bullpen. The 2017 Cardinals went on a run around this same time and fell short in the stretch, but this team feels different. For the first time in a while, the front office’s longstanding ideology is matching up with team composition and, backed by a manager making aggressive, youth-driven decisions, it’s beginning to look like a recipe for success.