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The Young Cardinals Can Run

Now they just need playing time.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the brutal NLCS sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals made strides this season. Perhaps the most notable improvement was seen on the base paths.

St. Louis finished tied for third in stolen bases (116) Washington, behind Texas and Kansas City. They stole bases at a high efficiency as well getting thrown out just 29 times. This helped the team finish second in Fangraphs BsR statistic, which makes up the base running portion of fWAR. The only team ahead of the Cardinals (14.4) was the Arizona Diamondbacks (18.3). This was an important part of the team’s success, and it was uncommon for a team that had seemingly forgotten about base running under Mike Matheny. However, for as successful as the team was on the base paths this season, they could be even more successful next season.

Mike Shildt has clearly employed a philosophy that allows players to be aggressive on the basepaths, especially when the pitcher is not paying attention. This is a team-wide movement, as well, not just a movement that applies to a few individuals. No player on the team stole more than 25 bases (Kolten Wong finished with 24, the most on the team) while nine players finished with at least five. Even Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter stole six bases apiece.

This philosophy has served the team well since Shildt has taken over, but it could be even more successful next season. This is because the current crop of young Cardinals has some serious speed. In fact, four Cardinals players finished in the top 30 of Statcast’s Sprint Speed leaderboard. All of these players are also no older than 25 years old. They are Tyler O’Neill (29.9 ft/s, 11th), Lane Thomas (29.6 ft/s, 16th) Harrison Bader (29.5 ft/s, 17th), Tommy Edman (29.4 ft/s, 24th) and Randy Arozarena (29.4 ft/s, 28th). There is a chance that three of these players will be everyday starters for Mike Shildt’s squad next season. Bader will likely start in center field, and Edman will likely start at third base next season, barring any kind of significant external acquisition (or revival from Matt Carpenter). These two players combined for a total of 757 plate appearances this season as neither player was a full-time starter for the entire season. The path to playing time for Thomas, O’Neill, and Arozarena is less certain, but there will likely be an open position in the outfield for somebody to claim if the Cardinals decide to let Marcell Ozuna walk in free agency.

If three of these players are able to earn starting positions for the Cardinals next season, then the team might be able to create even more value on the base paths. Even those that do not win starting jobs will be able to contribute off the bench, unless they begin the season in Memphis. However, speed does not necessarily equal good base running. For instance, Tyler O’Neill posted just a 0.1 BsR in his 151 plate appearances in the 2019 season. Even Harrison Bader posted just a 0.7 BsR. Clearly a player needs more than just speed in order to be a good base runner. He needs to have good instincts and awareness as well as the ability to read the ball well off the bat. Even if a player is fast, he can still make bad decisions. in relation to the Cardinals, this means that they have the potential to run the bases even better than they did this season.

Even though some of the young speedsters did not actually provide a lot of value on the basepaths, it seems unlikely that they will not be threats next season, especially if they are given a full season’s worth of plate appearances. It seems especially unlikely that Harrison Bader will not be one of the team’s most value players on the bases next season if he is given a full workload. The 25-year-old proved that he is a dangerous player when he gets on base as he posted a 7.6 BsR in his rookie season (2018). He has shown good instincts on the bases and his ability to see the flight ball in center field should translate to an ability to judge the flight of the ball well when he is on base. Getting a good read on the ball should help him get a good jump and be more likely to do things such as score from second on a hard hit single.

O’Neill actually recorded the fastest average sprint speed on the team this season, but he provided just 0.1 BsR. There are two reasons for this. One is simply general ineffectiveness, and the other is a limited amount of playing time. O’Neill simply did not get on base very much this season so it was hard for him to add much value from base running. This could change with a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Thomas and Arozarena are in a similar situation as O’ Neill. Each of these young outfielders finished the season with a -0.1 BsR, but also failed to record more than 50 plate appearances. It is hard to judge their base running abilities in such a small sample, but their speed in enticing and could prove to be valuable on the bases, as well as in the outfield.

What also works in favor of this trio of outfielders is their ability to hit the baseball. They are not simply small, fast, and light-hitting. O’Neill has shown plenty of pop in the minor leagues and in a small taste of big league action in 2018. Arozarena is coming off a season in which he posted a 162 wRC+ in 116 AA plate appearances, a 151 wRC+ in 283 AAA plate appearances, and a 138 wRC+ in 23 MLB plate appearances. Thomas is a bit more intiguing as he posted a 97 wRC+ in 304 plate appearances at Memphis, but then was promoted to the MLB where he tallied a 181 wRC+ in 44 plate appearances. Admittedly, this is a small sample size at the big league level. However, in 2018, Thomas experienced more success with a 123 wRC+ in Springfield and a 110 wRC+ in Memphis. Even if his bat is truly average, his speed creates a lot of opportunities for him to create value.

Edman was the only one of these players to receive a significant amount of plate appearances to make an impact, and also have a solid season on the base paths. The 24-year-old finished with a 6.6 BsR, which was the second highest on the team behind Kolten Wong’s 7.1 (Edman had 200 less plate appearances than Wong). Edman proved that he is a very good base runner this season. He looked comfortable on the base paths and appeared to give a lot of effort, which complemented his solid instincts. With a full season’s worth of plate appearances, the former sixth round pick could easily lead the team in BsR.

These young speedsters present Mike Shildt with a great opportunity to continue the progress that he has made with the Cardinals’ base running. If he continues his philosophy of aggressive base running with a group that has an even higher ceiling than this year’s team, he could see the Cardinals rise to the top of the base running rankings. In order for this to happen though, the young players need to play, so the onus is on them to prove that they deserve to start every day.