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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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A perhaps predictable end to a trilogy of articles

Wikipedia (Public Domain)

I have a confession to make. Not a juicy one or anything, just a here’s-how-I-plan articles confession. I’ve wanted to do a three-article series riffing on spaghetti westerns since the Cardinals traded for Dominic Leone. The problem was, he barely played in 2018. As soon as he looked right, I struck while the iron was hot and started it. Sure, ‘For a Few Strikeouts More’ is kind of a weak play on words, but it was all a payoff for this article. I also quite like the imagery of a fistful of strikeouts. How big is a strikeout? How many can you fit in your fist? So much to discover!

Anyway, the real payoff to naming articles after the Dollars trilogy is that you get to write a quick-hits good, bad, and ugly article at the end of it. Ideally, this would have happened after sliiiiiightly more games had been played, because the correct rejoinder to almost everything I’m going to write is ‘sample size, guy.’ Let’s stipulate that up front — I’m focusing on some stuff that might or might not be real. As a card-carrying Wannabe Sabermetrician (catch me on FanGraphs seeming scholarly!), I’m going to try to focus on patterns that have some chance of continuing. The real truth, though, is that the Wannabe is there for a reason — I’m not really sure if this is statistical noise or not. Let’s just say it’s real, though, at least for the amount of time it takes you to read this article.

The Good

Marcell Ozuna: The bear can hit. Ozuna has always derived his offensive value from his power — his breakout 2017 was fueled by a .237 ISO. What’s new this year is that he’s putting more balls in the air. His exit velocity on balls in the air is back to 2017 levels, so it’s more of a question of whether he can keep elevating and celebrating. His GB/FB ratio is down to .94, and while he’s had stretches like this before, it’s still something to watch out for:

Ozuna isn’t going to run a .726 slugging percentage all year. He might improve his BABIP, though, which is an uncharacteristically low .263, to make up some of the difference. Ozuna’s middling 2018 was driven by injury issues as much as anything else, and for all the consternation about his defense, he’s always been a good bet to be the best-producing outfielder on the Cardinals this year. Thank goodness he’s been there, because the rest of the outfield, woof.

Paul DeJong: At this point, it’s not even clear who’s driving the DeJong bandwagon. About 20 VEB members could probably claim it. I’m greedy and have a bully pulpit, though, so I’m going to continue to insist I’m at least the copilot. DeJong’s start is 100% not sustainable, inasmuch as he’s probably not the fourth-best player in baseball. Look past the .400 BABIP and the .630 slugging percentage, because those aren’t going to last.

All that said, DeJong’s hot bat has hidden yet another great stride he’s made in his plate discipline. Paul DeJong is striking out less often than Matt Carpenter this year. He’s striking out less than Paul Goldschmidt. The only regulars to strike out less often, in fact, are Kolten Wong and Yadier Molina. That’s ludicrous for a guy who has DeJong’s pop.

Look to more granular data, and DeJong’s improvement looks just as good. He’s swinging at 26.1% of pitches outside the strike zone, a career low and significantly lower than league average. At the same, time, he’s swinging at MORE pitches in the strike zone this year (70.8%, above league average). When I write articles about plate discipline, I usually caveat it by saying that it’s not interesting to analyze someone who just magically got better. Well, that’s what DeJong did. He’s just… better. He’s not making a tradeoff, he’s not playing the odds — he’s just seeing the ball better right now.

One of the big change DeJong made last year was almost never swinging at first pitches. He went from swinging at 28% of them to 16% of them, and pitchers knew it. DeJong swung only 25% of the time even when the first pitch was a fastball in the strike zone. That’s an invitation to get into 0-1 counts, and it’s gone away this year. DeJong is up to 35% swings when pitchers groove him a first-pitch fastball, and pitchers have noticed. They’ve been forced to throw him fewer first-pitch strikes (43% against 54.5% last year), and that’s getting him in better counts. DeJong’s first-pitch-strike % has improved from an above-average 58.1% to a laudable 53.1%. Only Kolten Wong is better among Cardinals. If this keeps up, DeJong’s plate discipline will be an asset pretty soon instead of his biggest liability. What a beast.

Jordan Hicks: Jordan Hicks with 30% strikeouts is silly. He’s improved his strikeout rate by 9.3 points from last year without walking any more batters. That’ll do. Not only that, but his plate discipline numbers are obscene. Batters are swinging at 8% more pitches outside the zone this year compared to last year. They’re swinging at 6% LESS pitches in the zone. He’s getting ahead 0-1 two thirds of the time this year. When batters swing, they’re not hitting the ball -- his contact rate has declined 12.5%. His swinging strike rate went up 6%. He’s just going full Saiyan.

In a year’s time, Jordan Hicks could be the best reliever in baseball. His slider is basically a Game of Thrones meme generator — bend the knee, indeed:

Honorable Mention: Kolten Wong

The Bad

Matt Carpenter: Bad might be a stretch, but it’s been a rough start for Carpenter. He’s no stranger to rough starts (last year was particularly brutal), but for a 33-year-old bat-first guy who just signed an extension, it’s worth monitoring. His underlying batted ball data are still solid, and for the most part tell me not to worry. He’s pulling the ball about the same amount of the time as always, and he still avoids grounders and pop-ups as well as anyone else in baseball (Pete Alonso excluded). His defense still passes the eye test at third base — his arm isn’t going to magically get stronger, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised watching him there this year.

If there’s a place to worry, it’s his plate discipline. In a bit of an inverse story to DeJong, Carpenter has started swinging at more first strikes and it hasn’t worked out. This is still small-sample territory, but he’s getting to a 2-0 count only 11% of the time this year, which would be a career low. It’s not a big deal, but it’s definitely contributed to Carpenter’s slow start and lower-than-normal walk rate, and it’s something to keep an eye on. Carpenter’s walk rate had already dipped last year, and it’s down again this year. He can still be a tremendously effective hitter in this form — the margin for error has just narrowed.

Dexter Fowler: This is more straightforwardly bad. Fowler wasn’t ever going to be 2016 Dexter Fowler again, but this year hasn’t started off the way he would hope. A lazy heuristic for Fowler’s career is that when he hits for at least a little power, the rest of his game falls into place. This year, he’s hitting balls in the air with less authority than ever, albeit in a small sample:

Dexter Fowler, Exit Velocity on Air Balls

Year EV (mph)
Year EV (mph)
2015 89.2
2016 89.2
2017 91
2018 87.3
2019 82.7

That’s not really where you want to be. He’s also hitting way too many ground balls this year (GB/FB of 2.43), though given his contact quality in the air it’s hard to know if that’s good or bad. I’m worried he’s hurt, because this is just a tremendous drop-off in power from year to year. It’s hard to be a good major league hitter with a .057 ISO, no matter how much you walk.

Miles Mikolas: It’s too early to say much about pitchers, but Mikolas’ start has been concerning. Much of his success last year was built on his ability to induce swings outside the strike zone, and that’s completely vanished this year. It’s not so much that he’s getting hit a lot harder, though there’s a bit of that too — mostly, batters just aren’t as interested in swinging at pitches just off the plate as they were last year. His chase rate has fallen from a phenomenal 36.6% to a below-average 26.5%, and that’s basically the story with Mikolas. That high chase rate was propping up his swinging strike rate and keeping his walks down, and both of those have regressed this year.

For me, this is the player development I’m most worried about this year. Mikolas lives on the margins, which makes his success extremely hard to analyze and predict. He could be back to his 2018 self tomorrow. That tiny amount of fuzziness could also remain all year and make him closer to replacement level. We just don’t know, and with pitchers who succeed in unconventional ways I’m always worried the other shoe will drop.

The Ugly

Dakota Hudson: Hudson has been bad this year! It doesn’t look real — no one has 71% of their fly balls turn into home runs for very long, and Hudson has historically suppressed home runs. It’s a feather in the cap of people who expected his HR/FB to regress, though, and it’s not even just Christian Yelich. Yelich has two of the dingers, but so does paragon of mediocrity Mike Moustakas. Travis Shaw got him as well. Maybe work on a pitch to throw to lefties, Dakota.

You, the audience: It was a trap all along! Though I shared some interesting stats up above, the real point of this article was to say c’mon guys, tone down the negativity. I’ve been a writer at VEB for only a year, but I’ve been a reader for much longer. I’ve never seen people so down and just generally bitter about the state of the team as I have this year. The amount of ‘Marcell Ozuna is a bum who should be released’ takes is just outright stunning. Admittedly they were before he started hitting, but like — he’s a great player! He’s always a threat to hit well!

Check the comments in a daily article, or (god forbid) read through a complete game thread, and it seems like half the commenters hate most of the Cardinals players and all of their front office. The bullpen is abysmal. Every starter except Flaherty is a disgrace. Our only good outfielder is Harrison Bader. Mike Shildt is terrible. John Mozeliak should be wearing sackcloth as penance for constructing this team.

The Cardinals are a pretty good team this year, and they’ve played like a pretty good team so far. The teams they’ve played so far this year have a .574 winning percentage against non-Cardinals opponents. Despite that, they have a positive run differential and a winning record. Their Pythagorean record is the same as their real record. Their BaseRuns record is within a game. If this team was doing significantly better after seven games on the road against the team who won the division last year and four at home against a literal juggernaut, that would be awesome, but not doing better isn’t cause for alarm.

Also, get out of here with these terrible don’t pitch to Christian Yelich takes. They’re bad, and you should stop. The Cardinals pitched to Yelich because you should. You shouldn’t walk guys just to walk guys. Yelich isn’t peak Barry Bonds, even if it looked like it at times last week. The team pitched to Cody Bellinger, who has been the best hitter in baseball this year, and it worked out just fine. I know it’s fun to have results-oriented takes, but this one bugs me.

The Cardinals are clearly committed to mostly pitching to everyone, and while it’s worked out poorly this year, it hasn’t worked out as poorly as you think. Yelich has a .809 wOBA against the Cardinals so far, and I mean, yeah that’s amazing. He’s on fire, take nothing away from him. Bellinger came to the plate 15 times and came away with a .338 wOBA. If it’s June and Yelich is still hitting a trillion against the Cardinals, let’s talk. Doing all your damage against one particular team isn’t a skill, though, so stop acting like it is.

Look, what I think doesn’t matter. I can be grumpy about how grumpy Cardinals fans are all day, and it won’t affect anything. It just seems like a poor way to live your life, though. What do you want from this team? They haven’t made a crazy amount of poor decisions. They’re not going full Matheny and running Kolten Wong out in left field. They haven’t even played poorly! If this is the level of discourse when the team is 10-8 against tough competition, I don’t want to see the first ugly stretch. Just chill already. Baseball is great, and Cardinals baseball is great. Enjoy it — that’s what it’s here for.

All stats current through games of April 18th.