I started this with a gut feeling: The Cardinals are not as good as I expected them to be.
It’s hard to quantify a feeling, and this one is especially squishy. How good should we have expected them to be? How good are they right now?
To keep it simple, I decided the best way to define what our expectations should have been was through the preseason ZiPS projections. And to keep it simple in terms of evaluating both the hitting and the pitching, I looked to OPS+ and ERA+ as a catch-all metric for the quality of each. So what did I find?
This team is underperforming across the board.
Of the nine hitters with at least 200 PAs, five are underperforming, two are about where projected, and only two are overperforming. It’s not like we’d expect every player to perform exactly in-line with their projections, but here we find the preponderance on the downside. So this looks like it could be systematic.
Even more alarming, the two players projected to be the best hitters on the team are also the two who are underperforming expectations most dramatically. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter are 26% and 40% worse than projected, respectively.
Obviously, I’ve left defense out of this entirely, and that is a factor in the respective value of each of these players. But that makes it even more alarming that Carpenter’s current OPS+ of 89 is equal to that of Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong, both of whom were projected for much less anyway, and both of whom provide substantial defensive value.
Bader and Fowler are the only two players performing in-line with projections at the moment, which is interesting because I think expectations of both of those players vary so widely among the fanbase. I regularly run into fans in-person and online who think both players are either having a good or terrible season.
Bader’s performance vs. projections was the biggest surprise for me here. I would have bet he was underperforming offensively, and yet he is right in-line with what the ZiPS model projected. The question going forward will be, can his great defensive value offset his below-average offense?
The Starting Pitching
Not many surprises here, although the degree to which Hudson was above expectations was a pleasant one. But overall, this is pretty dire.
Wacha was projected to be below-average, he has been a disaster, and the team’s continued insistence to roll him out every 5th day is absolutely bizarre. He was not only projected to be among the worst of the rotation, he has performed far worse than anyone AND underperformed his projection by nearly double any other starter.
Mikolas and Flaherty are not disasters, but each is just floating around league average when they were expected to be at least 10% better than that. Were they the #3, #4 or #5 starters in the rotation, we probably wouldn’t notice much, but as the expected #1 and #2, their underperformance probably feels a bit worse than it’s actually been.
And speaking of #5 starters... Adam Wainwright has been exactly what was projected, which is a not very good pitcher. 6-7% below league average is probably fine for a #5 starter, and the fact that he’s been more-or-less as expected explains his generally favorable fan and broadcaster reactions, but this is hardly the Wainossance we’ve sometimes been asked to believe.
So, what does this all mean?
Well, it’s worth noting that it’s still maybe a little early to buy into any of these trends. Luck is always a factor, and there’s no rule that says good luck and bad luck need to balance out.
In fact, one way to look at it would be to say this team-wide underperformance is largely driven by luck. If most of these guys regress towards their projections, the Cardinals would have more players moving in a positive direction going forward, and could be a better team than they have looked thus far.
But these trends do have me wondering about the quality of coaching and player-development in general. If most of your hitters are underperforming, and most of your pitchers are underperforming, what does that say about your hitting and pitching coaches?
The quality of that kind of coaching seems to me like the hardest thing for us to judge from the outside. But if so many of your players are underperforming the most reasonable expectations for what they should do, isn’t it at least worth asking the question? Beyond that, hitting and pitching coaches should be on the shortest leashes of just about anybody. These are not long-term positions. Guys come in, they bring a certain philosophy and bag of tricks. Eventually, they run out of new ideas. Move on.
Players underperform and players overperform. Even the best projection system is only going to give you a somewhat reasonable expectation with error bars in either direction. But if so many of your players are falling below expectations, it’s worth wondering if there is a systematic problem at fault.