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Should the Cardinals Get Grounded?

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The Cardinals, as a team, do one thing better than nearly any other club in baseball. How can they make that work for them?

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

You know, the trade deadline is creeping up in a hurry, folks. It certainly doesn’t feel like the deadline should be as close as it is, but as of this morning we’re only about two weeks away from the now one-and-only trade cutoff. I blame the lack of clarity in the National League; it still feels like we have very little idea which teams are actually good and which are not (non-Dodgers division), considering how deep we actually are into the season.

Regardless of how early it might seem, though, it’s actually starting to get pretty late. The Cards have played 93 games; several teams have played as many as 96. All the league’s various wheelings and dealings will have to be completed by the 31st of July, since there is not waiver trade deadline this year. There is going to have to be a rather large number of decisions made in a very short period of time.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering what the Cardinals might do ahead of the deadline this season. Like it or not, the Redbirds will almost certainly be buyers yet again this year. Yes, they’re only either one or three games above .500 (I’m writing this during the game Tuesday night, so I don’t know how many games over they actually are), but they’re also only two games back of the Cubs for the division lead (currently), and are, somewhat unbelievably, in the second wild card spot. Given the investment in this season — not to mention the messaging surrounding a sense of urgency in making the playoffs — the Cards will not be pivoting to a rebuild in the next two weeks, pretty much no matter what happens.

So what might the Cardinals be looking for? Well, there are two easy answers here. One is a reliever, probably a lefty, simply because the Cards are legally required to trade for a left-handed reliever every season. The other easy answer, at least for me, is to point you to my colleague John’s recent trade primer, which has most of the relevant stuff in there.

I think Will Smith is a definite possibility. A meaningful bat is almost certainly not, I don’t believe. Which brings us to the starting pitcher question, which is where I think we really find the most likely pivot point. I say pivot point, rather than likely outcome, because whether the Cardinals invest in a starting pitcher trade or not over the next couple weeks is going to be one of the bigger decisions this franchise has made in a while, I believe. It will tell us a lot about how exactly the front office and ownership really view this club they’ve assembled, and whether they choose to pay the freight for yet another deadline addition could have real consequences in terms of the farm system going forward.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I would invest more in this particular team, were I in charge. However, since it appears the Cardinals are pretty well committed to this club’s success (hey look! this points right back to that whole ‘cost of perpetual contention’ thing I was talking about in my last column), I think we have to assume that bolstering the rotation is very much on the table. And if that is, in fact, the case, then I want to look at that possibility through a slightly different lens.

I think it’s worth asking aloud the question: what do the 2019 Cardinals do well? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly for a club hovering right around the break-even line, is not immediately obvious. The bullpen has certainly been a strength, mostly, but a couple of those guys seem to be showing the effects of heavy usage (at which point the author coughs in a way that sounds suspiciously like ‘Brebbia’, but given that he is alone in his living room and this is not an auditory medium it may not have been as clever as he hoped), and the loss of Jordan Hicks has destabilised things to a degree. They’re not an especially good team in basically any aspect of offense. They’re about average in terms of drawing walks. Right around the same in strikeout rate. (The club ranks 13th in baseball in both strikeout and walk rates, in fact.) The club is below average in terms of team BABIP, and they certainly don’t have enough power, especially since the calendar flipped from April to May.

Weirdly enough, in fact, the two things the club seems to do really well are basically the biggest bugaboos of the Mike Matheny era. One, the club is outstanding when it comes to baserunning; they rank fifth in baseball, just two-tenths of a run behind the Rays. And two, the Cardinals of 2019 can play some damned defense.

Now, to be fair, the outfield defense is not always great. The Cards have been outstanding in center, ranking second in baseball in defensive runs saved overall by the center fielders (that’s mostly Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler), but the corners have been an issue. Left field has been just a touch below average, with a -2 DRS and an overall ranking of eighteenth, but right field has been an abject disaster. I haven’t looked up the specific fielders, but I would bet nearly anything the culprit is Jose Martinez, who has played quite a bit of right field in 2019 and has continued to look like a baby giraffe on roller skates hitting a patch of ice covered in marbles and blah, blah, blah. He real bad, is the point. Overall, though, the outfield has been roughly fine in left and great in center, and the fact right has been such an issue has a lot to do with the fact the club has hit so poorly in toto.

Of all the strengths this Cardinal team can bring to bear, though, perhaps none are so striking as the defense on the infield. The Redbirds are one of the very best clubs in baseball this year at converting balls hit to infielders into outs.

Third base is, admittedly, the weak link here, with the club accumulating a total of zero runs above average by DRS. That’s mostly Matt Carpenter, with a little Gyorko, Yairo Munoz, and Tommy Edman sprinkled in. The hot corner is not a strength of this team, but it’s also not a disaster. Neutral in terms of runs saved, and ranked just a bit below the midpoint of the league.

However, at the other three infield positions, the Cardinals boast some of the best defenders in the game at their respective jobs. The shortstop position ranks fourth in baseball with ten runs saved, just above the Cubs and Rockies and just behind the Kansas City Royals. At second base, the Cards are tops in baseball with 8 DRS, ahead of the Rays and Braves. And Redbird first basemen — meaning essentially Paul Goldschmidt — lead the league in DRS as well with a +5 rating, just ahead of the Cubs and Reds.

So that, to me, has to be considered the great strength of this club. It would be nice to have a vacuum over at third base, but three out of four ain’t bad, particularly when you’re leading the league at two of those positions. With the fact that what the Cards really excel at this year is playing defense on ground balls, I think it’s worth considering whether they should try and take advantage of that in terms of trade targets.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting the Cards should trade for a worse overall pitcher than another available guy just because of groundball rate. I am, however, suggesting that if we consider the pitchers who may be on the market, there is an advantage the Redbirds can bring to bear, and that is an ability to turn grounders into outs at a very high rate. As far as relievers go, I’m a little less concerned about the type of contact they allow; give me the guy who allows the least contact period and I’ll be happy. But in terms of starters, I’m more open to caring about how a pitcher manages his contact, rather than only how much of it there is.

Under this lens, we find that Madison Bumgarner might be less attractive to the Cardinals than he might otherwise be. MadBum’s peripherals are excellent this season in terms of strikeouts and walks, but he is posting the lowest groundball rate of his career, at just 36.4%. Similarly, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers, who has burst onto the scene in a very loud way this season after being roughly an average pitcher the last couple, is rolling up just 37% grounders, and so the Cards’ infield brilliance might help him less. Boyd is a really intriguing arm because of his incredible strikeout ability, but he’s been very vulnerable to home runs even while pitching in a really good place for pitchers. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be interested in the Cardinals pursuing him, just that if we’re working off the premise that the Cards really excel in terms of what they do with groundball contact, Boyd looks a little less promising than he might otherwise.

Zack Wheeler is hurt now, so it doesn’t matter, but he was running a GB% of 44.5% prior to his injury. So more promising, but still not elite. Jacob deGrom is at 42.6%, while we’re talking about completely unlikely trade scenarios. Zack Greinke checks in at 43.7%, which incidentally is not only his groundball rate but also his age and average fastball velocity. Mike Leake is at 46.1%, if you wanted to do a really weird deal. Hell, you’re still paying him, might as well bring him back, I suppose.

Jon Gray, if the Rockies decided to make him available, would be a good choice with a 48.6% groundball rate. I doubt Colorado would move him, but at the same time they’re pretty mediocre this year and Gray is about to start getting expensive. There’s at least an argument to be made there. Aaron Sanchez of the Blue Jays checks in at 48.4%, but has been utterly horrible in every other way, so I’m going to say no.

There is one pitcher who stands head and shoulders above the others under this particular rubric. The number one groundball rate in baseball among qualified pitchers belongs to Dakota Hudson of the Cardinals — a cool 60.1% rate that goes a long way toward explaining how he’s kept his ERA in the mid-threes despite an FIP that’s a couple runs higher. Just below Hudson, though, we find the second-most grounded starter in baseball: Marcus Stroman.

Now, here’s the thing: Marcus Stroman is a really good pitcher. Full stop. He limits home runs, limits walks, limits runs. What he really lacks is a fierce strikeout punch, which is somewhat surprising given the overall quality of his stuff, but it is what it is. Stroman has been worth 2.3 wins in just over 110 innings this year by FanGraphs WAR; if you prefer B-Ref’s runs allowed model (which I generally do for pitchers), he’s been even better, at 2.6 wins. In other words, Marcus Stroman is very good, and the market for his services will likely be very competitive.

However, of all the pitchers on or potentially on the trading block this July, Stroman would seem to be the one who, by far, matches up to the Cardinals’ strengths as a team the best. He’s not only good, he’s also good in a specific way which might be maximised by what the Cardinals do well. I can’t say for certain that Stroman’s numbers would get better coming to the Cardinals, but he gets the second-highest percentage of groundballs in baseball. If you’re running out an infield that ranks fourth, first, and first in DRS at three positions, there would seem to be some synergy possible with a guy like that.

How much does this matter? I really don’t know. If the Cardinals are going to wade into the trade market to try and add a pitcher to the rotation, they need to get the player they believe is the best, regardless of how he goes about his business. However, I think it’s fair to ask if the club’s biggest advantage would or should be enough to push them toward a pitcher like Stroman, in the hopes that every one of those grounders he generates will give the Cardinal infield a chance to do what it does best. A lot of things have gone wrong this season, yet the Cards are still somehow right in the thick of the race. Maybe they should be taking advantage of one of the very few things that has gone right to try and overcome all that other stuff.