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20 thoughts about the 2020 team

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What to make of the Cardinals season?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The 2020 season was a weird beast. There’s the fact that the Cardinals only played 58 games, a sample of games that is a little over a third of a normal season. Any team can be good for 58 games and any team can be bad for 58 games. There’s a reason 162 games are played. Then there’s the fact that those 58 games were interrupted by a COVID outbreak, causing the Cardinals to not play baseball at all for 17 days in the middle of the season, and then play a condensed, insane schedule in about a month and a half to make up for that. Can we trust anything that happened this year really? I have no idea.

But the Cardinals did play 58 games and those 58 games do tell us something. What exactly, I don’t know. Here is my attempt to derive some meaning in what the 2020 season told me at least.

#1 The Cardinals have more power than they showed... by a lot

Okay, so there’s clearly something fishy going on with the Cardinals power numbers. It seems too widespread to be random. But just about every major player on the Cardinals underperformed in ISO. This no clearer than Paul Goldschmidt, who was fifth on the team in ISO with players who had at least 100 PAs. Yes, fifth. Goldschmidt had a projected .208 ISO by ZiPS and ZiPS was the low one on his power among the projection systems. His career low before this season was .192. His 2020 season was just .162.

Kolten Wong is not as obvious of a choice, but his power drop was similarly out of nowhere. Prior to this year, his career low was .115. He’s been relatively steady on ISO throughout his career, with a career high of .139. This year, it was .061. Just absolutely no power at all. Tommy Edman projected .137, had a .118 on the year. At least that one is close. Paul DeJong had a .099 ISO. Projected .196 ISO, and again ZiPS is the low one here. That covers the top four Cardinals in PAs. Brad Miller is fifth, and his projection was actually spot on. You have to get to the ninth Cardinal in PAs to actually find someone who outdid their ISO projections, and that’s Harrison Bader.

So to recap, 11 Cardinals received at least 100 PAs. Of those 11, only one outperformed their ISO, two basically hit their projection (Miller and Dexter Fowler), and the rest underperformed. Let’s put it this way: the Cardinals’ top 11 hitters in PAs averaged a .176 ISO projection. In the 2020 season, they averaged a .142 ISO. I’m curious if that big of a drop has ever happened. Might be something to look at more in-depth later in the offseason.

#2 The outfield picture is less clear than ever

The team leader in PAs among outfielders was Tyler O’Neill, who didn’t take a single plate appearance in three games in the playoffs and was pinch-hit for by Austin Dean instead of coming to the plate to end the last game. Harrison Bader was the best OFer on the team easily and he was 9th on the team in plate appearances. Let’s forget what we think of the outfield, what the hell does Mike Shildt think of the outfield, because I have no idea.

#3 The playoff snub

Unless I missed a greater explanation, Dean pinch-hitting for O’Neill really rubs me the wrong way. I don’t get it for one. Dean hadn’t seen game action in over two weeks. I really can’t wrap my head around thinking he’s a better option to hit than O’Neill. Literally the only thing Dean is better at than O’Neill is not striking out, which doesn’t really matter with the bases empty and two outs. I mean it matters, but no more so than any other out at that point. And Dean struck out anyway.

#4 Dylan Carlson is ready

After his first round in the MLB, I certainly had my doubts. But the value of bringing Carlson up in 2020 was rewarded with his second chance at the big club, which had the double effect of providing a boost for a struggling offense and to let the Cardinals know where Carlson stands in relation to 2020: count him in. If you add in his playoff numbers to his season, he had a 79 wRC+ with a .278 BABIP. He had a 9 BB% with a 28.6 K%. Factor in hopefully a power boost from not playing an insane schedule with a few less strikeouts, and he’s arrived.

#5 Tyler O’Neill should get another chance

The sample size certainly isn’t good, but the early indications on O’Neill’s defense suggest the Cardinals should give him a long rope with his offense. Which will be made easier with what seems to be a much improved plate approach. His first two years were a mirage. O’Neill carried a .189 BABIP in 2020 and even with that his career BABIP is still .305. He’s now had 450 PAs with a 91 wRC+. With his defense, that’s acceptable. I think he’s better than that though. He improved his BB rate, improved his K rate, and while his power declined, as my first point says above, I’m not really sure how much we should trust that. He still had a .187 ISO. His BABIP was the bigger problem, and nobody is a true talent .189 BABIP hitter.

#6 The Cardinals should give up on Matt Wieters

Okay, so this one will probably happen I imagine. Last year, Wieters wasn’t exactly good, but was at least a threat to pop a homer. While his .220 ISO was clearly not going to be repeated, he had a .029 ISO this year. His exit velocity declined from 88.8 to 84.7 mph. He had a 57 wRC+ with a .280 BABIP. One of the more exciting moments of the year, but also a pretty sad moment, was when Wieters could not for the life of him do anything with meatball fastballs until the 19th pitch, when he managed to hit it about as far as I imagine he’s capable of at this point, and it was not far enough.

#7 Adam Wainwright should come back

This one isn’t up to the Cardinals, but if I remember Wainwright’s words in the past correctly, he indicated that as long as he feels good and feels like he’s pitching good, he will continue pitching. If true, Wainwright is coming back next year. There were clearly some fluky elements to his performance, but the Cardinals need Wainwright in the rotation more than ever next year.

#8 Andrew Miller was... pretty good

One of the subplots of the 2020 season was whether Miller would receive enough pitching appearances to activate his vesting option. Which wasn’t much of a subplot but there was a brief moment when he was hurt when it seemed possible. He cleared the hurdle, which puts a strain on the Cardinals finances in 2020, but...there is a chance that’s okay? After a career low GB% last season, he had a 58 GB% in 2020, which is a career high with at least 13 innings pitched. He also cut down his walk rate to levels previously seen when he was a 2 WAR reliever. If only he didn’t hit 4 guys. But there might be something there next year.

#9 Two hard-throwing relievers are probably not ready for the rotation

And they probably never will be. Just going by the stats, purely the stats here, neither Genesis Cabrera nor Alex Reyes should even have a chance at the rotation in 2020. But of course, that’s a foolish way to do things. You see how they look in spring training, and then judge them against the competition, and if you find five better guys, then you stick them in the bullpen. But neither pitcher looked all that capable of throwing it where they wanted at will and that’s kind of a deal breaker when it comes to starting. If you think it’s weird I’m lumping the two together, they both had nearly identical walk rates of 6.41 and 6.45. That’s bad enough that a starter conversion is hard to imagine.

#10 Jack Flaherty is still Jack Flaherty

I hope the playoff start put to rest doubts about Flaherty. The unfortunate side effect of making just 9 starts in a season is that one very bad start is going to make your entire season look bad, as John LaRue put it. And he wrote that before Flaherty pitched a dominant 6 innings against one of the best offenses in the majors. Flaherty, again combining playoffs with regular season, had a 3.77 FIP and 3.25 xFIP on the year. If you thought he was an ace before, you should still think he’s one now.

#11 We should maybe lower our expectations on Kwang-Hyun Kim a bit

In much the same way that Flaherty’s advanced stats tell the story that Flaherty was essentially unchanged from 2019, Kim’s advanced stats are a big fat warning sign to temper your expectations for him next year. He struck out less than ZiPS thought and walked more. But he had a .217 BABIP against and an 86.6 LOB%. These numbers, in part, are why his FIP was just 3.88, his xFIP 4.52, and his SIERA 5.00. On the bright side, he seemed to get more grounders than expected. But yeah, we should probably go into 2020 happy with around a 4.00-ish ERA as a full-time starter.

#12 Kim’s advanced stats may be hurt by unconventional road to starting

On the flip side, Kim came into this season as a reliever, and during the 17 break from baseball, built himself back into starting. He then got injured, missing 13 days of baseball, and then returned for three more starts. If he didn’t have a 1.62 ERA, we’d certainly be wondering if maybe a normal spring training would do him good. In fact, in his first start after COVID, he had 3 walks and a strikeout in 3.1 IP. If you remove just that start, he had a 17.8 K% and 6.8 BB%, which are both better than his season numbers. And that’s to say nothing if he wasn’t affected in other starts too. But do not expect an ace, that’s a recipe for being disappointed I think.

#13 Tommy Edman is who we thought he was

Since you, dear reader, follow VEB, I assume you expected around a 90 wRC+ from him offensively. And while he may be marginally better than that, he’s a perfectly acceptable starting option at 3B with his defense for now. While I think his defense is probably better than we all thought in the outfield, his offense isn’t really good enough to play there, making the discussion of his defense irrelevant. Because while it’s better than I thought, I do not think he’s an elite fielder or anything like that.

#14 I think we can probably throw out Paul DeJong’s 2020 numbers

Paul DeJong is a streaky hitter, always has been. From September 16th to September 23rd, DeJong hit for a -60 wRC+. He struck out in 36.4% of his plate appearances while walking just 3% of the time. In bizarro 2020 season, this was over nine games. He also had a .000 IS0. I’m saying this because, for a streaky hitter to hit a very, very bad streak in such a short season, it can monumentally affect season numbers in a way where that will be smoothed out over a larger season. Add in the fact that I do think power numbers were affected by this time, and his 86 wRC+ looks a lot more reasonable.

#15 Carlos Martinez should probably be in the bullpen next year

I’ll say the same thing I said for Reyes and Cabrera: work him out as a starter in spring training and then at the end of spring, see if there are five better options. If there aren’t, he should start. But given his performance this year and his performance as a reliever the last few years, I just don’t see a good starter out of him. COVID may have and probably did seriously affect his pitching, but I was hesitant about him as a starter prior to this year. But I’ll also add there’s a very clear opportunity and chance that Carlos does look like one of the five best options next year, depending on what Wainwright does and the mess of potential starters competing against Martinez.

#16 Nabil Crismatt is the hero we all needed

I had to throw the VEB comments a bone here, but seriously, the Cards may have a found a perfectly fungible reliever here. I never realized that his AAA numbers last year were as a starter and while he has a 9.06 ERA, he did strike out 29.7% of batters while walking just 9.2%. Weird, interesting arm here.

#17 Johan Oviedo should be good... but start him in AAA next year

Oviedo’s 2020 numbers look like an actual MLB pitcher. Not a good one mind you. But he looks like an MLB pitcher. Considering he had not impressive AA numbers last year and he’s 22-years-old, this is undeniably a positive. But there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly be ready at the start of next season. And that’s okay. Pre-COVID, the optimistic outlook of Oviedo would be ending 2020 in the bullpen, and then hoping he would contribute to the 2021 season at some point. That’s basically where he’ll be at next year, except he got MLB starting experience.

#18 Matt Carpenter will not have his option vested

I don’t have a lot to say about Carpenter to be honest, but I want to once again stress this point for people such as Rick Sutcliffe who think Carpenter will be here in 2022. If prorating Carpenter’s plate appearances is judged in 58 games, he’ll be credited with 472 PAs. If it’s 60 games, it’s 456 PAs. I believe a normal season is 187 days, so if Carpenter’s plate appearances are judged by days, Carpenter will be credited with... 472 PAs. Basically any way you look at, Carpenter will not be credited with that many PAs. In order to reach the 1,100 PAs he needs for his option to vest, he needs at least 628 PAs and 644 if 60 games is used.. It’s not happening. Please everyone quit your worrying about this and pencilling in 2022 as definitely with Carpenter. Carpenter isn’t even a leadoff hitter anymore!

#19 Jack Flaherty should have started Game 2

After the Cardinals won Game 1, I had not really factored in that the offense was only going to show up for one of the starts. This is of course a hindsight thing, but boy does hindsight make this decision look bad. There is of course no way to have predicted that the offense would show up for Wainwright and not for Flaherty at all. But the fact that that happened means the Cardinals probably win with Flaherty on the mound for Game 2. That... kind of hurts.

#20 The offense was not why the Cardinals lost in the first round

Game 3 certainly gave everyone the scapegoat they needed, but the fact is the pitching just did not give the Cardinals much of a chance in this series. They were downright lucky to only give up 4 runs in the two games they did and I suspect would have given up more if a ninth inning happened in Game 3. When pitching is supposed to be the strength and the offense scores 9 runs, and you still lose, the pitching is at fault. Pitching 100 percent failed the Cardinals more than the offense failed, even with Game 3.