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The Best of “the Rest”

The 2020 “Best of” series concludes with baserunning, the club’s best coaching performance, and my favorite stat of the season.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

All season long, this Saturday space has been home to a calm, quiet, happy series of “best of’s”. I hope you’ve enjoyed the good news, light analytics, and fun videos. I also hope you – like me – have not taken the rankings very seriously. From the comments throughout the series, I can tell that most of you get it. We’ve covered the offense, defense, and pitching. Today we’re doing the “best of the rest” – random categories that I find interesting and want to talk about instead of geeking out over the election. (The stats/analysis guy in me can’t stop watching John King and his “Magic Wall”.) We’ll look at baserunning, sprint speed, coaching, and the single most interesting stat line of the season.

Best Baserunner

There are different ways to measure baserunning. One way would be stolen bases. Another would be stolen base percentage. Then there’s actual sprint speed, which we’ll cover in the next category. Fangraphs helps us out here by providing an aggregate statistic that tabulates those factors into one clean number. That stat is “Baserunning Runs Above Average” – BsR. It’s kind of like fWAR but exclusively for running. The stat includes… well, I’ll just let Fangraphs explain it: “Number of runs above or below average a player has been worth on the bases, based on stolen bases, caught stealing, extra bases taken, outs on the bases, and avoiding double plays. It is the combination of wSB, UBR, and wGDP.”

The Cardinals stolen base leader was the now-departed Kolten Wong with 5 steals. O’Neill and Bader were second with three apiece. Wong was caught twice. His 71% success rate is probably lower than the Cardinals would want it to be. It was worth a -.1 wSB – weighted stolen base runs. He had more steals than the other two contenders, though, and the sample size for all three base stealers is too small to make much from.

That’s what BSR and it’s component – UBR or Ultimate Baserunning – comes in. Wong led the team with 2.01 UBR. He did an exceptional job of running the base paths, avoiding outs, and taking extra bases. Wong’s UBR came in at 5th in baseball this season. Wong was clearly the team’s best baserunner. Chalk this up as one more thing the Cardinals will be lacking next season, if Kolten doesn’t return.

The video below was not Wong’s best baserunning of the season, but I enjoyed this live and it’s a great reminder of his personality. Wong will be missed around here.

Fastest Runner – Tyler O’Neill

It seems like some fans are still surprised when Tyler O’Neill shows up on the “fastest Cardinals” lists. It’s easy to believe it of Harrison Bader and the leaner Lane Thomas and Tommy Edman. O’Neill, despite his prodigious pectorals, can flat out fly.

O’Neill’s average speed in sprinting situations was 29.6 ft/sec. That’s 20.2 mph, roughly the top speed of my first car. O’Neill was down slightly from 2019 when he came in at 29.9. If you’re wondering, yes, O’Neill’s sample size was larger in this shortened season. One of the tools used to measure sprint speed is “topped” balls. Unfortunately, O’Neill had a steady stream of those this season.

Lane Thomas was the club’s second-fastest runner last season. He fell this year – another sign that COVID sapped his athleticism, and finished just ahead of Dylan Carlson in a very small sample. Don’t give up on Lane for 2021. Harrison Bader and Tommy Edman in second and third on the Cardinals this season, both fell slightly from their 2020 totals.

Baseball Savant has a great tool that visualizes just how close these runners would be on the field. If you want to play with it, you can do so here. Here’s the race:

Best Coach – Mike Maddux

I don’t think my winner in this category gets enough credit, so I’ll skip the investigatory analysis and get right to the point: Mike Maddux is an excellent pitching coach. Really excellent. This season, faced with the impossible task of handling a pitching staff in total flux, with multiple double-headers per week, and the front office digging into the deepest holes of organizational depth to find arms, Mike Maddux and his team produced one of the best pitching staffs in the league.

The team was 6th in baseball in ERA. Sixth! In a season where the team started without one of its most reliable arms (Mikolas) and lost one of its most dynamic arms (Martinez). The club’s fireballing closer opted out for medical reasons. One of his potential replacements (Helsley) contracted COVID. Another (Gallegos) missed almost all of Summer Camp. 10 different pitchers started games for the Cardinals. They only played 58 games! Adam Wainwright, at age 38/39 had an era in the low 3s. Maddux somehow made Alex Reyes – 7 MLB IPs since 2016 – and Austin Gomber into dominant pitchers who never had a set role in the bullpen. Tyler Webb led the team in appearances.

If you didn’t read my article about the impact of COVID – which I know got completely lost in the Kolten Wong news – you should go back and do so. It outlines the significant direct and indirect impact that COVID had on the performance on the roster and will shape how I analyze what happened in 2020 and how to project for 2021. Maddux and Shildt, undeterred by the challenges the schedule offered, put together an impressive plan for the pitching staff. They scheduled outings. They used multiple inexperienced relievers for multiple innings and did so effectively. That resulted in a phenomenal amount of “blue ink” – overperforming projections – in the charts used in the article cited above.

Maddux was the one with snot coming out his nose and smoke coming out of his ears this season! (Watch the video, it will make sense.)

Best Stat - wOBA against...

Now for the final and oddest category of the “best of” series: “best stat”. This is an entirely subjective category. I’ve spent weeks (ok, minutes) filtering through the oddest traditional and Statcast stats I can find for the Cardinals in 2020. There are several doozies. Like Giovanni Gallego’s 12.60 K rate. Or Austin Gomber’s 1.86 ERA (and 4.75 xFIP). There’s Roel Ramirez’s 54 HR/9. There’s also the oddest stat I’ve ever seen in my years of writing about baseball: Ramirez has a 133.33% HR/FB rate. Yes, somehow when Roel Ramirez gives up a fly ball, it counts as 1.33 HRs. Don’t ask me how that works, but I watched him implode and yes, I believe it’s 133% true.

All of that is fun, but my favorite stat of the season is one with some personal history. My first article on Viva was published one year ago today. It was a simple analysis piece on Harrison Bader’s struggles against breaking balls. I thought it was fair and relatively tame. Harrison, though, read it (the headline anyway) and took to Twitter to publicly throw it in the “virtual trash can”.

All I asked was for Bader to work on his ability to hit breaking balls, claiming that if he did, he could return to being a very productive major leaguer. Bader claimed that the article was “fuel” for his offseason.

My favorite stat of the season? Harrison Bader – .374 wOBA against breaking balls.

Take a look at this homer to straight away center off a curve ball!

Harrison, if you’re reading this, great work! You did what you said you would do. Keep it up! Oh, and I’ll be happy to provide more fuel this offseason, but it looks like the Gold Glove voting already took care of that.

Enjoy your weekend. Don’t fret about the election. Everything will be fine. It’s a beautiful day here in the Midwest. Go time yourself running the bases or something. Let me know your top speed in the comments!