The Cardinals are not hitting the ball hard. Neither Cardinal fans nor club personnel should be surprised by that.
It’s no secret that the Cardinals have not been a very good offensive team in recent seasons. The offseason provided little belief that would change. When Mozeliak was asked about how the club would improve the offense, the club President of Baseball Operations sagely quipped “hit more?”
That’s a succinct summary of their strategy. Girsch and Mo allowed their top hitter in 2019 by average exit velocity (Marcell Ozuna at 91.8) to exit. They then largely ignored the offensive free agent and trade markets. Instead, they pinned their offensive future on bounce-back seasons from mid-30’s players, significant strides forward from young players with flawed approaches, and the hoped-for emergence of a prospect (Dylan Carlson). Their desire to “get a look” at some existing players who were not judged worthy enough to see regular playing time in previous seasons was motivation enough to keep the tightly-controlled club coffers closed.
Oh sure, the team did bring in Brad Miller, a move that has looked surprisingly good over short returns. They get credit there for digging into their seemingly bottomless stock of pixie dust devil magic and turning a useful role player into a star. For a week at least.
The Cardinals are already 1/3rd of the way through their shortened season. Has the hoped-for “hit more” become a reality?
The answer is a complicated no. Here are the relevant details:
2020 Cardinals Statcast Summary – Offense
Avg. Exit Velocity – 87.0 (27th)
Barrel% - 6.7% (19th)
Hard Hit% - 35.3% (21st)
wOBA – .313 (23rd)
Runs Scored Avg. – 4.3 (23rd)
What caught my attention was the low average exit velocity. This article’s genesis came from digging through the Cardinals player pages on Baseball Savant and noticing a whole bunch of dark blue (bad) and not much dark red (good) in the exit velocity section of several regulars. I’ve collected those individual totals into a single search, producing a disturbing picture of exit velocity suckitude.
Miller’s stats barely qualified for my search, which is a good thing for the list. Otherwise, Tyler O’Neill would be leading the flock as the 119th rated player in the game by exit velocity. Matt Carpenter would follow in the middle of the pack. Even players who are having good seasons by Cardinal standards are low in the exit velocity waddle order. Paul Goldschmidt’s 87.5 is 171st. Dexter Fowler is 245th out of 261 players at 84.4. And yes, Dexter is actually above Kolten Wong, Yadi Molina, and Harrison Bader.
The Cardinals have four regulars among the bottom 16 players on the avg. exit velocity leader board.
All four of those players are perceived as “producing”, at least for the moment.
That’s why context is so important. Fowler might have a couple of homers and some timely hits, but as VEB ornithologist-in-residence John LaRue stated in my DM’s this week, “he’s hitting a bunch of duck farts, which isn’t really a skill.”
With all due respect to JL, if any Cardinal batter is capable of turning duck farts into a repeatable skill, it’s probably Fowler.
… ahem …
I’ll see myself out now.
That coup of individually putrid exit velocities combine to form the team’s collectively crappy 87.0. If it holds up, that would be the lowest avg. exit velocity produced by any team since 2017.
Where’s that hoped-for improvement? The club’s offensive profile sure smells bad, but is it any worse than last year?
2019 Cardinals Statcast Summary – Offense
Avg. Exit Velocity – 87.9 (27th)
Barrel% - 6.9% (20th)
Hard Hit% - 34% (24th)
wOBA – .314 (18th)
Runs Scored Avg. – 4.7 (18th)
The Cardinals are down slightly in every category except Hard Hit%. Still, the difference between ’19 and ’20 isn’t extreme enough to state that the bats are worse and will remain so.
The most disturbing number, though, might not be found in the current Statcast data. At the end of the day, runs scored (and prevented) are what actually count in games. That’s where Cards fans should be nervous. The 2020 Cardinals are scoring almost half a run less this season compared to last season. That’s particularly alarming because in 2019 the Cardinals and Brewers (both at 4.7) had the lowest runs scored rate among teams with a winning record. The 77-85 San Francisco Giants had the highest win total of all the teams that scored less than 4.7 runs per game. The last time a team had a winning record with 4.3 runs or less (the Cardinals current rate) was the upstart 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Needless to say, when factoring in the current run scoring environment of the league, it’s extremely difficult to win if you’re not scoring at an average rate. 10 of the top 15 teams in scoring have a winning record. That ratio is reversed for teams that are below average in runs scored.
All things considered, the Cardinals are off to a decent start in the standings. However, they’re going to have to score more to hold their place in the division or advance on the Central leading Cubs.
Can we expect that to happen?
That’s where expected stats come in, like x(expected)wOBA:
2020 actual wOBA – .313 (23rd)
2020 expected xwOBA - .346 (7th)
Wait… J.P., are you saying that this Cardinals team is expected to have the 7th best offense (by wOBA) in the league?
That’s what the stat says.
But it’s not nearly so simple. I ran the numbers for the NL Central in 2019. Last year the Cardinals had a .012 difference in their wOBA and xwOBA. That’s pretty high and would indicate that last year’s offense under-performed. The next closest in the division was the Pirates at half that rate – .006.
This year, the difference in the Cardinals wOBA and xwOBA is .033 points. That’s almost three times higher than last year’s aberration. This would be extremely noteworthy if it were in any way unique. The Pirates currently sport a .045 difference in their actual vs. expected wOBA. The Reds’ difference is .039. That ridiculous delta between actual and expacted wOBA is true for all but a handful of teams across MLB.
Why is this happening? I can’t tell you. Regardless, as the stat currently stands, the Cardinals’ 7th rated xwOBA has about as much statistical significance as a duck fart in the wind. Some movement toward the expected production is possible for the Cardinals, but it will be matched by 90% of the league doing the same.
Every reliable piece of evidence we have – from the names on the back of the jerseys to the stats on the back pages of Baseball Savant – indicates that the Cardinals are basically the same team as last year, give or take some sample size questions.
While that’s not inspiring from a run-scoring perspective, it’s encouraging for run prevention. Currently, the club is allowing just 3.5 runs per game. That’s good for 4th in baseball. They’ve done this while missing some of their best bullpen arms and, arguably, their 2nd and 3rd best starters by expected production.
The Cardinals’ current 4.3 vs. 3.5 run differential is good enough to add a whole win to the team’s record by Pythag. Shildt should be 12-8, despite being forced to use crazy amounts of pitching depth. Now, he’s on the cusp of getting several quality arms back. Could the already excellent pitching actually improve?
Add it up and the Cardinals look to be in decent shape despite their disappointing offensive performance. With DeJong and his high exit velocity returning and several high exit velocity players likely to take strides forward for a variety of statistical reasons (O’Neill and Carlson, for example), it’s not a stretch to think that the club could return to last year’s run scored average of 4.7. We might be 1/3rd of the way through the season, but it’s still early! Because the pitching staff has been so good and the league expanded the playoffs, the club actually has quite a bit of margin before they would be in danger of falling out of contention.
Pitching and defense. Hope for internal offensive improvements. We are a third of the weay through this sprint of a season and the Cardinals have the club we thought they did. As we thought, it should be just enough to get them into the playoffs.
Stats from Baseball Savant and Baseball Reference.
Special thanks to John LaRue, Zach Gifford, Ben Cerutti, and Matt Graves for helping me sort through the wxOBA mess.