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Checking in on the outfield

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A look at how the Cardinals have split playing time

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

We knew there were always going to be two storylines driving this season for the Cardinals: 1) How will the outfield situation play out? 2) It’s 2020...what else will go wrong?

Regarding #1, St. Louis is more or less at full strength in the outfield with Dylan Carlson in the big leagues and Lane Thomas now off the COVID-19 IL. Even if you don’t think Thomas has the potential to be a legit starting outfielder, Carlson, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, and Tyler O’Neill leaves you with four people for three spots. (Unless you want one of them as your DH, that is.)

Here’s a spreadsheet I made to track each outfielder’s starts since the Cardinals returned to play on August 15th. For context, the team has played 21 games.

If the screenshot doesn’t show up well on your device, the totals for each player are as follows:

Carlson: 19 starts

O’Neill: 16 starts (including one at DH)

Fowler: 15 starts (including one at DH)

Bader: 12 starts

If you’re keeping score at home, 21 times 3 equals 63, but that’s only 60 outfield starts and 2 DH starts. We can look to Tommy Edman for the remaining three, two of which came Sunday and last night. That’s interesting because Edman is, as it turns out, an infielder. In conclusion, Tommy Edman should not be starting games for the Cardinals as an outfielder. Nothing against the dude—and, as an aside, I’m all for him supporting St. Louis Public Schools—but you’d have a tough time convincing me that starting him in the outfield is a smart idea.

But I digress. Carlson is, as he should, getting the reps of an everyday starter. It’s far more difficult to justify having him in the majors if you aren’t going to give him consistent time in the lineup. I also think it’s worth noting that Bader is only starting about half of the time and just twice over the past seven games. He was dealing with migraines last week, but Mike Shildt still frequently turned to him as a pinch runner or defensive replacement in addition to a couple starts, so make of that what you will.

Assuming Bader doesn’t have any availability restrictions, I really object to using him like a prototypical fourth outfielder. You shouldn’t be a fourth outfielder if a “disappointing” year for you is ~2.5 WAR over a full season. At the very least, he has the highest floor of any Cardinals outfielder thanks to his defense and speed.

What’s intriguing about the current outfield shuffle is how close each player’s underlying offensive metrics are to the other three’s. wOBA is a catch-all stat to measure a hitter’s production at the plate while xwOBA, or expected wOBA, tells you how a batter “should have performed” given factors such as contact quality (think exit velocity and launch angle). xwOBA is widely considered to be more predictive of future success.

Cardinals outfielders, wOBA vs. xwOBA

Name wOBA xwOBA Difference (Actual-Expected)
Name wOBA xwOBA Difference (Actual-Expected)
Dexter Fowler 0.357 0.305 0.052
Harrison Bader 0.346 0.309 0.037
Tyler O'Neill 0.265 0.297 -0.032
Dylan Carlson 0.232 0.296 -0.064

Fowler, Bader, O’Neill, and Carlson are all within 13 xwOBA points of each other, and their FanGraphs depth charts wOBA projections for the rest of the season are separated by no more than 16 points. (Fowler at .321 and Carlson at .305 are the highest and lowest, if you were curious.) So even through a strictly win-now lens, it makes sense to defer to defense and baserunning as the tiebreaker, which would likely make Fowler the odd man out unless you’re confident in him to maintain at least a decent chunk of his offensive productivity. Again, this is before getting into the issue of making sure The Kids™ (Thomas included) get the run they need.

Alas, baseball orthodoxy is rooted in reactivity. Fowler is running his highest BABIP since his 2016 campaign with the Cubs, his lowest average exit velocity since Statcast began publicizing data in 2015, and the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career. By all accounts, he’s probably not going to keep up a .362 wOBA or .848 OPS. The shortened season doesn’t make a small sample size any more or less reflective of a player’s true talent level than it would in a typical year. To some extent, I’d imagine a desire to appease veterans, especially those on larger contracts, is a factor, but diving into that matter is another article for another day.

Have a good one, y’all. Thanks for reading.