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The Best of the First “Half”

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The Cardinals are beyond the halfway point, but we can do some Saturday math to determine the club’s best hitter, pitcher, and defender so far.

Cleveland Indians v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Yes, the title of the article is misleading. The Cardinals played their 29th game – the midpoint of the season – last Friday. I intended to write this article then, but a weekend of travel and a crazy work schedule conspired against me.

With the season as short as it is, it doesn’t make much sense to ignore a week of baseball and do a week-late mid-season refresher. Instead, I’ll just go ahead and include the last week and we’ll pretend like 37 – the number of games the Cardinals have played as of Friday early evening – is half of the 58 remaining games the Cardinals have

It’s Saturday, anyway. Who does math on a Saturday?

This is the best of the Cardinals’ first “half”.

The Best Hitter (by WAR)

In this short season, I’ve intentionally avoided WAR as a stat. It’s a cumulative stat, so plate appearances for batters and innings for pitchers matter. The smaller the PAs or IPs the less reliable and predictable WAR is. When it comes to batters, though, it’s still probably the most useful catch-all statistic. Nothing else can capture hitting, defense, and base running in one neat package. So, let’s acknowledge the flaws in the metric and then go ahead and ignore them.

By fWAR (Fangraphs) Paul Goldschmidt is the Cardinals’ best hitter. It’s really not close. Goldschmidt has 1.7 fWAR on the season. That’s the 14th best offensive performance in the league, even though Goldy has played 9 games fewer than league-leading Fernando Tatis Jr. Goldy’s production has been impressive, if strange. I would encourage you to read John LaRue’s article, Paul Goldschmidt’s Productive But Weird 2020, if you want more details. In terms of fWAR per 600 PA (my own made-up stat… yeah, I’m doing math on a Saturday), Goldy is pacing toward a 6.9 season. That’s quite a bit higher than his best statistical season – 2015 when he had 7.2 fWAR total in 695 PAs. That would translates to 6.2 fWAR per 600 PA.

The video included here is not Goldschmidt’s best barreled ball of the season, but it’s still one of the more impressive HR’s we’ve seen in a while.

Tied for a distant second is Kolten Wong, Brad Miller, and Paul DeJong, each producing in completely different ways. We’ve devoted an unexpected but well-deserved amount of words to Brad Miller in this “best of” series. Paul DeJong, having missed significant time with COVID, is making his first appearance. DeJong is the Cardinals’ second-best hitter. If you adjust DeJongs WAR/PA rates to match Goldschmidt’s, he would have an excellent 1.2 fWAR and be tracking toward a 4.8 fWAR in a 600 PA season. There are some obvious concerns in DeJong’s current production; let’s hope that when his BABIP settles back down his power picks back up.

The Best Pitcher (by WAR?)

While there is no debate about Goldschmidt, pitching WAR is much murkier. The problem we face is the range of innings that the Cardinal starters have been allowed to throw and the huge impact that a handful of dominant relievers have had in this compressed season.

By pure fWAR, the best pitcher is Adam Wainwright at .7. By fWAR per IP among the starters, Flaherty is very close to Wainwright but Kwang Hyun-Kim, now out with an illness, takes a pretty commanding lead. Then, there’s John Gant, Austin Gomber, and Giovanny Gallegos who have all been dominant in a variety of roles.

Who is the best? Can I cheat and give it to all of them? The Cardinals are only allowing 3.81 runs per game. That’s a bit misleading with the 7 inning doubleheaders, but it’s still an impressively low total, considering the adversity the pitching staff has faced. They are sixth in the NL in ERA. The entire staff has exceeded expectations.

I can’t leave it there, though. Rules are rules and I’ve gotta pick one. All things considered, I think Wainwright is the club’s best pitcher this season. He’s provided innings when they were needed. He’s cut down substantially on his walks, which is vital to his success since he can no longer generate strikeouts. His 2.68 era is prime-era Wainwright. We won’t talk about his FIP and I’m not considering his start on Friday (which isn’t going so well as I write this in the third inning). There are enough warning signs in Wainwright’s stats that I can’t predict he will finish the season as the Cardinals’ pitching leader. For now, though, he gets the vote. Here are awesome highlights for your enjoyment:

The Best Defender

With so few games played so far, this is a very tough category to deal with. Over short sample sizes, advanced defensive metrics – like DRS and UZR – are extremely volatile. We could balance those with Baseball Savant’s OAA, but the infield OAA isn’t yet available. We’ll just have to make do with what we have and recognize the very serious flaws. What I’ve done is collect the DRS and UZR for players who are candidates for this category and charted them. Have a look at this:

2020 Defense - DRS, UZR

Player DRS UZR
Player DRS UZR
Carlson (OF) 5 2.1
Edman (IF/OF) 5 0.2
Wong 4 0.9
O'Neill 4 1.7
Bader 0 2.7

Dylan Carlson is the team’s best defender? Kinda, yes. But probably not. What Carlson has that the other defenders are lacking is consistency across both statistics. DRS and UZR both like what they’ve seen from Carlson at three different positions. OAA – Outs Above Average – at Baseball Savant isn’t as kind to him. The eye test has to factor in too, doesn’t it? With so much volatility in the stats, what we’ve actually seen has to be part of the equation. While Carlson has provided some fine plays, he’s done little to make himself stand out as the Cardinals best defender. I’ve seen more consistently impressive performances from Tyler O’Neill and Kolten Wong. Bader, too.

When all else fails in considering the Cardinals defense, I have a proven strategy: go with Yadi! The Cardinals future Hall of Famer catcher provides a really nice solution to our statistical problem. UZR doesn’t measure catcher defense. DRS for catchers is flaky. But, DEF – defensive value in terms of runs saved – provides some positional context that we can use. Yadi’s +3.1 DEF is best on the club, topping Bader’s 2.7. It’s also the 20th best DEF in baseball. This passes the eye test. Molina has looked solid against the run this season and his framing has been a positive. Yadi is still a good defensive catcher.

There you go! Best defender? Yadier Molina. With a nod to Dylan Carlson as a surprising statistical candidate. Or maybe all of that was just a set up for me to post this highlight where, somehow, Yadier Molina and Dylan Carlson make a one-of-a-kind defensive play, the best defensive play of the first “half”.

The Best Predictions of the 2nd “Half”

Maybe “best” doesn’t fit here, but I will give you some of my thoughts as the team heads deep into September baseball. By the time you read this, the Cardinals will have 19 games remaining. The schedule provides no relief. Next week the Cardinals play three doubleheaders. That’s coming at a time when the strength of the club, the pitching staff, is beset with injuries. Hopefully, KK will return soon and Martinez can stretch out. I suppose Gomber will fill the spot Oviedo occupied, and could be an improvement, though the bullpen will suffer. Gallegos’ groin injury might sideline the Cardinals’ closer until the playoffs. All of that makes it hard to believe that the pitching will continue at its current pace.

The offense, though, seems likely to improve. So many Cardinals hitters are under-performing that some progression toward preseason projections is surely coming. That could be balanced with tempered output from Goldschmidt and Brad Miller, but they’re the only two batters hitting out of their shoes.

The end result will be more of the same. The Cardinals have been yo-yo-ing around .500 all season. That’s what inconsistent teams do. Every stretch of good ball is followed by a soul-sucking offensive disappearance. I’m just not sure this team has the consistent performers to change that. Sure, a few key players could get hot at the right time and put up some wins, particularly since the team has finished its season series with the Cubs. I just don’t think you can count on “getting hot”.

I’ll predict the Cardinals finish 30-28, making up some ground against the Pirates and Royals, before barely holding off a late-season push from the troublesome Brewers. This Cardinals team will again make the playoffs, if only because the expanded playoffs allow them in. I don’t expect they’ll last long once they’re in.

Enjoy the second “half” and your Saturday.