The end of the regular season is nearly upon us. A season of uncertainty is drawing to an uncertain conclusion, with two games remaining this weekend against the Brewers and two more possible against the Detroit Tigers. I’m writing this article while watching the first of Friday’s doubleheaders. I’m cautiously optimistic that the Cardinals will make the playoffs and hopeful that you’re reading this article Saturday morning in good spirits after a Friday night sweep. (Though, with Flaherty struggling early, that’s not looking very promising.)
I’ve sporadically devoted this Saturday morning space to a casual “best of” series. This week we’ll look at the Cardinals plays and stats over the final third of the season – games 38 through 54, played from September 11-24, 2020.
During this stretch of baseball, the 2020 Cardinals continued being the 2020 Cardinals. They went 9-8 while barely holding on to second place in the division. Their team performance was as uneven as their record. Mediocrity reined, but there was just enough excellence to warrant recognition.
Here are the bests of the final third of the season:
We’ll jump right into a biggie and my first major surprise. 16 games (not counting Friday’s doubleheaders) is just small enough as a sample size to even the ground between starters and relievers. Adam Wainwright, as he has all season, stands out in the rotation. Over the final third of the season, Wainwright has thrown 18.2 innings with a 3.86 ERA and 3.24 FIP. It’s good production and might be enough to qualify as the “best of” for some teams. But not for the Cardinals, who have had excellent pitching performances all through their staff all season long.
Instead, the surprise best pitcher of the final third of the season is … Tyler Webb? Yup. Tyler Webb. He’s been an unsung hero for the bullpen and probably the least likely name to appear in this space. (Which is why I’m including him!) In 7.1 innings across 6 appearances since 9/11, Webb has a 1.23 ERA, a 1.69 FIP, and .3 fWAR. He has as many appearances as any other reliever during this period. The Cardinals were forced to use him in ways they did not expect (or desire) and all Webb did was get guys out.
How he’s getting guys out remains a mystery to me. At first glance, he seems extremely hittable. Every projection system believes he’s a replacement-level arm, especially when over-exposed to right-handed hitters. But here we are again with Tyler Freaking Webb doing Tyler Freaking Webb things!
This disrespect and anonymity are so bad for Webb that I couldn’t even find positive videos of him in MLB’s new video vault. The two selections they offer were highlights of the opposing batters. That alone warranted his inclusion in this best-of series. Here’s to you, Tyler Webb! The Cardinals’ best pitcher in the final third of the season!
Best Pitching Performance
I’m sure more than a few of you will disagree with me about Webb. That’s ok. Feel free to take these “best of” articles as serious as you choose. I would recommend, however, that you save your desire for debate for this choice: best pitching performance. Here we have three strong contenders:
Austin Gomber: On September 22 against KC, Gomber came through when the Cardinals absolutely needed a strong outing from a starter. He threw six shutout innings, allowing just four baserunners. He walked none and K’ed three. It was a masterful performance for the do-everything lefty, made all the more important when Carlos Martinez scuffled in the series finale. Gomber’s start was worth a strong .281 WPA added.
Jack Flaherty: Two nights before Gomber’s outing, Jack Flaherty pitched what might be his best start of the year. He also went 6 innings, allowing one run and striking out 11, while allowing just four baserunners. While I would normally agree that 6 shutout innings are better than 6 innings with a run allowed, the context matters. The Cardinals provided 5 runs of support to Gomber but only two for Jack. Flaherty’s six-inning start added less WPA but, by my count, was more valuable.
Adam Wainwright: Do you know what’s even better than a six-inning outing? A seven-inning outing. Especially when that outing is a 7-inning doubleheader. Adam Wainwright didn’t win my “best pitcher” award for this stretch, but he did provide my best outing. His September 16th complete game with 9 K‘s and only 1 BB added .313 WPA to the Cards and set the stage for a vital doubleheader sweep against the Pirates.
(Addendum: Ponce de Leon took a no-hitter deep into the second game of Friday night’s double-header. He ended up with 6 innings and 1 hit (a HR) allowed, walking 2, and K’ing 6. His WPA for the game was .232.)
Best Hitter & Hitting Performance
Production for a hitter accumulates over time but it doesn’t always do so in an even distribution. Sometimes a chunk of a player’s overall production can come in a very small window of games played. Such is the case for the final third’s best hitter, who is buoyed by one phenomenal hitting performance.
After struggling in his first exposure to major league pitching, Dylan Carlson was recalled on September 18th from the Alternate Training Site just in time for the double-header. He got to work immediately, cracking a homer and driving in three runs. It was an encouraging sign for the elite young hitter.
Things only got better.
On the 22nd, Carlson provided what might prove to be the best single offensive performance of the season. He had a triple, a double, and a single and finished the game one warning track fly ball short of the club’s first cycle since Mark Grudzielanek.
Carlson’s cumulative contribution during this time frame is relatively low because of his small number of PA’s. He has earned .4 fWAR. That still leads the club during this period, though he’s just one negligible point above Paul Goldschmidt. The rate-production stats leave no doubt about who has been the better hitter. In 27 plate appearances, Carlson has 2 HRs with an insane 177 wRC+ and .433 wOBA. Paul Goldschmidt’s solid 106 wRC+ and .327 wOBA just don’t match up.
Carlson, with his ability to hit for power and to all fields, seems like a prime candidate to get that cycle sometime in the future. Until then, we can enjoy these highlights:
Mini Category: Best Barrelled Ball
Carlson won both best hitter and best hitting performance, but he did not have the best barreled ball of the final third of the season.
By pure exit velocity, Austin Dean is a surprise contender. He had a 111.5 mph double on a center-center slider that you’ve already forgotten. It’s probably the last hit Dean will have as a Cardinal. You can watch it here.
The best overall barrel for this stretch belongs to Brad Miller. His 107.4 mph shot to the deep center had a 26-degree launch angle and came on a changeup at the bottom of the zone. Miller centered it anyway, crushing it 446 feet onto Freese’s hill. Miller has impressive power!
Best Historic Moment
Last, but certainly not least, we have one historic moment. With one line-drive single into center, Yadier Molina likely secured his spot in Cooperstown with his 2000th career hit. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment for a player who arrived in the majors with just a glove. I won’t belabor the point here, since other VEB’ers have covered it extensively and with excellence. You can read about it from Ben, Scooter, and some great overall defensive analysis from John. Cubs fans hate it, but Molina is without question one of the greatest catchers in the game’s history.
With one weekend to go and (hopefully) playoffs to follow, this won’t be the last “best of” for the season. Let’s hope the Cardinals continue to play for a few more weeks! Enjoy your Saturday!