Auld lang syne, happy New Year’s and so forth baseball fans, if you’ll allow me to invoke three words that most people only know as pertaining to New Year’s Eve and Day. It turns out that the popularity of Auld Lang Syne is mostly attributable to Robert Burns, so enjoy a nice scotch and some haggis if you want to celebrate appropriately. We can finally put a dreadful 2020 in the rearview mirror, and hope springs eternal for 2021. It’s a fresh start for all of us, including the Cardinals- a time to identify ways we can all become the better versions of ourselves we wish we could be. In the spirit of the day, let’s compose a list of hopes, wishes, and areas of improvement for the Cardinals entering 2021.
For the Cardinals dynamic duo, they only need one thing- contracts that allow them to retire in St. Louis and take more chances at playoff glory. Following an off-season that’s likely to be slow and boring for the Cardinals, bringing back their two franchise icons could be the anchor to keep fans engaged with the team next season.
The Canadian masher needs two things in 2021. The first is simply a normal season with regular (or semi-regular) playing time to show what he can do. That’s important because his 2019 was affected by injuries, and nothing about 2020 was normal at all. The second hope for O’Neill is to find a middle ground between his all-or-nothing prodigious power days in the minor leagues and 2018, and his improved plate discipline (but less power) from 2019 and 2020 (which you can read more about here and here).
There’s a general sentiment that Jack Flaherty had a disappointing season in 2020, but that hardly tells the whole story. The reality is that he had a single bad game in Milwaukee, and the truncated season didn’t afford him a chance to erase the effects on his “full” season numbers. Instead of 30 starts, in which 29 more reasonable outings would have neutralized a dreadful one, Flaherty was only afforded nine starts. Before you know it, his “full” season ERA was nearly 2 runs higher than his brilliant 2019 campaign and even his FIP was more than half a run worse. Given a regular full season, those numbers almost certainly would have been more in line with 2019- or at least, much less like 2020. This is all a long, convoluted way of saying that the only thing Flaherty needs in 2021 is more starts and more performances like everything he did in 2019 and 2020 (except for one game in Milwaukee).
There are a few smaller hopes for Daniel Ponce de Leon- an improved ability to go deeper into games and a decreased hard hit percentage come to mind. Ultimately they could all be resolved with one larger hope- a better breaking ball. Ponce de Leon’s cutter took massive strides in 2020 and his four-seamer has always had impressive swing and miss to it. His curveball, however, lacked the same ability to miss bats and put hitters away. The lack of an effective third offering made his four-seamer less effective, yielding lots of hard contact despite the high Whiff% and Put Away%. If he can enhance his curveball in 2021 the same way he enhanced his cutter in 2020, the Ponce de Leon puzzle may finally be solved.
Believe it or not, the Cardinals have shown some progress in Albert’s two years heading up the hitting portion of the team. Specifically, the team’s plate discipline has improved- their walk percentage and BB/K have improved in each of the last two seasons. They’ve also gotten better at hitting sliders, which is important given the increased usage of the pitch over the last few years. They’ve gone from 25th in 2018 to 23rd in 2019 up to 11th last year on wOBA vs. sliders. Unfortunately, those gains have happened despite significant declines in barrels, hard hit percentage, exit velocity (either average or max), and overall production. Both for his fortunes and the team’s, Albert must find a way to translate the more subtle gains into better production.
Fans have understandably been frustrated about the lack of production from Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. The two had 3.0 fWAR combined over the last two seasons. Fowler’s contract expires at the end of this season while Carpenter’s 2022 contract hinges on an unlikely option. In short, both players are almost certainly in their final season in St. Louis under their current contracts. Despite their marked declines, both have their uses. Fowler has a well-rounded 109 wRC+ over the last two seasons vs. righties and is about average or a little better as a baserunner. He’d make for a fine fourth outfield option. Carpenter’s splits are less forgiving, but he’s been a good defender by both OAA and DRS at third base no matter what the eye test says. He may also benefit from becoming a spot starter and bench option, with exposure only in favorable matchups. All of this is to say that it would great if these two could find a graceful way to segue into more favorable roles.
The Cardinals have developed three pitchers with face-melting stuff in recent years. Since 2018, just 43 pitchers (out of 991) have averaged 97 mph or more on their four-seamers. The Cardinals boast three of them (two more- Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal- are also Cardinal farm products). Injuries limited the first, Alex Reyes, to seven innings from 2017 to 2019 before he made a triumphant return last season. The second- Jordan Hicks- flashed his eye-popping velocity for a season and a half before requiring Tommy John surgery mid-2019. He was physically ready to return last season. Instead he understandably opted out, citing his high risk to Covid as a type 1 diabetic. Ryan Helsley is the third, and Covid limited him to 12 innings in 2020 after a 36 inning debut in 2019. All we can ask for this trio is enough health to pitch together. Watching Reyes, Hicks, and Helsley in the same bullpen would give skipper Mike Shildt his own personal Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal to employ at the end of games.