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Best of the “Final Third”

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Let’s take a look at the best performances for the Cardinals from the months of August and September.

Wild Card Round - St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The season’s over but we still have to take time to talk about the Cardinals’ best stretch of baseball: the final third of the season.

During August, the team began to recover from their mid-summer swoon. The trades for Lester and Happ – and the removal of players like Gant – began to stabilize the rotation. Minor pick-ups, like Luis Garcia and T.J. MacFarland, started to pay dividends. The team had a 15-11 record and outscored their opponents by 29 runs.

We know what happened in September. The team went on a franchise-record winning streak, finishing with just 7 losses on the month, several of which came during the garbage-time final week when playoff positioning was locked in and club regulars earned some downtime. Much of the hard work was done by the offense; the club scored 47 runs more than their opponents.

Obviously, to produce such numbers, there were amazing performances on both sides of the field. Let’s take a look at some of those.

Best Offensive Performance: Pick ‘em

This might be the closest category we’ve ever had in this “Best of” series. It’s so close that I’m going to paste in the stat lines for both Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill. Look at this:

Fangraphs

This could go either way depending entirely on your preferences. Like home runs as your chief evaluator? O’Neill is your guy with 17 to Goldschmidt’s 14. Prefer walk and K rates? Goldy, then. What about OPS? O’Neill is at 1.032. Goldy chimes in at 1.049. Batting average? Well, Goldy has TON here at .340 to .318.

I tend to stick with the more advanced stats for this argument and that’s why this is a pick ‘em situation. wOBA is within .005, with Goldschmidt coming out on top. That’s 99.9% insignificant (not real math). The difference in their wRC+ is 3, with Goldy again winning. That might lean us toward the Cardinals’ stalwart first baseman. Except that O’Neill has the slight advantage in fWAR at 3.2 to 3.0, based on excellent baserunning. (And defense but we’re ignoring that for now.)

Make your choice. I’m going to judge based on who has the video I want to embed. And that is Tyler O’Neill, with this three-minute spot on MLB Network. It’s so exciting that O’Neill has finally gotten his moment in the spotlight.

Best Barrelled Ball: Tyler O’Neill

Believe it or not, we have another virtual tie. This time, though, the tie comes from the same person. Tyler O’Neill is the clear choice for “best barreled ball” with two home runs clocking in at 111.1 mph. He has absolutely owned this category all season long.

The first came on September 14th when O’Neill, facing Jeurys Familia clocked a 96.7 mph sinker 439 feet at a 26-degree launch angle for a 2-run HR. That homer gave the Cards a 4-3 lead late against the Mets. Clutch.

The second came on August 19th against the Brewers and Brandon Woodruff. O’Neill caught an 82 mph cutter and drove it a bit higher: 31 degrees and 450 feet. That one scored three and gave the Cards the lead against the Brewers at home.

Which one is better? Take your pick. I would probably give the nod to the second one. It was a bit higher and went a bit further. Plus, it came against the Brewers instead of the Mets. But, hey, you can’t go wrong here.

Best Defender: Harrison Bader

I think Cards fans, including myself, really got a feel for how valuable Harrison Bader is defensively when the club stuck poor Dylan Carlson out there for the first few months of the season. Bader came in and just wowed. On a nightly basis. I’ll have to do the math in the “Best of the 2021 Season” article but I’m pretty sure that by rate O’Neill will rank as the best outfielder in baseball.

Not surprising that he led the Cardinals in that category in August and September. His OAA in August was +7. In September he recorded a +3. That’s 10 total. In two months. +10 OAA is a really good career for some good defenders.

Honorable mention should go to several players but I want to highlight Paul DeJong. Yes, Paul DeJong, who has earned defensive accolades from DRS and UZR in the past. OAA has not liked him much and that led many of us on here to begin to downplay his defensive contributions. Well, we might have to put that argument away. Over the season’s final two months, when his playing time was somewhat limited, DeJong produced a +7 OAA at shortstop. That’s good, folks! Very good.

Back to Bader. He had a bunch of highlight plays over the season’s final months. Here’s the best of them:

Best Starter: Adam Wainwright

On to pitching, where the categories aren’t nearly as close. Who was the team’s best starting pitcher in the final two months? Adam Wainwright, of course. Waino turned 40 at the start of September but that didn’t slow him down. He produced a 2.34 ERA. As always he beat out his FIP – 3.24. He produced 1.9 fWAR during that amazing stretch of 80.2 IPs. Prefer old-school stats? Waino also went 9-1 in his 12 starts.

How did he do it? Well, it wasn’t through the strikeout. Waino’s K/9 during that stretch was just 6.14. That’s really low for an impact starter. It works, though, when you refuse to walk anyone. He allowed a fantastic 1.79 BB/9 rate. He also refused to allow HRs. His 6.9% HR/FB rate is about half what we should expect. When you don’t walk anyone, get a ton of ground balls, play with a world-class defense, and don’t allow homers you’re going to put up some serious stats.

Second best in this category is probably Jake Woodford. “Woody” really put things together for the final stretch of the season. He produced .7 fWAR in just 28.2 innings. He didn’t allow an HR during those five starts. That got the front office talking about him retaining a rotation spot into 2022. I don’t like posting critical stats during “Best of” articles, but caution is certainly needed here. Not only is that HR rate unsustainable, but his K levels are troublesome. His K/9 was just 5.65. He walked 2.51. That can play for small stretches of the season. Probably not for a full season.

Waino, though. What a great story. And what a gentleman and a scholar. Here he is, not fooling opponents with knee-buckling curveballs but waxing eloquent about beans and art history.

Best Reliever: Giovanny Gallegos

We’ve used several different categories to evaluate relievers in this space. The first is the same way we evaluate all pitchers – fWAR, ERA, FIP. Innings totals and sample sizes can produce some wacky results though, so we’ve often supplemented that with WPA – win probability added. Using those two categories we get two different results but not much of a debate.

First, the broad-range pitcher metrics. The winner here is Giovanny Gallegos based on fWAR production alone. He came in at .9 fWAR which was second among all Cardinals’ pitchers during the final two months. Yes, second. Ahead of all of the other arms who started for the team. That despite some fan grumblings about his second-half performance. His ERA was pretty high at 4.10. His FIP, though, was 2.56. It’s one of the rare instances where a Cardinals’ pitcher couldn’t match his Fielding-Independent performance with his actual runs allowed. His rate stats stayed amazing – an 11.28 K/9 and a 2.73 BB/9. Fantastic. He also had 13 saves – a category I tend to forget about since I’ve banished “closers” from my baseball lexicon.

For WPA among the relievers, it’s close. T.J. MacFarland makes his appearance in the “Best of” with a +1.12, just ahead of Gallegos at 1.07. With a 1.97 ERA and a 3.23 FIP in more innings pitched than Gallegos, he would make his case as the best reliever during this stretch. Can’t do it though. His K rate was just 4.50. BB rate was 1.97. There’s just too much luck involved in that kind of performance. Sure he was vital and clutch down the stretch but Gallegos has owned this category all season and he wins it again.

Now… can I find any video for him? MLB Video Search is not kind to relievers. As (trademark) “Closer” there should be something good. Here we go, the guy on the mound to close out Cardinals history:

Have a great weekend!